Saturday, February 28, 2015

Coleman's CCSS Writing Style

Back in the summer of 2011, the Hunt Institute (they work at "the intersection of policy and politics," so right at the corner of Corporate Lobbying Way and Educational Profiteering Avenue, just across from where Lobbyist Alley empties into the sewers) produced a series of promotional videos for the Common Core.

I find it instructive to look at these older materials about the Core because reformsters were speaking so much more plainly back then, and said so many things that they would later try to pretend they'd never uttered at all.

So today's featured video is "Writing To Inform and Make Arguments." I should explain right up front that this is not one in a series of videos showing the many different types of writing required by the Common Core; this one video covers all the writing you'll ever need to be Common Core Compliant. I'll just go ahead and put the video here before I talk about it-- just so you know that I'm not making any of this up.

Yes, this video features our old buddy David Coleman and his sidekick Susan Pimentel. Let's go.

Pimentel is up first. You know she's the kind of expert you want writing language standards because she's a lawyer who has done tons of consulting work at schools, plus all sorts of edu-ronin work for the Waltons.

Pimentel lets us know there are three types of writing expected by the Core-- "to argue, to inform and explain, and to tell a story."

"Narrative writing is given early prominence, as it should, in elementary school" because narrative writing is, apparently , for small children. But eventually it "gives way" to the other types, the "analytical types" of writing so that by high school, analytical writing should take up 80% of their assigned writing. Not a shock coming from the folks who believe in 75% "informative" texts. I suppose poetry is completely off the table.

In mid-sentence, we fade over to Coleman, wearing what I've come to think of as his thoughtful, serious face. He does his best to avoid any of those unctuous self-satisfied expressions he uses in interviews, tilts his head to one side, and uses the soft, soothing tone of voice one uses with slow children and volatile crazy persons.

At any rate, he's here to earnestly tell us that this analytical writing "is much more closely connected to the demands of college and career." I have nothing against analytical writing, but I have to say that among my many students who have gone on to successful welding careers I have rarely heard of a regular demand for analytical papers.

The two important things in college and career, says Coleman, is to be able to argue using evidence and to be able to inform and take complex information and make it clear. Okay, that might be three things. Coleman's construction is such that it renders his informing a little unclear. See, for the first time, there will be a sequence from K through 12 to get students used to providing evidence for things they write to support and argument or to support clear informative writing. And "of course narrative has a marvelous role in narrative as well." Really.

Coleman tells us that the Core focuses on "short, focused research projects," which is yet another of those "the Core says X" formulations that has no actual basis in what's actually written in the Core. I actually agree with Coleman that several short projects can be preferable to the old One Big Project a Year approach, but he delivers this with an eyebrow parched expression that seems to say, "How you could possibly think about giving back my ring and killing our puppy?" Then Coleman goes a step further to say that such short, focused research is essential to college and career readiness.

Now comes the real fun.

"Good writing comes from good reading," says Coleman (and a graphic). Gathering evidence from the reading becomes the basis for excellent writing, says Coleman. This is not really a surprise-- Coleman seems to believe that students should read texts with the goal of being able to write college papers about them, so it only makes sense that the purpose of writing would be to show what details you can transfer out of a text. Now, he does want you to know that narrative writing is still in there, and that it helps with the core concepts of creativity and precision (wait-- was creativity in the standards somewhere? because that would be news).

Coleman drives to the finish by saying that when you talk to authors, whether authors of literature, polemics or clear informative pieces, "that precision and command of evidence is at the heart of their work and craft." And it's also at the heart of college and career readiness. Boy, is he earnest. It's hard to believe that this is the same guy who smirked when he said that when you grow up, you learn that nobody gives a shit what you think or feel. 

And Pimentel's back, to say that the Core asks students to learn many ways to present data and information (which I guess is meant to underline how the Core embraces the whole world of human expression from A to B). She tries to say something about how student writing in different classes might be different, but that point comes out as a sort of muddled mess. Almost as if she doesn't really know exactly what she's talking about.

We can get the easy criticism out of the way first. In this piece about the importance of using details and evidence to support writing, the presenters include zero detail and evidence to support their assertions about writing, including their bold assertion that the techniques they require are the essential element of all college and career success. But this not news; Coleman's MO has always been to present his ideas without evidence or support. One of the most remarkable features about his work as a public education policy scholar is that he never cites the work of another authority-- Coleman's ideas presumably spring full-blown from his own fertile mind without the need for any other scholars, writers, thought leaders, or researchers.

What the video has to say about writing is not wrong. It's just not the whole picture.

It's certainly not wrong to find a link between good writing and good reading. But it shows an astonishingly narrow focus to suggest that the entire purpose of writing is to convey evidence that you have gathered from a piece of reading. In Coleman's universe, you read so that you can write a good paper for class, and you write a paper so that you can show how well you read. It's like suggesting that the purpose of an automobile is to go get groceries; that's certainly a good and worthwhile purpose, but is that really the only reason you're ever going to get the Buick out of the garage?

We write to express something that we have to say, that we want to say. I often tell my students that their writing problems are based in asking the wrong question-- instead of asking "What do I want to say about this" they ask "what can I write to fulfill this assignment." Do I expect them to include support and evidence that helps them say what they have to say? Sure. But support and evidence are just one of many hows, and for Coleman they seem to be the only how, or even the what. Coleman continually reminds me of students I've had who didn't really want to say anything-- they just wanted the teacher to praise them for being Really Smart.

Recently, Maria Popova at the indispensable Brain Pickings wrote a piece about William Faulkner and the question of why write. She includes a list of links to many authors' answer to the question, but she offers a hefty quote from Faulkner himself. It's long, but I'm including it anyway.

You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.
He endures.

He’s outlasted dinosaurs. He’s outlasted atom bombs. He’ll outlast communism. Simply because there’s some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he’s whipped, I suppose; that as frail as he is, he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there’s no reason why he should. He’s braver than he should be. He’s more honest.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.
Some people are going to say, well, yeah, right, that's a motivation if you are going to be an author of great literature. I disagree.

The answer to "Why read" or "Why write" is not "To get a really good grade in class." It is not even "to succeed in college and in my career," because that just transfers the "why" down the line. I believe the answer is to better grasp what it means to be human and alive and here on this planet. I believe the answer is that we try to better understand ourselves and the people around us so that we can better serve and aid and support each other, and come one step closer to being the best version of ourselves we can become in the short time we have here on the planet. At the very least, we are here to take joy in what makes us human whenever we can, and to help others embrace the opportunity to experience that joy.

Coleman and Pimentel offer a Common Core vision that is small and cramped and stunted. They have found an elephant's toe nail clipping and think it represents the entire animal.

1 comment:

  1. Early on, each school year, I tell my 4th graders that human beings are special because we are the only creatures that can talk to others after we are dead. At first, they think I'm talking about horror movie scenarios, ghosts, vampires, or miraculous resurrection. But then, I add: We can write and we can read.