Saturday, September 7, 2013

What an exemplar isn't

An exemplar is not a mandate. The word "exemplar" comes from the Latin "exemplum." An exemplar is an example or model, but we use "exemplar" much like a superlative. If you're looking for a really good example or an ideal model, you look for an exemplar. But there is still no "Thou shalt" attached to the example.

Apparently some educators have confused the purpose of an exemplar and understood it as a mandate. Apparently some legislators need better briefing not only on what an exemplar is, but on what it really means to be an educator.

In a recent story, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye has become one of the current battlegrounds for Common Core.

It's as though legislators hadn't heard of an exemplar before Common Core and now, because they are such credentialed experts in the field of education, they are making grandstanding pronouncements about texts identified as exemplars and obfuscating reasonable conversations with staged outrage designed to do something--I'm not clear what--but nothing that really helps educators or parents or kids.

If we separate the political agenda from The Bluest Eye, we see a story of a young African-American girl trying to make sense of the world in which she lives, trying to understand the violence she experiences and who cannot help but wonder if this is "normal." Morrison's book is one of several listed as 11th grade exemplars:
  • William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Saul Bellow, The Adventures of March
  • Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake 
I doubt the legislators and the so-called conservative commentators have a clear rubric for assessing the quality of a book, for determining why or why not any particular book may be a good choice for a group of students to help the students themselves better understand the world in which they live and in which they will be growing up, to figure out what doesn't work and what they might hope to change to improve the quality of life for all people.

The bottom line is this: an exemplar is a model. One that an educator may choose to use, or not. What the educator needs to understand are the qualities of the text that promote the learning skills and proficiencies a student can develop and hone as a result of working with that text. If an educator believes that text might not be the best resource for his or her students, then that educator can use the professional judgement and skills she or he has to determine a different work that enables his or her students to learn and demonstrate the proficiencies necessary for that grade level.

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