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Common Core State Standards, Rules and Art

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Policies, laws and now the Common Core State Standards are all sets of rules designed to guide and shape human behavior. These rules are implemented through institutions. How does an individual find one's way through all these rules, regulations, and institutions to become an informed, self-reliant, productive citizen? Since I write for children, I try to answer questions and reduce BIG ideas to something that is easy to conceptualize. So at the risk of being taken as simplistic, I will make an attempt here.

Learning is the acquisition of new knowledge and behavior. Think about how a child learns to speak its mother's language. The child is plunged into an environment of spoken sounds from adults who talk to him/her. The child's brain is wired to sort out these sounds and find patterns. As the child acquires the motor skills to imitate the sounds, she/he interacts with other speakers who respond to verbalizations and correct mistakes. The language that is acquired and the ability to speak it, is contingency-shaped by total immersion in an environment.

Now think about how you learn to speak a foreign language in school. I remember how thrilled I was on my first day of high school to go to my French class. I was handed a book with a lot of rules, for conjugating verbs, for the gender of nouns, for sentence structure, syntax, etc. I learned simple sentences that slowly graduated to more complex ones for expressing ideas and abstract concepts. I learned how to read and write French at the same time I was trying to learn to speak it. My halting use of French started as rule-shaped behavior. But, and this is a BIG but, the function of rule-shaped behavior is to serve as a short-cut to a point where contingencies can take over. Becoming fluent in French, being able to think in a foreign language, was the first item on my bucket list and is still unfulfilled. Despite six years of French, and passing an exit exam on writing it for college, I never lived in a French-speaking environment long enough become fluent. Indeed, I remember how crushed I was on my last trip to France to see how little of the spoken language I had picked up (but I can still read a menu!). Fluency, proficiency, mastery come only from practice.

The Common Core State Standards are statements of the kinds of behaviors high school graduates should exhibit -- specifically, listening, speaking, reading and writing. They also attempt to show progressive development for these behaviors starting from kindergarten. What they don't include is mandatory content -- curriculum -- although it is very clear that if you are going to include critical thinking in these language behaviors, you can't teach it in a vacuum. Students have to think about something. So the CCSS are a way of incorporating language and language arts into all other disciplines. Why is that so hard for people to grasp? If you're a physical education teacher, why not have the kids trying out for the football team read Carla Killough McClafferty's new children's book: Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football's Make-or-Break Moment? 2013-10-09-hi_res_final_cover_Fourth_Down330.jpg
If you're an art teacher, have students read Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan's The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius. 2013-10-09-Grenbergmad_potter_265.jpg

The school nurse can hand a kid my book Your Body Battles a Skinned Knee.2013-10-09-cv_0822568144.jpg The whole idea is to attach a LOT of reading and thinking to all aspects of a child's day. You can find wonderful, grade appropriate children's nonfiction on just about any subject, engagingly written by top authors, in the free database on the iNK Think Tank website.

We nonfiction authors spend our lives practicing the CCSS in the process of creating these books. Art is a product of people who have internalized rules and practiced skills so that contingencies ( feedback from the world and from themselves) can continue to shape them and their work. Although you can find evidence of the practice of the rules in the works of masters, art allows the rules to be molded, refined and applied through the filter of a single human mind. This revealed humanity is the common denominator of the authentic communication that is art in all its forms.

One of my colleagues, award-winning history author Jim Murphy recently analyzed how he incorporates those behaviors in his process in his recent post "The CCSS and Me: I Could Be Wrong." Yes, he sees the CCSS as something he does all the time. His specific work habits fit into this rubric. It is easy to point to where and how after his work is done. That's why all of us nonfiction authors are not afraid of standards. We authors manifest the standards as do great teachers. We can just do our work and retroactively tell you what standards are met. But it would be as ludicrous for Jim to construct his next book by following the CCSS guidelines as it would be to ask a child to parse a correctly articulated English sentence.

I guess this is my long-winded way of saying beware of children's books with an "aligned with the CCSS" sticker on them. The standards are not in the books but in the way the books are used. That's why kids need practice reading nonfiction literature, not flat, boring writing.