Blogbook -- A First Look at the Common Core State Standards

Entry 30 

Let me turn to the first of my two central examples, the CCSS and OS. Consider the first anchor standard in the CCSS (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.1) in Figure 8. It is the first standard in the “Language” group for all grades. It states, “Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking” (note 193). This anchor standard is the larger standard for language learning that all students are supposed to meet or demonstrate, so it is the same for all grade levels, but it means something progressively different as one moves up grade levels. This is why it is called an anchor standard, but it really acts as an outcome in the way I described it in the last post (entry 29). The anchor is broad in scope and is meant to be defined more specifically for each grade level. But what is this anchor standard actually measuring in student performances in classrooms?

The anchor standard 11-12.1 assumes English language as a unified and uncontested singular set of language habits. It references “the conventions of standard English grammar and usage.” That’s singular, but whose singular version of English grammar and conventions is it? Of course, singular notions of English grammar and usage mean there is a right way and wrong way to do English in that classroom no matter how much a teacher says they appreciate or respect other versions of English. 

In practice in classrooms, this anchor standard ends up referencing whatever the teacher understands those conventions to be, which is based on their own language background, experiences, training, reading, and their teaching context -- that is, the language habits that are identified in the curriculum used in their school. If your course curriculum demands that you teach Faulkner or Shakespeare or Salinger -- if these are the primary models students read -- then guess what kind of authors make up a good portion of what this standard references?

If Goodreads’ list of “High School Required Reading Books” (note 194) is any indication of what U.S. high school students are required to read, then this anchor standard is an elite, white, masculine standard. This list is arranged in order of the number of times each book is “shelved as high-school-required-reading” on the website. As illustrated in the screen capture below of the first ten books on this list, the required reading in high schools appears to be very white and male. All are white men except for one white woman. Of the top 50 books listed, there are seven white women, three Black women, a Pakistani man, and one Black man. The other thirty-eight of the top fifty books are written by white men. There are no Asian, Native American, or Latine authors. 

What conventions of English do we imagine make up the “standard” for grammar and usage in this list? When a teacher must use this anchor standard to determine not simply curricula and readings but how to evaluate student languaging performances, what do you think ends up being the standard for everyone’s languaging? When teachers are trained by reading such books, then that training is reinforced by school curricula that use those same authors, what standard of English usage and grammar do you think is actually gonna get used to judge students’ languaging? 

I’m putting aside the very real problem of reliable judgements of such standards by teachers (both inter- and intra-reliable judgements). In short, using singular standards to judge any kind of language practice and determine things like student grades and progress not only privileges a particular group’s languaging (that of the teacher’s and the curricula) but doesn’t account for the natural or inherent inconsistency of judgements that occur because humans have to judge. Teachers, like everyone else, are not perfect. They are just as vulnerable as anyone to implicit and other biases in the ways they judge language. 

All humans are inconsistent in their judgement practices for all kinds of good reasons. We all have different language histories that do not easily agree with each other. We get tired or hungry when we read a stack of papers. We fall into a range of faulty “fast thinking” that Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winning psychologist, has impressively explained from the copious research on this subject (note 195). We each have our own pet-peeves in language that we notice (but not consistently) more often than other readers and so those pet-peeves end up counting more in our evaluations than in other readers’ evaluations. It all amounts to inconsistency in assessment ecologies that demand consistency in order for them to be usable and fair. But this is another argument against universal standards, one for another day. 

The anchor standard 11-12.1 doesn’t identify itself as originating from any group of people, such as the middle- and upper-class white groups who have controlled SLOs in schools and colleges. Again, think about the whiteness of that list of required books. If we don’t think the demographics of the authors on the list matters to the kinds of English standards we use in our classrooms, then we likely think that our singular standard of English language we promote in our classrooms is outside of a group of people, apolitical, even neutral. It’s just good communication. It is what’s good for our students. 

Perhaps many of us are tricked into believing this myth. We get tricked into thinking that standards can exist outside and beyond groups of language users because we can abstract such practices as rules in books and lessons. That is, someone’s habits of good or clear or effective languaging are abstracted and decontextualized, then placed into a grammar book or made into a standard for students to use, or for teachers to measure students against. But our abstractions that identify language standards come from particular places and people. They do not come from nowhere or no one. They always measure how far a student’s language history is from the group of language users (and their histories) who made the standard. 

And so, the standard in 11-12.1 is stated as “standard English grammar and usage,” and assumes at least three habits of white language: 

  1. It assumes an unseen, naturalized, orientation to language in the world by assuming that all students have the same proximity to this standard, that all students come to us with similar languaging practices and histories to draw on in order to learn this new standard of language, and that in the embodied ways we all learn and use language. It is just a matter of learning these particular rules, like putting on a different pair of shoes to walk around in, no matter what size those shoes are or how they feel when various students’ feet walk around in them. 
  2. It assumes that the language standard referenced is neutral, objective, and apolitical, that we are just teaching and learning impartial words -- neutral grammar -- not a worldview, not a set of unique dispositions encased in language practices that come from particular groups of people, not a way of inhabiting the world with and through languaging that comes from a particular place and its conditions. 
  3. It assumes a mostly singular idea of clarity, order, and control in language by expecting only the conventions of that assumed singular standard, which given what’s offered in the CCSS standards underneath this anchor at all levels, are from the typical elite white places we would expect, that is, grammar books, popular style guides, and elite white canonized texts. Additionally, these singular ideas of clarity, order, and control are themselves defined and controlled in classrooms by teachers, who mostly have taken on the HOWLing of the academy, usually out of necessity. 

If we’re being antiracist in our orientation toward teaching this anchor standard, we should be asking some hard questions about it, not to avoid or deny what we find in our sacred literary texts and guides, not to avoid presenting such languaging to our students, but to engage with this standard head on, to consider it as a political language statement in a language race war that has very real and uneven consequences to all of us. It is how the victors of the past have written today’s language history and rules. Knowing this means we can rewrite that history together. For instance, we might wonder: 

  • Whose conventions and standard English grammar and usage exactly are we talking about? What group in society tends to talk and write in the ways that are referenced here as “standard English”? Why are we using that set of language norms as a standard? Who exactly in history or our school decided on this standard and over what other English language practices? How is the history and use of the present dominant standard of English a product of politics, that is, a product of groups in the world in conflict (think, Indian boarding schools in North America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or the colonial American schooling systems in the Philippines during the first half of the twentieth century)? How does that grammar affect the world view of the language user? 
  • Who in our classrooms has the closest proximity to the assumed standard and who the farthest? How fair and equitable is this condition if everyone must meet the same standard in the same ways and in the same time frame? Whose unseen, naturalized orientation to the world in language does this English standard assume as universal? Why? And to what effect in the classroom? 
  • Which students in our classrooms does such a singular standard of English grammar and usage benefit most, or who does it favor most of the time? What kind of social, civic, and professional benefits and privileges does this standard confer and who historically has it conferred such things to? How would we figure these things out? What social dimensions (race, class, culture, gender, ability, etc.) appear to be the most salient parts of these groups? Who are they racially, for instance? What relationships to language does that social dimension, race, have in our students’ lives? Where do your students live in the nearby community typically, and how are those neighborhoods demographically and economically divided, different, and organized? How do these elements affect the way people talk or use language in and around those communities that may be different from this singular English standard promoted in the classroom? 
  • Why can’t we consider and use the grammars and usages of other Englishes in our classrooms? What makes those Englishes not worthy of learning, used to learn, or as a way to communicate with others in any sphere of society? How do we change the current language conditions and expectations so that more Englishes are usable in our classrooms and other civic spaces? What exactly creates clarity of expression, order in the arrangement of sentences and ideas, and control of language in the dominant standard promoted? Does -- and should -- that standard have a monopoly on such dimensions of communication? What textual models do we hold up to exemplify such ideas? Where do these ideas of clarity, order, and control seen in such models come from in history and society? What groups of people, and what circumstances or conditions? What opposing ideas, values, or embodied attributes in Western or U.S. society help define by contrast those assumed in the dominant standard of English language? 

Brave Work

Write 15-20 minutes. 

After you’ve read all the questions that end this section, choose a set of them to answer. Try to answer all the questions as best you can. 

Save about 5-10 minutes to do a separate writing. Look carefully at the writing you just did, the questions you answered, and those you had less information for or felt less sure about. Note the questions you don’t have direct evidence or information to support your responses or to answer them authoritatively. 

What kinds of questions about languaging and English languages do you not have much direct information about? Why do you not have all the information to answer such questions, if your job is to teach language to students? What does this tell you about your training or what you need for your classroom teaching?

These are a lot of questions to consider, and they are not easy to answer. But they make up an antiracist orientation to the CCSS. They should be ongoing inquiries that teachers do with students from specific texts, language practices, and conditions. They can make up the curricula that teaches standards like the CCSS. Asking some form of these questions with students takes this anchor standard seriously. It doesn’t let the standard simply disregard the students and teacher in the classroom. It’s an inquiry that assumes a bottom up approach to learning language, not top down. And it is brave, hard, antiracist work.

I’ll end this post with an extended demonstration of how a teacher might take on an antiracist orientation to the anchor standard 11-12.1 through a reading of the number one text on the list, Harper Lee’s, To Kill A Mockingbird. It should be clear that I find much value in this text. It’s worth reading and teaching, but the question isn’t, is the novel worth teaching as a model of the anchor standard? The question should be, how should the novel be taught next to the anchor standard? 

Below is a part of the opening passage in the novel, which I’ve excerpted in the middle for brevity. The passage describes the early settler colonial ancestor of the Finches, that is, “Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall,” England. This opening passage traces the lineage to Atticus in the novel. Note the nature of the kernel clauses in each sentence (I’ve bolded them below), most of which are complex and/or compound sentences. These are the clauses that form the center of each sentence, even though the rest of the sentence elements provide fuller meaning and nuance. 

Focusing on the kernel clauses is one measure of the politics of Lee’s English usage and grammar. It reveals grammatically her languaging practices’ priorities. If a high school classroom is gonna read To Kill A Mockingbird and use Lee’s prose as a model, even if only indirectly, then we should try to think explicitly about the politics of her English usage and grammar, where it comes from, what and who it serves, and what consequences it has on all of us. What is its orientation to the world? Here’s the passage:  

Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line that ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich . . .

Simon would have regarded with impotent fury the disturbance between the North and the South, as it left his descendants stripped of everything but their land, yet the tradition of living on the land remained unbroken until well into the twentieth century, when my father, Atticus Finch, went to Montgomery to read law, and his younger brother went to Boston to study medicine.

Grammatically, Lee’s prose has a consistency that helps make the first paragraph above only about Simon and his doings, even if much of the other grammatical elements that surround those kernel sentences offer lots of important information. According to just the kernel clauses, here’s what Simon did: He made a pile practicing medicine; was unhappy; bought three slaves; established a homestead; returned to Saint Stephens; established a line; and lived. 

Each sentence is centrally about Simon. Simon, the white man from Cornwall, is always the grammatical subject, even if he is not the one doing most of the work in the historical reality that the novel represents. For instance, surely those slaves he bought did more plantation work than Simon. They didn’t just “aid” him in establishing his homestead. They made it with their labor and bodies. Surely, Simon’s unnamed wife did more to provide daughters than Simon. He lived richly to an impressive age because of those slaves and his wife. They afforded him his life. The grammar of this paragraph leads us to believe tacitly that Simon is the primary actor here, the one doing most or all of the things done. This grammar, however, hides the real labor and doings by everyone else in the service of Simon, the white male subject. 

And who are those hidden others? They are those in the world who too often get erased in order to uplift the white man subject. They are those whom we have come to understand as subaltern: Black slaves, women of all kinds (in this case, his wife). And these subaltern actors don’t even get the courtesy of names. It ain’t necessary. Why? Because the politics of this grammar matches the racist and colonial settler logics that hide such evils in the world through neutered language and euphemisms. We give proper names to entities that are important enough to be singular and capitalized. Apparently, only Simon gets this status. The grammar of this paragraph tacitly reinforces a racist and misogynistic set of relations in the world by crafting a certain kind of family history that centers the white male actor, a history that can only be built with this kind of English “standard” and usage, a consistent white genteel grammar. 

Yet, I should note that all the non-essential, supportive and qualifying elements in the first paragraph’s sentences seem to talk against, create tension with, the kernel clauses. And one could say this makes Lee’s prose in this passage worthy of study. It’s so consistent in its tensions. For instance, Simon is described as unhappy because, well, his early success might have “tempted [him] into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel.” But this is exactly what happens. He dies rich with land, all made off the backs of slaves and his wife. He forgets “his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels” and buys slaves, then profits from their labor. 

These qualifying clauses rub against the kernel ones, forming contradictions in Simon’s character and life. This is the tension that Lee means to create, a Southern tension. Lee surely understood what she was doing here, right? But this is the wrong question to ask for the literacy classroom. The antiracist question might be: Do we, students and teacher, understand what this grammar and usage is doing, how it could function to maintain racist, white supremacist, and masculinist relations in the world? 

In the second paragraph above, the kernel clauses get more complicated, more nuanced, and one could argue it is Lee finding a way to phrase such difficult and racist sentiments in a genteel and polite way, a way that perhaps matches her narrator in the present of the novel. However, this causes her to use verb constructions like “would have regarded” to explain Simon’s racist sentiments about the Civil War, a war described as just a “disturbance between the North and the South.” Then again, this kernel clause is also followed by a qualifying one that creates tension by explaining Simon’s racist sentiments, that his anger at the Civil War was due to the way “it left his descendants stripped of everything but their land.” What is really being stripped from Simon’s family? Slaves. Simon would have been mad because his descendants would have no human chattel, no free labor to build their wealth. Lee’s qualifying clause projects a sentiment back in time onto Simon, a man who did not experience the Civil War, but Lee conjures up what would have been the case in order to reveal Southern tensions in the Finch family, inherited tensions.

These racialized elements in this opening passage surely matter to the central themes that Lee expertly develops in the novel, so it makes sense that they show up in these ways here. But if we just use Lee’s passage above as an example of good grammar and usage in English, what are the lessons learned by students when an antiracist orientation is not taken toward the grammar that identifies a rich, slave-owning, white man’s sentiments about the Civil War as “impotent fury” over a “disturbance”? What lessons are learned when we do not interrogate the gendered and racial tensions between Simon as the sole grammatical subject of this passage and all the unnamed and erased agents, all of whom serve grammatically and materially Simon? 

The antiracist lessons here are not about appreciating Lee’s English usage. They are about understanding how such usage has had material racist effects in the world, how it has been used to maintain white supremacy (think the “Southern strategy” I discuss in entry 3). Demonstrating an antiracist command of English grammar and usage, then doesn’t mean doing grammatically what Lee does. It means recognizing the ways such grammar and usage has served elite white masculine subjects, recognizing how it has also erased and harmed racialized and gendered others. It means thinking through ways to grammatically counter that kind of languaging today.  

And what about that land that figures so prominent in this passage? How exactly was it acquired, and who was it taken from? There is no mention of these things. The novel is supposed to be about racism, right? The indigenous peoples who lived and loved on that land are not just unimportant to the novel, unrepresented, but they are grammatically erased. They don’t exist in this history of the novel, but shouldn’t they? Is grammar meant to hide such agents and deeds in the world? Is grammar meant to downplay the owning of slaves, or framing a union with another person as finding and acquiring a wife, or erasing a war’s name and what that name implies, or erasing the indigenous people who for uncounted generations cared for and occupied the land that seems so important in the Finch family, land that provided wealth and privilege to that family, enough to produce doctors and lawyers generations later? 

Perhaps some of this tension in the above passage comes from Lee’s own family and life in Monroeville, Alabama. Of course, I’m also arguing here that understanding Lee’s family history can help us form antiracist orientations that help us read her languaging better. There are similarities with the novel that are striking. Similar to Atticus Finch, Lee’s father was a lawyer, but also a newspaper editor, businessman, and an Alabama state legislator for twelve years. He was a true languageling, a man who trafficked in words (see picture of A.C. and Harper Lee to the right). Lee herself admitted early on that Atticus was modelled after her own beloved father, Amasa Coleman Lee, or A.C. as he was known. 

In real life, however, A.C. was not quite like Atticus. In the Monroe newspaper the Journal that A.C. owned, he editorialized frequently. Casey Cep in her New Yorker article, offers this about A.C.’s editorializing: 

He then availed himself of many of its column inches for his own editorials. In these articles, the real-life Atticus begins as a New Deal Democrat and ends as a Dixiecrat, honoring Confederate veterans and their cause, supporting the prosecution of the Scottsboro Boys—nine black teen-agers who were falsely accused of raping two white women—and defending the poll tax. He praised law-enforcement officers who protected black prisoners from lynchings but opposed a federal anti-lynching law, writing that it “violates the fundamental idea of states rights and is aimed as a form of punishment upon the southern people.” (note 196)

Lee’s grammar in the above passage from her novel would seem to be one possible blueprint of her own tensions and contradictions with her father, a father who was directly related to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. We might read her grammar as a working out of her own and her family’s racial politics, a politics she was secretive about in real life, never talking in public much about it. Cep explains that “Lee herself kept curiously silent on the subject of civil rights, never lending her voice publicly to the movement with which she was so closely associated.” 

This is just a small bit of Harper Lee’s own language history, the conditions that made her own languaging practices. And like our students’ languaging histories, Lee’s is just as important to what she does in her novel. Understanding this history helps us understand better how Lee might write in the ways she does, and why our students may decide not to follow her example, or to do so. Regardless, they surely should learn that any instance of English language usage and grammar, such as Lee’s in the novel, is not produced from abstract, apolitical, or neutral rules or ideas about language. They come from real people, their conditions, and their racialized histories in the world. 

To learn and practice the CCSS anchor standard 11-12.1 from an antiracist orientation, a classroom might engage with this kind of grammatical reading without making it about blaming or shaming Harper Lee. She doesn’t get to choose her family, just as we do not get to choose ours. But that family and racialized history is important to her languaging. An antiracist reading of Lee’s grammar, however, offers us an occasion to reflect on the politics of such grammar. But to really do so, we also need a counter to what Lee’s grammar can offer, perhaps a Native American account of the Civil War in Alabama, or a Black author’s account of a Black family’s traditions and lineage of the time. 

For example, the African American Lives website, based on the PBS show of the same name that Henry Louis Gates, Jr hosted (2006-2008), offers short family stories by Black contributors online. What is striking about many of these contributions is that the grammar does not hide Black’s agency, nor the complicated and contradictory realities of living in places such as Alabama in the ways Lee’s grammar does (note 197). The stories told on the website tell Black family and slave stories that grant agency and centrality to Black Americans, even as they reveal the racist, harsh realities of Black life in the South and North before and after the Civil War.  

Now, some may say that well, students still have to be able to write well. The CCSS standard 11-12.1 states, “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.” So what “standards” are students left with to demonstrate? Which ones do we use as teachers to judge? Seems like good questions for classrooms to reflect upon and consider together along with those answers’ uneven consequences for each student in the room. 

Clearly, I think finding and using one standard is not the way to go. But descriptively understanding the function and politics of the languaging practices that already circulate in the classroom is a way to “demonstrate command of the convention” of one’s own English grammar and usage, and perhaps others’ as well. Demonstrating command, in this instance, I don’t think needs to mean mimic. It may mean to understand in order to draw out lessons about the politics of language in order to language more ethically and sustainably in the future. 

Or it may mean to “command” the English language to serve you, the student. Language and even our stated standards and outcomes in our classrooms should serve the languagelings they circulate among, that is, our students and even us teachers. They should not serve the school, or the curriculum, or the district, but all the histories of those in the room. I’d rather learn grammar that builds my world in unexpected ways, makes others fulfilled and full and warm, and that helps me understand the historicized politics that have made my conditions, that produce my boundaries and affordances. I want to learn grammar and usage that is unbounded and resists unified standards, singular ways of Englishing because that narrows everyone’s possibilities, erases people, hides too many worth standing proud in the fullness of each day. And that kind of languaging, that kind of grammar and usage instruction, does not require a standard to teach from. It asks that we acknowledge and be curious about the inherent local diversity in language that is always around us and always becoming. We have to be brave enough to feel it.


This blog is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.


  1. Goodbooks list doesn't (at all) illustrate the high school required reading books in my district - albeit we live in an "urban" district (if such a thing exists in Iowa). I'd be glad to send you the list, and honestly I think you'd be surprised at the level of multiculturalism that is not only expected, but desired by teachers. Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jacqueline Woodson and Alice Walker are 3 I can think of just off the top of my head. Because I teach Young Adult LIterature in the MAT program, representation (race, SEC, LGBTQ+, etc) are the driving force behind the list I teach to pre-service teachers.


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