Gettysburg Address Taught without Context to "Level the Playing Field"

Dr. Karen Effrem
Today is the 150th anniversay of Abraham Lincoln's dedication speech for the cemetary at the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.  As we remember and celebrate the bedrock principles of our American heritage embodied in one of the most important speeches in our history, it is important to understand what the implmentation of the Common Core standards does to this iconic piece of our history. 

Teacher Jeremiah Chaffee, doing a guest column in Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet Blog in the Washington Post talked about the method of "cold reading" to teach Lincoln's speech.  That this method is being heavily promoted for teaching the Gettysburg Address was confirmed during a seminar for the Charlotte County school board by a Common Core trainer from the Center for College and Career Readiness that I attended in June.  The method has little or no research behind it and many other problems as discussed below:

["Cold reading"] gives students a text they have never seen and asks them to read it with no preliminary introduction. This mimics the conditions of a standardized test on which students are asked to read material they have never seen and answer multiple choice questions about the passage.

Such pedagogy makes school wildly boring. Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.

The exemplar, in fact, forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely "on individual experience and opinion," and answering them "will not move students closer to understanding the Gettysburg Address."

(This is baffling, as if Lincoln delivered the speech in an intellectual vacuum; as if the speech wasn't delivered at a funeral and meant to be heard in the context of a funeral; as if we must not think about memorials when we read words that memorialize. Rather, it is impossible to have any deep understanding of Lincoln's speech without thinking about the context of the speech: a memorial service.)

The exemplar instructs teachers to "avoid giving any background context" because the Common Core's close reading strategy "forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all." What sense does this make? [Emphasis added.]

Teachers cannot create such a "level playing field" because we cannot rob any of the students of the background knowledge they already possess. Nor can we force students who have background knowledge not to think about that while they read. A student who has read a biography of Lincoln, or watched documentaries about the Civil War on PBS or the History Channel, will have the "privilege" of background knowledge beyond the control of the teacher. Attempting to create a shallow and false "equality" between students will in no way help any of them understand Lincoln's speech.

First, to use one of the most important speeches in American history to try to being about some utopian, left-wing notion of social justice is appalling. Secondly, this appears to confirm what another teacher and former proponent said was the true intent behind Common Core, which is "about  leveling out the differences by reducing the opportunity for the brightest and hardest working students to excel."  Finally, Common Core is the antithesis of governance "of the people, by the people, for the people"  Rather, it is of the government, by corporate special interests, and for profit.  Common Core will prevent students from understanding how to perpetuate the republic that Lincoln extolled in that wonderful speech and it must be stopped.

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