Monday, February 8, 2016

AV#143- A knock on 21st century skills – the latest cockamamie buzzword*

            Feb. 9, 2016

“Schools and schooling tend to lag behind, sometimes far behind, major cultural shifts. … many educators educate for the past and not the future. This tendency was always unfortunate; today it could be disastrous because if we don’t start preparing our young people for the 21st century and even the 22nd century, danger might well trump opportunity. To maximize the opportunities before us, we need to develop 21st-century minds, 21-st century ways of knowing, 21-st century ways of sharing, and 21-st century communication technologies that lift and liberate our natural curiosity.”
from Sacred Trust – A Children’s Education Bill of Rights, by Peter W. Cookson, Jr.  (pub. 2011)

“Generally speaking, the 21st century skills concept is motivated by the belief that teaching students the most relevant, useful, in-demand, and universally applicable skills should be prioritized in today’s schools, and by the related belief that many schools may not sufficiently prioritize such skills or effectively teach them to students.”
The Glossary of Education Reform
Grandfather Huidekoper graduated from Harvard in 1898 and then crossed the Atlantic to study law at Trinity College, Oxford, for the next two years. Only in that final semester—spring 1900—did he “advance” to 20th century learning.  Archaic stuff.   What a dummy.  

Mom graduated from Abbot Academy in 1943 and Vassar College, class of 1946.  I now own several of the novels she read, and annotated, during those years—her maiden name on the inside cover, along with some of her drawings.  (See her sketch of Silas Marner.) 

Growing up, I saw a couple of 20th century writers (Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann) among her novels on the bookshelves, but most were written in the 1800’s.  Her studies as an art history major took her even further into the past.  What a waste.

It took me ages to get my Master’s degree, at last—at age 40.  The St. John’s College Great Books Program begins with Homer, Plutarch, and Lucretius and then inches forward.  Most courses in the Graduate Institute fall shy of 1900.  I can only recall two 20th century readings: a close study of essays by Martin Heidegger, and a story by William Faulkner.  Most of the “bigger works” offered in the preceptorials—such as The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, The Brothers Karamazov, and Middlemarch–failed, of course, to expose us the wonders of the bloody 20th century–to say nothing of the 21st, in all its glory.  A third generation, another misspent education. What a fool.                                      (con’t on p. 2)
*“In 2008, Colorado enacted Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K), which … outlined higher academic standards and the development of 21st century skills for pre-school through after high school study in Colorado.” SB08 212 Legislative Update, 2012

*President Barak Obama  - I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity…”   Remarks to United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, March 10, 2009

 *Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan - “I ask you to join the great endeavor to not just reform education but to transform it. I challenge you to put your talent and ingenuity to work to equip 21st century students with 21st century skills.”  Speech to Association of American Publishers March 3, 2010                                                                                       (Bold mine)

(con’t from p. 1)
Brave New World!  Leaders of the French Revolution obliterate calendar, announce 1792 is YEAR ONE!

How wonderful to know that here in the Dawn of a New Day we, too, can forget the past.  We are 21st century educators preparing 21st century students, so our task is to form “21st century minds” and nurture “21st century ways of knowing.” Because what could be worse than spending a minute exploring what our parents and grandparents studied or—now we’re really reaching back to the Stone Age—what silly men like our Founding Fathers studied  in, say, 1750. Just not—the key word to many—relevant.

In Sacred Trust, Peter W. Cookson, Jr. visits a school in an impoverished neighborhood and can’t imagine why the teacher assigned The Stranger by Albert Camus, when “most of the students had a lot on their minds just dealing with how they were going to survive the rest of week.”  Cookson mocks the “state-mandated curricula … put together by committee members” fearful of being “reprimanded by either the politically correct police or the folks who are convinced the earth was created 6,000 years ago.” “I wonder,” he writes, “if Camus is really the most contemporary author the curriculum committee could find?” [sic]  Cookson suggests we go further:  “Why,” he asks, “would a 16-year-old in the early 21st century care deeply about … the tragic view of life captured in the poetry of World War I?”  Goodbye Wilfred Owen.

"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."  Sir Isaac Newton

From Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion:  ‘If you've never read a document written before 1800 and expect to walk into [a college] environment and survive, that's a questionable endeavor.”  Lemov co-authored the new book, Reading Reconsidered, which argues “that students need to be exposed to a broad array of complex reading material … to build knowledge and reading skills critical for the higher education setting. “
OK, ridicule is easy—it must be when (my experience) 6th grade boys can be so good at it!  You might assume that, as a senior citizen, I am stuck in That Century In Which I Was Taught.  But I am not alone in poking fun:  google (21st century verb!) twenty-first century learning – buzzword”–and you get 141,000 responses.[1] Plenty of good points there about our rejection of the past, our obsession with now.  Is it amnesia—or arrogance?  My goal: to remind us how much a sound education and a solid curriculum depends on the past

Good news - Four reminders that our curriculum should,
or does, look to the past

No need to be an alarmist. Just yet.  While the ubiquitous call for 21st century skills is troubling, in reality, our state standards, any curriculum designed to meet those standards, and most good schools are respectful of our intellectual heritage.  Colleges expect freshmen to arrive well versed in the past. All acknowledge, to quote Newton’s salute to the past, that we stand “upon the shoulders of giants.”

1.       The Colorado Department of Education’s  Academic Standards - Reading

When I taught English here a decade ago, Colorado’s Language Arts standards were vague.  Unlike more specific standards in states like Massachusetts and Virginia, Colorado had decided, apparently, that even suggesting authors and texts would sound like commandments from Mt. Sinai.  I found our (Douglas County) district standards more useful, but our school was committed to follow the Core Knowledge Guidelines—and that, see #4 below, was specific.  I know—too specific for many.  But I loved it.

At first the rewrite and adoption of the state’s language arts standards in 2009 presented expectations that were only slightly less vague than the previous version.  The Colorado Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, and Communicating again treaded lightly on NAMING NAMES of authors or books.  Still, they do make it clear that the curriculum in our 1,800 schools must include texts from the past:

12th grade – Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.
11th grade – Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

4th grade - Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.
3rd grade - Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.

“There are worse crimes than burning books.  One of them is not reading them.” Ray Bradbury
I am happy to report (trigger warning for CCSS foes!) that our standards became much stronger when, in 2010, the state board “adopted the Common Core State Standards, and requested the integration of the Common Core State Standards and the Colorado Academic Standards.” Throughout the 170 pages of the Colorado Academic Standards for Reading, Writing and Communicating, we see references to the Common Core’s examples of “Texts Illustrating the Complexity, Quality, and Range of Student Reading” for each level, with a list of novels, stories, poems, plays, speeches, and essays. ( - See pages 33, grades K-5, and 58, grades 6-12.) 

Here are a few of the works mentioned.  Again, it shows that, for all the fuzzy talk about 21st century learning, Colorado has not abandoned the great books from our past. Yes Willy, even way back to 1592!

Literature: Stories, Drama, Poetry
Informational Texts: Literary Nonfiction and Historical, Scientific, and Technical Texts
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1888)


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott    (1869)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain  (1876)
“Letter on Thomas Jefferson” by John Adams (1776)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an  American Slave by Frederick Douglass   (1845)
The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1592)
“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley    (1817)
“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe           (1845)
“Speech to the Second Virginia Convention” by Patrick Henry (1775)
“Farewell Address” by George Washington (1796)
“Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln (1863)
11 - CCR
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats (1820)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1848)
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickenson (1890)
Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776)
Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
“Society and Solitude” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1857)

2.       Advanced Placement Literature – Rangeview High  (Aurora Public Schools)

Through tutoring in Aurora with College Track the past few years, I have worked with a number of seniors taking AP Literature.  No major changes in the books from when I taught AP in 1985.  Here are the major readings, and when published or first performed, this year at Rangeview High.
“Why begrudge the 21st-century-skills advocates their use of the politically effective mantle of newness? The characterization of these skills as new implies that they haven’t been taught before…. This dangerous claim keeps us from drawing on what we already do well, and creates a false separation between one educational era and another. The rhetoric of the new plays into our easy dichotomizing of “old is  bad / new is good” and our fetish for the next big thing—the examination of which ought to be a 21st century skill.” 

Oedipus the King and Antigone – 440-430 B.C.                       
Frankenstein - 1818
Crime and Punishment - 1866
A Doll’s House – 1879
Heart of Darkness - 1899
Things Fall Apart – 1958

3.       SAT’s coming to Colorado high schools in 2016-17
Of courses our high schools (and parents!) want students to do well on the SAT’s next year—and beyond.  Keep in mind what the College Board says about the Reading portion of the SAT test.
To succeed in college and career, you’ll need to apply reading skills in all sorts of subjects. Not coincidentally, you’ll also need those skills to do well on the Reading Test, which always includes:
One passage from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature.
One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the great global conversation they inspired. The U.S. Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela, for example.
And more…                    

Its Practice Test includes at least 10 of its 24 questions from a speech and fiction written decades—even a century—ago.
Questions 1-5 are based on the following passage.
This passage is adapted from Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome, originally published in 1911. Mattie Silver is Ethan’s household employee.
Questions 15–19 are based on the following passage.
This passage is adapted from a speech delivered by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas on July 25, 1974, as a member of the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives. In the passage, Jordan discusses how and when a United States president may be impeached, or charged with serious offenses, while in office. Jordan’s speech was delivered in the context of impeachment hearings against then president Richard M. Nixon.

4.    My teaching in a Colorado public school - 2001-2006

I spent much my seven teaching years in Colorado – early in the 21st century! – reading many “old” texts with my students.  At the public school where I taught, Parker Core Knowledge Charter School, we read the following pre-21st century writers and texts.  I added a few stories, but the list is similar to one used at the 50 or so other Colorado schools following Core Knowledge Guidelines for grades 7 and 8. (The Catholic school where I taught, 2007-09, is now also a Core Knowledge school.)  (

 I used to show a list like this to my 7th and 8th grade students: 
Dates of key 19th and 20th century writers in our curriculum.  Novels, short stories, poems, essays, speeches, autobiographies.
Nathaniel Hawthorne – 1804-1864 (American)                    “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”
Edgar Allan Poe – 1809-1949 (Am.)           “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “Annabel Lee”
Charles Dickens – 1812-1870 (English)                                     “A Christmas Carol”
Leo Tolstoy – 1828-1910 (Russian)                                            “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” 
Mark Twain – 1835-1910 (Am.)                                                   The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Guy de Maupassant – 1850-1893 (French)                            “The Necklace,” “A Piece of String”
Robert Louis Stevenson - 1850-1894 (English)                      Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Booker T. Washington - 1856-1915 (Am.)       Excerpt from Up From Slavery, “Atlanta Exposition Address”
Anton Chekhov – 1860-1904 (Russian)                                    “The Bet”
O. Henry – 1862-1910 (Am.)               “The Gift of the Magi,” “After Twenty Years,” “Ransom of Red Chief”
W.E.B. DuBois - 1868-1963 (Am.)                                          “Address at Founding of Niagara Movement”
Edmond Rostand – 1868-1918 (Fr.)                                           Cyrano de Bergerac
Jack London – 1876-1916 (Am.)                      The Call of the Wild, “To Build a Fire,” “King of Mazy May”
Helen Keller – 1880-1968 (Am.)                                                  The Story of My Life (autobiography)
Katherine Mansfield – 1888-1923 (English)                           “The Garden Party,” “Miss Brill”
Pearl Buck – 1892-1973 (Am.)                                                     The Good Earth, “The Frill”
Zora Neale Hurston – 1901-1960 (Am.)                                   Dust Tracks on the Road
George Orwell – 1903-1950 (English)                                       Animal Farm, “Shooting an Elephant”
Malcom X (1925-1965) (Am.)                                                       “On African Self- Hatred”
Maya Angelou – 1928- 2014 (Am.)                                            I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Anne Frank – 1929-1945 (Dutch)                                               Diary of a Young Girl                     
Martin Luther King. Jr. (1929-1968) (Am.)              “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” “I Have a Dream”

During my two years teaching at Ave Maria Catholic School, also in the 21st CENTURY, I taught many of those works, as well as Lord of the Flies (pub. 1954), To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and A Wrinkle in Time ( 1962).

“Where’s the beef?” (Walter Mondale to Gary Hart, Democratic Presidential debate, 1984)

When buzzwords and clichés try to sell us something silly—time to speak up.  Where do “21st century skills” speak to standards, curriculum, books?  I don’t see it.  When you cannot tell us what students will learn, I am not a fan.  Here in the 2016 Presidential campaign season (how’s this for relevance!), I recall Mondale’s line from 32 years ago: “Where’s the beef?”

The standards movement may seem passé—so 20th century!  Accountability and assessment—that’s our focus in 2016.  And yet both were built around our commitment to clarify what students should learn.  Many of us believe that was and still is a key step to better public schools. 
Yes, we live in the 21st century, we educate in the 21st century, and we should use 21st technology and tools where they can help.  But a sound curriculum in Colorado public schools requires that we look back.      
The good news: in most cases, we still do.

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