“A certain Lieutenant Maxwell, a member of Vitas Bering’s second polar expedition, wrote, ‘You never feel safe when you have to navigate in waters which are completely blank.”
–from TEACHING A STONE TO TALK by Annie Dillard, p. 47
However foolhardy, we are dedicated explorers of the Common Core State Standards, which requires zeal comparable to the nineteenth-century polar explorers. Like the polar explorers, the CCSS course is uncharted, as the reality of the Common Core’s implementation is a cartographic deduction at this point. But we are bound for the Common Core’s farthest point, nonetheless, on a quest for a long range view of how they were developed, who wrote them and why, what they mean, what research supports them, and ways to implement them in classrooms. We hike through miles and miles of deep text.
Each day there is more to read about the Common Core and each day, with our workstation sled elaborately provisioned with highlighters, coffee, and lumbar supports, we trek through pages and pages of words about real, Common Core things. We are the embodiment of the Common Core ideals, college-and-career readers on a quest to read closely and write, gathering support from multiple texts. But articles pile up like snow; pages of paper form drifts around the legs of our chairs, and we begin to feel cold in all the non-fiction-ness.
When he set sail in 1845 on his Arctic expedition, Sir John Franklin’s wife gave him a backgammon board as a parting gift. This makes some sense to us; explorers need diversions; so we have learned. We divert our attention from Kintsch’s Comprehension: A Paradigm for Cognition (1998) to a nearby literary text that seems worth reading just for the title: Teaching a Stone to Talk. It is by Annie Dillard, a work of fiction with a compelling lack of relevance for our studies of the Common Core State Standards.
Surreptitiously tipping the thin volume off the eye-level shelf within reach of the desk, the book gets pulled in close with a stretched index finger, as if we are adolescent boys reaching for the magazine hidden under the mattress. Shifting our view from the miles of Common Core reading ahead, we sit down in the paper snow with Annie Dillard, ready to warm ourselves with a story.
But, Alas! The book is true! Annie Dillard penned meditations on personal and historical events, filling this book with pages of factual information embedded in lyrical, narrative accounts. We are not sure whether to record this in our expedition logs as informational text or literature, and this reading may be for a grade. A half an hour earlier we were searching for common and core definitions of informational and literary texts, and now in our weary-eyed, word-blizzard dementia we pick up a book that is both.
And it is good.
We are learning stuff we had no interest in learning and we are noticing the text’s structure. We can’t put it down, even though we had less interest in the polar explorers trekking across Dillard’s pages than in internal combustion engines or the rules of cricket!
We stop to write about all the thinking that Annie Dillard has tricked us into doing.
But, ha, ha, Common Core, we are making text-to-self connections, something your authors eschew! Furthermore, not only are we reading literary informational text for content and inspiration, but we are also writing informational text for our blog by developing a personal narrative. Such acts of rebellion are not befitting an expedition’s guide, and we cannot ask our readers to pull on their boots and parkas and trudge with us through the drifting Common Core snow towards a blurry destination if we behave so recklessly. So we set aside Teaching the Stone to Talk, placing it face down on the desk with intention. As an alternative, we pick up a dry book that traces the timeline of the Common Core’s top-secret development, and resume reading as detectives and writing as an investigative reporter.
Having reclaimed our focus, we turn to you and say:
Reader, we are committed to this expedition. On this journey, we will try to map a sensible path through the Common Core. We will continue talking to the natives and gathering their insights about instructional reading level. We will wear walrus skin (faux, of course) and sleep on the ice as recordings of David Coleman’s commentary pipe through our ear buds. We will figure out how to align the standards using the stars to navigate, and we will record it all in illustrated journals chronicling our discoveries about teaching informational, literary, and even informational-literary texts.
But Common Core explorations are not for the faint of heart, we point out, while packing up our computers for an excursion to a coffee shop. Fortunately, faintness is uncommon among educators, and it seems there is an expedition like ours in most teachers’ futures. Despite our earlier declarations of commitment and focus and our overt attempt to reject literary influences over this reasoned, informational endeavor, Annie Dillard finds her way into our bags as we head out. We may move more slowly through the Common Core with Annie along, Friends, but she will be like Leo Lionni’s Frederick or Sir John Franklin’s backgammon board, and we are sure to arrive in better spirits (and perhaps with all our faculties) with her along.
So, dear Readers, we re-promise all our earlier promises, from problem-solving through rough Common Core terrain to developing CCSS navigational charts, but we posit this question for you to consider before you head out: What will be your backgammon? Who will be your Annie Dillard? For while the future holds no shortage of efforts to direct your attention to the Common Core, you must advocate for your diversions. Not to mention the diversions of the young explorers who will follow you into the snow.