As an English teacher, most curricular discussions in some way involve Common Core. There is actually quite a bit that I like about Common Core. I like that it lays out pretty clear standards; I like that it emphasizes informational reading in all disciplines; I like that it demands students supply evidence for their thinking. For all the political hay that is raised regarding Common Core, it has some pretty solid points.
But it’s very much a skill based list of standards as we are often reminded. While I strongly disdain the idea that our purpose as high school educators is merely to give students the skills to be “college and career ready,” the skills are certainly important, but this is also where I approach the Common Core with some caution. I like skills; I want my students to be able to read closely; I want them to be able to write clear argumentative, narrative, and informational texts; I want them to be able to speak clearly and appropriately. These are all good things, but that is not all I want, and unfortunately, I worry that education is trending that way.
We have this habit in the American education system to swing the pendulum too thoroughly to one side, and I am all about balance in education. With the implementation of Common Core, I am constantly hearing and reading about history classes that are becoming close reading classes or science classes that are becoming writing classes. To me, this is a shame. We can’t focus so heavily on these skills that we lose out on important concepts. If we do, we really risk losing our students.
One of the common refrains regarding education is that it is boring and not engaging. This will only get worse if we focus to heavily on skills over concepts. My seniors are currently reading and analyzing The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Thinking back to your high school days, you may remember that Chaucer takes the time to describe each of his pilgrims on the journey, and he uses this as an opportunity for some biting social criticism of Medieval society. To understand this criticism at all, students must do some pretty solid close reading. But the close reading is not what engages my students or makes the story at all interesting. If I focus too heavily on the skill of close reading, students will miss what makes Chaucer so great. Taking this as an opportunity to discuss his humor and use of social criticism brings meaning to the work and brings the story to life, to use a trite cliche.
Prior to students reading The General Prologue, I give a brief history lesson of Sir Thomas Becket and what happened to him to give them some context as to why these pilgrims are going to Canterbury. Basically I just tell them the story of how the king’s knights murdered Sir Thomas Becket due to a bit of a misunderstanding. Often times I hear of history teachers being lambasted for simply being story tellers and not forcing students to learn skills under Common Core. I did that for the better part of 1 period. And my students enjoyed it. They were all focused and listening. People like stories; stories help people learn. Let’s not throw all that out in the name of teaching skills.
So much in education is about finding the right balance. While we have been using common core for a few years now, we are constantly trying new things and re-implementing ideas. As we work to increase our students skills, I hope we don’t forgo everything that we’ve done before.