by Matthew Miranda
“Common Standards, then, far from offering solutions, exacerbate the problem, making our schools more like the vast tracks of monocultural corn fields blanketing the Midwest, fields that produce corn syrup for the processed food industries. If we allow our schools to be dominated by the logic that created industrial agriculture, we risk processing our children like fast food.” —Stephanie Wade, Associate Professor, Unity College
My ENG101 students at SCC-Riverhead are submitting persuasive essays this week. Last week they read a piece from 1925 by the Reverend John Roach Straton concerning the Scopes Trial, the then-trial-of-the-century. Straton warned of the threat to the contiguous United States and all of Christendom should evolution be enshrined in school curriculum. They also read a section from Susan Sontag’s “Watching Suffering From A Distance” on the scope and significance of our reactions to images of violence and atrocity. Both Straton and Sontag employed three persuasive approaches I wanted the students to add to their rhetorical tool-belt: contrast, anecdoate, and re-branding.
Like those skimpily-clad ring-card girls at boxing matches sashaying between rounds, college professors are professionally acquainted with being eyed like a piece of meat during those classes when 40-60 eyeballs are expecting to receive graded essays. Knowing my students were of this mindset—and not having their papers graded yet—I took advantage of their appetite for an in-class exercise: I proposed I could persuade them, via the three approaches found in the Straton and Sontag pieces, that me not handing their essays back was ultimately for the best.
My use of anecdote and contrast charmed them a bit—detailing the 6-12 month turnaround in the publishing world after submitting a story; sketching what an adjunct professor’s life is like the 165 hours a week not spent in class—but their eyes were still hungry. They wanted their grades. I suspected my best bet was re-branding the discussion.
I told them the ideal education promotes perma-knowledge over immediate-information and process over product, so focusing on grades is like attending the concert of a lifetime and spending the entire show in line waiting to buy the T-shirt.
I cited several stories that spoke to areas of life that have been re-shaped: a recent Forbes article about the consolidation of ownership, and how 147 companies essentially own everything, and 4 companies essentially own the 147; with the World Series having ended a few days earlier, I mentioned the evolution of post-game celebrations—how when the Mets won the division in 1986 the field was overrun by fans, and in 1996 when the Yankees won the sight of Wade Boggs riding a police horse around was a unscripted, unscriptable moment, versus today’s celebrations, where the moment the game ends the field is cordoned off to prevent the fans/consumers from being a part of the show (apart from funding it through the purchase of ever-more-expensive tickets) while the billionaire TV network builds a temporary stage and has a field reporter with no connection to the winning team or its history interviewing the billionaire owner of said team; I introduced them to eminent domain via a story from Seattle about a 103-year old woman whose private parking lot was taken over by the city, which was said to suffer from a shortage of public parking lot; I brought up the corporatization of food, specifically Monsanto’s suicide/terminator seeds, designed to produce a single harvest and then go sterile, so the grower has to go back to the company to buy seeds year after year. Sustainable unsustainability.
This was all the set-up to what I really wanted to get into: Common Core.
I passed out a sheet with 10 Common Core problems written for 4th and 8th graders in Kentucky and New York I’d found in the Orlando Sentinel and asked the class to spend a few minutes working on them. I’m not a math genius, nor am I inept. I was able to answer 5. The students didn’t do much better.
Most of them, despite having grown up during No Child Left Behind/Common Core years, had never heard of either. Never heard of Pearson. We’ve studied logical fallacies and examined the stated “need” for educational reform: that students are failing to learn, teachers are failing to teach, and curriculum is failing to educate. They were invested in the discussion; while they hadn’t been aware of the issue beforehand, they were immediately and thoroughly proactively discussing it.
My ideal as a teacher is getting my students to be self-engaged. The most accelerated learning I enjoyed when I was younger was when a teacher sparked my mind and my desire to learn more on my own. There are distant horizons the greatest teacher on Earth cannot lead students as far as; the language required to navigate such lands is an ineffable fluency known only, if ever, to the students themselves.
I was thrilled to listen to them sparking each other, to witness their ownership of their learning process. After about 20 minutes, when I asked if they remembered how we’d gotten going on this conversation, there was a beautiful silence. They weren’t thinking about their essay grades anymore.
I am only now becoming aware of Common Core. I didn’t have a cell phone until my late 20s. Until a year ago, every car I’ve owned had a tape player. I know I’m slow on the uptake when it comes to newness.
I’m curious what other professors make of Common Core. I find many students seem to assume, especially early in the semester, that my primary interest is assessing them with grades; when I give them an essay assignment that is free-ranging and dependent on their own determination of content, a large number of them express discomfort. I haven’t been teaching long enough to know—is this an emerging trend in the here-and-now Common Core world? Did students 10-20 years ago exhibit similar discomfort? What is the outlook for Common Core and undergraduate curriculum? Some of my limited exposure to the discussion of MOOCs earlier this fall struck me as similarly fraught with peril.
One day, I want children. I’m wondering if I’ll “need” to home-school them. Because life is short, and one’s time as a parent even shorter, and education is one of the great humanistic & holistic gifts humans pass down to one another…and I’m as unsettled about handing that gift over to Common Core as I would be handing over my children’s nutrition to Monsanto.
How do you feel as professors? As parents? As people? Is this something you find a lot of opposition to, or is it something you think needs time to work out the kinks? What about at the university level: do you find it impacting incoming students? Is it expected to arrive at the college level? What impact do professors have in contributing to/shaping curriculum? What’s this moment in time’s momentum? What can I do? What can we do? What do you think? What do you feel?