EngageNY modules: “So random” is no way to teach.

The New York State Education Department has been pushing Common Core implementation at a rapid pace, even forcing last spring’s new aligned state assessments on schools even though teachers had little opportunity for training and preparation. Giving teachers time to prepare and create lessons on their own is the key to any quality classroom experience. Educators know their students, grade levels, and courses. When given the time to collaborate with their colleagues the results can be appropriate and creative lessons for our children.

So why the rush? NYSED officials say “We can’t wait”, throwing out the “college and career ready” soundbites. Is the lightspeed Common Core implementation part of the reformers taking away the professional judgement and skills of educators? NYSED has started to promote its curriculum modules for Common Core alignment. Many educators from around New York see these modules as a scripted lessons and curriculum, but will schools and districts urge or force their teachers to use these units from the EngageNY website?

I have been hearing a variety of responses about the use of EngageNY curriculum modules produced by Core Knowledge. Some schools are giving teachers the option to avoid the EngageNY modules or possibly modify with their own touches. But this freedom is not universal. Educators commenting on my previous pieces on the Common Core modules on this site and in Facebook groups have said that their schools are requiring or strongly encouraging the use of these scripted lessons. It seems schools under the gun for low test scores or those who worry about the consequences of test-based accountability will mandate use of these programs.

The goal of the Listening and Learning Strand is for students to acquire language competence through listening, specifically building a rich vocabulary, and broad knowledge in history and science by being exposed to carefully selected, sequenced, and coherent read‐alouds.

My worry is that even classrooms that are free from the curriculum mandates will still use the history and science topics in these ELA Modules as their content in those academic areas. If schools chose to adopt the topics dictated by Core Knowledge I see trouble ahead. We have seen an erosion of time devoted to social studies and science in many elementary schools as the focus has shifted to ELA and math. Are we trying to teach history and science by artificially throwing these subjects into ELA blocks?

Here is a graphic from a July Network Team Institute training meeting. The history and science topics contained in the ELA domain units displayed show what the presenter hopes will create “connections” within and across grade levels. I would guess these folks are trying to show how the Core Knowledge curriculum will create “broad knowledge” by building on previous learning.

from NYSED NTI training July 2013

from NYSED NTI training July 2013

I am not buying the logic that is being used here. The history topics are randomly placed in the primary “learning strands“.  I raised this concern in a comment in a previous critique of the modules.  An official from Core Knowledge which produced the Common Core modules for NYSED attempted to defend this curriculum by saying that the material was covered in the previous grade. Learning about the “New Nation” in First Grade will not effectively transfer to Second Grade for the War of 1812. There is too much time between learning and not enough connections in Second Grade. Second Grade goes from Early Asian Civilization to Ancient Greek, then Western Expansion and the War of 1812?  I can tell you from nearly twenty years of teaching history that randomly “covering” topics makes no sense whatsoever. History is full of cause-effect and thematic connections. I teach Seventh Grade history up to the Reconstruction Era of the 1870′s. Would I start the year with the Civil War then jump to Colonial America, maybe throw in Pre-Columbian Native Americans at the end? Of course not.

If the topics of the history based ELA modules become the limited social studies content then students will suffer.  Previous New York State Standards had an appropriate connected content for each grade level.  If local schools follow NYSED’s lead and mandate the use of the topics outlined by the primary level modules historical knowledge will not improve. Is this part of trying to teach science and social studies within ELA?  Does this increase information text in place of fiction?

Here we have more proof that the current education reformers do not trust educators.  A scripted curriculum has been created by people far removed from our classrooms (and at a cost of $12.9 million).  We cannot allow a corporate entity to determine our curriculum and teaching methods. Educators should be involved in the process of creating the content and skills students should acquire at each grade level.  Teachers know their students, subjects and grade levels. Educators need to resist these ELA modules using sound pedagogical reasoning with administrators who choose to push these poorly designed and mechanical lessons into classrooms.


Follow Chris Cerrone on Twitter: @stoptesting15


  1. Carrie Patino says:

    After 27 years of teaching, I am left shaking my head. I feel like I’m spinning in circles. They keep throwing rehashed old stuff at us, under a new name and with a micromanaged scripted twist. We must use the technology, but it doesn’t work. We must do student interventions, but the materials aren’t here. We have to use Engage NY, but the font is so tiny the students can’t read it, and so confusing I have to study it for an hour and a half each night to figure out what I am teaching. It jumps all over the place. It looks like it was written by a bunch of college professors who know nothing about children. All this while dealing with new report cards, inexperienced or bullying administrators and children who come from families that are homeless, don’t have technology, and parents who have drug problems. Every since the “No Child” fiasco, all I have wanted to do is some real, juicy teaching. I no longer have time in the day for everything I am required to do, let alone read my students a good book. To be honest, this all sounds like a political set up. Teach these children in the worst way possible, make the curriculum too difficult and too confusing, give them technology to play with that their families can’t afford, keep the teachers spinning in circles and tie their hands with scripted lessons, and eventually you will produce a class of citizens so messed up they will do whatever any politician or capitalist wants them to do. Why not go back to the math and language arts texts that produced citizens like Abraham Lincoln? Bring back good classic literature, let me really sit down and work with my students on math, and give them time to understand it instead of giving us a pacing calendar, and see what happens.

  2. As suspected, the modules do not align with the NYS Social Studies Framework. Your child may be getting shortchanged. http://atthechalkface.com/2014/08/26/engageny-modules-out-of-alignment/

  3. This post and most of the comments were written at the beginning of the school year. I wonder how you are all feeling about EngageNY now that you have had experience with it. My first grader is loving the listen and learn units. There’s a lot of meaty information in them for him to scarf up. From what I’ve heard, the other kids like them too. The teachers are pleasantly surprised – they thought the material would be too hard for first graders, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.

    It’s great that the curriculum is so easily available to parents so we can supplement it at home. When my son was learning about Queen Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, I took him to the Metropolitan Museum, where it turned out they have a whole room dedicated to her, and he sketched a statue of her. Home run! I had never heard of her, but it seems that she was the first important woman in history. Her jealous male successors tried to erase her memory but didn’t quite succeed. It’s all far beyond the “Run, Spot, run!” drivel I was taught in first grade.

    I fully expected to hate EngageNY, but grudgingly I have come to admire parts of it. I’m still not thrilled with the math and verbal skills curriculum. Nevertheless, my kid is learning.

    • There IS a lot of meat to it, but they need to slow it down. If the purpose is for every child to understand mathematical concepts, then why are we rushing them? This isn’t new, it was taught by Marilyn Burns and other teachers before that in a much more child friendly way.

  4. Just added my “2 cents”…read your post and noticed the “random” idea as well, especially at the elementary level when focus on a topic would be ideal. Depth would still provide plenty of background which would stay with students longer. Too many come to me at the HS level with cursory information (or no information at all) Here is my take….

  5. I live in Washington State and work in a medium-sized school district. I think you are lucky to have the EngageNY resources to help you implement the CC. This process has been chaotic and poorly managed and there have been no resources other than whatever we can find on the web – “the standards ARE the curriculum” – what a crock! My MS math team has been looking over the ENY stuff and are feeling a strong sense of relief since we all feel like we’ve been spinning our wheels this year. I agree with what many of the people above feel about “teachable moments”, testing and pacing. The problem seems to be the schools/districts that are mandating something. But those schools would probably be mandating something regardless of what it is because that’s how it seems they operate…

  6. There are no longer teachable moments in early education… I have a rigorous curriculum to follow and if I want to use my creativity or student led creativity…. I will fall behind in our districts pacing calendar and then I fail as a teacher according to CCSS and subsequently teacher evaluation……

    • I agree, teaching is an art and they have taken that away from us and tried to turn education into a business. They are failing our children. I wonder how many of those people who write all this stuff were rushed through their childhood and expected to do fifth grade algebra in first and second grade?

  7. john garibaldi says:

    I’m in my 11th year teaching, 2nd year teaching sixth grade in a 75% free & reduced lunch school, not in NY. Taking on the new standards is prettty daunting, but the engageny modules I’ve seen online look like something I could work with, and my teaching partners agree. Weaving social studies and history into reading and writing time has traditionally been the ONLY way to find time for those subjects in my experience, but creating units is time-consuming. Could it be that these modules look better if you can choose how closely you follow ‘the script’?

    • Anything is possible, if your admin is willing to grant you that professional leeway to adapt it to your other units of study. The modules FOR SOME KIDS will be a challenge they can rise to. For the most part, however, my experience teaching these in elementary school so far is that the pace is WAY too fast, the concepts are flying over the kids’ heads, and I predict in a few years we’re going to reap what we sow: lower test scores, but more importantly, kids with even bigger gaps in their basic skills and problem solving abilities.

    • Teresina Tompkins says:

      The biggest problem I see is that the topics have nothing to do with what we are currently teaching in science and social studies. Listening and speaking can be reinforced by covering topics already being taught. There is no need for additional, random topics to be covered. Luckily my district has not mandated these ridiculous modules (yet). I met an ELL teacher from another district preparing to do her observation on the ancient Greek civilization module for the listening strand. Can you imagine how ludicrous this is for non-English speaking children? I thought she was joking. She is not permitted to deviate. A teacher in her district was reprimanded for going too far off script.

  8. This may already have been brought up but I am very concerned about the nature of the curriculum and its enforcing of White history at the expense of culturally diverse material. There is so much wrong with these standards it’s hard to know where to begin but in the CC$$ there is also an emphasis on White US history. On the FAQs page:

    In English language arts, the Common Core State Standards require certain critical content for all students, including:

    Classic myths and stories from around the world;
    America’s Founding Documents;
    Foundational American literature: and

  9. SpecialEducator says:

    These new ELA and math modules … were they ever actually researched and studied to see if they were better at achieving higher test scores than, say, Everyday Math or Scott Foresman? My administrators insist that they were and that the results were phenomenal. Students performed much better on tests and over all were much “smarter.” Does anyone know where I can check out such research? Thank you!

    • Cathy Baker says:

      If you can find it, I’d be glad to see it. I have searched for the research background on these modules and can’t seem to find this information. Hmmmm?

  10. Teachers are required to sit in to many hours of meetings and professional development that no time is given to them to create lesson plans nor grade assignments, essays, projects, and tests. If politicians and edu-crats wanted to really improve education it would not be through CCSS, it would simply be by freeing up teacher time and energy.

    • You have absolutely no idea how many times I’ve thought the same thing, J. Nobody listens, but according to our admin, the state does not allow any professional development days (superintendent conference days) to be spent on lesson planning. Weird, isn’t it?

  11. I had been one of many hired by my school district to write CC close reading modules this past year. I am currently a reading resource teacher in a renaissance/title 1 school. We had been directed to choose complex text within the grade band assigned; for me grade 4-5. We could choose any topic, and text. No guidance at all. This included writing the lesson plan and the narrative script. Our teachers are now mandated to choose from these lessons this school year and deliver one-two modules every nine weeks. These modules take A LOT of time to write, and A LOT of classroom time to implement. Our teachers are inadequately prepared or trained to write these lessons and feel somewhat helpless as the CC is being implemented this year, especially since we are still responsible to teach using our current state standards and will still have our state assessments for another year.

    • specialeducator says:

      Are things better this year?

      • Hope. Just more stress and anxiety having to now follow district-prescribed lesson plans that supposedly teach the skills the kids will need to be successful on those scripted ELA modules. Teachers can’t teach what they want, when they want anymore, or how they want, even if they know it would be better for their students.

  12. Margaret Benson says:

    As usual Chris this was “right on,” and frankly, I find it terrifying! Saying it is random is being kind. It seems to me to idiotic, not to mention developmentally inappropriate.

  13. Actually, the author has presented some misinformation about who has written the curriculum–it is a fact that classroom teachers have co-written and provided professional development on the modules for EngageNY, and educators who are part of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association have supported the development of the Common Core Standards since their inception. How any of us, as dedicated and thoughtful teachers and parents, resolve that we’ve been able to provide an adequate education to ALL students, not only the most privileged students? We cannot proceed as we have been. This is an opportunity for change that we should embrace, and if you happen to be a district that will be using the EngageNY curriculum, why not consider it a gift–to experiment, discover what is possible and which children you’ll be able to reach in a way that you might not have been able to before.

    • Yes, Julie, I have seen and read about teachers who have presented staff development on the modules and the CC in general. There will always be Kool Aid drinkers, those who wish to rise the educational ladder, and others who always latch onto the newest trend, including union members. Look at the comments here. From Facebook groups where I posted this piece numerous comments wondered how we can push in topics in a random nature without proper background.

      Even if the teacher across the hall created these curriculum modules I would reject it. I would love to see the names and resumes of the individuals who created this curriculum if it is a “fact”. Then again, many have asked for the names of current classroom teachers who developed the Common Core.

      As for your Common Core talking points: the implication that the CCSS will help all students learn and that somehow certain groups of students receive a superior education(or the opposite) is part of the failing school myth perpetrated by those who seek to either gain profit or power in the realm of public education. A curriculum will not help ALL students learn; small class sizes, student and family support networks, and economic reform will go a long way towards achieving this goal.

      Read Nancy Carlsson-Paige or Carol Burris, two highly respected career educators, thoughts on the Common Core. The inappropriate nature of the standards, particularly for early childhood students, is a major concern.

    • An excellent resource for early childhood education issues in the Common Core era: http://unitedoptout.com/a-guide-for-parents-advocating-for-your-child-in-the-early-years/

      • In an e-mail, Nancy Carlsson-Paige commented on this 1812 Curriculum for seven-year-olds.

        It’s hard to even know where to begin with this absurd curriculum, it is wrong on so many levels. Young kids can’t make meaning of time and place so distant from their own lives. If they were to grapple with it, it would be in the way Deb Maier describes at Mission Hill–over a long period of time and with the chance to build their own understanding gradually. What is so fundamentally wrong with this Engage New York approach, so deeply wrong, is the focus on content and having facts and correct answers, a focus that requires a fact-based, didactic pedagogy for success. One where kids passively sit while teachers direct teach content that is irrelevant to them and disconnected from the ways that they learn. What happens to children who feel pressure to “learn” topics they can’t truly understand? What happens to their sense of themselves as learners, empowered people, problem solvers, decision-makers, future citizens?


        • Jeremy Greene says:

          Actually they can make sense of that.
          Not as well as older kids (who still struggle with time and space, as we all do)
          But “Montessori schools teach the same “Five Great Lessons” at the beginning of first, second, and third grades. They are

          The history of the universe and earth
          The coming of life
          The origins of human beings
          The history of signs and writing
          The story of numbers and mathematics” http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/what-is-developmentally-appropriate

          That is much farther back than the War of 1812.
          You and Nancy seem to be out of touch with other approaches and the Core Knowledge approach – which when I started TWENTY YEARS ago I thought was the wrong approach – but I followed the research and it has borne out that Core Knowledge comes out ahead in it seems every comparative study. So please stop drinking the Kool Aid that kids can’t do it. If you think they can’t get out of the way and let someone in that thinks kids can do it.

    • If classroom teachers wrote this, then I wonder where they received their credentials. I cannot fathom how they would string together completely disparate topics like this. Content should evolve and build on each other, not run through some random sequence.

      Try harder.

      • patricia clarke says:

        I fully agree. What I really can’t understand is that they are asking you to culminate too many parts in one lesson especially if you have students who are not reading at their level. We need strong parental support and smaller class size.

    • I see the gift in some nice 3rd grade picture books and the potential to wrench ourselves from one core (a basal-guided mish-mash of quickly slapped together flashy materials that range widely in readability and usefulness, made strictly to sell in order to make profits for publishers and look districts into yearly re-orders of workbooks and such). I see a curse in the top-down mandate to lock ourselves to another “core”, the dissemination of misinformation and misconception, and the real lack of understanding or willingness to admit what’s happening. The core was created and promoted by people placed in positions of power over public education, with the intent to subvert its purpose. Education is supposed to be a way to free and empower thinkers-not direct and define them with a market-ready data construct.

      Teachers, real experienced educators with knowledge of how learners of varied styles and abilities construct understanding, are not being made to feel like they are free to “experiment” with these new modules and standards…even though they SHOULD be allowed to. They are being made to feel as if they are failures and need to be told what to do and how to do it, and better do it because they will have a mysterious top secret super-difficult test that will be graded in scored in a super-secret way that will then be a publicly shared measure of their worth as a teacher…They are suffering ultimate disrespect and humiliation by non-educators who are propped by private dollars looking to cash in on what is left of the public commons and those protecting it. The middle class is on life support, and our policy makers are following through on the 1% marching orders to pull the plug.

      I will be starting right off with ELA module 1. One of the scripted mandates is that I send these brand new, expensive books home with students-even the one who says that parents say they will just “burn stuff in the fire” if it comes home from school. The script says have them read to a family member “or the mirror”. Think about that. The mirror. Who wrote that, and why. HOW would you read to the mirror, and what feedback does this (teacher???) module writer think the mirror would provide?

      Real teachers know their communities, know their students, know the resources their district has available…They are adept at turning the nothing they are often provided into something magical. It cant be scripted because real life isn’t scripted. They make the most difficult kids feel that they have at least one safe, consistent, accepting place. This is what happens in real schools with real kids and the soft pink-handed wanna-be educator wealthy wussies and their politician yes-men cannot do the job, do not want to do it, and are only looking to sacrifice those that do. They hide themselves in gated communities, their children in well-funded schools, and do not script their achievement but are quietly trust-funded and escorted into a secure future.

      It is time to be honest. When these unwilling super-wealthy return our economy to us and fuel middle class job creation, families will be stable and students will have a structure to succeed into.

    • Teresina Tompkins says:

      This is like getting a gift of snow shoes from your crazy Aunt Betty when you live in the desert.

  14. Kathleen Shanahan says:

    I question why certain topics have been picked for specific grade levels. The NYS curriculum states that first graders learn about their community for social studies. CC topics do not link with the SS curriculum in place. So, reinforcement is not part of the ELA instruction, as Brendan suggests it might. Beyond that, five and six year olds do not know where they are in time or space and yet we have units on Ancient civilizations? (and then jumping to a new nation?) How were the topics picked? Certainly not to align with a child’s understanding of his or her world. Finally, I agree that the lessons, scripted as they are, demand adherence and limit connectivity. It seems in some that every topic under the sun has bee included into the unit (Bullying is a part of the unit on reading across the world for grade 3). There is little regard for cohesive teaching which is symbolically shown with the red arrows on your chart.

  15. Chris,

    I totally understand where you’re coming from and think you provide a very good point. Question though: For the most part, aren’t the ELA modules reinforcing historical moments that will already be taught by the social studies teacher? Maybe even providing some schema for when they learn about it in history class?

    • What social studies teacher?

    • Brendan, These modules are for PK-2. Students will be will their classroom teacher for ELA, math, social studies and science. I would find it to be a very rare situation were students actually have departmentalized instruction in those subjects that early in elementary school. Yes, interdisciplinary instruction in higher grade levels could work with ELA supporting Social Studies by reading a novel or a creative writing project. I will bet that the ELA modules presented on the EngageNY website could be the primary or only instruction in science/history that most children would receive if these methods are used in a school.

  16. David Cunningham says:

    Great piece, Chris. Since we started testing kids to death, I’ve had less time for social studies and science in my 5th grade class. Last year was the worst. Our social studies curriculum is supposed to involve history and geography of the Western Hemisphere. I usually teach a nice unit on Central America, since I’ve spent time in that part of the world, and I typically have kids from El Salvador, Honduras, etc. in my class. This year I jammed it in at the end of the year, in two days. CC$$ is a sick joke. Thanks for providing more fodder for the push back!

    • David, I have seen the harm in the lack of social studies knowledge as kids enter my 7th grade classes. These modules will not help. Instead of mandating large blocks of ELA and math we need all subjects equally.

  17. Educators should be involved in the process of creating the content and skills students should acquire at each grade level (…and students should be involved!) God forbid that we would tell our federal/corporate taskmasters the big secret….kids have interests. Yes, they really do. They are curious about their world and that curiosity should be driving curriculum, child-guided “standards” and child-friendly evaluation. It will differ from school to school and teachers MUST be In Charge of guiding and protecting this process of student-driven content and skills.

    • Absolutely! Student interests should help drive instruction.

      I do worry that the new teacher evaluation systems will kill both teacher creativity and student curiosity. Some schools are using iPad based evaluation check lists. God forbid if a teacher goes “off script” for that “teachable moment” that a student inspires.


  1. […] year ago I criticized the ELA curriculum modules found on NYSED’s EngageNY website and their “random” nature of content.  I expressed concern that many elementary schools have reduced or even eliminated instruction in […]

  2. […] My look at the module units: http://atthechalkface.com/2013/09/02/engageny-modules-so-random-is-no-way-to-teach/ […]

  3. […] now teaching in California, and reports are emerging from New York State about EngageNY, a program whose scripted modules are apparently being mandated by some schools. Respected writing researcher Arthur Applebee also sees implementation as one of the key […]

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