There is a scene in the movie Apollo 13 where a team of NASA engineers informs their flight commander that they must insert a round filter into a square filtration device immediately. If they don’t, the astronauts they are monitoring will suffocate. The flight commander Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, pauses and sternly tells the men “I suggest you invent a way to put a round peg in a square hole. Rapidly.” Kranz is bluntly telling his men to “deal with it.”
I feel this scene offers an apt analogy for teachers like myself who are grappling with implementing the Common Core State Standards. As we struggle to reformat the “square peg” of our current curriculum to meet the “round hole” of the Common Core, we can either panic in fear or try to “deal with it.” Ultimately, our students are depending on us to instruct them how to meet the new standards. We can’t let them suffocate.
At a recent Professional Learning Community (PLC) meeting with my fellow 10th grade English teachers, we grappled with how to instruct Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to meet the new standards. Each of us came with a wide range of familiarity teaching the novel. Two of my co-workers had never taught the book. A third member had only taught it last year. I came with the most experience, having taught it to both high school and college students.
As we began to peruse the standards for 10th grade, I had confidence I could seamlessly tweak my curriculum to meet the Common Core. The reading standards were simple enough. I already had my students annotate identifying evidence that supported a central theme. Check. Yes, I taught them how to decode new vocab using context clues. Check. Then we got to the speaking standards. Do my students have class discussions that involve researching material? Of course, when we had Socratic seminars. Check. Finally, we got to writing. Do students research a topic that addresses claims and counter-claims? No, I never had done that with Frankenstein.
Someone suggested we focus on the theme of the Prometheus myth. Others agreed. The idea went viral. I had always focused on the doppelganger between the Creature and his creator, not the scientific ethics of Victor Frankenstein’s decision to bring back life to the dead. This would be a totally different approach to teaching the novel. Would I have to create brand new formative and summative assessments? My face blanched. My mouth parched. My chest tightened. A novel that always seemed so familiar to me suddenly became foreign. I became cranky.
Ironically, it was the two teachers who had the least amount of teaching experience were the most adept at connecting Frankenstein to the Common Core. One of them had attended a training looking at questions stems from the Smarter Balanced Consortium Assessment (SBAC) exam. We brainstormed the major themes in the novel and she swiftly developed a summative exam using the SBAC stems. The other developed a summative visual project using an advertisement technique called an infographic. Students would be required to demonstrate both their ability to synthesize research on controversial scientific topics like cloning with Shelley’s novel, and exhibit their creative visual skills. This teacher even suggested we arrange an infographic gallery so all of our students could see each other’s finished product.
After our meeting, one of my PLC members stopped by my classroom as she was heading home. I apologized for my behavior during our meeting. I told her I was planning to reflect on what happened in an upcoming blog post using the square peg, round hole analogy from Apollo 13. In response she quipped, “I think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be more appropriate.” Then elaborated, “Y’know, the book’s motto, ‘Don’t Panic.’