Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Fuss Over Common Core Part 1

The latest buzz in the home school community has centered around Common Core.  I have been fully aware of Common Core invading the public school system and really haven't given it much thought in the home school community.  However, with all the talk on message boards, Facebook groups, etc.  I have decided to delve further into Common Core.

I will be the first to tell you that the number one reason I took my school age child out of school and quit teaching, is due to teaching to a test.  I hated teaching to obscure standards that would be on an end of year test and hated seeing my child taught to a test.  So, does Common Core Standards change this? NO!

A couple of months ago, a state representative introduced a bill that would require homeschoolers in my state to take standardized tests.  Is this a coincidence that Common Core Standards have been adopted in my state, as well as 45 other states?

I understand the mentality behind having national standards for public schools.  When children have to move to another state, they would walk into the new school and be on "track".  No longer could one state boast they have higher academic standards than another state.  Everyone would be taking the same high stakes test to compare apple to apples.  But are these standards really going to accomplish this?

Teaching use to be an art.  Teachers could design their lessons to fit their students.  They could go off on tangents and enhance the learning experience.  Not everything presented in the classroom had to end up on a test.  Now days, school districts are wanting every teacher of the same subject to be on the same page, same lesson plan, same worksheet, etc.  (Even though they want individualized lesson for students, this does not/cannot happen under this plan.)  No longer is teaching an art.  It is an assembly line.  Why not just video tape or live feed the chosen teacher and hire baby sitters to sit in a classroom watching the students watch a teacher on the big screen.  Many teachers now just read from a script the textbook company writes in the margin of the teacher edition texts (So, what is the difference in having one teacher and a bunch of babysitters?).  They cannot answer a student's question about the material.  It is no wander the state education is in!  (There are very good teachers out there that care for their students and work very hard, I know.  These teachers are far and few between and they are having their hands tied by bureaucratic legislation.  I personally don't feel that Common Core Standards are going to help these teachers out.  In fact, I think many teachers are going to throw their hands up in frustration.)

So, why did I  buy the "Everything your ____ grader needs to know" books from Core Knowledge.  (I like the information and the stories the books have.  I don't teach my children to these books.  I use them as reference books.  We read stories from the books, supplement our fine arts instruction using them, and condense some history lessons using the books.  I realize these books are the predecessors of Common Core and they support Common Core Standards.  However, I feel Mr. Hirsch was trying to provide a well rounded curriculum choice for k through 6 grades in his books.  I don't think the material presented in the books were meant to be tested for obscure facts.  I think Mr. Hirsch saw the value in using classics in language arts and introducing children to classical artist and musicians.  Mr. Hirsch knows that exposing children to content specific knowledge and vocabulary will build a child's vocabulary and curiosity. 

My mother made a comment the other day.  She stated that Little Man's vocabulary is very advanced for a seven year-old.  She said that Egee had always amazed her with her vocabulary at that age, but Little Man's vocabulary is even better!  She then asked what am I using for vocabulary in our home school.  I told her nothing.  We do not have a vocabulary curriculum.  She looked astonished.  (My mom is a teacher and doesn't fully grasp how we school.)  I told her I just read to them.  I read grade appropriate books on his level, but the majority of our reading material spans upwards to high school level at times.  I will read the text and then explain it in terms the children can understand.  Egee will stop me and ask what a word means.  I will reread the text and ask her what she thinks it means.  Sometimes, Little Man will jump in and blurt an answer and often he gets it right!  Other times I use the dreaded words "go look it up".  Egee will then read the definition to us and we will talk about the meaning.  I don't drill the vocabulary.  I don't even stop at every big word or rephrase it.  I let it linger and soak into their brains.  No vocabulary tests for them to just memorize meanings of words and then go on to the next task.  They are learning the meaning of words naturally, just like when they were toddlers learning to speak.  This is exactly what Mr. Hirsch presents on his views of Core Knowledge and Standards, but the schools and textbook companies don't always see it this way.

This brings me to how I have read many of the ELA standards of Common Core are being implemented into classrooms.  Children are to read passages of many types of literature and draw meaning from the passage.  They are no longer going to read the entire novel.  Just snip-its like watching a movie trailer, but not the entire movie.  What is the point?  Oh yeah, to analyze the passage and critically think.  What?  How can you critically think from reading a passage?  Critical thinking develops overtime.  As one ages and has gained experiences of life and basic knowledge, one can better analyze and think critically.  Also, the previous passages or chapters in the novel, may influence the meaning of a passage.  If you don't read the entire piece of work, how would you know?

But, who really determines the meaning of the passage selected?  Was the author consulted?  Isn't it like looking at an abstract painting at times?  You may see something totally different than what I see in the painting.  Are you wrong?  Am I wrong?  So many times, "critical thinking" boils down to regurgitating the instructor's own thoughts about the selection.  Is this going to be the case on the standardized tests?  If the test is multiple choice (which it will be), won't these passages be taught too?  Won't the children just be once again bubbling in the answer that has been drilled into their brains as the right choice?

I don't want my children reading material just to take a test.  I want them to absorb and internalize the literature and form their own opinions about the work.  I love it when we have read a book and later we read something similar and one of the children pipes up and compares the two works.  Aren't they critically thinking as they compare the two?  Or, when we are studying a time period in history and the children relate it to current history.  They draw comparisons and begin to ask more questions to fully understand. 

Or, when I watch my seven year-old invent a game.  What he is doing involves learning about the swing of a pendulum and trajectories.  I don't rush over and start explaining this to him.  I am waiting for when we haphazardly pick up a book on pendulums and he makes the connection to his game.  What I am doing is listening to him explain his game and how it works.  He describes the trials he has done and explains what has been successful and what he needs to work on.  Isn't this critical thinking?

I love the home school programs Mr. Jack at the Chesnee Library plans for the children.  Simple use of straws, masking tape, rubber bands, and aluminum foil to create structures.  There is no right or wrong way to design the structures.  The children are encouraged to use their imagination.  Who says a bridge must look a certain way?  Or, the best egg drop container is a cube-like container.  Physics has determined the triangle shape gives the most support, but how many triangles?  The children get to design and test and redesign their structures.  They have to problem solve.  Real life scenarios without having to fill in bubbles on a piece of paper to see if they learned anything.  Isn't this critical thinking?

Common Core ELA Standards are very broad and leave room for interpretation.  How states, textbook companies, testing companies, school districts, etc. interpret them is a question in and of itself.  Just my two cents worth!