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A Curriculum Entrepreneur Brings the Common Core to Life

Susan Notes:

Ohanian NOTE: These are transcript excerpts from David Coleman's two-hour presentation on the Common Core Math and English Language Arts Standards. I eliminated his comments about math, leaving that for another time.

I'm not going to rant about what's wrong with Coleman's approach. I'll just say I wrote a book Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum about why I thought nonstandard 7th and 8th graders needed a break from "regular" English classes where they would pretend to read Old Man and the Sea and instead give them a double period of extensive exposure to reading material they could read--and even enjoy. This book grew out of an article I wrote for Phi Delta Kappan P. L. 94-142: Mainstream or Quicksand?. I asserted then and still assert now that we need to provide meaningful and productive alternatives for students who do not flourish in the mainstream. Having the teacher read a difficult text aloud does not mean that every child can get something out of that text. I want every child to find a book that he can read independently, a book that will knock his socks off.

I happen to find some merit it Coleman's Hirschian view that kids need a lot of information about the world, but I dispute that the very close reading of a few very difficult texts will ever provide enough of that world information. The only thing that will work is to convince kids to become readers--to read far and wide--some books that the teacher chooses and lots and lots of books that they choose on their own.

Toward the end of the session below, someone in the audience asked curriculum entrepreneur David Coleman about those kids who are so far behind. Here's his outrageous answer: "What do you do with a kid who is five years behind in reading? I think we have to ask ourselves what the heck we were doing in those earlier years and begin to get serious. . . ."

Big help that is. Just blame it on teachers that came before. And the teachers that came before can blame it on parents. And. . . .

Coleman disparages publishers and teachers who offer some kids easier texts. I remember the magical moment as though it were yesterday when fifteen-year-old Keith read his first book, Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop. "I did it, Miz O. Really. I read the whole thing. Listen. I'll do it again." Coleman would insist that to be career and college ready, Keith needed to be in a three-day textual deconstruction of the Gettysburg Address. I concede that Keith didn't meet anybody's standards for 8th grade performance, but at least he didn't leave 8th grade never having read a book.

Keep reading and you will encounter Coleman's model lesson teaching Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Go here for a model lesson on teaching an adaptation from Cricket of Richard Feynman's memoir. And go to Teachers, AFT is Killing You for background on the Chicago teacher union sellout to Bill Gates. They're going to write model curriculum for the Common Core Curriculum Standards and offer something they call professional development.

The fact that Coleman acknowledges that students free reading for pleasure is important but worries that they're choosing books that are too easy shows he really doesn't "get" it.

I have a question:

Here's what Coleman lists on his bio: Mr. Coleman was a lecturer at the University of London before going to work in the pro bono education area of McKinsey & Company. He is a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Yale University, Oxford University and Cambridge University. With plenty of evidence that our professional organizations and our unions have ceded instructional authority to this curriculum entrepreneur who provides no evidence that he has ever taught, what about Colleges of Education? Will they keep their silence?

Read on and you will see that in disparaging personal narrative in writing David Coleman asserts, "When you grow up in this world you realize people don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think." He offers a strong message that the people in charge of the Common Core Curriculum don't give a shit about educator opinion either.

TRANSCRIPT: Bringing the Common Core to Life by David Coleman

. . . I invite you, many of you who have more experience and intelligence than I, to look towards a shift, to think about what really changes here and I'm going to give you six examples of the fundamental underlying shifts in the literacy standards.

Number one, it begins in the earliest grades. We in America in K-5 assessment and curriculum focus 80% of our time on stories, on literature. That is the dominant work that is done in the elementary school and that's what's tested on exams and that's what's in our textbooks. However, the research is overwhelmingly clear and actually Dr. Steiner has been an early proponent of this research at its earlier stages, that in kindergarten through 5th grade, the general knowledge that you develop in those years plays a crucial predictive role in not only your performance in those other disciplines, like science and history, but your ability to read more complex text itself. That is, the elementary school's a magnificent place for students to learn about the world through reading. Whoever thought otherwise? So the core standards for the first time demand that 50% of the text students encounter in kindergarten through 5th grade is informational text, meaning primarily text about science and history, text about the arts, the text through which students learn about the world. That is a major shift and if you think about what's happening in this country unintentionally literature and stories dominated the elementary curriculum. And then we expanded the literacy block. So we made the literacy block 80% of the time. Guess what that meant? We destroyed history and science in the elementary school.

The core standards are a chance to regain the proper role of the elementary school teacher, to bring their students into the world, to spend equal time on informational and story, and in that way build a real foundation for literacy--that is the first major step. And the standards strongly encourage that the knowledge that's built through this reading and read alouds and then students reading themselves in history and science and the arts--it is coherent both within grades and across grades that students are building this foundation of knowledge. That's the first shift--50/5--informational text and literary text in K-5 required by the standards and required in both the standards and assessments that measure them. We were explicit about this.

Number two. It extends that same interest in the broad base of literacy, extends to 6th to 12th grade. We were asked originally to write standards for English Language Arts, college and career ready standards for English Language Arts. The working team refused. We said if we just did standards for English Language Arts they would not be standards for career and college readiness. And at that point it was too late to fire us so we won that standoff. The standards are instead as you know the common core standards for English Language Arts as well as literacy and history and social studies, as well as science and technical subjects. They demand they do not request that the building of knowledge through reading text plays a fundamental role in those disciplines. In history and social studies, the analysis of primary and secondary documents is a core part of building knowledge. And in science, the analysis of reference materials, direct experimental result, debate obviously integrated with other data, but reading sufficiently complex text at the heart of it. To give you a sense of how different this is from what happens today, we have evidence that in kindergarten through 5th grade kids read informational text 7% of the time. And in later grades, ACT just did a study of how well students could read a complex science text, 24% of the students who take the ACT can read a college-level science text. That's those who take the ACT. We know that the wider group of students we serve many of them don't even take the test. It is that large a gap so the commitment to making literacy a fundamental part of gaining knowledge in those disciplines is the second major move of these core standards.

The third move is that text complexity matters. The difficulty or complexity of what you're reading plays the guiding role in guiding literacy performance rather than the skills by which you are reading it. So typical of state standards, not necessarily New York State's--I'm going to try to avoid making fun of any New York State standards during this presentation--but some state standards have a situation like this: in 5th grade, you're meant to study a character's motivation; in 7th grade, you study their underlying motivation. Now, in my experience, most motivations are underlying unless someone is mugging you. So it's not exactly the most useful distinction in the world. The real distinction in the growth of reading is of course the level of complexity of the text that you're managing. But for the first time these core standards create a staircase of text complexity, of expectations year by year of the level of text complexity you need to master. And what we found by the research, which is in Appendix A for you eager students who read beyond the required reading, in Appendix A of the standards is the research that demonstrates that the level of text that kids are reading today in high school are systematically beneath what they need to be to be college and career ready. You get what I am saying, right? That is, what they are assigned and what they are required to read is far below what they'll be required for most career work and college work.

Guess why there's remediation? So the standards realign the curve from kindergarten forwards towards college and career readiness creating a skewed staircase towards college and career readiness.

The fourth shift in literacy is a shift towards focusing on questions that require you to pay attention to the text itself. I call them text-dependent questions. Now, this may seem quite obvious to you, but let me tell you the results of an informal study we did of instruction in Vermont and Texas. Now, we were looking for two of the most similar states possible, which is why we chose those two. And what we found was is a remarkable similarity between those two very different places and it was that 80% of the questions kids were asked when they are reading are answerable without direct reference to the text itself. Think about it, right? You're reading a text and you talk about the background of the text, or what it reminds you of, or what you think about it, or what you criticize or perhaps how you feel or react to it, or all sorts of surrounding issues--kids are genius at this--because anything to avoid confronting the difficult words before them is money. So what's happened in reading instruction, despite our intentions, is an enormous amount of time is spent with questions that hover around text but don't require the close consideration of it. We'll return to this when we look at the letter from Birmingham Jail in a couple of minutes.

The fifth point is about writing. Do people know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today? Texting someone said; I don't think that's for credit though yet. But I would say that as someone said it is personal writing. It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize

people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

[emphasis added] What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you're saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, "Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood." That is rare. It is equally rare in college by the way. So a group of Minnesota professors got together and they very, very wonderfully created a program called "Ready or Not," where they accepted essay submissions from around the state from high school seniors to see whether they're college ready or not. Ninety-seven percent of what was provided to them was narrative and 97% of that was deemed not college ready. The core standards thus mark a shift. They do support training in narrative throughout K-12 but what they make primary as you grow is the ability to write an argument based on evidence and convey complex information. This is an essential shift.

The sixth shift -- and then luckily I am done, there are no more -- is that academic vocabulary is the true language of power and that is particularly true for our English Language Learners and a wide variety of kids we care about most. This replaces the unstated language of power in earlier literacy standards which were basically the buildup of thousands of literary terms. If you look in a high school English Language Arts textbook, you will see pages and pages of literary terminology. The most popular 3rd grade standard in America today before the common core, 3rd grade, is what is the difference between a fable, a myth, a tale, and a legend? The only problem with that question is no one knows what the difference is and no one probably cares what the difference is either, but it's inscrutable. Instead what the standards focus on, there is some literary terminology and I myself have a Master's in English Literature from Oxford so I say this with great love, those terms are very useful when used appropriately, but they are not a separate object of study. In the same way, the core object of study must be the academic vocabulary that pervades complex text of all types. These are words like appearance or consequential or deliberate. Unlike what are sometimes called tier three or domain-specific words like cell wall or amoeba, they are very rarely bolded on the side of the page, helpfully to guide you. They're an underlying language of complexity that pervades everything complex you read. As you can imagine they build a wall around these texts that many of our students cannot penetrate. So what the core standards do is focus their attention while not sacrificing the literary and the core literary terms by focusing that more we have room for far more attention for an academic vocabulary that pervades the others. Sometimes I sum up the standards by saying they require you to read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter. More and more I feel like I should say, "Read like a detective and write like a conscientious investigative reporter." With that said, I'm going to pause for a minute for some immediate questions and then I'd like to talk with you about Dr. King's letter from Birmingham Jail. . . .

Number one, in an elementary classroom I'd overwhelmingly see kids reading stories today where as they'd be spending half their time in the future building knowledge through informational text. That's just a clear difference. I'd see teachers of science and history paying close attention to how much evidence and knowledge their kids could draw from a text given because a core part of their aim is that their kids gain more knowledge from the text that they are given and that's a relentless part of their instruction and attention. It would mean that writing shifts in the way I described, that students would rarely on exams or assessments be asked decontextualized prompts as they are today to demonstrate their readiness. They'd be asked to write to sources. So these are the kind of visible changes you could see. . . .

Audience: Q: We see the focus on complex grade-level text and the common core standards. Is their also a philosophy within the common core that argues against the use of level text for reading or is there still a place for this approach, the example given is that in helping students to learn how to use comprehension strategies?

David Coleman: A: I will get to this question. The question regards what is the right role of level text in comprehension strategies and reading development and when I get to the letter I think we can talk about that in context but I would give the first a couple of immediate reactions. One of the greatest threats to a wide range of students being able to read sufficiently complex text with confidence is we keep them out of the game. Far too early and far too often we reduce text complexity for these students rather than giving them the scaffolding they need to embrace and practice that complexity. It begins as early as K-2. It would astonish you. These level readers give easier vocabulary to certain students than others, sacrificing the academic vocabulary they need to succeed in the future. So I am saying in a clear voice, the core of instruction, core classroom time becomes the shared encounter of sufficiently difficult text. The proper role for leveled material can be an intensive support for students who then need additional support in addition to their confrontation of sufficiently complex work, but remember that time might also be used for them to have more time with that sufficiently complex work. But the role of leveling where it is most useful and where it is proven to actually accelerate kids has to be in addition to their confrontation of a core set of complex text. . . .

Audience: Q: In consideration of the stairway to high school graduation, it appears that there may be some tension between college readiness and career readiness. If not, why do we continue to include both goals as if they are separate? If so, why are there not two separate paths?

David Coleman: A: The research on this subject is actually fascinating. That is, the question here is why say college and career if they're the same or are they different, is there tension between these two goals. I want to underline the word "tension" because that will become a key word in Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail. So let's remember "tension" for a moment as an academic word that performs our discourse right now. But secondly, the data around reading is actually fascinating. There's been a study done of the text kids need for career readiness and stunningly they hover at roughly the same or higher level of difficulty than the text kids are demanded to read in their first year of college. That is, technical text is hard stuff and the snobbery that has accompanied it has no place in a reasoned view of what's really going on. It actually hovers at the same level. So we're given a gift in that teaching kids how to read sufficiently difficult text to climb that staircase gives them enormous readiness in both domains. Similarly, in mathematics that ready core I described to you, the ability to apply, understand and be fluent in that range of mathematics is precisely what pays off in a wide variety of skills. So that core, that trunk allows you the kind of flexibility that many more people can use math both in their work and in their citizenship. I think the "quot" here is a celebration. The "and" is you get more than college readiness. You get career readiness, too. So I choose to see it as a celebratory gesture. . . . Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

David Coleman

Hopefully, some of you who prepared for this conversation today took a look at King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and I'd like to tell you what I'm going to try to do with you over approximately the next 20 minutes with that letter. What I'm trying to do is to show you what instruction begins to look like with the core in mind. And, of course, that begins to address the very good question asked me earlier, which was "What's the difference?" How does instruction on a day-to-day basis in a way a teacher looks at it, in the daily choices a teacher makes look different when confronted with the core? The time within which we are discussing this, 20 minutes, is highly illusory because I think teaching this letter is at least six days with maybe another week with a comparison we'll talk to you about. But we just did a body of work, a team and I built up an exemplar around the Gettysburg Address, which as you know is three paragraphs long, and it is for three days of instruction on those three paragraphs and that is not by bringing in other resources yet. That's by focusing on the text itself.
,br> The first major shift I want you to consider is far longer amounts of classroom time spent on text worth reading and rereading carefully, a kind of diligent close attention. This has several implications. It also means that a much wider range of kids are in on the game. It means that you can chunk into smaller parts anything but avoiding the richness and complexity. So while I'll speak to you only for 15 or 20 minutes about the letter, please see it as the beginning of six days of instruction rather than this brief talk.

Finally, I know there's an issue hanging in everyone's mind, which is for what range of students is this really possible a letter like this? These are just my best students who can read King's letter. And I want to challenge you today that our core challenge as a community and this is hard work but work worth doing is to get all kids so that after 12 years of practice they can read a text like this with confidence. This IS what college and career readiness demand. This text is precisely at that level. This IS our shared challenge. And there can be intensive support and scaffolding and additional practice to do it but this is the work of doing it. And, strangely, I want to suggest to you that while this text is complex I would dare to argue that reading is fairly simple, that there is no reason to make more complicated than it is the task of teaching reading, of paying close attention, of gathering evidence from what you read. So I might ask you to forgive me because I'm worried that you're going to find what I'm about to do far too straightforward for most experts, but far more like the core of instruction for what we must do when facing something difficult.

So the question that faces us when we look at the letter from Birmingham Jail, and I will return by the way to how do we do this for a wide range of students, is how do we begin? This is a great question for an artist when they're beginning something or for a teacher. And I thought I would begin by making myself as unpopular as possible by attacking the three most popular ways of beginning.

The most popular way first, I should give you background information and an account of the letter before we begin so you can get oriented. There was a great man, Dr. King. He wrote a letter while in jail because a set of clergymen had sent him a letter saying he should slow down. This is his ringing defense of nonviolence, of the distinction between just and unjust law. We shall read it to together, etc. What you have effectively done as a teacher when you do this is you've replaced the letter from Birmingham Jail with a simpler text, your summary, that now kids will quote back to you. And because of the overwhelming power of self love, those answers are of course correct. Kids are very artful at this. So that's the first escape from the text is to summarize it in advance. You would be stunned in curricular materials how often a text is trivially summarized before it begins. If this is all King had to offer were those conclusions, we should not do the work of reading the letter altogether.

Number two, pre-reading strategies. So then there's a lot of work you can try to do before the letter like you might try to predict what he's going to say or where he was or you might try to compare it to other prison letters. You might to try to do several pre-reading type approaches. Forgive me, but I am asking you to just read. To think of dispensing for a moment with all the apparatus we have built up before reading and plunging into reading the text. And let it be our guide into its own challenges. That maybe those challenges emerge best understood from the reading of it. And that maybe we don't have to force a whole set of additional activities that prepare you to start. I'll give further examples of this later.

And the third typical introduction would be the strategy of the weak. In other words we have a purpose for reading this letter, it's to reinforce our understanding of the main idea. Nothing could be more lethal to paying attention to the text in front of you than such a hunt and seek mission. Why not instead let King set the agenda? Why not dare to read the mystery of what's on King's mind? Why not let those strategies emerge to solve real problems rather than constantly interrupting us or setting an agenda? I'll talk more about this later. But one great benefit, teachers, to the core standards is you know how you've been teaching a hundred lessons every year and over the course of years on cause and effect and that's one of the reading strategies. I'll give you one today. I punch you and it hurts, cause and effect. There's no need to do it over and over. When have you read a difficult text ever in your life and said, "I've got it now. It's a cause and effect text not a problem and solution text. Now, I've got it." We lavish so much attention on these strategies in the place of reading, I would urge us to instead read.

So Aristotle says at one point of drama, he's talking about drama, that the beginning is more than half the whole. And I think he's right because the opening of a drama is what brings you into it. Just think for a moment of a film and the way we teach reading typically. If I were to go to a film with you, imagine before it started, I want you to do a bunch of pre-film watching strategies. Then I ruthlessly interrupted you as it unfolded and said, "There's a train. Have you ever been on a train ride? What does this remind you of?" You would kill me before we were five minutes through. Why then is this appropriate with reading, which is also a task of deep observation and attention, where the author's story is the most interesting one to start with whether it's informative or a narrative? So I ask you to let kids into that story and try to talk about what that looks like.

So let's open King's letter with that in mind and begin with it. I ask you to please read to yourselves the first paragraph following "My Dear Fellow Clergymen." Since I'm accelerating, I'm going to act like you've had time to do that and then read it to you out loud:
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I want to say perhaps the first question you might ask about this text is, "Based on this text and this text alone, what do you know? What can you make out about the letter King received?" So let's look again at that first paragraph for a moment and we might make out gradually that they've accused him of saying very specific, of being unwise and untimely. We're going to go back to that first question. A clever student might notice that he wrote to his dear fellow clergymen, which reveals something about who wrote the letter and perhaps something about King himself if they understand the construct fellow clergymen which you might work on with them immediately or it will actually come up later. But we can already know at least two things, it's written from clergymen and says you've been unwise and untimely.

Let's then move with some speed here because it's a first reading into the next set of arguments, paragraphs 2 through 4. So again I'd love to give you time to look over them with the following question in mind. "What are the three very different arguments King makes for why he's in Birmingham? And what different kinds of evidence does he use to support them?" Now I hope the feeling you're all having is of not knowing the answer in advance. There's no way to answer my question without returning again. Who even knew that he made three arguments? Who knew that they were so different? Who knew that they used different kinds of evidence? But let's look at them together.

The first paragraph, again I'm accelerating here much faster than you'd ever do with students, the first paragraph has become somewhat bureaucratic. I'm here, as he summarizes in the last paragraph, because I have members of my staff and I was invited here. I have organizational ties here. He describes the core offices. So it's almost a bureaucratic kind of answer.

The third paragraph of the letter, he says, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here" and compares himself to the prophets of the eighth century and to Paul, etc. He makes something of a religious, historical argument. He gives that kind of evidence and information. And that's where it might trigger that fellow clergymen because he is of course comparing himself to those clergymen of old. Now this is a paragraph dense with allusion. You could slow down a lot here to get what Greco Roman means, to figure out exactly who Paul is. I think one's always judging as a teacher when to pause in that way. On a first read through we'll come back to that probably. But as much as they understand that King is comparing himself now to a prophet and making a very different kind of argument, we have enough to keep moving through his argument. But there is nothing wrong with helping kids through that work and helping identify because very few of those words can be determined from the context itself. So at a moment like that it's perfectly appropriate to fill in some of those blanks and not linger too long there and lose the force of the argument.

Because his next argument is the one for this letter's most famous is the moral argument and I will read it out loud and you will perhaps remember some of it by heart.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
What I'd like to begin with with this argument, this third moral argument, is the question of what is the force of it? How does it relate to the arguments that come before? Sounds pretty preachy. How does it relate to these other two moves? One, I've got offices here and I was invited. Two, I'm like a prophet of the past. But third, there's this sudden moral claim instead of statements. Well you see on the study of it that King does something quite remarkable. Being accused of being an outsider, he makes an argument that there's no such thing in matters of injustice. He says there's no such thing as an outside agitator because the injustice that affects you is mine. We are mutually implicated in it. It's very important that kids get time to grasp the force of an argument, the force of the claim. How does this fit in with the argument he's making? How does it fit in with the two arguments before it? But the next question might very well be once you've really thought about that is where's the evidence, King? These are high-flying assertions. It seems obvious that we are not tied together in a garment of destiny. You can walk out this door and you'll be perfectly fine. You get wet; I don't get wet. So where's the evidence to support this claim? In that moment of pause to realize as powerful as these words are that they don't yet have any support or proof is a wonderful one. Also, because it creates an appetite to see if he can pull it off. Because when you realize that question you realize how much of this letter, how much of its beauty is his attempt to answer that very difficult question. So when he goes after the White moderate later, when he makes all these moves in letter, he's demonstrating that interrelation that he does not show yet.

Moving on, paragraph 5 is a transition and I'll conclude shortly but I just want to walk you through it a bit further. Paragraph 5 is another transition and notice how it begins.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.
Now, remember that first simple question when we began--What can you make out about the letter he received? Now we have more evidence growing around that question. That is, now we know something they didn't say. I noticed you complained about me being unwise. How about them being unwise and untimely? That's what he says here and the social foundation of it. So that same question that was so simple and got us into the letter repays throughout the letter. In understanding an argument it's critical to know what something is pushing against. What's the alternative that an author by making an argument throughout is building? So that simple question in the beginning becomes increasingly powerful as the letter unfolds.

Then in paragraphs 6 through roughly 9 is what I like to call the just the facts question. Interestingly, in paragraph 6 enters for the first time in this letter the word "fact." And I'll tell you something very moving. One of the people that works here in New York State told me that this to her is the most moving moment. It is not the ringing moral language I just read to you. It is the moment where he says precisely,
There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.
These are the hard brutal facts of the case. This is a different voice from King. This is now setting out a body of fact in the next two paragraphs to understand its conclusions. Kids gaining command of those facts, seeing how they relate to the case, gives them a further master class in these different kinds of argument.

Finally, let's go for a moment to paragraph 10 because I want to illustrate to you just how rich a discussion of academic vocabulary can be. Paragraph 10 following a relation of the facts asks,
You may well ask: Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches. . .
and he goes on in this paragraph to describe tension. He says,
My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension'-- I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
A wonderful question at this moment for your students is what exactly does King unfold tension to mean and not mean in this paragraph and the one that follows? And it's a wonderful way for them to study academic language and practice and for them to wonder what if he used a different word. Not just what does tension mean here but why did he choose it and lavish so much attention to it rather than so many other words. You could spend similar time looking at exactly what Madison does with faction. There are often master words in what we read that we pay close study, but the author shows us he spends so much time on it here so we ought to follow him. I won't bore you with the rest. He goes on to make three arguments again, three different arguments about why we can't wait and makes magnificent closing paragraph about that.

He then in paragraphs 15 to 21 and following makes a distinction between just and unjust law. And some people have asked me impatiently about this exercise. When do we get beyond the letter? When do we get beyond to the broader issues of social injustice? Whether or not you believe in nonviolence, whether you believe in civil disobedience? I want to suggest a couple of things to you. The first principle is allow first the rich comprehension of exactly what King is doing. I hope for many of you this was exciting to see the delicacy, the range with which he works and constructs an argument and sees it interact. Isn't it much more interesting to talk about what we think about nonviolence with that behind us rather than doing it to replace that study or in advance of that study? In that way we can really illuminate what we see happening in Egypt rather than cheaply avoiding the letter by going straight to Egypt and other revolutions happening before us.

It's a dare to follow King. When we talk about going beyond the letter, what's wonderful is the section on just and unjust law King himself goes beyond the letter. That is, he begins to make analogies to Hitler's power. He begins to make analogies about other laws. He invites us, I'm trying to say, to go beyond it with him. So that's a marvelous section to ask students to apply his principles of just and unjust law and ask them what laws they think might fit in those categories. Get them using the principles, applying those principles. Do they work? Do they not? What about historical examples? King himself invites you by making that very same winding himself.

And the other thing that happens in the discussion of just and unjust law is enters for the second time in this rather short letter is a hero of King's. Does anyone know who makes their second appearance in the letter at that point? Socrates--that's exactly right. He made it earlier in the discussion of tension and now he enters again. It's his second cameo where King says,
Like him, he began it all with civil disobedience. And it was from him he cites his knowledge of the creative tension.
That to me is the best invitation an author can give you to perhaps in that third week of instruction I mentioned maybe it would be fun to find out who this Socrates guy was and see how he thought about tension in Athens.

This document is part of the great conversation in the United States. It is a letter that bears comparison with our Declaration, with Lincoln's words that follow it. It is in that history but it's also an international conversation. It is a conversation with Greece and other countries. And I think we can both do the letter depth and then also, as I should reveal Dr. Steiner asked me, go beyond it to bring in the conversation with Socrates when we first understand the fundamental role Socrates plays to King within the letter. You don't need it in advance but once you've wrestled with it to then dive in and see that King is not alone in worrying about these things they've been worried about for centuries in different forms. How exciting is that? And then to submit to Socrates and part of the apology where he defends himself at a trial, a trial pretty close to a prison I might add. What a wonderful moment for kids to begin to see that depth at the same time they're reading.

I hope that's begun to give a sense of the kind of instruction I'm talking about. I hope it was concrete enough and the kind of excitement. I want to admit this is extremely difficult work because of a couple of reasons. The text itself is difficult. It is hard work, but work worth doing. There is no apologizing or getting away from that. I used a number of techniques. The first and most important is to let the mysteries that the letter provokes be the source of student motivation and your interest rather than anything about you or anything I presume about you or your history. In other words, what we've done much too much is tried to go outside the text to motivate kids. You should be interested in this letter because of your background. It should remind you of something. We try to sell it almost in advance of reading it where the only source of motivation that's reliable is the richness and beauty of it itself which must come alive through our questioning. That is hard work I admit. It is specific to reach text. There's no great general question that will suddenly illuminate everything. That's what we hope working together with the state to give you concrete exemplars of how you might read this letter, the Gettysburg Address. We're working together with a great team here and hopefully you will work together with us. What the world needs most right now is wonderful questions about things worth reading. Things worth read and rereading that don't avoid the text but bring kids into a deeper consideration of it. You noticed I did a lot of chunking and reading out loud, taking a smaller portion and looking at it with care. That allows a much wider range of kids into that process. I am aware that sometimes certain kids will connect to more of this or less of this. Some will see more. But the important deep idea is that they're all part of it. And the wonderful thing is sometimes a kid is behind will notice something another kid didn't. And since you're all looking at the same thing, you have that remarkable moment both as a teacher and as another reader where you say, "Ooh, I didn't see that. I didn't notice that," which is by the way how kids talk about a movie when they've seen it. Did you catch that? Did you see that? Did you watch that? Did you see it when he did this? You notice how lively the academic vocabulary is. While we can explain Greco Roman in other technical terms that are academic, a rich word like tension is so powerful.

And finally the power focus, without six days of instruction, let's be blunt with each other, this is impossible. What I just did to you is gradual. We covered most of the letter in summary. This would take days. So for principals, superintendents and the leaders of schools, please celebrate time spent slowly doing this hard and deliberate work. The research evidence is overwhelming. The only thing we have seen that rapidly accelerates student performance towards reading more complex text is extensive practice repeatedly even with reading the same text. That's the only thing that's been shown to increase fluency substantially.

I'm going to pause but merely to say this is about much more than reading. This is about today I hope for a moment King to some extent himself became alive, that as we paid more attention to him we could see his mind at work. This is not just about reading. It's about thinking. It's also about critical thinking. Critical thinking is not just what do you think or feel about something. It's daring to follow the depth of an author's argument and allow it to really make an impression on you. Then your critical thought follows that in-depth following and work. And then once we do that, they become our teachers. The text is really the master class here. I as the teacher and student and the servant of it and I have a certain reverence for it and that's I think some of the deeper principles that are operating here. . . .

Audience: Q: We were talking before and I like the lesson you did with the questions, I do agree with that. One of the things I know the beauty of the core curriculum is the staircase that it takes to teach kids to read. One of the things they do agree is that we do read alouds and we do shared readings where the kids could acquire knowledge. But I also think the kids do need, according to research, time on text in order to be able to learn how to read this text the way they do. One thing that I'm not hearing right now is how do we allow the kids at their own levels to be able to grow as learners and readers?

David Coleman: A: Let me say two interesting things about this wonderful and astute question on your part. There are two levels to it. I should have said earlier there is something quite unique about the structure of the reading standards. There are if you've looked at them 10 anchor standards in reading and then you'll notice, remarkably, there are 10 standards in reading for kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade. This echo of the 10 standards is not due to a strange biblical fetish on the part of the authors of the standards. It is instead, the idea is that you're given years to practice these core competencies. So the first standard in every grade -- kindergarten through 12th grade -- whether dealing with informative text or literary text is read closely to determine the explicit meaning and make logical inferences based on evidence and be able to share that evidence in writing or speaking. In 5th grade that is citing evidence explicitly from the text. By 7th grade it is looking for the strongest evidence, making distinctions between weaker and stronger evidence. It's accumulating more evidence. Stronger readers actually read more. What we found by looking at the NAEP 8th grade results is that the single thing that marked those kids who got past the 8th grade wall was their command of evidence in the text. That's why that first standard in its development is so crucial. At the same time, they're working on the 10th reading standard, which is where they read gradually increasing complex text over time. This isn't a one-time hyperspace jump. This is the work of years of practice that intentionally focuses on the same core. They are reading in this way from a very young age.

Now you asked me additionally is there space for both the shared reading people are doing and the independent reading? I want to be clear about the word "independent" because the standards require independence in the sense kids have to be able do what I did with that letter on their own, meaning without the kind of prompting and questioning. They have to gain that independence to be college and career ready. But another kind of independence, "independent recreational reading," is the work they do outside at their own level. I will tell you two things about it. One thing of course it is crucial that students are doing a lot of reading outside of this kind of reading on their own and at their own level as well frankly as material that should stretch them. But I must tell you an alarming thing for those who overly bank on that independent recreational reading. We talked to the leading provider of such tools for children. Do you know what grade level student choice of text levels out at? Overwhelmingly, 90% of the selections stop at this level--5th grade. So while we must encourage that work, we must not overly rely on it as our staircase to complexity sets a balance.

Audience: Q: When you get into the middle school ages, then one of the things that we probably should continue is that choice of freedom of valuing what you just did, which I totally value, and the choice of them choosing their own independent books to keep that staircase of learning evolving.

David Coleman: A: I think so. I think we have to figure out in the middle level how you prompt kids during that independent recreational reading to grab sometimes harder things than they will naturally spontaneously do. But of course, I hope that the work we're doing as a classroom, allowing kids to jump into a difficult text and read it with pleasure, will be a lot like the way they read outside of class. In other words, I'm trying to create actually less of a gap between the way people read stuff they love, which is they typically don't have a question before they start, they typically get into the book themselves. The way we just read the letter is hopefully a model not only for classroom-style reading but reading you can do with what you most care about.

Audience: Q: I really appreciate a lot of what you're saying. My question has more to do with when you talk about these shifts. I'm thinking more or less of the shift that has to happen almost without sounding hokey or organic but the change that has to happen with the heart because I think a lot of this, we as educators we believe in this, it's the reason why we got into teaching, but because of how education has evolved, and some of the demands, we're not always able to do that. I say this because I'm an RtI coordinator and what I am struggling with is that second order change, that true sustainability. If we really want this to work, there's going to be a whole lot of work that has to be done where people have to really be reflective about their practice, districts have to think about what they think about children, the expectations that we have for all children. I want to get your thoughts.

David Coleman: A: I think you say something very profound. This is a change of the spirit. It's a change of what we think about kids and practice every day, of moving from a world where we're trying to protect them from the things we think that are hard, to help them embrace and encounter those things that are hard, to practice them, as an aid to them rather than an attack on them, so it is a moral and ethical move. I'll tell you what's very interesting. I think we live in a world where everyone is sick of what's going on and they're looking for someone to stop the madness. So I just met with one of the three largest publishers of K-5 educational materials. And by the end of the meeting, there was almost a very emotional like you're saying where he said, "We've built up all this pre-reading stuff. We never let kids read everything. There's all this associated material." He wasn't proud of it. He's the publisher of it. He feels he's been forced to do it by the marketplace. The marketplace then feels forced by the standards. There's a thing that we have a chance to break out of here that I think is very exciting. The leading publisher of ELL materials for history and social studies said to me the following. He said, "We for English Language Learners publish mostly picture books and low-level text. Are you saying that's going to have to change?" And I said, "Yeah." Thank you.

Audience: Q: If you're arguing that instruction should address text holistically, then why does the language of the standards focus on discrete skills such as using context clues, making inferences, making connections, etc.? The standards seem to lend themselves to the mini-lesson approach of teaching a specific skill or strategy and applying to a text rather than reading a text in fact holistically that you just did with King's letter.

David Coleman: A: I think that is a magnificent and fair objection. There is something we are developing to try to fix this but let me first state the opposition. It's a wonderful question; all the questions have been great. That's particularly insightful because what this person is saying is, "David, since you've given us or since the authors of the standards have given us a 1-10 kind of checklist of reading standards, it is so tempting to go through them. Now I've done Standard 2 Main Idea. Now I've done Standard 3, etc., etc." Let me tell you a couple things and then let me tell you something we're doing about it that I think will be quite helpful. First, be not confused about reading research. There is no child who's really good at main idea but really bad at character questions. This is false. Any assessment data you see that divides it by that, like if you have a practice test, someone was asking about changes to assessment, we should no longer publish these false distinctions. What really is driving comprehension is the complexity of the text and a kid who understands something can likely discover a main idea, can talk about the structure or particular words. They all congregate together overwhelmingly--that is the fact. So I'd ask you to look at Standards 2 through 9 all those ways of understanding whether a kid is understood and can gain sufficient evidence from the text. Which of those standards you use depends on the text itself. That is, Standard 9 about argument was obviously used repeatedly here in studying King's argument, but I may have spent less time on the structure of the letter though at times I alluded to it. What I mean by that is use those standards dependent on the text rather than as mini lessons of their own. There are ways of sampling the most important standard, Standard 1, ways of demonstrating understanding and comprehension. In order to make that more clear, because I agree the flat list can be deceptive, something we're working on again with our colleagues here as well as colleagues across the nation is a visualization of the reading standards that show that depending on each text you don't have to cover every standard and it depends on the text which ones you cover best, obviously. The best questions about a text emerge from that text and you'll gradually cover the range of reading, ways of looking at text by reading several of them. We're going to try to show this in a very clear picture that I'm tempted to draw for you now but I don't have the implements to do it. But I will ask that good person who challenged me I'm offering a promissory note that I will get back to you to quote King who talked about a promissory note in another speech. We will get you that picture and make sure that picture is as widespread as possible to avoid the confusion that you described. . . .

Audience Q: How do the common core address high school students who need intense supports?

David Coleman A: I think that all of us need to do more thinking in this country about why so many kids need intensive supports and we just have to confront this. I know everyone always asks, "What do you do with a kid who is five years behind in reading?" I think we have to ask ourselves what the heck we were doing in those earlier years and begin to get serious, that we have to focus and deliver on what matters most on the way. It is very hard when you reach high school without being able to read science sufficiently complex. It is very hard to make up all that time because you're exiled from the disciplines at the same time you're trying to gain it. So who am I talking to? I'm talking about making academic literacy the heartbeat of the middle school. I am saying the middle school must deliver kids who are academically literate, that is, they can read sufficiently difficult text in science and history and that those are thought of as equally crucial as the specific knowledge that students gain in those disciplines and that that is delivered. But it's not just blaming each other, right? It's each of us focusing on what we have to deliver most. And in the high school setting what I tell you is focus does the most for the kid, interestingly, who is ahead and those who are behind. For the kid who is behind, it allows them to dig in on a core so that it's not that they miss the whole river and mile-wide, inch-deep of math that they have to do all of it allows them to focus and interestingly and beautifully it's what the best students in mathematics do. They focus in almost scary ways to a degree on these powerful tools that they use with remarkable flexibility. But the tools within the core are the same ones advanced students use. So, the lucky thing is that this continual work, practicing what's difficult, is the kind of work that at each stage helps you and also if you are behind most helps you.

— David Coleman with notes by Susan Ohanian
speech, New York State Education Building


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