The recent draft release of a Common Core exemplar lesson on The Gettysburg Address caused quite a kerfuffle.
Proponents of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) approach view the lesson as a strong example of good teaching. It’s tightly scripted and focused on a particular view of “close reading” through instructions like the following:
“Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset…. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.”
This is not a “close reading” approach, and depriving kids of background knowledge only levels the playing field by leveling some of the players.
Here are the initial activities in the unit: “1. Students first read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address silently; 2. The teacher then reads the text out loud to the class and students follow along in the text; 3. After listening, students re-read the first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address and translate it into their own words.”
This read, listen, and translate approach bears little resemblance to the close readings I was part of in AP History, AP English, and my college English studies. The only thing we get when we ask 25 teenagers to rewrite a classic text in their own words is 25 sets of the wrong words.
As might be expected, the very things Common Core proponents might like best about the lesson were the very things some educators liked least. In a guest post on Valerie Strauss’s WaPo Answer Sheet column, one educator concluded that “The Common Core exemplar we worked with was intellectually limiting, shallow in scope, and uninteresting.”
When teaching the Gettysburg Address (and other historical texts) it seems to me particularly effective to teach related texts simultaneously. Like Common Core fans, I want kids to pay close attention through close reading. But like Common Core foes, I believe there’s more to understanding a text than understanding just that one text.
How could “Four score and seven years ago…”, not lead us to the Declaration of Independence? If our nation was “conceived in Liberty”, then surely the Declaration was the act of conception.
The exemplar lesson tells teachers to: “Have students do as much work as they can from the context to determine what is meant by conceived here.” The next thing kids get to figure out is what the meaning of the word proposition is.
But what if a teacher brought this into the lesson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This provides valuable context, linguistic and historical, to the idea of “conception via proposition”. Kids also learn the meaning of the phrase, “Our fathers brought forth a new nation…” Reading a second text helps kids unlock the first—and they have to read both very closely to understand either very well. Personal translation is neither required nor desired.
And while we’re on the subject of liberty and unalienable rights, why not take a look at the Emancipation Proclamation? What does it mean that the proclamation applies only to “insurrecting states”? And why are special places protected from the Proclamation’s reach? Perhaps we’ll need to read even more closely to find out!
This multi-text technique, focused on true close reading for critical thought, seems to me exactly what Common Core creators promised they would deliver. So while I applaud CCSSI for its emphasis on close reading, this exemplar lesson seems a poor example of that emphasis.
The Common Core standards may be good standards indeed. But they will be judged, not by the philosophy from which they were derived, but by the quality of instruction they inspire. Standards are the guide, tests are the measure, and lessons are the tools. But this lesson does a very poor job of getting to the core of good teaching.
Steve Peha, a veteran practitioner and writer on all aspects of federal education policy, is currently working for Wireless Generation on the Shared Learning Infrastructure project.