Louis CK is Wrong: Creativity and the Common Core

creativity_is_boundless_by_pixelnase1How can I teach “creatively” in an era of national standards?

Tough question. Tough, tough, tough.

But I have found in my conversations with colleagues that the question above is often, actually, this question:

Why is the Common Core being done TO me, and not WITH me?

This is a critical thing to ask, and the answer is nuanced, and sadly politicized to the nth degree. It is essential that we talk about it (and I’ll be posting further about it next week and perhaps beyond– an idea is blooming about a post series on how to relate healthily as a teacher to the Common Core).

But for NOW, do me a favor, though, and set aside this sub-question: that is to say, any political questions now about how the CCLS were developed and are implemented. That’s a whole other kettle of monkeys, as my father used to say.

For now, let’s assume that the question is what it is, on it face:

“How do I get ‘creative’ in class when I have a set of common standards under which I must operate?”

So here’s the thing. The word “creative” is actually as complex in its meaning as anything else relating to the Common Core. (Of course. More coffee, please.) Notwithstanding this, I want to tackle three important “shades” of this word, kindly provided by Miriam-Webster on-line, in relation to Common Core.

1) Creative can mean “marked by the ability and power to create.” Pretty simple– and the answer, as it turns out, is also simple (if also challenging and sometimes scary).

2) Creative can mean “having the quality of being created, not imitated: imaginative.”  Now here’s a rub. Where, in otherwords, can I get imaginative while implementing the Core? Or: How can I preserve my Banned Books unit, multiple intelligences ice breaker, and walks outside on campus?

3) Creative can mean “managed so as to get around legal or conventional limits.” This one might be my favorite– as in Enron’s “creative financing.” I think no conversation about the Common Core is complete without acknowledging the need for and power of, frankly, resistance.

First: Does the Common Core allow me to have the ability and power to create?

Answer: Yes. 

Action: Be brave. 

 Common Core is not, and never was meant to be, a curriculum. The Core does not tell us what to teach, that is, the means of teaching. It is rather, as the Common Core site states, “…a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.”

(If the Common Core myths page site turns you off, by the way, check out Politifact’s version. You’ll get the same answer.)

This is not CCLS puppetry: this is fabulous news for teachers. It means that whoever in your educational world is telling you that there is one way to teach the Common Core– be it Pearson, the “Common Core aligned” workbook handed to you in your last department meeting, your curriculum supervisor, or your colleagues– is simply wrong, and you can quote the CCLS itself to prove it.

(It also means, Louis CK, that you are also wrong. Sorry. I love your stuff 99% of the time.)

We, teachers, retain exactly the same right and privilege to use our academic creativity, leverage our knowledge of our kids, and work from our individual strengths and passions as we did before national standards came onto the scene. (Which, to make a tangential point, was not in 2012, but in 1996–  at least for ELA folk.) This is old hat for us, friends. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. 

Second: Does the Common Core allow me to create instead of imitate– to be imaginative?

Answer: Yes. 

Action: Find the cracks. 

 This action is stolen from some of the most moving lyrics written in the world, by Leonard Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

Now, #1 really goes a long way to helping us out on this one: after all, if the Core does not prescribe how we teach, then we preserve a huge amount of our autonomy automatically. But let’s say you’re in a district or a building that does not share this view. What do you do?

In the Common Core, or in your week, day, or period, there are “cracks.” These can be as small as your pliable five minute Core-aligned “Do Now”, to as huge as New York State CCLS ELA Key Idea #11a, “Students will self-select text based on personal preferences.” These cracks are the key to your creativity. They are the places where light and air reside in your schedule, in your infrastructure, in your lessons, in your teaming, in your after-school commitments. Your job is to find those cracks, and use them to their utmost.

Here’s an example of the light that can come through one of those cracks: Two Minute Massively Multi-Player Thumb Wrestling, through which you lay the groundwork for the collaborative work called on in the Core.

Or, here’s another one: the two voice, research-based poem. (Full disclosure: I helped write this curricula.)

In the absence of other means of supporting teacher creativity– inimitable, imaginative products– a teacher has to think out of the box as to where that creativity can reside and thrive. While this is not enough to drive systemic change, neither is it defeat– on the contrary. It is one of the best kinds of revolution.

Finally: Does the Common Core allow me to manoeuver around legal or conventional limits?

Answer: Yes. 

Action: Know your s$&t.

So, back up to NYS CC ELA Key Idea 11a: you’ll note on the PDF I linked to that it is highlighted. Highlighted content is state-specific; it is not a result of adoption of the Common Core, but decisions state make to add or revise Common Core standards. Key Idea 11a is an example. 

Why is this important? Because your independent, self-selected, we-love-Nancie-Atwell reading workshop model is anchored to the rock by Key Idea 11a. It is not something we throw out in New York because “it isn’t aligned”. It’s required– and the only way you’ll know it is if you read the damn thing.

Another example: Appendix A of the ELA Common Core.

I think I’m going to do some kind of crash course on Appendix A on the blog, because it’s called an appendix (after that nonsensical little tail of skin in our intestines that we do not need and completely ignore), when it should be THE FIRST THING ANYONE READS IN THE COMMON CORE EVER. I cannot believe, for example, that people are still griping over Lexiles as an absurd and destructive federal mandate when there is zip, zero, nada, NOTHING in the Core about using Lexiles as the sole measure of text complexity.

In fact, the Core recommends an extremely reasonable three dimensional approach to this task, and states outright that qualitative measures TRUMP quantitative measures. So you want to use Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust  but “the Lexile is too low”? Sic this on people.

Out of the Dust

So what does all of this mean? It means that if you’re going to resist this kind of fear-mongering nonsense, you need to read.the.Core. Every little bit of it. Hell, if you’re going to resist parts or the whole of the Core itself– the questionable psychological suitability of the K-2 CCLS comes to mind– then you also need to read.the.Core. Every little bit of it.

(Shall I point out the superlative irony that knowing your s$%t in order to resist the Core is the heart of the Common Core Standards? Why, yes, I think I will, for the 4325th time.) 

So, to conclude:

How can I teach “creatively” in an era of national standards?

This is how I tried to do it:

 Be brave. 

Find the cracks. 

Know your s^&t. 

And that about sums it up for me.

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