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Common Core Close Reading Comes to California

While some have suggested that Californians may be able to reshape Common Core on their own terms, it has already arrived in force in the state's largest district, Los Angeles Unified. A teacher from Los Angeles shares her perspective. 

Guest post by Coleen Bondy

I went to an LAUSD training on the Common Core State Standards in November, and after the training I had many more concerns about the intent of the standards, the educational appropriateness of the implementation of the standards, and the standards themselves than I did before I walked in the door.

The training was for English Language Arts at the secondary level. We were given an introduction to the revamped "periodic assessments" that would purportedly help prepare our students for the new Common Core year-end assessments that some students will be taking as soon as this spring.

Our trainer started the session by apologizing sincerely for all the anxiety and confusion surrounding the rushed implementation of the Common Core State Standards in LAUSD. The first slide in her PowerPoint presentation showed the governance structure of LAUSD. At the top was the elected school board. She was letting us know that if we had issues with the Common Core State Standards, we needed to bring these up with the school board. Everyone else down the line, she implied, was just following marching orders, and it would do no good to call and harass them.

We were lucky. When I returned to school, I found out that the math teachers had had a similar training session. However, theirs started with the trainer telling them that no "negativity" would be tolerated, and that it wasn't a question-and-answer session. In essence, they were told to sit down and shut up and not bring up concerns about the reordering of the teaching of important concepts that is happening in math under the Common Core State Standards.

At least we were treated like professionals.

Earlier in the semester, our department chairs received emails from LAUSD telling them that practice Common Core assessments were available from the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) website.

According to its website, CORE is "a non-profit organization that seeks to improve student achievement by fostering highly productive, meaningful collaboration and learning between [sic} its 10 member school districts: Clovis, Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Sanger, and Santa Ana Unified."

The tests are aligned with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which is creating the new nationwide Common Core State Standards tests.

According to its website, "Smarter Balanced is a state-led consortium developing assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English language arts/literacy and mathematics that are designed to help prepare all students to graduate high school college- and career-ready."

At this training, we discussed the sample assessment for ninth graders based on the Gettysburg Address. The Common Core State Standards implementation includes a lot of buzzwords and catchphrases. Slogans such as, "The old standards were a mile wide and an inch deep," imply that the Common Core will encompass fewer standards but will go much deeper. That concept definitely appealed to me at first. Also, what's not to love about the word "rigor," a much-used buzzword that is quickly becoming synonymous with Common Core? It implies that our teaching and learning were flabby before, and now they will be marvelously toned, like a world-class athlete.

As keeps happening as I investigate the CCSS more fully, however, I find that the unintended meanings describe so much more accurately the real-life consequences of the new standards.

For example, this is the first definition of "rigor" found in the Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:

  • 1. a  (1) :  harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment :  severity  (2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible :  strictness  (3) :  severity of life :  austerity 
  • b :  an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty

Perhaps "cruelty" is going a little too far. Or not.

When we discussed the sample Gettysburg assessment, several teachers pointed out that the assessment offers no background on the Gettysburg Address. Students are not to be given any information about the speech, even if they are relatively new to the country. Many of us in LAUSD have students in our regular English classes who have only been in the United States a year or two, and they most likely do not know our history.

Other students may simply not remember their U.S. history lessons from middle school, and may have forgotten who Abraham Lincoln was, or why the Gettysburg Address is important, or even that "address" in this instance means a speech and not a location.

If a student is clueless but lucky, she might be sitting next to a student who does know this information. (All the Common Core assessments I've seen so far require discussion with a partner, but forbid talking to the teacher. So if you are a genius or sit next to one, you hit the Common Core lottery.)

But those kinds of concerns are apparently very pre-Common Core, and are outdated now.

When we asked if we could do a little pre-teaching to provide context, our trainer somberly shook her head.

She actually said it would be best to simply give the "cold, hard assessment," and that we need to "remove the scaffolding sometime."

Then I noticed a relic on the wall from the pre-Common Core era--a poster of Bloom's Taxonomy. The Bloom's Taxonomy chart is a pyramid. At the bottom is the foundation of all learning. As you go up the pyramid, the tasks increase in complexity (notice I did not say "rigor").

At the base of the pyramid is knowledge. Next up is comprehension. After that come application, analysis, synthesis, and then at the top, evaluation.

I couldn't help myself. I raised my hand to ask a question.

"Isn't giving this assessment without giving the students the background--the context for the speech--kind of like expecting them to come in on the Bloom's taxonomy chart at comprehension, without making sure they first have the knowledge?"

Then something interesting happened. The trainer looked like I had zapped her with a stun gun for a second. She actually physically jerked. Then she recovered, and said we could discuss that after the training. (We didn't.)

Next she launched into an exercise that she created to help us give our kids the Common Core practice tests. She intended the exercise to be fun, and we appreciated the light subject matter.

We were to do a "close reading" (another Common Core catchphrase) of the nursery rhyme "Little Miss Muffet," and fill out a graphic organizer that would help us analyze the deeper meaning. Then we would discuss it with our "elbow partner," and then synthesize our findings.

What words didn't we know? What were the characters' motivations? We were asked to probe this poem and plumb its depths to tease out its deeper meaning.

After the exercise, we were told that the rhyme may have been about Mary Queen of Scots, and a religious reformer named John Knox who frightened her into leaving her own country.

I felt a lot like the students would after being told the "right" answer to the Gettysburg Address test. If I never knew that information to begin with, how was I supposed to glean it from a "close reading" of the text?

What the Common Core creators mean by "close reading" seems a lot to me like coming in in the middle of a conversation and being expected to already know what was said prior to my arrival by listening very intently to the piece of the conversation I was privy to. Or looking hard, for a long time, at a corner of a puzzle and being expected to accurately guess the big picture.

My son is starting to bring home similar LAUSD Common Core assessments. He is reading ancient speeches with two or three words in each sentence that he does not know. He is told the speech is about "the importance of democracy" and he has to figure out what the speaker is trying to say, and then back up his assertions with evidence from the text. He is not supposed to look up words he doesn't know; he is supposed to derive the meaning from context clues in the same sentence. That's hard to do when you don't know the words around the word you don't know, however.

My son is in the sixth grade, did I mention that?

As I left the LAUSD training, another teacher who had said she had great success with the Gettysburg Address pilot assessment told me privately that she did the assessment with her eleventh graders, and that she did all of the "back teaching" necessary to make sure they would be successful. We spoke quietly, almost defiantly, as if good teaching is something we now have to hide from our superiors.

Back at my own school, we have received the new LAUSD-created, Common Core-aligned periodic assessments. We are to give the assessments to our ninth and tenth graders.

And now LAUSD wants to spend $1 billion on iPads that come pre-loaded with Pearson's Common Core-aligned software, which will ensure that teachers do not deviate from the script.

Something surely is rotten in Denmark.

What do you think? Has close reading arrived in your district?

Coleen Bondy is in her eighth year teaching English and journalism at a Title One LAUSD high school in Reseda.

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