Anatomy of an English class: How the Common Core Is Shaping Instruction for One Miami Teacher (Sarah Carr)

Sarah Carr wrote this article for The Hechinger Report, October 15, 2013

MIAMI—English instructor Lois Seaman often speaks bluntly to her middle-school students about the increased expectations they will face under the new Common Core curriculum standards. “It’s like you are looking at this under a microscope; glean all you can from this text,” she told a class of eighth graders as they studied a passage from “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. “Common Core says, ‘Read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.’”

 Seaman’s students at Richmond Heights Middle School will still be tested on the old state standards this school year. But like many of her colleagues, Seaman has already started adjusting her teaching approach to meet the new standards. Here are a few of her strategies, culled from her own research and materials and guidance provided to teachers by the Miami-Dade school district and the state.

Asking students to read multiple texts on the same theme:

This year, Seaman will assign the short story “The School Play” by Gary Soto, which includes a reference to the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers trapped in the Sierra Nevada snow during their mid 19th-century migration to California. Students will also read excerpts from diaries written by members of the Donner party in an effort to give them added insight into the short story. In addition, “Raymond’s Run,” a story about a girl who cares for her mentally disabled brother, will be accompanied by the poem “Brother and Sister” by Lewis Carroll. The pairings are part of Seaman’s effort to ensure students can analyze and write on multiple readings that explore similar themes—a key requirement of the Common Core.

Seaman … has started adjusting her teaching style to meet the demands of the Common Core. 

Introducing more challenging readings:

Since the new standards call for teachers to introduce more challenging readings at younger grades, Seaman looked for texts that would force her middle school students out of their comfort zone in some way. Lewis Carroll’s “Brother and Sister,” for instance, engages them through humor (and is also focused on a theme many students can relate to: sibling rivalry). But it contains a mixture of antiquated and advanced words—such as mutton, wherefore, prudent, and indignantly—that Seaman knew many of her students would find difficult.

Requiring students to analyze readings independently:

When Seaman’s eighth graders started reading “Flowers for Algernon” this fall, she asked them to dive in on their own. The class did not read the opening passage together or review biographical information about the author, as they might have done in the past. Instead, the students read the first paragraph silently and then discussed it with a partner (in a new twist, Seaman told them to have an “intellectual” conversation rather than simply saying, “discuss”). At the end of those conversations, the students turned in bulleted lists with their observations about genre, setting, main characters, and story conflict. If Florida uses the PARCC exam (which appears increasingly unlikely) or something like it, the test will likely require students to write analytical essays on clusters of readings. Partly as a result, Seaman is trying to ensure students feel comfortable undertaking literary analysis without much prior background information, context, or large group discussion.

Assigning more analytical writing exercises:

Over the course of her classes, Seaman repeatedly reminds students to support almost anything they write with evidence. “It can never just be about yourself,” she tells them. “We can’t just throw things out. We have to back them up.” She hammers this point home deliberately. The PARCC exam will require students to write essays citing evidence from multiple readings. By contrast, Florida’s current standardized test focuses just on expository and persuasive writings; citing facts and evidence from the texts isn’t weighted nearly as heavily as it will be under PARCC. Seaman is trying to encourage even one of her sixth grade classes comprised largely of English language learners to focus more on evidence in their writing, advising them to start sentences with, “I know this because… .”

For another look at an English teacher at work on the Common Core, see John Merrow’s piece shown on PBS August 13, 2013.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

18 responses to “Anatomy of an English class: How the Common Core Is Shaping Instruction for One Miami Teacher (Sarah Carr)

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of an English class: How the Common Cor...

  2. Jeffrey Bowen

    This is excellent pedagogy. It prompts and builds toward all of the skills associated with a top quality collegiate liberal arts education. .

  3. Ryan H

    I would be shocked if the mere adoption of a different set of standards led to any real change in teaching methods. Sure, you could find a teacher here or there might alter their style, but what evidence do we have that changes in standards alter actual teaching practices? I’m not a scholar, so I don’t know or certain, but I have a strong suspicion that there is no evidence for such changes occurring.

    I also have to wonder about a teacher who drastically changes how they teach because of directives from non-teacher bureaucrats a thousand miles away. If you’re a teacher, you should be doing what you think is best for the kids and what you believe will prepare them both to live in our society and to change it for the better. Teachers should aspire to be something more than human putty in the hands of elitist politicians who owe their livelihood to the corporations and wealthy tyrants who fund their campaigns.

    A teacher whose style is dictated by what will be on the next standardized test is a teacher who needs to reexamine their priorities.

  4. Gary Ravani

    “A teacher whose style is dictated by what will be on the next standardized test is a teacher who needs to reexamine their priorities.”

    To Ryan H:

    What you assert is absolutely correct–in theory. And, as we know, in theory, theory works in practice. In practice that is not always the case. The problem is, due to the insertion of corporate ideology and theory into education practice, teachers find themselves under threat of losing their employment if they do not “teach to the test,” or at least teach to scripted curriculums upon which their performance is evaluated by management. This “employment model,” now it appears being abandoned by industry, in place for upwards of a decade has resulted in a relative flat-lining of national (NAEP) scores and what’s being described as a “stagnation” of US international test scores. We know what high performing nations do to drive high achievement on international tests and then we do none of those things and call it “reform.” The answer to these problems, according to government officials and pundits with no education experience, is to ratchet down even more on accountability measures for the model that has demonstrably failed.

    (I am not suggesting that international test scores have much real world impact outside of being ammunition for the public schools’ critic industrial complex.)

  5. Steven Davis

    K-12 public schools need a common curriculum (in English courses) rooted in the classics not common standards. The rhetoric is that students need to learn “portable skills.” I say that students need to be taught a uniform curriculum and then it will be fair to test their skills in contexts that they are familiar with. If students read “Flowers for Algernon” in class, then they should be tested (by the state) on the same text. Seems rather unfair to students and teachers that standardized tests (especially in English) are so arbitrary and disconnected from the curriculum that was implemented all year long and compel students to do cold literary analyses “without much prior background information, context, or large group discussion.” That’s why teachers try to prepare students in like fashion. However, teaching students close reading skills like identifying literary devices and citing evidence will likely not transfer to new texts that students lack the background knowledge to understand. Teach a student to identify theme and give evidence for her assertion in one context and then its anyone’s guess if the same student can show evidence of skill mastery in another unfamiliar context, unless they happen to have an advanced vocabulary and wide range of background knowledge.
    The Common Core’s standardized tests will continue to drive instruction in many classrooms (especially in new teacher’s classes), and underprepared students will be the biggest losers.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks again, Steve, for your comment on current tests and teaching content and skills in English under Common Core standards.

  6. I know I am not an American so I really shouldn’t be commenting on the Common Core standards or this teacher’s approach. I appreciate that teachers are under pressure to achieve certain results. Having said that, I can’t think of a faster way to turn students off of reading and literature than to make everything a type of literary analysis. How boring and ultimately how not to teach English. The best part was when she let the students hand in their own response to the first page of Flowers for Algernon. But even that was reduced to a formula. Didn’t the students wonder what they were reading or who this unusual speaker was? I am astonished at how far things have swung back to the rigid days of when I went to school.

  7. Brilliant methodology for teaching.Thanks for sharing.I’ll follow all of these tips in my school to improve the quality of my teaching way.

  8. Thomas Kilbourn

    As a teacher of English for forty-one years, eighth grade and high school, I would never ever begin a classroom reading task with the words “Common Core says. . . ” If a text, fiction or nonfiction, is placed before students for consideration as one more window on the human condition, then the text speaks; it is its own authority.


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