At the Core of the Core

“My dad’s only now achieving his American dream,” says a girl with long blonde hair.  “He wants pursue his creative interests but he’s only just now getting to do that in his late 40’s.”

“Can you expand on that?” asks a hip-looking guy with his hair in a bun on top of his head.

“”Before, he was preoccupied with rising in the economic hierarchy,” she tells him.

Believe it or not, the above is a verbatim transcript of actual Los Angeles teenagers talking to each other in Jennifer Macon’s class at Cleveland Humanities Magnet.The kids are in groups of five arranged by Jennifer and her co-teacher, Grace Oh; they’ve been put together in what teachers would call a “differentiated” mix of academic proficiency, introversion/extroversion and in this case, a balanced mix of gender and race.  Of all the classes I’m observing, Jennifer’s has the broadest ethnic diversity; walking around the room, I hear kids talking about parents from the Philippines, from India, from Mexico, from Jamaica.

Jennifer and Grace are on the sidelines.  The kids, at their tables of five, are so engrossed in their conversations about their parents’ respective American Dreams that they don’t seem to notice or care whether an adult is listening in.  The guy with his hair in a bun tells his group that his dad came here from India on a plane with a dream of being an entrepreneur and also to flee mass killings.  Another boy tells the group that his mother came here alone from Guatemala at 18 and put herself through college.  A shy kid tells the group that he’s traced back his roots to the first African-American man to attend college in the United States.  The blonde girl observes that when your parents are already established, there’s a different kind of pressure: how can you possibly do better than they did? And isn’t that the American Dream, to do better than your parents?  The kids argue.  Is it?

This kind of enthusiastic, engaged, articulate conversation is exactly the kind of discussion the new Common Core standards are trying to encourage: rigorous, inquisitive, authentic and independent.  But what I’m struck by are the many complex factors that have made possible these thoughtful conversations as I sit in Jennifer’s class at Cleveland Humanities Magnet, and a few days later in Robe’s class at Campbell Hall.

In one of my posts last week, I talked about what I’m calling the Trust Line, which I feel is an essential factor in student engagement. Both Jennifer and Robe have students I would describe as mostly either eager or willing.  Both also have relatively small student loads; Jennifer splits a class of 50 with Grace Oh, giving her on average 25 students per class.  Robe has only 15 students per class.

I’ve waxed on at length about why these conditions are inseparable from a teacher’s ability to be “effective,” though I’m in no way saying that Jennifer and Robe are great because they teach in such conditions.  But I think it’s important to note that from the start, they’re teaching in conditions that allow them to do their best work, unlike Cynthia and Dennis, who have classes crammed with 44 and 50 students, many of them from very high-poverty situations and many of them coming in resistant or hesitant to trust authority figures and school.

Aside from the conditions in which they’re teaching, Jennifer and Robe are each uniquely skilled at working with their students to develop rigorous critical thinking skills; though Jennifer’s energetic enthusiasm is different in mood from Robe’s professorial skepticism, they have in common qualities that I feel cannot be faked: first, a genuine passion for their subject matter; second, an apparently insatiable curiosity to better understand what their students are thinking.

These twin qualities of passion and curiosity are infectious. Like trust, they are internal, not external qualities.  “Effective” teaching models like Doug Lemov’s encourage questioning as a kind of gesture, a repeated action that, focused directly on a daily objective, can cause the outcome of improved analytic thinking.  But I disagree.  Authentic inquisitive thought cannot be separated from the condition of wonder.  It is digressive, racing down unexpected avenues.  In the humanities, it cannot be separated from personal experience.

Above all, this kind of passionate, curious inquiry is connected inextricably to a complex, evolving network of meaning.   The Common Core suggests that analytic thinking can be done with minimal regard to subject matter; though they say they do not intend to supplant standards, they de-emphasize curriculum over process.  Watching Jennifer and Robe, I believe this emphasis on analysis is an overcorrection, particularly since it will be measured by tests whose results be used to evaluate and possibly fire teachers.  And what these tests will not measure is the value of an extraordinarily rich curriculum.

In Robe’s class, the students are spending the entire year formulating and re-formulating the idea of “utopia” based on their readings.  In Jennifer’s, they’re challenging the idea of the American Dream.  In both cases, the reading lists are sophisticated and demanding, reflecting the teacher’s own life of reading, thinking and scholarship.  Students are not only learning to think; they’re incorporating essential texts into their own system of meaning.  And the texts themselves matter profoundly because they illuminate aspects of what it means to be human and, in 11th grade English, what it means to be American.

For example, Jennifer’s Unit 2 is called “The American Jungle: Our Tangled Notions of Democracy, Meritocracy and The American Dream.”  The unit goes from October to December.  Here’s the overview:

Our purpose for this unit is to examine how our culture unequivocally embraces the concept of meritocracy despite the contradictory historical and present realities that reflect the experiences of various groups of people in America.  The cultural mythology that all people can succeed as envisioned by the founding fathers came at the expense of Africans and native peoples.  The great irony is that although freedom and democracy were established in the Constitution, the realities of slavery and Native American genocide occurred simultaneously.

The reading list includes the constitution itself, but also readings from Benjamin Franklin, Lorraine Hansberry, Margaret Mitchell, Upton Sinclair, Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Sherman Alexie; also art by Kara Walker, the photographs of Jacob Riis, and a reading of The Great Gatsby that culminates in a dinner party modeled after the work of artist Judy Chicago.

Obviously, students at lower proficiency levels would not be able to tackle all of these texts at this velocity—and students below the trust line, hesitant and resistant students, would not have the confidence to persist with this reading.  Those students would first need remedial work and trust work that will take a long time, something Cynthia and Dennis are currently doing in overcrowded conditions that make their jobs even more difficult.  But with a high-proficiency class of eager and willing students, a great teacher can incite deep thinking with a brilliant compilation of texts that may forever change the students’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of this country.

It’s great that with Common Core, we’re throwing out the mechanical drilling of standards.  Still, a great curriculum is not the same thing as standards, though it does involve them.  A great curriculum incorporates knowledge and skills into a system of meaning proposed by the teacher, and yes, that is subjective.  And messy.  And political.  And may be the work of a lifetime.  And may be impossible to measure.  But who ever said education was supposed to be simple?

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