How to Avoid CCSS Weak Teaching Advice

Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards Go Wrong About Instruction–and How You Can Get It Right
By Michael W. Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
(Corwin Literacy, 2014 – Learn more)

tylerpic smReviewed by Tyler McBride

By now, nearly everyone in the United States has heard about the Common Core State Standards, and nearly everyone has an opinion about whether the standards should be abolished or hailed as a sacred text. Despite some states recently dropping the standards (or trying to), in most of the US the standards are here to stay, either in their present form or with a state spin to appease critics.

That leaves everyone who has a stake in education – teachers, administrators, parents, etc. – trying to figure out how to deal with the standards and implement them in schools. In their new guide to the standards, Uncommon Core, Michael W. Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm shed light on many myths about teaching and learning that have accompanied the standards and their implementation.

In doing this, they use their years of research and classroom experience to show teachers and administrators how to avoid absurd teaching practices and get CCSS implementation right.

What Uncommon Core Is NOT

uncommon coreBut, before you read the book, you should understand what it is not meant to be. Uncommon Core is not an attack on the standards themselves. The authors are supportive of the standards (although to varying degrees, they admit), and they generally cast the CCSS in a very positive light. I cannot say I agree completely with them, but they do make a good argument that the effectiveness of the standards is more about their implementation than anything else. That said, their critique focuses on flawed implementation of the standards and statements that David Coleman and other CCSS authors have made about the standards.

Also, Uncommon Core is not a critique of the math standards (the book focuses solely on literacy), and it is not a standard-by-standard analysis or explanation of the CCSS. Smith, Appleman and Wilhelm assume that their readers have a basic understanding of the Common Core, or at least the anchor standards for literacy (available online at corestandards.org).

Misconceptions and Misinformation about the Standards

The core of the book (pun intended) focuses on misconceptions and misinformation that have arisen about the literacy standards. The authors use the first chapter to highlight the benefits of the standards and the problems with their implementation. They base much of their critique on a sample “Common Core” lesson by David Coleman, one of the main authors of the standards, on King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” A short version of the lesson, presented by Coleman (below), is available on Vimeo:

Close Reading of Text: Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. from EngageNY on Vimeo.

The authors claim (and I agree completely) that this sample lesson and Coleman’s explanation of it are not only unengaging and an example of poor teaching, but are also not in line with the intent and spirit of the standards themselves. In the final chapter, Smith, Appleman and Wilhelm offer an alternative lesson based on King’s letter.

In the middle five chapters, the authors critique, step by step, Coleman’s advice about teaching and problems they have seen in their own experiences with CCSS implementation. These include Coleman’s focus on what they call “Zombie New Criticism” (chapter 2); his disregard for pre-reading instruction and so-called “generic” comprehension strategies (chapters 3 and 4); the tendency to teach texts in isolation (chapter 5), and the rigid interpretation of “text complexity” and the list of exemplar texts (chapter 6).

Throughout, the authors offer practical strategies to use immediately in the classroom, and I have already started using many in my own unit plans for the fall. These include tips for creating solid essential questions, sequences of texts, and pre-reading strategy instruction to tie a unit or lesson together.

Is Uncommon Core worth the read?

As I already mentioned, many educators across the country are struggling with Common Core implementation and how to get it right. Uncommon Core offers a great starting point and resource for both teachers and administrators who want to sort out weak advice from the standards themselves.

The authors include a good balance between the theory and research behind their arguments (all of which is solid) and practical advice about how to implement the standards. Of course, it helps that all three authors are renowned experts in their field with decades of experience in teaching and research.

At times, the theory does get a bit heavy, especially in chapter two when they discuss the history of New Criticism and the rise of Reader-Response theory. But, overall, Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm offer an accessible, research-based, common-sense approach to the standards that does not disappoint.

Tyler McBride teaches 7th and 8th grade ELA at Greenland Middle School in Greenland, Arkansas. Tyler will be starting his third year of teaching this fall and has presented his teaching and research at state and national conferences. His blog, Common Sense in ELA, documents his experiments with and rationale for workshop teaching. He currently lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas with his wife, Vasti, and their dog (Molly), cat (Butter), and two parakeets (Midnight and Comet).

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