"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, October 12, 2012

Expressing a Patriotic Core

The intention of this post is to examine the brief "persuasive," personal narrative (fiction) and promotional piece in The Atlantic Monthly titled "How Self-Expression Damaged My Students" by Robert Pondiscio.  Of course, it's hardly worth doing as it carries nothing but assertion and anecdote, exactly the sort of thing one ought to be opposed to when discussing how to analyse writing as an informational conveyance with very rigid rules for construction.

And as Pondiscio seems only able to compose marketing copy we can dismiss his "content" as serving an economic and ideological "interest."  But we can think a little bit about how his words mean to "work."  Before that, let's look as briefly as possible at his place of business, The Core Knowledge Foundation, before we glance at his "bio" and his extremely weak piece of writing.  If this writing is good enough for such a once-venerable publication then perhaps the Common Core can offer nothing of use to our impoverished (and learning disabled) majority and our poorly-served (and learning disabled) urban minorities perhaps this in itself is a clue to the value of this new nationalism: the learners, that is, the nation, not being so bright, not being so healthy, wealthy or wise (yes, I brought Benjy into play), but rather the opposite and "disabled" by design it seems, ought to be more easily managed and inculcated in our glorious ways than they have been in the past.  The Republic and the "natural order" depend upon it, methinks.

“African-American students at a Richmond community college could read just as well as University of Virginia students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but they could not read passages about Lee’s surrender to Grant,” Dr. Hirsch recalled. “They had not been taught the various things that they needed to know to understand ordinary texts addressed to a general audience. The results were shocking. What had the schools been doing? I decided to devote myself to helping right the wrong that is being done to such students,” he said. 
Electrified by the insight gleaned from this research, Dr. Hirsch developed his groundbreaking concept of cultural literacy—the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. In 1986, he founded the Core Knowledge Foundation, and a year later, published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know. A surprise publishing phenomenon, the book remained at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for more than six months. 
For nearly three decades, in books, articles and lectures, Dr. Hirsch has passionately argued that schools should teach a highly specific curriculum that would allow children to understand things writers and speakers take for granted, and to fully participate in democratic life. “We will achieve a just and prosperous society only when our schools ensure that everyone commands enough shared knowledge to communicate effectively with everyone else,” Dr. Hirsch concludes.
--From the bio of E. D. Hirsch Jr., Chairman and Founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation

By gum, there's enough in there to keep the school psychologist busy for quite a while.  But let's focus on the "community" assumptions made by the Great White Hope.  Apparently African-Americans can read about things that might matter to them in their lives but not about things that matter to Hirsch (or his conception of "core" knowledge) and "everyone else" who are "writers and speakers (huh?)" concerned with "democratic" life.  I love that his example is "Lee's surrender" in the context of his "African-American students."  What is it he is communicating here--what does he want us all to communicate with each other?

Here's an idea: one aspect of teaching an educator might tackle, outside of applying the metaphysic that oligarchically-approved nationalism is an unalloyed good, would be to SHOW students WHY specific content could matter to them.  Then one might expect that those arguments will fall on deaf ears due to the fact that the White Man's Burden argument has proven ineffectual not to mention condescending to those actually "burdened" by White Men.

You see, "educating" the inferiors has always been the provenance of the bag-men employed by leaders.

But doesn't all this beg the question: What exactly did David Coleman do in all this?  Doesn't it seem like he too is just a "front."

When we got up-stairs to his room he got me a coarse shirt and a roundabout and pants of his, and I put them on.  While I was at it he asked me what my name was, but before I could tell him he started to tell me about a bluejay and a young rabbit he had catched in the woods day before yesterday, and he asked me where Moses was when the candle went out.  I said I didn't know; I hadn't heard about it before, no way. 
"Well, guess," he says.
"How'm I going to guess," says I, "when I never heard tell of it before?"
"But you can guess, can't you?  It's just as easy."
"WHICH candle?"  I says.
"Why, any candle," he says.
"I don't know where he was," says I; "where was he?"
"Why, he was in the DARK!  That's where he was!"
"Well, if you knowed where he was, what did you ask me for?"
"Why, blame it, it's a riddle, don't you see?
(Huck Finn)


Q: How many xenophobes does it take to write nationalist curriculum?
A: One

Q: How many followers does it take to implement that curriculum?
A: All of us, less the 47% who are parasites.

Chairman and Founder
E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several acclaimed books on education issues including the best-seller Cultural Literacy. With his subsequent books The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, The Knowledge Deficit, and The Making of Americans, Dr. Hirsch solidified his reputation as one of the most influential education reformers of our time.
A highly regarded English professor and literary critic earlier in his career, Dr. Hirsch describes being “shocked into education reform” while doing research on written composition. Conducting research at a pair of colleges in Virginia, he discovered that while the relative readability of a text was an important factor in determining a student’s ability to comprehend a passage, an even more important factor was the student’s background knowledge.
Is it me or is there an echo fo the Rumsfeldian in the titles of Hirsch's books: something about failing in our illegal wars due to the military we have which is not the one we need.

And the President of said "Foundation:"
Linda Bevilacqua is the president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. She is the co-author, with E. D. Hirsch, Jr. of three publications, What Your Preschooler Needs to Know: Read-Alouds to Get Ready for Kindergarten and What Your Preschooler Needs to Know: Activity Books 1 and 2. She developed the Core Knowledge preschool program and is actively involved in the development of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, which has been successfully piloted in ten New York City public schools. She has served as a consultant regarding national curricular and educational policies, most recently in the development of the Common Core State Standards, as well as for Head Start, the National Science Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Albert Shanker Institute. She earned her BS and M.Ed from the University of Virginia and has taught and supervised programs for children with learning disabilities.
I don't know how many of these folks apparently "made their bones" in special education programs but it seems like an odd preponderance.  But look at all that work she's done for both federally funded "education" programs and those funded by "philanthropists."  (Did we discuss here that philanthropists care about their version of the species--that is they "love man" as it reflects themselves as an abstraction and dislike actual, individual "men" who can never be like them.)

Oh and by the way--here's the first paragraph of a policy paper out of the Albert Shanker Institute (where Bevilacqua "consulted") that supports this motto: Let us reform it before they do!  This is akin to Obama deciding to be more of a Murderer-in-Chief than W. or any future GOP president.
PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND SCHOOL SYSTEMS, as they are presently constituted, are simply not led in ways that enable them to respond to the increasing demands they face under standards-based reform. Further, if schools, school systems, and their leaders respond to standards-based reforms the way they have responded to other attempts at broad scale reform of public education over the past century, they will fail massively and visibly, with an attendant loss of public confidence and serious consequences for public education.  The way out of this problem is through the large scale improvement of instruction, something public education has been unable to do to date, but which is possible with dramatic changes in the way public schools define and practice leadership. 
Do you also find it interesting (revealing) how much the "democratic" speech of this party realpolitik seems committed to the Cult of the Leader.

But finally we arrive at Pondiscio, messaging arm of the Corps, er, Core.
Robert Pondiscio, Director of Communications
Robert brings over 25 years of media, communications and classroom experience to his role as the Foundation’s Communications Director. Robert launched the popular Core Knowledge Blog in December 2007; he also writes and edits Common Knowledge, the Foundation’s weekly online newsletter. Prior to joining the Foundation, Robert taught 5th grade in the South Bronx for several years under the aegis of the New York City Teaching Fellows. It was there, he notes, “I learned first-hand how badly the lack of Core Knowledge impacted even my most capable students.” Prior to becoming a teacher, Robert was the Communications Director for BusinessWeek magazine. He also served for many years as the Public Affairs Director for TIME. The author of several non-fiction books for young readers, he lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.
Here's one of those non-fiction books: Get on the Net:: Everything You Need To Know About The Internet, Including The World Wide Web And Addresses For Hundreds Of Fun And Useful Sites (1999)

The marketing pap for the book calls Pondiscio an "Internet expert" and  "a career journalist and professional in the field of public relations, is the co-author of three previous books for kids about computers, all published by Avon."  

Also, Robby was a teacher for "several" (3, to fit our minimum understanding of the term?) "under the aegis of the New York City Teaching Fellows."  That's an "Oddfellows" without the unionizing aspect, eh?  Anyway, what does that group, run out of the NYC Dept of Education, do: 
Once Fellows have successfully completed pre-service training, they are eligible to be hired as a full-time teacher in a New York City public school with the same starting salary and benefits as other beginning teachers. Fellows also receive additional financial benefits, including a stipend during pre-service training. Fellows may also be eligible to receive an AmeriCorps Education Awards.
Also, what does it mean to be "under" an "aegis?"  That sure sounds important!
  1. Classical Mythology: the shield or breastplate of Zeus or Athena, bearing at its center the head of the Gorgon.
  2. protection; support: under the imperial aegis.
  3. sponsorship; auspices
Ah, imperial protection.  Nice if you can get it, yes?  I smell a "writer" turned "teacher" to a purpose and that purpose is upon us.

In any case, I'll ask you to hit the link if you want to read it all, it's pretty short.  I just want to pull out the "persuasive" bits.  I would note that, as I read it, his tone is primarily one of mockery.

How Self-Expression Damaged My StudentsBy Robert Pondiscio, the corporate commercial blah blah blah AND a former 5th grade teacher.
A former South Bronx teacher recalls how his own idealism kept his class from learning how to write.
Every decent human impulse we have as teachers shouts in favor of not imposing rules and discipline on students, but liberating them to discover the power of their voice by sharing their stories. Of course children will be become better writers if they write personal narratives instead of book reports. Obviously children will be more engaged and motivated if they can write from the heart about what they know best, rather that trudge through turgid English essays and research papers. 
First, the barely "teacher" but really corporate message man makes his voice "ours" by the simple act of  saying "we...as teachers."  Lesson One, yes?  But who is in favor of not imposing rules?  Let me give you what I'd consider a somewhat "liberal" translation: teachers who feel institutions are dominating powers are often seeking to find places where children can not so easily be crushed and molded into a  "machined" product.  Oh and there's the mockery right out of the gate (if you can't quite hear this maybe look at his picture).
Grammar? Mechanics? Correcting errors? Please. Great writing is discovery. It is the intoxicating power of words and our own stories, writing for an audience and making things happen in the world. We know this works. We all saw the movie Freedom Writers, didn't we?
Again, who says this?  Nice jab at a movie though...is this ideological tit for tat with that unseen "choice" movie that's out?
Like so many of our earnest and most deeply humane ideas about educating children in general, and poor, urban children in particular, this impulse toward authenticity is profoundly idealistic, seductive, and wrong. I should know. I used to damage children for a living with that idealism.
I too am a killer!  But let's consider this, Pondiscio just said that earnest and humane ideas about educating the poor and "urban" (um...everyone "of color" but Asians, the other "white" peeps) are wrong as is "authenticity."  This was my point about Coleman's gaf.  It is a truth (and Robby here repeats it) that the "po' colored folks" (cf. Hirsch above) don't live lives that are "essentially" authentic to a "national" understanding of the "Core" citizen.
Every day, for two hours a day, I led my young students through Reader's and Writer's Workshop. I was trained not to address my kids as "students" or "class" but as "authors" and "readers." We gathered "seed ideas" in our Writer's Notebooks. We crafted "small moment" stories, personal narratives, and memoirs. We peer edited. We "shared out." Gathered with them on the rug, I explained to my 10-year-olds that "good writers find ideas from things that happened in their lives." That stories have "big ideas." That good writers "add detail," "stretch their words," and "spell the best they can."
Let me ask why Robby, who was "under the aegis" of an institution and "fellowship" seemingly committed to "right" the wrongs of "teacher training" and public education, apparently WASN'T doing the work that Peg Tyre proselytizes in her promo piece for New Visions and it's Center for Educational Leadership?  And while Robby has mockingly hit all the "workshop" highlights regarding terminology he fails to mention that it's nearly impossible to talk about writing without a "structural" vocabulary and that all English teachers I have ever met and worked with teach grammar.
Teach grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I barely even taught. I "modeled" the habits of good readers and "coached" my students. What I called "teaching," my staff developer from Teacher's College dismissed as merely "giving directions." My job was to demonstrate what good readers and writers do and encourage my students to imitate and adopt those behaviors.
These Atlantic pieces sure are heavy-handed.  Here we dis Teacher's College (while in the Tyre piece it was Paulo Freire) and push the meme that it is the "leftists" among us who have ruined this great country by letting the servants think that they shouldn't be given directions.  The Pinkos and Abolitionists ruined it all!

Then, even more amazingly, but right in line with the "Lee surrenders to Grant" line, Robby compares the urban inner-city poor to those foolish, "irrational savages," deemed a "cargo cult," whose idea of "science" (predictive assertions of reality) is really magical thinking.  Hmm, I wonder what color the skin is of those folks who the White man labels "Cargo Cult?"
And so it is, all too often, for struggling writers in low-performing schools. They're missing something essential, because we model and coach and they still can't write. But good writers don't just do stuff. They know stuff. They have knowledge of the world that enlivens their prose and provides the ability to create examples and analogies. They have big vocabularies and solid command of the conventions of language and grammar. And if this is not explicitly taught, it will rarely develop by osmosis among children who do not grow up in language-rich homes.
And there it is once more...the urban poor who are "color-disabled" (let's do ourselves the service of honesty) just don't know any shit worth knowing.  Sure, man, I don't "get" rap music either.  Of course, I don't dig on opera much, and, as long as this is really an anecdotal, personal narrative, I just can't understand what I would call the Bon Iver "cult."  That guy is ridiculously maudlin.  (Uh oh, did I reveal my whiteness with my vocabulary?  Well, maybe that's good cuz I know stuff worth knowing!)
"When our students resist writing, it is usually because writing has been treated as little more than a place to expose all they do not know about spelling, penmanship and grammar," observes Lucy Calkins, probably the workshop model's premier guru. She is almost certainly correct.
This may be my favorite from Robby--flipping the bird to good ol' Lucy Calkins.  It's funny though that I just bought a book by Lucy Calkins (co-author) called Pathways to the Common Core.  Calkins, a career educator (not a marketing PR hack) has of course seen the writing on the professional wall and has decided to make the best of it.  And in case you hadn't sussed it out with your Tom Sawyer skills, she is the Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, or, as Robby P. might say, the Leader of the Center for Educational Cargo Cults.
Earlier this year, David Coleman, the principal architect of the widely adopted Common Core Standards, infamously told a group of educators, "As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think." His bluntness made me wince, but his impulse is correct. We have overvalued personal expression. The unlived life is not worth examining. The pendulum has swung too far.
I know, I've reiterated this multiple times, but c'mon!, you can't beat honesty and when you see it you should shout it.  I think that what the folks at Core Knowledge are saying is that we have overvalued some personal expression; that we value highly some personal expression; that we aim to "manage" the way the underclass uses words by training them in "style" and narrowing their content parameters.  It's as if the plantation owners, after discovering that Frederick Douglass was human and could read and write far better than they could, decided that Douglass was too ignorant to know WHAT he should be writing about, and so they set about a'trainin' him.  Though I am pretty sure Douglass was aware of Lee's surrender.
Far from imposing a cultural norm or orthodoxy--silencing their stories and compromising their authentic voice--teaching disadvantaged children the mechanics of writing, and emphasizing evidence over anecdote, is liberating not constraining. Teaching grammar, vocabulary. and mechanics to low-income black and Hispanic students is giving them access to what Lisa Delpit, an African-American educator and a critic of progressive education methods, famously called the "culture of power."
Again, this is a truth that isn't quite the one Pondiscio means to declare.  The "culture of power" is indeed embedded in our use of language as much as it is in our real estate "borders" and our policing policies and drug laws.  This is finally the ultimate ANSWER on offer by Common Core.  This is the ANSWER set opposed to the Community of Learning on offer by folks like Paulo Freire.  It is the WHAT that must be controlled--the national content that proclaims the greatness of our leaders, the greatness of our past, the greatness and beneficence of the White Wealthy Owners.  All of this MUST be embedded and drilled in endless "forms" and "lessons" from birth on (see Educare) in the the guise of structure and vocabulary of writing mechanics and "common" knowledge. 

[The title of my post is a play on the book by Edmund Wilson about the literature of the Civil War era, Patriotic Gore.]


  1. Thanks for a thorough close reading--I think you're right about pretty much everything here, and I especially enjoyed your notes on the author's "aegis"--a detail I had missed when I read the article.

    1. When you're a shill, what counts as "truth" or "honesty?" That's what really gets me about all this White faux "noblesse oblige." I think it was Bill Kristol (who might serve as the modern example par excellence of the shill) who admitted this long-held truth, lying in the service of the "good" (we might be sure to change the article for him to "a" "good") is "noble." Let's insist in our conversations that these folks are lying in the service of an orientation, theirs.

      Cultural "remnants" are strong and even one as noble as Huck Finn was made to say of Jim, "I know'd he was white on the inside."

      Mighty White of him to say so. That would likely be a condemnation and insult to so many of us today. And that's how I read Twain's meaning.

      I am convinced more than ever that "schools matter," just that they often matter in very detrimental ways.