74. That was the grade on my first college essay. I expected high standards from my Humanities professor (a.k.a., the infamous philosophy professor with a PhD from Harvard), but I graduated high school with all A’s in my English classes, including two AP subjects! I was mortified.
The essay prompt went like this:
In The Odyssey, identify where Penelope recognizes her husband. Support your argument with Homer’s work itself and articles we examined in class.
In the mandatory writing conference with my professor, I confessed that I didn’t know the right answer. The professor discussed multiple passages where Penelope aided or ignored her husband. “Sue,” he told me, “I would like you to rewrite this essay and work on it again.” …
Fast forward to July 2013. Thanks to one of my former English teachers, I attended a day of the TNCore training. I wanted to see how the Common Core State Standards would prepare students for college writing assignments, so I sat in on the 11-12th grade English Language Arts (ELA) training.
As soon as the teachers settled into the student desks, the Common Core coaches handed us The Writing Research Simulation Task (WRST), the final assessment, to illustrate the end goal. What do the students have to be prepared for? With that question in mind, we dove in.
In this mock assessment, we used three texts: “Address to the Senate on the Nineteenth Amendment” by President Woodrow Wilson; “The Crisis” by Carrie Chapman Catt; and “On Women’s Right to Vote” by Susan B. Anthony. With two essays and a good amount of writing, the assessment was divided into five stages that directed students to examine the texts carefully.
Immediately, I scanned through the questions and skimmed the passages in order to find answers. However, for an instruction like this:
Determine two central ideas that are developed by the details in Catt’s speech and that interact or build on one another. In your own words, write these two central ideas as sentences in the table on the next page.
I had to thoroughly read Catt’s speech in order to pick two central ideas. I wrote two ideas down with uncertainty. What if I’m wrong? What if these aren’t the right answers? There were more than two possible “central ideas” in Catt’s speech – I had to use my judgment.
After time was called, we looked around in disbelief. “Students are actually going to have to read the passage,” one teacher said. We all concurred with a firm nod. Indeed, there was no guidance in sight except a set of instructions and the passage itself. There barely were cues or hints that made it easier to find the right answer.
Unfortunately, students will fight the new expectations. All of us agreed: Our education system bred this phenomenon. In order to let students “succeed,” teachers scaffold too much, to the point where students start to expect teachers to give out the answers.
The rigor of the Common Core State Standards will certainly prepare students for college. While professors guide students, they don’t spoon feed them. Common Core will help students realize it’s up to them to actually acquire knowledge.
Flashback to fall of 2012: After getting my terrifying grade, I picked up my slack and chose an argument. I formulated a thesis based on the strongest evidence I picked up from Homer’s epic and a scholar’s interpretation. I also presented the biggest counter-argument to address it. The professor was very pleased: I got a 91 on my revised essay, averaging my first essay grade to 87.
Let’s be honest: Implementing Common Core State Standards is like venturing into an unknown field, where the grass is high and unfamiliar noises rumble. We’re all afraid of such change. But after all the struggles, we will reach our Ithaca—the higher achievements that we idealize right now.