Ruby Bridges, Muscles and Teacher Prep

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Consider the following passages drawn from Common Core State Standards' exemplar texts for second and third graders:

At that time, black children and white children went to separate schools in New Orleans. The black children were not able to receive the same education as the white children. It wasn't fair. And it was against the nation's law.
--Robert Coles, The Story of Ruby Bridges

A single muscle fiber is thinner than the finest human hair and can be up to a foot long in a large muscle. Despite its size, a muscle fiber is a single cell. Each muscle fiber is made up of thousands of even thinner threads called fibrils, and each fibril is made up of strands of two kinds of proteins, actin and myosin. Proteins are important chemicals that the body uses to make muscles, bones, skin and other body parts.
--Seymour Simon, Muscles: Our Muscular System

The sentence structures of these passages are relatively simple. Neither makes use of figurative language. One could imagine that they would readily engage young readers. But both passages place heavy demands on the background knowledge of their readers -- and their readers' teachers.

For children to comprehend the courage it took for Ruby Bridges and her family to integrate New Orleans' schools in 1960, they would need at least a brief introduction to the historical geography of the United States and the early stages of the civil rights movement. They would have to know something about federalism to understand how legalized segregation could nonetheless be "against the nation's law." And many students today would probably wonder how their own largely segregated classrooms differ from those that Ruby Bridges attended.

While the vocabulary of Muscles is more technical, the author does a good job of explaining otherwise unfamiliar words. Nonetheless, to fully grasp the amazing nature of muscles, students would have to understand what a "cell" is and how fundamental it is to the human body and, indeed, most forms of life.

Every text demands its readers bring sufficient background knowledge to unlock its meaning. Teachers can help students read by providing that background knowledge, but only if they have a firm grasp of it themselves. As these passages show, second and third grade teachers teaching to the Common Core are going to need a solid and broad liberal arts education -- the kind of education described by our Elementary Content standard of our national teacher prep review.

No wonder Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council on Chief State School Officers and one of the people most responsible for their design and widespread adoption, is raising the alarm about the current state of teacher preparation. He knows that well-trained teachers are the key to the whole Common Core endeavor.

--Arthur McKee