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.