Friday, January 17, 2020
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One English lit lesson supported by Common Core

ALTON, Ill. (Oct. 20) — Back in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about a New England woman who was cast out by her Puritan community many years earlier but is capable even today of coming into our lives through literature to teach us a thing or two about personal responsibility, guilt, anger, loyalty, and even revenge.

Mr Hawthorne’s words in The Scarlet Letter are timeless:

The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not to tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.

Now Amanda Arment, who teaches a college preparatory English 3 honors class during sixth hour in room B244 here at Alton High School, doesn’t miss any of the novel’s major themes. Today students in her class are starting on group projects, developing Google Slides presentations about those themes. The presentations will include images and video segments, so they need help finding an app that can make better videos or record sound in higher quality than their phones. If you know an app that might be a better choice, post a comment.

Before students knew what the assignment was this afternoon, they started the 55-minute class period by journaling on Chromebooks, answering a quick question, like “What is a theme?” But after making a quick connection with students by dragging her cat’s nasty habit of chewing up battery chargers into the lesson, Ms Arment had each group of four or five students pick one of the novel’s major themes out of a box. Each group was assigned to develop a presentation about that theme.

The presentations will be graded according to a rubric, which Ms Arment made available during the class period. In keeping with the overarching principles of the Common Core, she reminded the groups to cite actual evidence from the novel, including direct quotes, to support their points about the themes.

A chief complaint about the Common Core, advanced here by Peter Greene and here by 132 Catholic scholars, is that it doesn’t go far enough in teaching students the value of literature. Given the work of real teachers in real classrooms who teach real students, we find this argument, which is advanced mainly by people who haven’t worked in a high school classroom for several years and never did so under the Common Core, flawed. Students understand the value of literature today as well as ever, and the Common Core fosters that deeper understanding.

“I study literature because I believe there is power in stories,” writes Mikaela Warner of Gustavus Adolphus College. “Literature is both intensely personal as well as a communal experience. I love examining how words, sentences, characters, plot-lines and tropes reveal who we are as humans. Humanity is a complicated thing, and requires an infinite amount of words to describe and analyze. That’s the joy of studying literature: there is always a new reality to discover.”

The assignment will take a few class periods of independent group work to finish, but when the presentations are done, they promise to be entertaining. Ms Arment created a sample presentation of her own to demonstrate. She did hers on the solitude theme and played it for the class, which elicited some laughter as students saw their teacher making her “I’m done talking now” face at the end of one of the short video segments.

We may never know—and I’m not sure it matters all that much—whether the lesson would have gone this way without the Common Core. What we know, however, is that it did happen this way with the Common Core: Ms Arment has students thinking about literature enough to develop a slide presentation, including multimedia and with a 10-slide minimum, about a great work of 19th-century American literature. And I wonder, what more would Common Core opponents have her do, and where were those topics in Illinois’s former learning standards?

What questions do you still have after reading The Scarlet Letter? Cite passages to show where these questions are left hanging by the author. See Common Core English language arts literacy standard RL.11-12.1 for more information.

We extend our sincere thanks to Alton High School and to Ms Annice Brave, a National Board Certified Teacher and Illinois’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, for their kind hospitality in allowing us to develop this story.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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