BOOK REVIEW: Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards Go Wrong About Instruction-and How You Can Get It Right

Reviewed by Agnes Burns

Authors: Michael W. Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
ISBN: 978-1-4833-3352-6
Publisher: Corwin Literacy
Audience:  Educators, Administrators, and Curriculum Specialists at the Secondary Level

Educators are familiar with the confusion and controversies that have surrounded the Common Core State Standards. Many have weighed in and offered opinions that have left educators, parents, and stakeholders wondering what direction to take. In their book, Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards Go Wrong About Instruction and How You Can Get It Right, Michael Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeffrey Wilhelm offer some guidance about how the English Language Arts standards can be implemented faithfully using what are considered research-based best practices. By means of introducing their recommendations, they offer a look into the development of the standards, some of the positive aspects, and breakdown misconceptions regarding instructional practices. Most of all, they offer teachers a path to follow that is clearly marked by research on what works for students.

The authors describe several favorable aspects of the standards including that for the first time all states can have common understandings of what needs to be taught at each level and can share resources. The standards provide teachers the freedom to choose resources and materials, which combined with the fact that there are fewer standards, allow educators to teach more deeply. Covering content is no longer a sprint, but a marathon. And finally, all our children can learn from instructional practices that inspire them while providing a true purpose.

However, they also, as the title suggests, provide some insight into the negatives that have been voiced. For example, we have heard the controversy over how much time or what percentage of instruction should be allocated to nonfiction versus fiction. This has caused quite a national discussion. If some teachers believe that there is a prescribed amount of time that is best for teaching fiction, then those teachers might miss opportunities to engage, motivate, and teach students to appreciate literature and the joy of reading for pleasure.

Misconceptions surrounding teaching one text and not connecting across texts or teaching strategically across texts, can deprive students of expanding their knowledge and learning how to think analytically and problem solve independently. Misconceptions can plague instruction if educators are not well informed. All students deserve the kind of instruction that will prepare them for the future and literacy educators can rely on Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm’s guidance in this well-laid out book.

Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm devote each chapter to describing a misconception as well as how describing how teachers can implement the standards, but in a meaningful way. One chapter addresses the critical importance of background knowledge. Many educators have seen David Coleman’s demonstration of close reading using Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” done on the Engage NY website. In referring to Coleman’s description of pre-reading, the author’s state, “His is an impoverished and gross misrepresentation and underrepresentation of good teaching.” (p. 39) Following this harsh statement, the authors argue their case for the importance of background knowledge by using a sports analogy of practicing before the “big” game and not just showing up hoping for a win. Five possible strategies with specific guidelines for implementation follow along with a research base. Throughout the book, Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm refer to David Coleman’s video of teaching “Letter From Birmingham Jail” as their basis for explaining misunderstandings and how classroom teachers can plan instruction that reflects the expectations of the Common Core. Coleman advocates for teaching the three paragraphs of The Gettysburg Address over six days! He breaks the instruction down by following each paragraph with text-dependent questions that don’t correlate with the rigorous expectations set forth in the standards. Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm rescue their readers with a hefty dose of what research tells us are effective practices that guide us to notice information in any text and offer ways to instruct students to create their own questions!

The book culminates with the authors’ revised unit for teaching “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The planning and materials are described in detail along with why these ideas will work. This unit exemplifies what should be happening in classrooms across the United States. The activities are aligned with the Common Core State Standards and illustrate instruction that is appealing to all students and prepares them for a literate life in which they can understand, appreciate, analyze, and communicate with friends and colleagues.