June 14, 2016

The Rest Won’t Take Care of Itself: What Will Your Verse Be?

Print Friendly


In Dead Poet’s Society, John Keating’s supervisor questions his unorthodox teaching methods. The headmaster says, “John, the curriculum here is set. It’s proven. It works. If you question it, what’s to prevent them from doing the same?”

Keating responds, “I always thought education was for learning to think for yourself.” The headmaster smirks and says, “At these boys’ age? Not on your life! Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.”

Hearing this line in the movie shed new light on our concept of alignment to the Common Core. This is the dark side of common standards … conformity. The chilling part is the idea that preparation for college is more about learning the standard content than about learning to think.

While we do think that on the conformity-to-thinking continuum, the Common Core State standards move us closer to teaching students to think than did most state standards, if the CCSS movement ended with the standards themselves, then we could proceed with a bit of creativity. The problem is that common standards are synonymous with common assessments, thus teaching must bend toward that which can be tested in a multiple choice format. No matter the habits of mind embedded in the standards, we are concerned that the assessments will neutralize any emphasis on them, particularly if the dire predictions of dropped test scores play out.

The looming unknown of the tests casts a dark shadow on any efforts to teach students to think that may be introduced by the new standards. What does it matter if the standards offer new opportunities for teachers and students to read books for their own sakes if such explorations of great texts are contraindicated for success on tests that must narrowly define learning? This weighs heavily on us, and certainly weighs heavily on the teachers with whom we speak.

In stark contrast to the headmaster’s statement about tradition, watch Keating’s explanation of why we read poetry. He gathers the students in his English class around him and says, “Come close; I have a little secret for you.” He goes on,

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

Educator friends, we have a little secret for you (and for us). Let us all continually remind ourselves that we teach children because we want to change the world. Yes, medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But it is reasonable, even essential, that we also teach beauty, love, stewardship, because these things give our students reasons to be alive.

So pick another book that makes you tear up when you read it aloud to students, or that makes your students cheer when justice prevails. Teach them to read, but even more importantly, teach them to think for themselves. Prepare them for college, friends, but prepare them for life, too, because the rest is not likely to take care of itself.

We wrap up our series of posts related to Dead Poet’s Society with the poem by Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1892), which John Keating references in movie. We have been asking ourselves, “What will our verse be?” For us, this blog is part of it the verse we write for our educator selves.

What do you spell out with the way you teach and live? Do you understand that, in the Common Core world, your most important steps toward instructional alignment are those that pen a verse of non-conformity and independent thinking. What will your verse be?

O Me! O Life!
By Walt Whitman

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.



  1. Janet F. says:

    Conformity, creativity. The norm, the new. The normal, the extraordinary. Agreement, critical lens. Complacent, visionary. Where do you stand on the continum? How do we inspire, hone the craft of teaching, find the better way and follow a script at the same time? Famous saying: a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (Or something roughly like that.) Read aloud allows teachers to expose children to books that they might not choose. It provides opportunity to bring discussion and ideas to the table. Through the passion I bring to the reading, the sharing and the excitement I can generate from so many aspects of a book……take away everything else and give me books and let me read with the kids. I could do an amazing job with just a book. Give me lots of books, books for kids and let me teach them to fly. Teach using ideas from Atwell, Calkins, Miller, Rasinski, Smith, Barnhouse and Vinton and many others. Kids need to learn to love books, love words, spend time reading and refine their ability to understand the text. The more they read the better they are going to get eventually. Where do you stand?

  2. Silly mobile phone keyboard…

    *scope and quality

    *teaching artist

  3. I second Ted’s post. Im working with our county to develop lesson ideas for CCCS and have seen the prototyoe tests as well. While I am in no way a fan of standardized tests, I have been impressesed with theartistsnd quality of the assessments I’ve seen.

    What has also been oft repeated in the training I’ve recieved is the need for varied, authentic assessments that go beyond multiple choice. I, for one, am quite hopeful.

    Ashley B
    Teacher, actor, teaching artiat

  4. I found your terrific blog (and this post) thanks to Janet F.’s comment on the Think Kid Think blog–what an appropriate link! YES to teaching poetry, beauty, romance, love, and the other things we stay alive for! (and it’s easy to slip 5 minutes of poetry into a busy day)

  5. Love the blog! Great insights and very balanced.

    One thought on today’s blog post. You raise concerns that even with CCSS “…teaching must bend toward that which can be tested in a multiple choice format.” You worry that “explorations of great texts [may be] contraindicated for success on tests that must narrowly define learning.” I think it’s important that we approach CCSS and the associated PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments with a bit more nuance. These assessments shouldn’t be type-cast as a run of the mill state test. From the limited prototypes and explanations we’ve seen, there is hope that these assessments, while certainly not able to capture students’ love of reading or learning, have the potential to succeed in reflecting students’ ability to engage in deep, analytical thinking, reading and writing–even through the use of innovative multiple choice items!

    Thanks for all your good work!

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      It is our intention to take a closer look at the testing prototypes in the coming weeks and knowing that you are hopeful makes us hopeful, too. Thanks for sharing, Ted.

  6. I have been SO loving these posts. Thank you.

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      We’ve enjoyed writing these. These posts returned us to the core of what we really feel we are about. As always, thank you Janet, for sharing your thoughts.

Speak Your Mind