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Breaking Down A Common Core English Lesson


If you live in the U.S., you’ve probably heard a lot about the new Common Core standards recently implemented in our public schools.

If you live in England, some of the guidelines sound similar to what Michael Gove is doing in regards to cutting American literature.

Anyway, we’ve talked about the Common Core on here before, but I’ve never truly understood what it means in terms of books, literature and English. Most of what you see out there are some kooky math problems, but nothing about English requirements.

That is until the NPR released this fascinating piece about English requirements in Common Core.

The article walks you through the 3 main points in Common Core’s reading requirements. 1) They need to be complex enough for incoming freshman. 2) They need to fit somewhere within the canon. More recent is good too. And 3) The literature selections need to be diverse.

The NPR piece then goes on to describe what a typical lesson might look like:

First the teacher reads an excerpt of the story aloud. “There is an orientation aspect,” says Gerson. “We’re going to do this new thing” — understand vocabulary in context, cite textual evidence — “and we’re going to get smarter at it as the year goes on.”

Then, students turn to individual close reading. They are told to reread sections and draw boxes around unfamiliar words. They write the definition of new words on Post-It notes. Forty percent of the class time — the biggest chunk of the lesson — is spent this way. This is crucial, Gerson says: “The biggest change [with the Core] is that we as teachers must get smarter about how to construct learning experiences where students are doing more work than we are.”

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, she said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

Introducing the standards will ideally refocus English class. “The goal has moved from getting the salient points in the narrative to getting better at reading,” says Gerson.

The NPR piece also discusses the “Hermione Granger Syndrome”–that being the tendency of teachers to discuss a book with only 3 or 4 of the more outspoken students in the class.

The problem for English high school teachers, though, is that reading levels are all over the place. As NPR reports, a recent survey of 20,000 teachers showed that 73% of teachers have students whose reading levels spanned four or more grades. That’s tough. Are you bringing down high-performing students by catering more to the under-performing students?

Tough questions. I’m glad I’m not the administrators who have to answer them.

If you care about Common Core at all, I’d encourage you to read this article and share your thoughts.

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very helpful reading. I agree that most of the attention has been on math, and I was not aware of this approach to literature. Sometimes I wonder if we are all being alarmist because it’s different from the way we learned, but then other times I feel like something crucial has been lost.


    June 10, 2014
    • You might be right about losing something, Roy. You remember when we are all up in arms because Michael Gove wanted to take American novels off of the required reading lists in Britain? Well Common Core’s English requirements kind of do the same thing to American schools. Instead of novels and poetry, CC asks teachers to focus more heavily on “informational texts.” Who needs To Kill a Mockingbird when you can read an EPA handbook on how to properly insulate your house?! (I’m being sarcastic, of course ;-)).

      This is my source, by the way, if you want to check it out for yourself:

      June 10, 2014
      • thanks for the info and the clarification – I always take Beck with a grain of salt, but I don’t put it past our education system to dumb things down deliriously. so much great literature and no one knows how to truly appreciate it

        June 10, 2014
      • The house insulation manual thing has been fully debunked. The Common Core still includes many literary texts, both fiction and nonfiction, and the push for “informational” readings are across the curriculum, requiring MORE reading in science, history, math, etc. Read the NPR article linked here, or read Robert’s original writeup of the Common Core standards, which he linked above. And above all, do not listen to a word Glenn Beck says.

        June 10, 2014
  2. This is great, thanks. I’d been wondering about how English fit into the Common Core, actually, but I hadn’t taken the time to look into yet. I’m heading over to read the article you recommend right now.

    June 10, 2014
  3. rupakbanerjee #

    A very interesting article. There is a lot of talk about Common Core and the impact on learning language has just not been mentioned much.

    I have studied in 3 different countries with different course requirements and syllabi, and somehow I don’t think it has really ruined me. There can be different aspects of learning. Creating a strong base case, where everyone atleast knows how to read doesn’t seem to be a bad idea. The students who are good at reading, will find a way of reading more and enjoying literature.

    And this brings me to the other question, do we learn to enjoy reading in school or at home? I for one, think that I enjoyed reading more and more when I saw my dad reading and spent a lot of hours sitting in the sun reading.

    June 10, 2014
  4. Sam #

    I love the phrase ‘Hermione Granger Syndrome’ but it’s an all too read phenomenon. I remember it well from school.

    June 10, 2014
  5. Thank you for keeping your readers informed! This is really interesting.

    Although the reading levels may span different grades, reading enjoyment probably doesn’t vary much. I remember enjoying books I barely understood. :)

    June 10, 2014
  6. Emily #

    This is a big reason why I dropped my education major. Teaching this way is just not enjoyable. It’s not what I had pictured being a teacher was like. It’s not how I was taught

    June 10, 2014
  7. I do agree that those students who are better readers should not be penalized. But, I guess the accelerated programs are meant to solve that problem

    June 10, 2014
  8. Jetagain #

    Tracking (grouping students by ability levels) is politically incorrect. As a retired English teacher, I don’t think there is a particularly efficient way to teach the same piece of literature across four grade levels. The advance students will zone out from boredom and the lowest performing students will zone out in frustration. The vocabulary example put forth in the NPR story is a case in point. Students from a background which includes educated parents and exposure to museums, media, and travel will find most vocabulary lessons redundant at best. Students reading on a fifth grade level will find ninth grade level prose (actually adult level) too challenging. These kids need reading specialists to bring up their skills.

    I had hopes for “Common Core” but I see now that it’s no different than a lot of the other programs that enabled education Ph.D’s with limited classroom experience to pull in big pay checks and land cushy consulting jobs.

    June 10, 2014
  9. Dianne Ravitch, the education “guru” who used to trumpet testing before she had a 180 degree turnaround, now excoriates Bill Gates and others (recent Huffington Post article) who wrote the common core standards supposedly without the input from teachers. At this point, I don’t know whom to believe. I do know that Bill Gates wants educated kids who can think. He wants the US to remain a place for innovation and research. That’s why his foundation has supported so many education programs. What I don’t know is whether the Common Core will “work.” No one really knows. The point Ravitch makes, that parent education and income levels determine kids’ test scores far more than anything else seems fairly accurate, but parent involvement in making sure kids do the work at home and in school is also a factor. I’m not so concerned about test scores. It’s the critical thinking that concerns me. Anyone can memorize and regurgitate. I want kids who can think, who know they’re being manipulated by the nonstop barrage of media messages, who can assess the difference between fact and opinion, and who can assess whether “facts” may be biased by those who report their research and generate conclusions that then gets distributed widely and become fact merely because they are in print.

    June 10, 2014
  10. For all this concern about education on a national level, local school districts and colleges were dumping teachers left and right in 2009-2010. All because they were hurting for money. Nothing is more effective than teachers in the classroom and parents who care. No matter what theory of education we throw at kids will be more effective than those two things. I graduated from high school in 1966 and the next year there was the New Math. Every ten years we get a new theory of what kids need to be educated and each of them fall short of what is really needed. One thing is for sure. Just testing and no art and music education and no physical education will not result in kids wanting to learn.

    June 10, 2014
  11. I’m not American or an educator and don’t know much about the Common Core plan, but what I have so far read about it scares me a bit. To my admittedly untrained eye, it seems eerily like the policy shifts we’ve seen here in Canada.

    Each generation brings ever bigger and more diversified class sizes than previous ones. More and more is expected of teachers, yet their resources are continually cut by those in power. The same well healed folks who can, and do, send their own children to private schools.

    The illustrious premier of our province has made yet more cuts to our beleagured public school system and is using union busting tactics on our teachers union. Her child, of course, attends a private school. Which, oddly enough, will receive a higher percentage of taxpayer dollars than any of its public school contemporaries.

    Who knows, maybe you will have better luck than we did with highly paid politicians and other policy makers making decisions about the education of your youth. Personally, unless and until experienced educators with many years of experience classroom teaching – in public schools – I don’t recommend holding your breath.

    June 10, 2014

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