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Common Core's context-free teaching of the Gettysburg Address

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The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which grew out of the 1990s “accountability movement” in education, has taken a lot of heat from critics on the right for its promotion of liberal agenda — a trait that hardly distinguishes it from most other educational initiatives to come down the pike in recent decades, with their emphases on diversity and multiculturalism.

One facet of Common Core that gets far less attention is its emphasis on teaching young people to think outside the box. As I wrote here, there is some merit to that initiative that is often lost in the widespread condemnation of the endeavor as a whole.

But equipping students with the capacity to “think critically” is effective only when you give them something to think critically about. That constructing lesson plans that do that is easier said than done is evident from a report at BizPac Review, which focuses on a teaching strand on the Gettysburg Address.

The lesson allegedly trades on a method known as close reading. Borrowed from the field of literary criticism, close reading entails directing the reader's attention to individual words, syntax, and the ordering of sentences and ideas. Student Achievement Partners, the creators of the Common Core standards, seem to think it means reading without appeal to context. Here is part of their lesson plan designed for students in Grade 9:

Student Achievement Partners, creators of the Common Core standards, recommend this curious approach for students in Grade 9:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading — that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Having students attempt to make sense Lincoln’s words outside of the context of the Civil War — and especially the Battle of Gettysburg — is akin to having students read “The Grapes of Wrath” beginning with Chapter 14. In both cases, the “privilege” of background knowledge is indispensable to making sense of the text and homing in on the author’s reasons for writing it.

In the video found here, Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, which is critical of Common Core, speaks out on “Fox & Friends.”

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