At the June 16 Hollis/Brookline Common Core forum, Evan Czyzowski, English literature teacher at Sanborn Regional High School, talked about how the Common Core English Language Arts standards guide his day-to-day teaching. Here are some edited highlights:
I’ve been teaching at Sanborn Regional High School for seven years now. Prior to that, I taught English composition at the University of New Hampshire, and for almost a year in Poland at the University of Krakow.The standards are rigorous.
You’ve heard from a number of teachers now that, from our perspective, there’s not really much buzz about the Common Core. We’ve looked at the standards and find that they are very rigorous. The curriculum is set by the local school, not by the Common Core. Common Core is a set of skills and standards, but the curriculum is decided in the local communities. These are some of the books that I teach – some are the suggested readings on the Common Core site. I think that you’ll find that they are quite rigorous. ‘Hamlet.’ Shakespeare’s mentioned a number of times in the Common Core. ‘1984.’ Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien, Earnest Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’, ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder, ‘Waiting for Godot’, Samuel Beckett, ‘As I Lay Dying’, William Faulkner. ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel, ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five, ‘Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’, and of course ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck. Concerning the split between literary text that should be taught and informational text – 70% informational text in high school – the important thing is that the informational texts are shared across the curriculum. So a science teacher teaching a textbook or a scientific article or some instructions on how to build something, is addressing that 70% goal. The vast majority of what’s taught in an English class are literary texts – literature and poetry and drama. Here are a few lessons that I’ve been working on and how they’re connected to the Common Core.Let's cite evidence.
The first reading standard, for instance, is literacy RI11-12.1:
“Cite strong and thorough textural evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.”
Say I’m teaching ‘The Great Gatsby’ and a student raises her hand and says, ‘Hey, I think Gatsby’s a jerk.’ I say, ‘That is fine. Where in the text do you see that? Point to me the passage that says that Gatsby’s a jerk because, if it’s your opinion, that’s fine, but anything that you have to say about the book should tie to evidence in the book itself. So let’s go back to the book. Let’s cite evidence.’Let's closely read the words in the book.
And by teaching students those skills, we’re teaching students to apply them later on in life. If they were to read a newspaper and they make a claim about what an article said, you would ask, ‘Well, where in the article does it say that? Is it just your opinion that you’re imposing on the text? Or does it actually say that in the text? Let’s closely read the words in the book.’ And that’s what we’re teaching our students. I don’t think that that’s a controversial idea.And apply it beyond the classroom.
Another lesson that I teach my students is about the Holocaust, very important topic. As our anchor text, we talk about Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’ about his time at the Concentration Camps. If we teach students just one piece of the Holocaust, it doesn’t give them the context. Just teaching them about the novel and what the characters said doesn’t really do justice to the book itself or the students. That’s where some informational texts will come in. I ask students to watch a documentary on BBC on the rise of Adolf Hitler to give some context to how the Holocaust came to be. I bring in a Holocaust survivor to the school and they listen to the firsthand account of someone who was there. They watch ‘Schindler’s List’. They also read statistics on who went where, what the numbers were across Europe. They also read newspaper articles that are primary documents of the time period. All of that collectively is what gives students context for what it is that they’re learning. Just one novel won’t do that. That’s how we learn. That’s how we explore the world. And if you look at the standard here 11-12.7 it says:
“Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats, visually, quantitatively, as well as in words in order to address an issue or solve a problem.”
So I’ve presented them with a number of sources to understand. What do I ask them to do? I’m asking them to write a paper that addresses the following question:
How is it that we can understand, remember and teach the Holocaust in a way that prevents genocide in the future?
What we’ve done here is teach students the content; we’ve taught them the skill of closely reading multiple sources; and then we’re asking them to apply it beyond the classroom and beyond the text itself. That to me is a rigorous, fully developed way of teaching. And it’s the Common Core standard that really anchors that. Jenn said that, “We learn the content; we apply the skills.” I like that. We apply the skills there. When you learn to read a text closely, you can read anything after that and understand the world.Four drafts before her final paper
Finally, I ask students to write a research paper based on their own original thesis statements. The student who wrote this paper, for instance, did a fantastic job. And here are all of the drafts for her 8 to 10-page research paper. First, she had to develop a hypothesis. Then she researched the hypothesis. She had to come up with an annotated bibliography. She had to break those sources down and understand what they were saying. She had to demonstrate to me that she knew she was doing before she could even sit down to write that paper. Then we went through the drafting process. She did four drafts before her final paper. She had an individual conference with me to analyze her specific work. And then…she was able to write the final paper. That’s an enormous amount of research and skill on her part. And it’s all rooted in the standards. Read the Research to Present Knowledge, Literacy 11-12.7 and 11-12.8. You’ll see that that’s just what’s going on in my classroom. Is the Common Core good? I think it’s great. Is there controversy around it? I’m not really sure why. When you read these standards, I think that they’re difficult to argue with.