Monthly Archives: June 2012

Great Texts!

Two exciting Harlem Link moments have come up recently that show the potential the Common Core ELA standards have for revitalizing curriculum. Actually, you can replace the standards in the sentence with “any coherent, purposeful and thoroughly researched set of expectations.”

We might have used the texts below at our school before we started transitioning to Common Core in January 2011, but because of Common Core, we know they or a suitable replacement will show up year after year.

  • At our assembly this week, two groups of fourth graders presented a “Readers’ Theatre” version of Greek myths. Even our kindergarteners were rapt with attention as Zeus and Hades debated the proper place of Persephone down below, or up above. And the lesson of Pandora’s Box, according to one fifth grader in the audience, was “Be careful of the consequences if you do something wrong.” I hope she keeps thinking about that one as she reads the story again later in her schooling—and I bet she will; like several classmates she’s headed for Mott Hall II, the Upper West Side’s most competitive and high achieving public middle school.
  • When our fifth grade went on its annual trip to Columbia University last week, one of the teachers reported to me that some of the kids simultaneously remarked upon seeing the quad for the first time, “Look! It’s the Echoing Green!” And a student (our two-time spelling bee champ, in fact) responded, “Where’s Old John?” We’ve seen our scholars taking this trip imagine themselves living the college life in dorms; now they are imagining themselves doing it in romantic poems too.

The idea of a flexible, expansive and rigorous canon is appealing. It has hit us with moments of genuine literary excitement this year in each grade:

In kindergarten, teachers selected the great contemporary author Mo Willems for their author study. Whimsy, life lessons on loyalty and trust, and great illustrations abound.

In first grade, next year the teachers will read aloud Little House in the Big Woods. This classic text came directly out of the Common Core, and unless Michael Landon was planning to visit me in a dream, would not have otherwise appeared in our curriculum.

Second grade. Charlotte’s Web. Enough said.

In third grade, we’re taking a leap by using the complex Russell Freedman photobiography Lincoln: An Autobiography, which won the Newbery Medal in 1989 as the best literature for teens. It is written at a sixth grade level, but we are challenging our third graders and giving them plenty of support to understand its theme and supporting details.

In fourth grade, it’s been celebrated author Louis Sachar (you may have seen the movie Holes, if you haven’t read the award winning book) who beat out Judy Blume for the author study designation. The kids actually got school permission to read cuss words in The Boy Who Lost His Face. Talk about provocative!

And finally, in fifth grade, so many incredible texts for our newly minted tweens. Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made (the first half, not the second which gets deeply into the politics of the 1960s and 1970s and would be a bit esoteric for our fifth graders) and Christopher Paul Curtis’s coming of age story, Bud, Not Buddy, show up on next year’s Touchstone Text list.

Just wait until next year, when in each grade we roll out our Common Core inspired, new and improved high quality nonfiction studies!

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21st Century Skills? I’ve Got One Word for You

And It Isn’t Technology

Recently a candidate for employment at our school observed one of our teachers working with students using laptops for a research project.  “How wonderful, teaching 21st century skills,” she cooed.  Her sentiment echoed the popular view that our students’ familiarity with the medium, independent of the merit of ideas being researched, will determine whether they’ll be prepared for the global marketplace.

I disagree.  Instead of “technology” as the educational byword for this century, I propose a different word: “curate.”

To curate is to judge quality and separate it from what is less worthwhile, and to interpret for a purpose.  Museum curators may begin with hundreds, if not thousands, of works before choosing a dozen or two to appear in an exhibition.  Each work is carefully selected for a reason, and the viewer is treated to a thoughtful, sensible experience as he or she wanders through the exhibit.

I (and others, as you will see below) would argue that in the 21st century access to information and the ability to retrieve it will become commonplace, if they aren’t already.  Even in Harlem Link’s high-poverty student population, which is supposedly on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide, the latest devices are commonplace.

But as The New York Times pointed out in a recent article, lack of access to technological tools is not the biggest issue facing our most-at-risk families and children.  Rather, having the reason and wherewithal to use these tools for constructive purposes is what is missing.  We need to teach our young scholars to be curators of the flood of information that comes their way on a daily basis.  The real 21st century skill is an old one.

Teaching Curating

At Harlem Link, we have embraced the new, national Common Core standards with gusto.  In the last 18 months we have completely revamped our curriculum around Common Core’s refreshing call for classrooms and lessons filled with more authentic literature, deep textual analysis, argumentation and discussion, and strategic thinking.    There is a role in this pedagogy for technological devices, but they are in their proper place as resources to be directed, not as the focal point of learning.

I have plenty of company in my warning against undue reliance on technological tools.  The rise of the Common Core standards has fostered a groundswell of support for the notion, until recently often dismissed as quaint, that schools should be in the business of teaching children to interpret, judge and critique information rather than simply learn where and how to find it.

The Common Core website hosts an open letter from a diverse array of education reformers arguing against the aims of a panel called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  The premise of the open letter is that the Partnership is advocating a curriculum that would rob our schools of the valuable instructional time traditionally devoted to such subjects as literature, history, civics and geography.

One of the most vocal signatories of this letter, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, went a bit further in a provocative 2009 blog entry as the Common Core standards were rolling out.  In this piece she calls not for a panel on 21st century skills, but one on 19th century skills!  Whither individualism, initiative, courage, intellectual curiosity and a host of other attributes that have been increasingly marginalized by the relentless technology drumbeat?

Going further, the Common Core leaders used Ravitch’s ideas as the focus of a debate about educational standards.  The debaters came away less than enthused about organizing future curriculum requirements around “technology skills.”  Six minutes of video highlights and a host of coverage on media outlets are archived here.

A New Old Idea

Who better than a science futurist to give us thoughtful ideas on what’s needed for us to thrive in the 21st century?  Famed quantum physicist Michio Kakui joins me on the curatorial bandwagon.  In Physics of the Future, his recent book on what impact to expect from technology by the year 2100, he takes for the granted the widespread availability of fancy new tools.  He compares the added powers humans will have with those of the gods of the ancient world.  But he laments our ability to use these tools to solve problems and evolve in an increasingly interconnected world without being able to critically analyze:

“Since we are drowning in an ocean of information, the most precious commodity in modern society is wisdom. Without wisdom and insight, we are left to drift aimlessly and without purpose, with an empty, hollow feeling after the novelty of unlimited information wears off.” (p. 350)

Wisdom.  Insight.  Curiosity.  Initiative.

It’s time to teach our children to curate.

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