The Challenge of Finding
It is in this vein that I admire and support Godsey’s concerns that a place for wisdom in public schools continues to challenge teachers. As a teacher of English for 28 years—everything from debate and composition to AP Literature and digital literacy—I have seen years and scores of students succumb to the allure of Beavis and Butthead and Seattle grunge, Instagram and “What Does the Fox Say?”, never suspecting that Descartes’ dualism or Conrad’s “The horror” could be significant moments for true reflection.
No wonder, then, that Godsey looks upon the newest rounds of school reform with an appropriate level of skepticism. Addressing the Common Core standards and Smarter Balanced assessment movements, Godsey writes that “It all amounts to an alphabet soup of bureaucratic expectations and what can feel like soul-less instruction.” Any teacher with even five years’ experience can sympathize: school reform often does feel bureaucratic, the language technical and artificial, and sometimes it is appropriated by non-educators with an agenda of their own, perhaps knowing far less than they claim to know. Godsey and I have more than 50 years teaching between us, however, and we surely agree that there is a difference between healthy skepticism and a nostalgia-ridden longing which drives us to despair.
Protests against the Common Core initiative were usually based in ignorance. It almost seemed that those who opposed CCSS (that’s Common Core State Standards) had not even read them, much less employed wisdom in reflecting upon their use.
So where do teachers find spaces to allow students to reflect, to find wisdom, to raise the questions that we know truly resonate across their lives? One place is likely the Common Core.
Godsey suggests that literature is banished in favor of non-fiction texts. He laments that information is privileged over poetry. But a quick look at the standards themselves reveals a story at odds with this assertion. Some key phrases include understanding “the figurative and connotative meanings” of words, “including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.” Those last imperatives sound fairly provocative to me, even refreshing. More, in studying literary structure, we discuss a text’s meaning “as well as its aesthetic impact.” And while Godsey claims that Shakespeare is the only content mentioned, the benchmarks are both more open and more directive than he allows, requiring study of “foundational works of American literature.” In fact, nine of 10 of the reading literature strands apply to the very literature he mourns as lost.
But I said that Common Core is more open, and I mean that unlike our dusty memories of grizzled poetry teachers reciting John Donne to our Love Boat-fogged minds, Common Core requires us to connect literatures in the most creative and powerful ways. This fall, for instance, I was caught in one of those amazing moments of teaching when my freshman were completing To Kill a Mockingbird just as the Grand Jury passed down its verdict on Ferguson. Suddenly we had opportunities to research documents around the case, to listen to contemporary poets, and to reflect, debate, and write about whether 14-year-old Pat’s claim was right that “racism is over now.” Are Atticus types needed, anymore, or must allies behave differently? Are there Boo Radleys of a different kind in our neighborhoods? How important is it that we read a novel of the 1930s South, anyway, especially ones so problematic in their portrayals of race?
Propaganda and Politics Aside
None of these questions for my student reflections are particularly innovative. But this is important: Common Core and Smarter Balanced don’t necessarily change what we do, but they remind us of what we perhaps should always have been doing.
So let’s take a moment to reflect on an absence of Common Core, a set of standards created by the states themselves. If all schools choose freely whether to teach literature or no, whether to offer Shakespeare or no, whether to challenge students with advanced algebra or no, whether to expect students to think deeply across multiple readings and form conclusions or no—then what might we expect from every high school in the country? Are there at least some guidelines by which we might expect every American student to achieve, to even be offered the opportunity to?
The good news is that good teachers like Michael Godsey and good schools have already been doing much of what the Common Core expects of us. The better news is that it creates an expectation for every teacher to do the same.
Aquinas and Arcade Fire
Even more, Common Core challenges an old teacher like me to re-examine his sense of wisdom. True enough, my first forays into Twitter and mobile phone apps were clumsy and embarrassing. But we cannot ignore that digital literacy is a paradigm-changer for our culture, that as teachers of English we must engage it—not run from it—and to which Aristotle might ask , “What are the ethics of self-publishing?” or “How are dynamic multi-media texts read and analyzed differently from a Robert Frost poem?” (I admit, Aristotle’s vocabulary may have limited him on that last question.)
Godsey worries that “None of the state assessments has a single question about the content of any classic literature. They only test on reading skills, so teachers now prioritize these skills over content.” And what a wonderful opportunity to discuss our cultural literary Canon means "center," and a literary canon is a set of works... More with students! Have them engage a wide variety of texts—including Virgil and Aquinas, Yeats and yes, even Beyonce—to decide which ideas are most profound, most moving. And are there incarnations of Biblical parables like the Sacrifice of Isaac in the Hunger Games movie and the band Arcade Fire? What is retained? Lost? Revised? Before this most recent set of reforms, I may never have been challenged to ask. And now that I have, what an amazing set of lessons emerge! Last night, as my AP students and I watched a production of the musical Jekyll and Hyde, one leaned over to me to talk about the evolution of stories, from fairy tales to Victorian literature like Stevenson’s. I imagine she’ll pose it at our next Socrates Café session. I haven’t taught her every piece of classical literature, but she surely knows how to think richly, and she’ll do well on any test my state puts in front of her.
Perhaps wisdom means understanding not how to live like Aristotle, but how we should live today. I was a master of my content in the 1990s as I matured in my teaching career. But mastery shifts, cultures shift, classics shift, literacy shifts, and thinking critically remains vital. At their best, Common Core and Smarter Balanced demand precisely this. And wise teachers have always used shifts as moments of opportunity to reflect and to do it alongside their students.
Yes, Mr. Godsey, teachers feel beleaguered. Our time escapes us under a seeming yoke of bureaucratic paperwork. We feel pressured to change, and we too often meet those who claim to know far more about our craft than they do. Ah, and what civilization has not worried over the same?
I don’t know what future my students will meet, but we all must help them meet it, and that means, as you say, helping them find wisdom: to analyze and make inferences from evidence, and to determine themselves, as in the greatest of literature, “where the text leaves matters uncertain” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.1).
Steve Chisnell is a teacher of Advanced Placement English Literature and blended learning at Royal Oak High School (MI), a Fulbright-Hayes teacher, and a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow.