Friday, August 8, 2014

A Bad CCSS ELA Lesson Exemplar

TNTP recently posted an article in HuffPost that I've addressed elsewhere. But one portion of Rachel Evans' piece deserves its own look, because it's a great min-capsule of what is wrong with much so-called Common Core so-called lesson so-called planning.

Learning to teach to the Common Core standards is sort of like learning to cook a complicated dish, with a lot of ingredients that you can’t just throw together. Teachers new to the standards need a recipe of sorts—a series of steps to transform a blank planning template into the type of quality instruction they see in the exemplar videos. In my ELA seminar, we start with an anchor text (To Kill a Mockingbird, for example) and brainstorm a list of supporting texts that could aid students in better understanding the key concepts of the novel. Then we analyze the standards and determine which ones are well-suited to be taught in this unit. From there, we go back to the texts and ask, “What must students know or be able to do in order to deeply understand what they are reading?” Those answers guide how we create text-based questions and tasks because, ultimately, the goal of the Common Core ELA standards is to empower students to better understand their world by understanding rich, complex texts.

Let's go ahead and stipulate that the complicated dish with ingredients "you can't just throw together" is an acceptable simile for this kind of lesson because it's a good simile for EVERY LESSON EVER. Why is it that Common Core cheerleaders so often talk as if they just now discovered teaching, a previously-unheard of activity that nobody else in the world has ever done successfully, ever?

Starting with a template.

Wrong. You are already in trouble because you are about to fit the material to your template instead of asking the question, "What are the goals I want to accomplish with this material, and how can I best achieve them?" Form follows function.

Do lots of practicing teachers do templates these days? Sure. A version of this is often part of alignment and other exercises in paperwork. And we do it the same way my fellow students and I used outlines for papers back in English class in the seventies-- we'd write the paper first, then retro-create an outline to go with it. The outlines didn't actually help us with the task; they were done after the task was completed.

Imitating the video.

Wrong. I've had a dozen or so student teachers over the years, and not once do I say, "Just imitate what I do." I'm a middle-aged man who has lived and taught in this community for decades. They are usually twenty-one year old females who just landed here. Often we have completely different personal styles, temperaments, vocabulary, areas of experience-- we're different persons, and teaching is personal.

There are certainly tricks and techniques we can pick up from other teachers, but to try to pattern an entire lesson on another teacher's practice is bad practice. And as with much of the bad reformsters advice we see, we already know this is wrong. Think of your five best teachers, ever. Would you say they all taught the same way, used the same approaches and techniques, and behaved the same in the classroom? Did they look like they were all imitating the same video of some Master Teacher? No, I didn't think so.

Supporting texts?

We're going to "brainstorm a list of supporting texts that could aid students in better understanding the key concepts of the novel." Okay. Who decided what the "key concepts" of the novel we will be teaching? And will we really "brainstorm" that list? Because I'm betting that "brainstorming" looks a lot like "googling."

So, we're going to take the novel that's been selected to teach, and we're going to get on line and look for materials to use to teach it.

Analyze the standards

Yes, we all know this one, too. Go back to the list of standards and see which ones we can check off as "covered" by this unit. But from there we go to this:

From there, we go back to the texts and ask, “What must students know or be able to do in order to deeply understand what they are reading?” 

Not sure what the standards have to do with this, at all, but again I'm going to ask-- who decides what "deeply understand" looks like. Are we looking for a deep understanding of race relations of that day? Are we looking for a deep understanding of legal proceedings? Are we looking for a deep understanding of the kind of quiet heroism displayed by Atticus, or of social isolation, or of daughter-father relationships, or what it was like to have servants, etc etc etc etc? Who is making this professional judgment call, because in this fairly detailed breakdown of the process, this kind of professional judgment doesn't seem to appear.

You know what else doesn't appear?


Heck, from a reformster I would at least expect a step that says, "Get out your data sets from the testing done with your students and perform some needs assessment and personal strengths number crunching so that you can aim this lesson straight at your students' needs." But no, at no point in this process do we worry about students' previous knowledge, needs, interests, anything.

Is this a high-functioning class or a low-functioning one? Are we in Georgia or Alaska? Are my students mostly white or mostly African-American or mostly neither? Do we have students with developmental or social disabilities (because, Boo Radley)? Are we in a small town or an urban setting? Are we in an area where guns are common or uncommon? Have racial issues been in the news locally lately?

And am I supposed to believe that none of that would matter, and that this lesson would turn out essentially the same no matter what group of students I was working with?

And something else that doesn't appear

That would be professional judgment and knowledge. I could successfully complete the process that Evans has described even if I had never actually read To Kill a Mockingbird. I just grab my template, do some googling for materials with which to fill in the blanks, and I'm good to go. My list of key concepts comes from... somewhere. My teaching techniques come from Master Teachers I'm imitating.

This is what planning a lesson looks like if you are trying to redesign teaching into a simple job that can be performed by anybody at all. This compares to actual teaching just as McDonald's burger assembler compares to Cordon Bleu chef.

In other words, this is what reformsters need teaching to look like if we're going to transform it from a high-skills, high-knowledge profession into a low-wage, low-skill, easily-filled job.


  1. And what about the teachable moment (very fashionable for a while)? The teachable moment can really throw a curve ball for someone following a reformy script...

  2. Yep! Common Core is offering too much autonomy for some school systems. They're already out to standardize CC and school systems are standardizing CC approaches and many are more and more standardized. No wonder parents are complaining that CC is a one-size-fits-all program. It's the opposite of what CC is meant to do, but the powers that be are tearing down education once again.

    1. You lost me at "opposite of what CC is meant to do." CC is pretty clearly designed to get everybody on the same page and standardize education across the country.

  3. Excellent again Peter! Totally agree, everything you say totally resonates with me. Again, would not be able to express it myself.

  4. Wait, you mean McDonald's doesn't serve the best burgers?!?!?!?!