9/11 and the Real Common Core

Soon it will be time to commemorate September 11. I was teaching in a Manhattan public school on that morning, when three thousand people were killed three miles south of our school. It was a frightening day. But each year since, it's a chance for me to remember what it was like in my classroom that day and to reflect on the most core responsibilities of our public schools.

Ours wasn't a neighborhood school. Kids came from far and wide. So, during this terrifying emergency, parents were painfully separated from their children. Phones were not working. Trains were not working. Roads were blocked. The air was choked. Hospitals, police and firefighters were overwhelmed -- or dying.

But in spite of the fear and uncertainty, the parents of kids in our classrooms knew that, if our school was still standing, we would care for and protect their children until mom or dad came. And families all over the city had that same assurance. Why?

Because the social contract specifies that this responsibility rests with us, with educators. This is what your tax dollars pay for. Whether it's a terrorist attack, or an asthma attack, or a panic attack from test-taking anxiety -- it doesn't matter. In the place of the parent, the school is obligated to tend to the child's welfare.

Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy to remind one of what's really at the core. In schools, the core of our work is called childrearing. It happens in partnership with families and the broader community -- and it has very little to do with how we articulate standards for non-fiction reading and whether standards happen to be common across states.

Ok, I'm arriving at my point:

It seems that, when it comes to schools these days, all we talk about are the Common Core Standards (CCS) -- and I'm weary of it. It's a distraction from what really matters.

The real core of my work will come back to school on Monday. There's a girl who doesn't know which boy in her class just got her pregnant. She's at the core. There's a boy who can't eat any tree fruit or nuts. A girl who has seizures. They are at the core. A young lady who lives in a chair and whose diapers we change every day. And the boy whose gender was female last year. And there are the high achievers who will spend senior year at the college up the road. The ones who take AP courses through the virtual learning collaborative. And the ones who are going to build something totally amazing in Intro to Engineering with our new Physics teacher. And some are getting ready for exchange trips to Germany and Japan. And there are the girls who hate to speak in public, but who, after a semester of Socratic Seminars will feel confident and able. And there are athletes gunning for another state championship in D-3 Cross Country and Baseball. And there are the theater kids coming in early to prep for the winter production. And the ones going to the Technical and Career Center to learn film-making, or culinary arts, or environmental resource management. And there's that boy who has been back to school walking our halls for days now, because he has nowhere else to go. These are the real common core.

Remembering the national tragedy we faced 12 years ago will remind me of how precious they are. Recalling their diversity reminds me of how extraordinary the public school enterprise really is. Reckoning with my responsibilities to help each one grow up healthy and empowered -- this is daunting. And they're coming on Monday.

So please, wont you, America, give me a break from this Common Core bluster? The stern calls for alignment, the giddiness about smarter tests, and the very silly notions that a newly worded literacy standard will somehow save us. Can't we stop?

Whether we teach Orwell's essays in 11th or 12th grade -- or whether we teach multiplication skills in the same sequence from Vermont to Arizona -- this in itself is going to change nothing at the core of schooling.

I'm not saying that educators shouldn't be held accountable for high standards. But let the parents and the citizens who pay my salary do the lion's share of holding me accountable. And at the State level, please devise accountability tools suited to the profession. "Teach" and "learn" are verbs -- interactions -- best judged in person, in the present tense, and not from a distance. As David Brooks said in his 2011 TEDTalk, this work is about relationships:

"For 30 years, I've been covering school reform and we've basically reorganized the bureaucratic boxes -- charters, private schools, vouchers -- but we've had disappointing results year after year. And the fact is, people learn from people they love. And if you're not talking about the individual relationship between a teacher and a student, you're not talking about that reality."

Yes, we learn from people we love. So let us limit the CCS distractions at this back-to-school time and focus more on the real common core of teaching.

But, if in your state you can't quiet the Common Core clamor because the stakes are already too high, then perhaps the next best thing is to amplify - wise voices - of dissent - and resistance.