Common Core, Meet Barron

Students prepare for Alan assembly

Common Core, meet Barron

Buy-in will be lynchpin to the success of Common Core. Nowhere is this more true than where the rubber meets the academic road… in our schools, within the hearts and minds of our students.

Common Core, meet Barron. (And please, please, please do not lose sight of him in the midst of all the political education shenanigans going on right now.)

See, I just got done doing a student assembly in Columbia, South Carolina. Sure, I do “talk to teacher gigs” all the time these days but having the chance to put on my YA author hat and talk to kids is where the real juice is. In South Carolina, they assembled 700 freshmen to hear me speak. Here’s a pic of them filing in. (Ladies and Gentleman, don’t try this at home. :-) )

After I did my little thing with the students, I was flooded with kids who wanted to chat, get autographs, take pictures and so on. Charles Barkley famously said, “I am not a role model.” Me, I think he was wrong. I do consider myself a role model and I try to carry the responsibility in an admirable fashion. From kids on the edge to aspiring young writers to drifters who are just lost in the discombobulation of American youth, I absolutely feel it’s my job to inspire youngsters with the juice of positive vibes.

Being a geek is my profession. (Hey, we are what we are, right?)

This is how I came to meet Barron. He was the last kid in the auditorium on the second day of my “fire up some students in the South” outing. Long after the teachers had ushered everyone else back to class, there was Barron, a kid who clearly wanted to talk. But even more clear was that he was nervous to say what his heart really felt like expressing.

My words had touched a nerve in him. My books would touch other nerves in him. He just wanted to meet me.

No problem, right? Well, when you keep your ears open in this world, you will be amazed at some of the things you end up hearing.

Barron is sixteen. Barron is one of sixteen kids. Barron’s real father is in jail, his mom’s current boyfriend is currently out of jail and Barron has, as you might expect, seen his own fair share of trouble.

Look, I meet a lot of young people across the country however, sometimes you encounter a student who just has some sort of instantly recognizable bright light burning inside of them. Less than two minutes into our conversation, I could see that Barron was one of these kids.

He’d been born in Southern California and had scores of siblings and cousins in gangs, both Crips and Bloods. His mom had moved him out to South Carolina years ago but he still got back to his old stomping grounds once every two years. The more Barron talked, the more I realized how genuinely likeable and bright he was.

“Dude, it’s clear you’re really smart. What do you like?” I asked.
“Programming computers or fixing computers?” I asked.
“Both,” he said as he pointed towards my MacBook Pro. “I could take that thing apart and put it all back together in an hour for ya. But also, I could write programs and code, too, if you want.”
“Like build an app?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes as if I’d just asked Michael Jordan if he could dribble a basketball. “Yeah, like build an app,” he answered. Right then I realized that Barron was surely WAY more proficient with my computer than I was and yet, Barron also probably didn’t even own a computer as nice as mine, if he owned a computer at all. How he got so good? Just one of life’s little mysteries, I guess.

“Also, I got two different girls pregnant already, neither one ended up having the baby, I been jumped twice in the past year and…”
“Barron,” I interrupted. “You kind of like trouble, don’t you.”
“I do,” he said with a smile. “And also, I don’t.”
He looked down. The conversation had just gotten deep.
“You ever hear the saying, ‘Never trouble trouble til trouble troubles you?” I asked. He looked up and our eyes met.
“Like I want to be a computer technician when I grow up.”
“How are your grades?”
“I start every year with straight A’s. The work is easy,” he said. “And then I stop doing it. Gets boring,” he confessed. “Right now I got like a bunch of D’s. Who cares about those dumb-ass tests they make us take?”
“But you could have a bunch of A’s?” I asked.
“Easy,” he said. “I just don’t do my work.”

Here’s a picture of me and Barron. I show it because our country is populated with tens of thousands of Barrons. And they come in all races, creeds, colors and stripes.

Some might not be as sharp, some might come from more stable homes, some might achieve in the class a smidge more and some might achieve a little less but at the end of the day, Barron is the ground soil of American education. If we can’t get him to BUY-IN to the value of his own learning in our schools, then Common Core is just going to be another dog-n-pony show coming on the coattails of No Child Left Behind.

See, while I am a fan of the Common Core ELA standards, I also realize it doesn’t matter what comes down the pipeline from D.C., the State Department of Ed, the district office, or the Vice Principal’s memo sheet.

Common Core, meet Barron. You may think he needs to come to you but really, you work for him. And if you lose sight of that, you’ve lost sight of it all.

And the kicker is, your success will ultimately be determined by students very much like this young American man.

If I had a vote, this would be my #1

YouTube has brought us a ton of..  videos. (I don’t even have an adjective to qualify them – entertaining, mindless, thought-provoking, repulsive… all apply.)


Yet, if I had to vote right right now on which video I’d say was my number one fave of all time, the one one below would win my vote. It’s called FaceBook Parenting: For the Troubled Teen.
Though it’s already had over 28,000,000 page hits, if you haven’t seen it, check it out.


Ladies and gentleman… my winner. (Warning: Some Language.)

Facebook Parenting: For the troubled teen

Common Core: The Lens Through Which We See It

The more I think about the new Common Core ELA standards, the more I read the commentary of other people weighing in (and without a doubt, the gloves are already off), the more I realize that a person’s background experience appears to most dominantly shape the context for the lens through which people are seeing CC than any other factor in the actual document.

In all this talk about text complexity, reading and re-reading, and the significance of pre-reading strategies as it relates to comprehension,  what a person brings to the table based on their own past experience, study, worldview, and so on, are the current dominant goggles.

So what are my goggles? Obviously, if I am going to continue to provoke conversation about CC, it’s probably a fair thing that I try to share them.

This is me one week ago. For anyone who is interested to know where I’m coming from on all this.

Click the following link

Alan Sitomer, February 2012

Common Core: Yo, Just Wait it Out

I’ve heard many times from many people that, “Heck, we’ll just wait it out,” is the Common Core strategy they plan on incorporating.

Please, save the hate mail. I am not calling anyone out by name. I just want to explore this notion a little bit, see where it comes from, see why people are going to embrace it, and see whether or not it actually makes sense, is fair, or resembles anything whatsoever that we would hope for in American education.

1) Where’s a “Wait it Out” mentality come from? (he said ending a sentence with a preposition as he addressed scores of English teachers)

The wait it out mentality comes from an easy place to locate. The education “reformers” change so much stuff so often that anyone who has been around the block at all for long enough in our schools has seen so many “great new things” come and go they figure Common Core will just come and go like the rest of ‘em. Instead of changing to something that is “just gonna end up changing again, anyway,” they “wait it out”.

Past is prologue, right?

2) Are there literally teachers who plan on just “Waiting it Out” when it comes to Common Core?

If you are paying attention to any of the conversations going on – online, in schools, at parties where teachers are gathering in the kitchen to talk shop – you will certainly see that, “Yo, I’m just gonna wait it out” is very much a plan some educators expect to take. Clearly, there’s a chunk of folks who very much believe that if they keep their head down, let the collateral damage fly where it inevitably will, it will not be too long before Common Core crashes to the earth as a result of its own unsustainable weight.

And the folks who played the “Yo, I’m just gonna wait it out” card are gonna smile like the cat who ate the canary. They will hold the “I told you so” card and betchya dimes to doughnuts, if the opportunity ever affords itself to them, they plan on playing it.

3) Does taking a “Wait it Out” approach to Common Core make sense?

Matter of perspective. But that question bleeds into the next one.

4) Is taking a “Wait it Out” approach to Common Core fair?

I am going to answer that with my parent hat on and being that I have a daughter who will be entering kindergarten in the fall, I think it is a good set of googles through which to view this issue.

Would it be fair to my daughter as a student in the classroom if her teacher(s) decided to not make the necessary changes that Common Core is asking her teachers to make? On purpose. Because they are not fans of Common Core or think it’s just gonna pass like yet another leaf in the educational wind. The only justification I could see for this would be if her teachers deeply believed that they’d actually be doing harm, transgressing the educator’s Hippocratic oath, if you will, should they bow to embracing the Common Core standards. Otherwise, their refusal is a much more like a form of sabotage which will hurt the school and hurt the dynamics of the staff on campus. And when those things happen, that’s bad for my daughter’s education. It saps energy, morale, and resources.

Now philosophically, I know there are people who believe that deep, deep down, Common Core is the enemy to be halted at the gates. Those people have my permission as a parent to not embrace Common Core because they are, in my estimation, answering to a higher call. Much like a soldier who is expected to follow orders unless they are issued an order by a superior officer which their own inner compass tells them is amoral or illegal, any teacher who feels in this manner about Common Core is somebody I am convinced my daughter is going to learn from in a meaningful manner, albeit a whole different lesson than most probably was intended by the folks who have brought us CC. We need counterinsurgency forces if we have gone so far off the rails that counterinsurgency is needed so yes, this is still America. Defend principles and God’s speed to you. If you are right, we will all thank you and owe you a grand apology and if you are wrong then that will have been a good thing for America because if Common Core is a bust, that will have been a bad thing for America considering that 46 states are currently signed on to roll it out in 2014.

Of course, the teacher that thinks they “know better” than the Common Core is where it gets real sticky. Because on one hand, perhaps they might? And on the other hand, Common Core is fashioned to be implemented on a teamwork basis (see the architecture of the Anchor Standards for further proof) and when a team has a hot-shot superstar who thinks they know better than everyone else – and therefore refuses to buy into the requisite “team” concept – the superstar might prosper but the team itself quite often does not.

And what is best for my daughter?

Of course, at this point I might be accused of being some sort of Orwellian nightmare come to life via blog posts (Squealer comes to mind… not sure who Napoleon is though) but since I am not running for office, I am not affiliated in any manner with the CCSSO, SBAC or PARCC, and I have not relinquished my ability to stick in mindless fart jokes simply because I can – see, I just did it – I actually might be speaking for the “real” bosses of education.

That would be the parents.

Any “wait it out-ers” who care to weigh in, by all means, have at it. If you want to fight Common Core, I say go pick up a musket. If not, jump on the team. Perhaps you are undecided still and are simply waiting before you make a decision. To that I say, waiting to decide and planning to “wait it out” are two very different things?

Common Core: Time for the gloves to come off!

So the past few days have seen a heck of a lot of fireworks in the discussions about Common Core. And to think some people have been shy about expressing their real feelings is to not have read or followed along.

The gloves are off! And I for one think this is very important to encourage and embrace right now. Especially since I am afraid that “those who are playing it safe by not weighing in” are – or certainly could very well be – empowering the very elements they’d rather not see come to light by means of their lack of “using their voice” at this juncture to debate this stuff in a public arena.

It’s no secret that the higher one climbs in education, the more it is one’s interest to play it safe and not say what you are really feeling. Why? Because the higher you ascend up the totem pole, the more you have to risk by someone not liking, not appreciating, not wanting to hear that you disagree with their take on things.

Ultimately, this sets up conflict, confrontation and show downs which can cost people their status, positions, and favor with the “in” crowd. Even their livelihood.

I’d suggest there’s even a cancer to be acknowledged in this quietness, in the lurker who feels strongly about many of these issues being discussed but dares not speak up because it might come back to haunt them one day in their professional future.

This is why I have so much respect for the folks who are “calling it like they see it”. I might not agree with everyone (clearly, I do not) but I do feel at this point it is critical to acknowledge how deeply I respect their willingness to openly – even nakedly – participate in this Common Core dialogue.

Let’s make no bones about it… CC is coming. It has been adopted by more than 90% of the United States. And being that it it is still not scheduled to hit until 2014 and we haven’t even really seen the assessments that SBAC and PARCC will cook up – assessments that are sure to reach deep into the many nooks and crannies of all our nation’s classrooms – these conversations could very well determine the shape of our collective future.

Some people have literally called out their own bosses in the past few days. They’ve actually shared how foolish their superiors initial approach to embracing CC is proving to be. In a more fascistic world, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see someone terminating these brave people for insubordination. (Perhaps, the protections provided by unions do have a place after all?).

Some people have called out the top educational leaders behind CC. By name. My feeling is that all of this is a VERY GOOD thing.

If CC can’t stand up to our scrutiny, it does not deserve to carry the day. The entire Common Core should be assaulted with our best shot. It needs a stress test, its feet held to the fire. What is the problem with having a public inventory taken of the various merits and shortcomings of Common Core?

Of course, for the people with political considerations, the problematic nature of this is evident indeed. But Common Core is not about me, it’s not about you and it’s not about which  butt-kisser knows how to keep their head down, go with the flow and remain a YES man (or woman) on their school site, in their district, or at the county, state or federal offices in order to protect their status.

Let’s put this bad boy in the water, submerge it and see if she really is waterproof where America’s kids need her to be. Water will find the creases but only if we allow this to happen.

Now, maybe I have been flippant when I should have been more attentive? Or maybe I have come across as all-knowing when I should have been more willing to admit I put my pants on one leg at a time like everyone else and am swimming in waters a bit over my head? No doubt, that in my zest to keep up with the flurry of CC commentary the past few days, I’ve made errors.

But please people… let’s not stop participating in this conversation. Perhaps this kind of dialogue is happening in print in other areas of the educational universe, but nowhere (that I have seen, at least) is the discussion about CC so diverse, deep, fluid and challenging.

So real.

If CC has merit, it deserves the right to stand up for itself and prove this to all of us. And if it has gaps, flaws or shortcomings, those factors are the MOST critical to expose right now. (Of course, if corruption has played a role in the forming of the CC, we need to root it out. NOW! Really, why wouldn’t we?)

I learned an exceptionally valuable lesson when I got to visit the Apple campus in Cuppertino and go behind the scenes with the lead designers of the iPhone. They showed me this nut-so washing machine that could simulate heat in the Sahara as well as polar temps that would only be found in the Arctic. The thing would spin, bash, hammer and genuinely abuse iPhones with the sole goal of seeing what the shortcomings were BEFORE they went out to market with it.

The adoption of CC is so immense we need to do this. It is not in our best interests to play it safe, right now.

Be heard. It’s time for the gloves to come off! We’ve been presented with Common Core, now let’s see what it’s really got to offer.

Common Core and Cahoots

I am sort of floored by the vitriol I am seeing being leveled against the Common Core Standards document I came out as being a fan of last week.

And as the rhetoric heats up I have been asking myself, “Can one support the CC ELA standards without being considered worthy of scorn?”

I keep coming back to the same conclusion: yes.

As a cross-disciplinary literacy framework, I believe the new CC standards are well designed. I also believe this framework GREATLY improves upon our current state-by-state approach to ELA content area standards. I am a huge fan of the anchor standards approach they’ve taken, weaving common standards across grade levels and disciplines, I like the emphasis on asking for more close reading and re-reading of text, and the drive to more authentic literature (and away from one-size-fits all anthologies) makes me smile big and wide.

Now, do these new standards have their flaws? Certainly, I believe they do. But are they overwhelmingly solid in lots of ways? In my opinion, yes. Very much so.

Yet the flaming arrows are flying. Really, I don’t mind them so much because I do like hearing so many different opinions on this stuff. Especially because it helps me better inform my own. (Some of what’s been lobbed at me, I admit, stings, though… if only for its truth.) But I feel as if most all the criticism is derived from talking right past one another.

The major argument seems to come from the “standards are evil” camp. They tether the CC standards to the CC assessments (which are still yet to come) and rail on about how the tests are going to be used for quite sinister aims.

And to say, “Wait a sec, I hear you what you are saying. I really do. But please, slow down. I am only talking about my fan-hood of the officially published CC standards document here” has caused an uproar of people saying, “NO! You can’t do that!” and then they go on to hammer me and the CC for the blackhearted schemes yet to come using the history of education in the U.S. to bolster their arguments that, “Beware, we can’t trust them.”

And no matter how many times I try to steer the conversation back to a discussion of “can we please just talk about the CC document which has been published“, people head right back to the their own schema about “the nefarious aspirations this is really all about” and once again, more missiles are fired.

Am I wrong? Can we not have a conversation about just the CC without also having a discussion about the assessments of the CC? Indeed, they are two different things, are they not? (I already hear the cries of, “Hell no!”)

More troubling, I think, is the question of, “Is anyone else put off by the stupendous lack of trust already on display?” In a way, it doesn’t matter who is right anymore… we are all wrong. The real cancer in American education today is a lack of trust. To like the ELA CC standards seems to have made me a turncoat after all the years of bashing the bubble tests I have done. And the fact that I do not see it this way at all doesn’t seem to bother those who do. The question has even been directly asked of me if I am a shill for da Man?

One can’t even disagree any more without that being proof of underhanded, deviant motives.

I guess I should clarify something: Arne Duncan and I have a three-nosed love child and no matter what anyone says, I will do what I have to do defend our secret offspring’s right to pick six buggers at one time without being teased by insensitivos! There you have it, my real reason for liking ELA’s CC.

Me in cahoots with da Man? Yes, I have been asked if I am in in league with the CC in any way. The answer is NO. I have absolutely nothing to do with any of the CC people whatsoever. In fact, I think that by the way I challenged the actions of David Coleman in my blog post the other day, that should prove I am not part of their paid team. Would they not have “Ssshhh’d me?” if I was on their cash disbursement list? Personally, I’d never sink so low as to secretly shill behind a thinly veiled mask of corrupt opinion rendering… unless the price was really good then of course, I’d… wait a minute, I’m straying here.

Point is, me no taking any pay-o-la from the CCSSO and I am entirely bloviating from the outside.

However, does this mean that those who are on the CC payroll, the authors of the standards, the people on the PARCC and SBAC teams, those who are working hard to elevate American education in this country today are corrupt or contemptible or of dubious, if not sinister, intent?

We haven’t even yet seen the assessments that PARCC and SBAC are going to create. Therefore to me, to already hate them means that philosophically, you do not agree with something else, some other component of this conversation. (Which, btw, could be entirely legit. I am not placing a value judgement here.) And considering all the bashing I have done of weak-ass bubble tests over the years, if they come out with yet another remix of weak-ass bubble tests as the model for assessment, I will be as loud and on point as ever.

But to hate the assessments does not automatically mean one needs to hate these standards. Does it? Cause they are coming. And I do like them. And I do not believe they exist simply to serve as the organ monkey for punishing schools and teachers through foul summative assessment. I think they exist for the reason they say they exist.

And I quote (last paragraph on page):

“[The Standards] lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the skills and understandings students are expected to demonstrate have wide applicability outside the classroom or workplace. Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews. They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic. In short, students who meet the Standards develop the skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening that are the foundation for any creative and purposeful expression in language.”

Yes, I am going have quibbles with some of the stuff above. (NOTE: Stephen King in his book On Writing spoke about getting rid of all your adverbs in order to get a real sense of any text. Re-read the above with that little nugget in mind. IMHO, he’s right… someone should have chopped the adverbs. It’s like they are trying to sell us something that they don’t need to stoop to doing. Why? Back to the trust issue, I guess.)

Common Core: The David Coleman Dilemma

So if you are following along with the twists and turns of Common Core, there are a ton of moving parts. One name that has bubbled up of late is David Coleman.

David Coleman is one of the writers of Common Core. He is currently traveling around the country speaking about Common Core.

And a lot of people are troubled by what he is saying.

The piece below from a recent article (which was picked up by Ed Week and ASCD Smartbrief, I believe, and circulated all over) has had me flooded with questions from people wanting to know how I respond to his ideas, particularly to the portion where David sort of throws the value of building background knowledge under the bus.

Here is the section causing the most consternation from the article:

Eliminate pre-reading activities.

Coleman is refreshingly unapologetic in his assertion that pre-reading activities are a waste of instructional time. He believes, for instance, that giving students background information about the text does little more than encourage students to parrot back the teacher’s words when answering questions, rather than actually absorbing and critically analyzing what the author said. And he thinks spending time predicting what the text is going to be about or comparing it to other works is a needless distraction. Instead, he encourages teachers to allow students to dive immediately in to the text itself.

The whole article can be found right here.

Now, there are a few directions I could take to weigh in on this. For me, what seems like the biggest concern is the grand trouble NOT being addressed when people raise issues with what Mr. Coleman is saying about reading instruction.

I’ll explain…

The Common Core documents clearly state the following on page 6 of the introduction. (It’s point #1 of the What is NOT Covered by the Standards):

The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.

And yet, as an author of Common Core, David Coleman is now completely violating this promise. In fact, part of the only reason so many people are willing to buy into CC is expressly because the documents swear to define the “what” and not tell teachers the “how”.

And now David is telling us how? And it’s still only 2012, two years before the Standards officially hit.

Plus, complicating the matter more so is that David is a guy who, according to everything I have read, has never taught in an actual classroom. He has zero K-12 teaching experience.

Should we really be learning how to cook from a person who’s never been in the kitchen?

This is the real train wreck of it all. Even if David Coleman is correct in his thoughts on “the how” (debatable, for sure… yet there’s merit to some of his insights, too – it’s not black-n-white) this question is secondary to the fact that we were all promised that the CCSSO would not be telling us how… and now their writers are?

Perhaps someone will try to make the case that David is his own man and he is not speaking for the CCSS when he travels the country telling us his thoughts on how we ought to teach. Who in the world is going to buy that? I mean this is the guy who wrote the standards and if he tells us “the how” then he has gotta know it because he crafted “the what”. (Which creates a problem because even if he’s wrong about reading instruction, he’s right… BECAUSE HE’S THE AUTHOR OF THE STANDARDS!)

Head scratching, indeed.

Now Mr. Coleman also seems to be making a point of telling his large and hungry-to-learn-about-CC-crowds that he is merely providing a model for the how.

But if the CCSSO had given any thought to making sure they do not undermine their own credibility, they would have realized that the last person who should be providing models for the how are the people who actually wrote the freakin’ document!

I could model the how. My wife, a credentialed teacher, could model the how. We have hundreds of thousands of people who could model the how without there being any sort of conflict of interest.

It’s already going to be hard enough to get people on board with Common Core without this extra baggage being attached.

What in the world is going on? I mean I have very publicly come out as a fan of Common Core – and I am still quite a fan – but there is a tough road ahead to make the transition and this feels like an extra anchor that CC doesn’t need to carry.

Here’s a video. Watch it and ask yourself, “Would it not be more wise to have someone else model the how?”

Common Core: Been Divin’ In

It’s been a while since I done did write me a blog post but I swear I have a good reason.

Common Core. I’ve been diving in like a tourist at the Great Barrier Reef with a tank full of oxygen and a new pair of fins.

Wow, is there a lot to digest.

To begin with, I want to officially go on record stating that I am a BIG FAN of Common Core. My reasons will come – probably via a conversation that will take place through blog posts over the course of the next few, well… years, if ya really want to know – but let’s get it out there right now.

If Common Core had a Facebook page, I’d hit the “like” button. (Note: It appears Common Core does have a few FB pages… but none of them appear to be “official sites”.)

Now, do I have issues with CC? Yep, sure do. However, would it ever be possible for such an undertaking as this to become manifest if the designers of CC had to wait until everyone and their uncle was onboard? Of course not.

So big picture: me likey-likey.

Entire undertaking: legit quibbles. (Okay, these “concerns” might be more than mere “quibbles” but considering the size, scope, depth and ambition of CC, quibbles is a word that is somewhat apropos. I mean, IMHO, they certainly are not “deal breakers”.)

Clearly, lots and lots and LOTS of “stuff” is going to come up as most of America embraces CC. There will be battles, sniping, political maneuverings, under-handed back-stabbings and in-your-face confrontations.

And that’s just me arguing with myself about some of this stuff. I can only imagine how this is going to play out at the local, district, state and federal level bythe time 2014 rolls around.

However, I am taking a stand and officially willing to eat crow served on rye if CC turns out to be an implosion of NCLB proportions.

But I do not think it will. I think CC offers some really great opportunities.

That’s my take and I am sticking to it. As for reasons why… stay tuned.