The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

An alternate View of the CCSS and Their Expectations

Today’s post was contributed by Don Bellairs who is currently living in Switzerland, where he has been learning the language(s) slowly while helping a team from the University of Bern design a political science curriculum for Swiss elementary students.  He is a gifted teacher who is well qualified to respond to my critiques of the student tasks suggested in Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards.

What Dr. Yatvin has done with her post that listed and evaluated the middle school sample tasks for English Language Arts is exactly what the process needs…tweaking suggestions, not frontal assault and generalized condemnation.

As a professional, I appreciate Dr. Yatvin outlining her credentials, especially her capable leadership of the National Council of Teachers of English–of which I have been a member–an organization that should be included in the necessary future modifications of the CCSS design. Perhaps American educators need a grassroots movement to have Dr. Yatvin’s voice added to the group who evaluates the tweaking process?

As I read the poorly written sample tasks provided and Dr. Yatvin’s arguments for and against them, it became apparent that there are ways in which we can ALL contribute to the success of these important reform goals.

First, we need to change the language and the tone in the conversation about tests which have been branded “high stakes” by obstructionists and now reside in the political lexicon with other lightning-rod terms like “pro-life” and “climate change,” used by skillful politicians as code words to incite the ire of uninformed or frightened American citizens.

American public education desperately needs good tests, which are properly administered and responsibly applied to future policy decisions.  Such tests will provide crucial data with which people can improve the schools that we educators provide to America’s taxpayers.  Modifying the existing standards to maximize suitability should always be an objective, but there is no good reason to resist them wholesale. We educators need to recognize and strive to achieve the enormous potential of these challenging standards, not rationalize shortcomings as reasons to abandon them.

It occurs to me that we could crowd-source lesson plan ideas for each of the CCSS standards by encouraging creative teachers to weigh in on how to approach some of the complicated concepts. We could eventually design whole units that could be introduced in teacher prep programs at universities. Long ago I came to believe that the very best part about teaching is the problem-solving with master teachers, people who could easily have run corporations or represented governments but chose instead the humbling profession of teaching in order to let their lives’ work be developing our most important national resource: Good citizens.

Although I concede education credentials and years of experience to Dr. Yatvin, I have been able to teach such difficult pieces as Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” to deaf high school kids at the Kentucky School for the Deaf; to grades 5-8 combined language arts classes at a private school, Westwind Academy in Mt. Holyoke, MA; to seventh and eighth graders at Clark-Moores Middle School in Richmond, KY; and to seventh graders at Meadow Park Middle School in Beaverton, OR. I have pretty much covered everything that Dr. Yatvin says can’t be covered.

I believe that, if a teacher is creative, he/she can teach quantum physics to kindergarten classes. The nationwide establishment of high standards will take a lot of time and energy to implement, but nothing is better than when we can see and feel education working.  I envision a future when American elementary students learn algebra, philosophy and psychology using age-appropriate, motivational techniques that have been derived, in part, from information we will have gleaned from reaching together for difficult but attainable standards. We sell our students and their teachers short when we proclaim them incapable without first rising to accept this challenge.  We all know 13-year-olds who can not only recognize and distinguish between analogies and allusions, but also can also write and produce movies explaining those distinctions.



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One last Look at CCSS Sample Tasks

Like me, I suspect that may readers are tired of examining the student tasks recomended for specific grades in  the CCSS Appendix B.  Nevertheless, I feel obligated to complete what I started by covering the expectation for students in grades 9-12.   This time, however, I will give examples of only one task in each category because   all the tasks are very much alike in what they ask students to do.  

Grades  9-10:  Only four sample tasks are suggested for reading fictional texts in these grades. Although a different task is specified for each text named, the work expected of students is essetially the same: Analysis. Here’s one of the sample tasks.

Students analyze how the character of Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey—a “man of twists and turns”—reflects conflicting motivations through his interactions with other characters in the epic poem. They articulate how his conflicting loyalties during his long and complicated journey home from the Trojan War both advance the plot of Homer’s epic and develop themes.

Only one task is suggested for reading informational texts.  It calls for analysis of themes and concepts.

•Students compare George Washington’s Farewell Address to other foreign policy statements, such as the Monroe Doctrine, and analyze how both texts address similar themes and concepts regarding “entangling alli- ances.”

Grades 11- 12 For reading fictional texts six sample performance tasks are suggested. Three of the tasks specify only analysis; the other two add comparing and contrasting to analysis.  Below is one of the tasks that requires both actions.

Students analyze Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière’s Tartuffe for how what is directly stated in a text differs from what is really meant, comparing and contrasting the point of view adopted by the protagonist in each work.

The five sample tasks for informational texts emphasize analysis.  For one of them a summary is required in addition. to analysis.  In all the sample tasks  students are expected to go further by making a judgment on the effectiveness of one or more aspects of the text. Below is the task that seems to me to require the most work.

Students analyze Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, identifying its purpose and evaluating rhetorical features such as the listing of grievances. Students compare and contrast the themes and argument found there to those of other U.S. documents of historical and literary significance, such as the Olive Branch Petition.


As a former high school English teacher my reaction to all these tasks is that they require students to beat each text read to death.  Although analysis may not be beyond most students’ ability at these grade levels–if it is done as a group endeavor led by the teacher– I feel that the tasks are beyond the limits of  students personal engagement.  Most of the documents named  would not be appealing to students when they are first introduced and, certainly, would not hold  their interest through the multi-faceted tasks described.

To end  my critique of  sample high school  tasks, I feel compelled to mention that as a college English major I was never required to examine a text in such depth and detail as required by the above sample tasks  I find it hard to believe that tasks like the ones listed in the CCSS Apprendix B are common in college classrooms today.

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