As Common Core curriculum moves closer to full implementation the discussion about its impact on students and teachers heats up. As you’ll read in today’s guest essay, “A Plain Little Thing” by Jeff Nguyen, the latest in the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, there’s a “collision coming down the tracks.” The effects of these standards are far reaching and go beyond the obvious concerns of limiting teachers’ ability to tailor curriculum to the needs and interests of their current students. Some states are beginning to question the wisdom and feasibility of such a national course of studies. While Indiana has taken an even braver step and has “paused” its implementation of Common Core until those involved can fully study it. Jeff has long been involved in teaching. He has extensive experience working with a variety of K-12 students with special learning needs. Currently he is a kindergarten teacher in Florida and next year will be moving to first grade. Jeff is not only a practitioner but also a critical thinker when it comes to educational and social justice issues. Sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it. But when you read Jeff’s piece you’ll see that he has a great blend of fact, insight, humor and Dr. Seuss wisdom—useful qualities for any teacher facing today’s crazy educational world. You can read more of Jeff’s writings at his blog .

“A Plain Little Thing”

I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Dr. Seuss

As another school year draws to a close in the land of milk and Honey Boo Boo, students across the land are looking forward to enjoying their summer break, whether it be learning to dance Gangnam Style, playing video games until their thumbs fall off or avoiding the outdoors like the cooties. For teachers, this stretch is looked forward to with equal anticipation. It is a time to catch one’s breath, eat a leisurely lunch with actual grown-ups and go to the bathroom whenever they gosh darned feel like it. However, when they return to school in the fall both students and teachers, alike, will have one thing to look forward to…the Common Core curriculum.

Just as the professional judgment and expertise of the teacher has been minimized through the widespread reliance on standardized testing scores as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, the Common Core takes matters to its logical conclusion by replacing state and locally developed educational standards with a national curriculum that all states who sought “Race to the Top” funding are expected to follow in lockstep fashion. By 2014, students in Kindergarten and up will take end-of-year assessments called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers) because, well, all 5 and 6 year-olds should be ready for college and careers before they can go to first grade.

Let me take just a minute to break down what life is like in a typical Kindergarten classroom, or at least in mine. Our day starts with 18 boys and girls, of varying backgrounds and abilities, who are all inclined to decide that they need to blow their noses, show me their loose tooth or new sneakers at the exact same time upon their arrival to the classroom. Invariably, before the morning announcements are over, half the students will need to use the bathroom or need a new pencil/eraser. Guaranteed, that by the end of the morning read-aloud, at least five students will inform me that a) they have a microscopic boo-boo, b) they’re hungry and/or c) they have to go to the bathroom again. As the day progresses and the stamina of the students begins to diminish, I remind them that they just need to pull themselves up by their untied bootstraps and finish their math problems or so help me, Bill Gates, himself, will descend from the heavens to reform their pint-sized, wayward selves.

In the past year, I have learned many things from my students. I have discovered that applesauce and ketchup mixed together are not gross but milk and peas are really yucky. I have found that 5 and 6 year-olds do not like to sit still for more than 1 minute and 43 seconds at a time but they do love to clap, sing and dance. I have ascertained that my students do not always like to talk about why Hansel felt conflicted when he was fed by the witch while Gretel was left to starve but they will gladly talk about their lunch, their baby sister, their pet hamster and pretty much anything else under the sun except how Hansel and Gretel can be compared to similar protagonists in the folk tale genre. I have also realized that children do love to learn, play and talk but it has to be within a context of authentic experiences that are carefully constructed so as to shape their thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way.

In my finite wisdom, I do foresee a collision coming down the tracks between the locomotive of Common Core and the caboose of poverty. I think special education students will feel the impact most heavily, a historically overrepresented population in the juvenile justice system who will find themselves increasingly alienated from the mainstream of school life. Eventually, though, all students and teachers are going to feel the burn. My lingering fear is that this is another “set the pins up to knock them down” initiative to widen the net of privatization and standardization of the curriculum at the expense of creativity, experiential and aesthetic learning as well as the minimizing of children’s literature as an agent of change and diversity.

I admit that I’m not too sure which Common Core standard was covered when my students learned in Social Studies one day about a brave turtle named Mack who was tired of being stepped on. One day he had had enough and he challenged Yertle, king of the turtles, who had built his kingdom on the backs of the unwashed turtles. When King Yertle refused to hear his plea and show compassion, Mack let loose the burp heard around the world. Mack’s burp caused Yertle to fall from his throne built high upon the backs of the other turtles and into the mud. It was a plain, little turtle doing a plain, little thing that brought liberation to the turtle citizenry. If only there were more Macks among us willing to make whatever burps, farts and sneezes are needed to bring the Yertles of the world back down to the mud with the rest of us so that our fellow turtles can be free to forage in peace.

  1. tubularsock says:

    The idea that every child should think alike has been the goal of the power structure for a long time. And yes Jeff, “. . . all 5 and 6 year-olds should be ready for college and careers before they can go to first grade”. It will soon be common for these students to take out bank loans to finish first grade or that is the goal. It’s the American way!

    You see, good obedient workers are what we need to produce. Those that learn to get up or sit down when a bell rings are ready for the job market.

    But then teachers like you come along and have the students read about Mack the turtle
    and the entire social structure comes falling down. The next thing I bet you do is teach your students critical thinking! OMG!

    You realize, don’t you, that the reason the architecture of schools and prisons are so much alike is not to prepare creative young people for a creative future but rather to keep everyone standardized.

    I do salute you for your uphill battle. But the system that you are working in just happens to be filled with “milk and peas”.

    • hjfoley says:

      I like the analogy between prison and school. I went to a catholic boarding school and you were only aloud to think one way and that was catholic. Must say Jeff comes up with great articles.

    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Next you conspiracy theorists will be telling me there’s a pipeline directly from the playground to the prison yard…😎

      • tubularsock says:

        Jeff, you really think so? “I think special education students will feel the impact most heavily, a historically overrepresented population in the juvenile justice system . . .”. I guess YOU do!

  2. Rick says:

    Just tell them they can neither eat lunch, go to the bathroom, or even show you their loose teeth, until they’re ready to be PARCCed.

    Meanwhile, great essay!

  3. Thanks for sharing this, I was a school nurse for a full 8 1/2 months and kept hearing of Common Core and had no idea what it meant. I was working at a Hopi elementary, so I know this is going to be a real challenge, and it sounds terrible.

    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      I have considered looking into working on a reservation. The family unit is considering moving to the Southwest in the foreseeable future. Is it hard to get in if you’re an outsider? How closely are they required to follow the local/state mandates?

      Thanks, by the way, for all of your support at my blog, it means a lot.

      • tubularsock says:

        I know nothing about the reality of the reservation but I would assume that the school system is run by the Bureau of Indians Affairs and if that is the case ……….. skywalkerstoryteller most likely could enlighten you there. If by the grace of the Great Spirit the school system was run by the Hopi Elders you might have a real chance to teach! Just say’en.

      • The BIE, Bureau of Indian Education, is one of the most corrupt bureaucracies I’ve have the misfortune to work for. I was the first school nurse hired, but the principal who hired me was fired before I started and the new principal cut my contract 6 weeks before the end of school. And yes, they are trying to implement Common Core too. And yes, if you are not a member of the nation you work in, or married to one, you’re always an outsider.

      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        Thank you for the heads up.

  4. Robyn Armstrong Bowles says:

    Teachers can make or break us, I live in Canada so I am not familiar with your education system but before I read this, I saw the pictures of the teachers and their students in Oklahoma, and read that they stayed alive singing, “You are my Sunshine,” to each other and I was moved to tears.
    Jeff, as usual, great work.

    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      It seems to me at least, Robin, that in America cognitive dissonance is a national past time. We bless teachers in one breath, such as in Newtown (CT) and Moore (OK), while we curse them with another. Teachers are human beings, plain and simple, who happen to have a whole lot of professional judgment and expertise that has been ignored in the pursuit of agendas and profits.

      Perhaps, they’re hiring in Canada? I admire the stands you take on your blog, by the way.

  5. If those kindergarten students want to go to first grade, they should pay for it out of their savings instead of expecting another government handout. OK, altogether now students, repeat after me, “The CEO is always right. Obey! Produce!”

    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Tsk-tsk, why make those poor kids save when they can they can just charge it? By the time they graduate high school, their sub-prime credit scores will make it much easier to keep them in line.

  6. msyingling says:

    Common Core is just a repackaging of the same things that have been around for years. All it means is that I keep doing what I’ve alwys been doing, but describe it differently for my principal. I do like the “more nonfiction” piece to it. In five years, this initiative will be forgotten and something else will be making the news.

    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Perhaps, but in the meantime how many teacher’s careers will be short-circuited? How many students will be lablelled “Level 1” learners? I appreciate non-fiction texts and their place in a balanced literacy approach. But it’s literature that has the power to transform, which the rule makers fear and loathe.

  7. […] post reminds us that literature speaks to us about life in ways that informational text can never do. That is why a […]

  8. artseagal says:

    Brilliantly written commentary…. it so describes the essence of the “common core” problem we are all about to endure (but hopefully not for long)!

  9. Lehrer says:

    Love your post! I teach second grade and I wish the powers that be would spend a day in my room before they tell me what second-graders are capable of doing.

    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      I can relate to that sentiment. Many of the people making decisions about public education have little or no classroom or educational experience. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  10. We need an awakening. Hopefully, this is a push in the proper direction. Thanks.

  11. […] article appeared as a guest post in the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series for David’s Chura’s provocative […]

  12. […] article appeared as a guest post in the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series for David’s Chura’s […]

  13. […] I just read /red/ I’ve just read /red/ this by Jeff Nguyen, a primary teacher in the USA, where the Common Core curriculum suffocates teaching and learning processes with even more harshness than here — “imperfections” here seem to offer more spaces for freedom, I would say: “I have also realized that children do love to learn, play and talk but it has to be within a context…“. […]

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