Contemplating the Common Core

Over the past two years, I have been exposed to a movement that I had no knowledge of when I was initially getting my teaching license, that being the movement for a national set of school standards. While it is not unheard of for industrialized nations to have such a thing, America has been very reluctant to do so with its damn-fooled individualistic nature. While I will not got as far as to say that the Common Core is the end-all-beat-all, but it is a step in the right direction.

Ideally, the implementation of a national curriculum would be developed by the U.S. Department of Education, including the opinions and insights of educators. This was not the case with the Common Core, and that is one of the major issues I have with it. Just like anything else in America, it has been left to private enterprise to do it. The Common Core stresses that it is preparing students for college and career, but are they doing it effectively and are they doing it out of altruistic means? The fact that a private, for-profit organization is doing so should answer that question.

As I was working on my Master’s project, I grew quite accustomed to the 11-12 standards involving reading and writing. In tying the pieces in my project to the standards, I found that there ended up being a lot of overlapping—especially since none of the standards explicitly could be attached to poetry. There were times where I had to make a stretched case for their use…I particularly remember using the standard concerning reading “pieces of the American literary canon” for the poems of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. I found this a bit disconcerting as “American” literature was given its own standard, while the only author specifically required to be taught was Shakespeare. So the only pieces that should be required are those from an Anglo-American perspective? This is not the message I would want to send to students, that the only literature worth reading is the kind written by dead-white men.

I could go on further, but I will say this: the Common Core is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it is a first step in the right direction.

Research Topic–Graphic Narratives and Literacy Development

As it is my intention to return to teaching after graduate school, I want to focus on classroom literacies. Now this is a rather broad topic, and I have a few areas within that in which I could draw upon for my final project. As I was doing my research for my master’s project, adolescent literacy development really started to stand out as an area where I had a genuine interest. What exactly causes some young adults to become better readers while others just slog along with great difficulty? I had observed more than enough instances of this during my teaching career thus far and have always wondered about that. This now presents me with an opportunity to start unravelling this mystery.

There are many factors that can affect how a young adult gains adult-level literacy skills, but from what I have read and observed I cannot help but feel that it is what they are reading that presents the biggest factor. One particularly vivid image I have in regards to this quandary occurred during my first year of teaching, in which an eighth grader—who admittedly that he hated reading and did not “need” my class due to his future employment on his family’s ranch—literally ran to the library after I made it known that I had just donated two sets of The Hunger Games Trilogy. This sticks out as a concrete example of how what is being read can impact how students read. I will admit that student choice is not always an option when it comes to what they read, particularly in terms of having to read pieces that are considered canonical and “required,” but if there could be a way to elicit reactions like the one illustrated above more often, I am certain students would leave high school reading at or above an adult level.

This is where things get tricky for me in terms of what I wish to focus on. While I had expressed an interest in researching whether young adults gain literacy mastery through reading canonical texts or pieces written with their demographics in mind, there has been another type of literacy-development area that I never really put too much thought into before attending graduate school—and that is the teaching of the graphic novel. A number of classes I have taken have spoken of how not only using graphic novels in the English/language arts classroom, and while they discussed how useful they could be in engaging students and helping struggling readers, I would like to see more said about how they help all students and the impact they can have on reading skills. A lot has been said about how graphic novels require a greater effort to decode and interpret, but how do these skills translate into, say, performance on a reading assessment or comprehending and analyzing a traditional novel? It is with these questions in mind that I am going to start my research.

The Socio-Economic Factor

A lot has been said in our recent readings concerning the connection between socio-economic status (SES) and literacy development. While this is a connection that in hindsight seems obvious, I cannot hold it against the authors for pointing it out in the first place. Yes, it has been proven that higher SES students have greater access to books, have parents who read to them, and have access to other means of literacy as opposed to low SES students, but I guess from my own experience this tended to always be the case.

 Growing up, I would have been considered a low SES student from middle school onward. While my parents were readers and our house was overflowing with books, compared to my peers we were on the lower-end of the spectrum. The schools I attended tended to favor more of the affluent neighborhoods in our city, and since both of my schools had reputations for academics that attracted even more high SES students due to our district’s open enrollment policy. Now maybe I was the exception in that case, but as I was a B-A student in a class of predominantly AP students, one does start to see the connection.

 This connection between SES and literacy development did not really hit home for me until I was doing my internship-level of student teaching in my undergraduate. I was assigned to Dakota Valley Middle School, which primarily served the town of Dakota Dunes—a town made by all the rich people who worked across the South Dakota-Iowa border in Sioux City but decided to live in South Dakota due to it not having any state income tax. Now while this case of rich people building their own town isn’t completely unheard of, the fact that the school also served as the school for the local rural communities as well. From day one of my time of working with seventh and eighth graders I could see the MASSIVE disparity between the two levels.

 Now in terms of how this affected their literacy development, one striking example that stands to mind was the literature circles the seventh graders were placed in for class. While the groups were composed by reading level, I distinctly remember that the students in the reading groups doing more complex books like The Hobbit and The Diary of Anne Frank were predominantly high SES students while those in the lower-end group reading The Outsiders and Treasure Island were low SES. I remember asking my mentor teacher why this separation was occurring, and she told me that she had to break it down by reading ability in order to be fair, but even she acknowledged the disparity as simply a fact of life for teaching in that district. Now I am all for differentiated instruction, but this was a little ridiculous.

 I know I may be making a lot of generalizations here, but since it has been proven—yes, I will say proven—that SES affects literacy development, can we please work on a way of getting past that?

“Crossdress” response

Where do I start? Since 2005, when I was still in the Army, I had to do this all the time, since it was that year that I finally accepted my sexual identity as being gay. This was back during the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” so I had to keep myself closeted during my work with the military. During the time when I was in the reserves, it was not as bad since my unit lived 4 hours away in another state, but when I was called up to active duty for Iraq it became a major issue for me having to, as Skinner puts it, “crossdress” to survive in the conservative heteronormative  culture of the Army. Given that my role at the time was that of a journalist and media liaison, I had to maintain the dominant discourses of the military as a whole when communicating with the press. It became difficult to “tell the Army story” when I was having to present a front that, albeit involuntarily, condoning the practices of the institution as a whole when they seriously conflicted with my own views.

In the same situation, I had to “crossdress” even the aspect of my race. The unit I was assigned to in Iraq was predominantly black and Hispanic…and from New Jersey (which I still think was one of the aspects that made things worse, but I digress). Given the racial disparity amongst the ranks, I had the “wonderful” experience of having my race thrown at me like never before. It got to the point where I started to identify myself as Native American—which I am—and altering the way I talked so I could avoid having to be the lone representative of white culture in the office I worked in—particularly in this one discussion about police brutality, I ended up copping out of the discussion by saying to the other white person in the office, “You’re on your own, White Man.”

Obligatory welcome post…

Three weeks into the new term, and might as well start putting something up on this blog. From the pieces that I have read so far, I have to say that my views on composition seem to be in line with those of the Expressionist movement. My philosophy when it came to teaching young adults writing had been, “Young adults write better when they are writing about something about which they are passionate.”  Granted, this meant that I had to slog my way through papers about two papers about Justin Beiber, the calving process, and Adam Sandler for every one great paper about government corruption and the importance of keeping agricultural courses a part of the high school curriculum. I saw my place as the teacher to keep them on track and give them the tools they needed in order to express themselves.  Hopefully during the course of this term I can refine that approach just a bit.