Common Core Director to You: “No One Gives a S**t What You Think or Feel.”

Huh. I had planned on discussing my district’s new grading policy this week, but that post is being interrupted for a moment of outrage.

That title above? It’s a ver batim quote from David Coleman, the co-author of the Common Core, and a man described by our former New York State education commissioner as being “at the center of the account of educational reform in this country”.

Please–don’t believe me. I’d be grateful if that were your first reaction. It was certainly mine.

But let’s back up a bit.

The Source

I first stumbled across its mention in a recent, fiery piece of Susan Ohanian’s on Coleman’s April 2011 presentation of the Core to educators in my home town of Albany, NY. Susan, for those of you not in English Language Arts circles, is an award-winning, tireless, crazy advocate for the primacy of literature, the importance of the aesthetic,  and the autonomy of the educator. For the sake of objectivity, though, I felt it was important to read the transcript of the session myself, which she provided in link form.

The Context

It’s imperative to read David Coleman’s full statement.

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a **** about what you feel or think. 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 a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

Later, in a related statement on academic vocabulary, he further remarks:

 The most popular 3rd grade standard in American today…is what is the difference between a fable, a myth, a tale, and a legend? The only problem with that question is that no one knows what the difference is and no one probably cares what the difference is either.

You can see clearly that this is a more nuanced opinion that one might think just by looking at the sentence with the “bad word,” which makes the situation better.

However, you can also see clearly that Coleman’s opinion is one which could easily dismiss a truckload of information students need to comprehend and write aesthetic, narrative text. (And not just narrative, either. At the seventh grade level in the Core, for example, the word “synonym” is denounced as “esoteric”.)

At the same time, Coleman’s convictions place the needs of the marketplace definitively over those of a holistic approach to personhood and education.

And all of this makes the situation much, much worse.

The Real Problem

After I got over my amazement, I realized the central problem with Coleman’s **** statement is not actually the “s-bomb”– after all, we’ve all slipped and made language choices with students that were not the most appropriate. Nor, on the other hand, is it the possibility that Coleman chose this language deliberately for its earthy shock value. Many intelligent, ethical speakers take this rhetorical route. In fact, if you study the transcript, it’s obvious that this is exactly what Coleman was doing. Permutations of other terse, down-home phrases such as  “Let’s be honest, ” Forgive me, but…,” “Let’s be blunt,”  and so on, appear at least six times in his speech on literacy. You could compare this, in his favor, to the significant number of times he makes also self-effacing statements such as “There are people more intelligent than I in this audience.” (This tendency has been noted in other presentations of Coleman’s as well.)

None of this is the problem. The problem is this: David Coleman is wrong.

My basis for this claim? I could cite research about the irreplaceable subjective connections in how we actually learn and comprehend our reading (which Coleman calls, demeaningly, “hovering around the text”), about the neurological primacy of narrative (which Coleman would near eliminate in the upper grades), or the cross-disciplinary necessity of effective metaphor (which neither Coleman nor his Core mention at all). All of these things, categorically, point to the reality of people “giving a ****”– not only about our internal opinions and emotions, but the aesthetic ways in which we convey information to one another.

I could do that. But instead, we’re going to talk about a real life example.  No slimy unbathed beat poets, 99 Percenters, Sufi mystics, or Nobel-winning authors. Our example is Steve Jobs, possibly the most successful businessman and lauded entrepreneur in America’s history.

Steve Jobs loved literature. (And art. And music.)

As documented in Walter Issacson’s biography on Jobs,  Jobs’ music collection contained material from 29 albums of world-renowned lyricists Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and others. The literature that inspired him included poetry, Moby Dick and King Lear.  His favorite class in college, according to him? Calligraphy.

Consider this, then: if The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez had been educated under the Common Core, would their art exist?

Without Shakespeare, Herman Melville, or Dylan Thomas– who, by the way, may have written the most compelling account of one’s childhood on the planet, in the poem “Fern Hill”– without these artists of the written word, would Steve Jobs even exist?

Consider, too, the genuine love and loss expressed by this country upon Jobs’ death two weeks ago. You may say that it’s because we can’t live without our iPods anymore, but I would argue that it’s because Steve Jobs was someone who could say this, at Stanford in 2005:

“…the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

Type this quote into Google, and you’ll receive over three million hits.

These are not the words of evidentiary argument. They are the words of a man who knew his heart– and knew how to express it.

To Be Fair

Coleman and his Core pay some attention to aesthetic and narrative. It’s a far sight less than one would think, though, given that Coleman earned a master’s degree from Oxford University in– wait for it– English Literature. However, a glance at his circulated biography confirms that he has had equal, if not far more extensive, experience in corporate America. It’s an understatement, and a deeply disturbing one, to say that it shows.

Sheet Happens?

But perhaps the most telling, if accidental, fact about Coleman’s presentation comes directly from the transcript I viewed.  The phrase which angered Susan Ohanian so much, and which comprises the title of this post, is recorded there as follows:

“The only problem…is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sheet (sic) about what you feel or think.”


As a seventh grade English teacher, I tell my curious and clever students that the profanity that they occasionally encounter in our reading exists for a reason. Its non-gratuitous use is to express a deep, overwhelming emotion or conviction: so deep that it can only be reserved for the Anglo-Saxon or Norse versions of our words. That, I tell them, is how profanity should also be used not only in their own writing, but in real life.

It is easy to infer that David Coleman has turned his back on the nexus of power in language. Perhaps we don’t need to beat a dead horse by letting his transcribers do it too.




I Have Been Demoted

Me (to class, solemnly): Today, it is time to discuss grades.



More on grading in my long-in-coming  inaugural School Year 2011-12 post next week, which has taken a turn for the worse with the introduction of a new district policy… or better? Stay tuned.



I pulled a pie out of the oven last week and rammed my forearm into the edge of the 450 degree oven. The last time I burned myself like this I was ten; I was so proud of my perfectly round pancakes that I brought the entire griddle into the living room and raked it across my right wrist showing them off to my mom.

Enthusiasm hurts.

Plans for the blog this year include a blow-by-blow play of teaching in a school in a Race to the Top state, where change– always last minute in teaching, and always a given– is still coming faster and thicker than I’ve ever seen it, and will require careful thought. We’re a Title I school now. Tenure as we know it has been abolished. Summative measures will not only dictate my job security, but will now compromise 80% of my students’ grade. We have no subject director.

But reflection before reaction, as the song says. (See below. Trip hop is awesome for classroom cleaning, and if you listen very carefully, you’ll hear that this neat tune samples an equally amazing one– “Eminence Front,” by The Who.)

So it’s my hope that those posts will be useful to others in the same situation.

But today, our “summer work day” at school, I feel empty; scoured out. It’s hard to put my finger on it. I can’t tell whether the depth of the change has already deadened my emotions in self-defense, or whether I am finally moving past the over-the-top angst I often feel before the school year begins. Or whether I am just sleep deprived. We have a new ten week black Lab in the house. I am grateful for her warm, happy little life in the living room, even at 2 AM.

The skin under my burn is healing, as shiny and delicate a pink as the inside of our new puppy’s ear. I catch flashes of the scar-to-be as I work my way through a two foot pile of filing today. It’s almost beautiful.

And when I am interrupted, several times, by future students coming by with their parents, there’s no irritation. I’m just sincerely glad to see the kids, and keep them longer than necessary, talking about books they’ve read over the summer. I love how the faces of my seventh graders are still so responsive and bright. I look into their eyes, and am surprised to feel no pain.

Four Ways to Stay Sane as a Teacher

Cross posting the Four Ways to Stay Sane as a Teacher column up at Ed Week, and the story of its genesis.

Awhile back, on this post, I got a heartfelt and heartbreaking comment from a pre-service teacher. It stuck with me for weeks and weeks. A literal haunting.

The question it posed flabbergasted me. I never would have thought myself in any position to give advice like this. This is less a comment on my modesty, I think, than the fact that teaching eats the clock, and after constantly questioning yourself as a teacher, starting again and again as a teacher, feeling green and inexperienced about at least two major components of your work day in and day out as a teacher, suddenly you wake up and it’s been twelve years, and new teachers are reading your blog and asking you for your wisdom. It’s weird.  

I got the resulting column up a couple of days ago via the Teacher Leaders Network, and I’m a little flabbergasted at the interest– hits and tweets, made a Smartbrief email, and so on.

I think it speaks to one fact plainly: how desperate we are for some ray of light in our profession. I tried to find it for my commentator. I won’t lie: it was hard. But it made me face all my fears and questions and convictions straight up– and I discovered that even now, I still believe that education is worth doing everything that I can do, with integrity, to stay in schools.

If I believe this for myself, then, I must honor and support the autonomous decisions of others who share this belief. What am I really saying about my belief in education otherwise?

Ed Week gave it the snazzy title, which assumes a sense of confidence about my work that I decidedly do not possess. I’m grateful for it, though, and for the attention. It puts me in that odd place where writers find themselves sometimes: having put our best selves out there in the world, sailing away on the little paper boats of our words, we now have to live up to them. 

That’s what this coming year is going to be about for me, I think. It can’t be about gaming the new eval system in New York, which may or may not cost me and other colleagues our careers. It has to be about this column– this letter to my new teacher friend. It has to be about living out what I say. That’s all.

In The Center of My Classroom

What is at the center of my classroom?

I was invited most graciously to participate in Point of Inflection’s Convention Center 2011, and write a post answering this question. I did. Lots of paragraphs.

But then I read it out loud late at night while editing it, and realized that what I had actually done was write a slam poem– a writing genre which awes, humbles and intimidates me. This means– of course– that I’m going to have to learn it and teach it soon.

I would be grateful for any feedback or comments.


The Question

At the center of my classroom

sits a question.

I have learned

that if I do


in my power

to invite, protect, and nourish

the question,

then I am teaching well.


The question

belongs to the kids.

They bring plenty, after all:

in their pockets,

in the upturned soft cotton bowls

of their caps.

Sometimes they loudly announce

their possession of the question.

Other questions

are hidden in the corner of their pencil cases,

or buried deep in purses

under lipsticks and cell phones,

and we have to


for them




we trade off, and

I’m the one who

first holds out a question.

That’s ok, as long as the kids

take it into their own hands,

incubating it

on their own.


Thus nurtured, the question

can yield wondrous things:

downy yellow and peeping,

or naked and gangly

with improbably huge heads,

or royally fledged, majestic.

Sometimes they fill every space in the air

like a sanctuary,



But sometimes they break.

Or they die.

The cracking sound of a breaking question

will usually alert me soon enough

to bring it to the class’ attention,

and we save it,

administering discursive


but sometimes I don’t notice until it’s too late.

Nothing’s worse

than clearing up at the end of the day and

finding the small lifeless body of a question

under a desk—


crushed mouth


I find less and less of them

the better I get,

the more the years go on–

but I still find them.

I always cry.



the question is a dud right off.

(These are usually teacher questions.)

It doesn’t hatch.

It starts to smell.

Or every once in a while a kid

will hand me a wad of chewed bubble gum,

or a balled-up empty juice box

and tell me with a grin that it’s a question.

The trick here

is to dispatch with these imposters

with the same gentleness and respect

as I would a real question.


Because sometimes,

just as I’m dealing with the question,

the question pecks its way out of its shell

and reveals itself as




giant, scaly,

horned and taloned,

blasting the room

with its huge limbs

and hot meaty breath.

It eats my lesson plans,

knocks over the ELMO,

and in general stomps around

pulling file cabinet drawers out of their sockets


At this point there is only one thing to do,

and that is to



and pay the question

some serious attention.


And if, in the end,

I am still wondering whether

this thing I am asking or answering

is a real question,

alive and well,

then I

remember this:

Questions are never the same species.

But they are always the same genus—

geniuses, all–


always have feathers.

Like Emily Dickinson’s hope,

questions always

perch on the soul.

A question


has wings.


Place, Technology and Teaching: Come On In.

Hudson_river_from_bear_mountain_bridgeRight, so, I am giving the opening speech at this conference at the end of July

…due to this piece that was published in Ed Week

…and also due in no small part to the amazing Bill Ferriter, who was also invited but had school commitments, so I’m taking this on for both of us (yikes!)…

…and if you’re interested in any intersection of these three topics, come check it out. I’m taking my now-established technology-is-awesome-in-some-ways-and-possibly-really-not-in-others-and-we-need-to-think-about-that tack.

You can attend virtually as well as in person (see below). Drop me a line if you’re local to Hyde Park or the Hudson Valley. I’d love to meet you.

UPDATE: Go to this  link to find out how to attend virtually.

The Marriage of Minds

Today, New York State became the 6th and largest state to legalize gay marriage.

I don’t intend to use the blog as a bully pulpit for my opinions on this issue; I’m sure that it remains as divisive amongst readers as it does amongst my family and friends.  Suffice it to say, succinctly, that I support it. I simply know too many gay folks whose monogamous commitments have outstripped my straight friends’ marriages (and divorces) by decades; whose well-adjusted and beloved children have come through my classroom, often kids whom would be lost in the maze of the foster care system otherwise, or left to die in a third world orphanage.

And I’ve been a little pissed off at New York State these days. So it was a complete surprise to me to react the way I did to the news this morning: to lift my head and gaze at the cornfields and rolling hills of the Finger Lakes where I was driving; to feel fresh, earth-scented air blow over my skin after the long warm rain last night; and understand strangely that the breeze, and the news, and the hills, were the same thing. To feel, suddenly, as if I was enclosed in something protective and strong: within not my family or my home, but of all things, the borders of my state.

Hope and justice are good friends. I see them taking turns on the tire swing.

And I thought: Well. If we can do this– if New York can manage this– surely, there’s other matters of equality and equanimity we can manage too. Surely, there will be another day in the future where I go to sleep, and literally wake up in a better world.

I see, beyond the tire swing, a school. It’s open and lit, and thrumming with the energy and knowledge of happy kids. It is a place at which we may– with luck and grace– arrive.

One Year

imagesCAWGU7RDIn one year, I have finally managed to tie my instruction firmly and transparently to useful, responsible, and clear standards of knowledge and skill.

In one year, I will know whether I can continue these better practices with the Common Core.

In one year, I have tightened my time management, paperwork, and documentation to the point that not only can I show any random person my own growth, but the kids can show me theirs.

In one year, I will know whether this growth is reflected in our new state teacher evaluations.

In one year, I will have completed two semesters of teaching as a National Writing Project Fellow.

In one year, the National Writing Project may disband due to lack of federal funding.

In one year, I have determined that consistent, copious, extended, evidence-based assessments and portfolio work challenge my kids the most, and draw out from them the most accurate reflection of what’s inside those wonderful minds.

In one year, my livelihood will be judged upon their standardized test scores.

In one year, I have inched closer tangibly to becoming the teacher I want to be.

And in one year, I will likely know whether any of that matters.

I’m pitching and drafting an article for Education Week on line about it, and will link it if it gets published. Going to be quite a summer, thinking about it all.

And it’s going to be a hell of a year.

Have a restful break, everyone, and stay tuned.

What Can You Do With This?

warmI found this anonymous message from a student on my magnetic poetry locker/wall. After I stopped laughing and snapped the photo with my phone (hence the fuzzy quality, my apologies), I started thinking.

Math teacher Dan, at dy/dan, has made a successful recurring piece of posting multimedia materials  under the title “What Can You Do With This (WCYDWT)?” and soliciting comments on how to use them as the basis of math lessons. At the suggestion of another colleague who’s familiar with Dan’s good work, I’d like to do the same here. But I’d also like to ask for thoughts on the philosophical implications of this little line of words.

What can we do with…. the fact that this medium engendered authentic, poetic communication in ELA?

What can we do with… the idea that somehow, somewhere, the kid had enough freedom in my class to get up and make this thing?

What can we do with… good weather?

And most importantly:

What can we do with… my stupid windows, which are east-facing, framed in bricks, and heat up like a pizza oven until 1 PM? *

* And yes, in my defense, they have been open all week. Can’t blame the kid for not noticing, though.