Common Core Close Reading Confronts Author Erik Larson

March 11, 2015 — 4 Comments

When Erik Larson was interviewed by the NY Times for his latest book Dead Wake about the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania, he Screenshot 2015-03-11 23.14.19expressed his purpose for choosing to write in the narrative non-fiction genre:

“It is not necessarily my goal to inform. It is my goal to create a historical experience with my books. My dream, my ideal, is that someone picks up a book of mine, starts reading it, and just lets themselves sink into the past and then read the thing straight through, and emerge at the end feeling as though they’ve lived in another world entirely.”

There is nothing of analysis in his stated purpose for writing, but there is a desire to have a reader engulfed by a narrative that ends in the reader “feeling.”

In contrast, in the first three anchor standards for reading (grades k-12), the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts spell out the expanse between their objectives and Larson’s expression to use narrative non-fiction to connect viscerally with the readers:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3
Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

The anchor and grade level standards were written purposely to be devoid of any reference to reader’s feeling or connection. These standards were carefully articulated not to be confused with the popular  Reader Response Theory supported by Louise Rosenblatt that focused “on the reader rather than the author or the content and form of the work.”

“Reading closely” in the CCSS has been spun as “close reading”, defined by the The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) as:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (2011, p. 7)

Analyzing the definition of close reading (above) through analysis in a WORD SIFT highlights the CCSS emphasis on ideas and meaning for the student:Screenshot 2015-03-11 22.02.36

Missing from this definition? The word “author.”

This word sift analysis illustrates how the “close reading” advocated by the CCSS requires students to read for meaning, with no consideration to the intent of an author.

The NYTimes interview with Larson provided him the opportunity to state that he does not write to a standard; he says nothing about “meaning” and “ideas”. Instead, Larson poetically defined his goal for writing. He writes for the reader to have an experience, and that experience is ” his “dream” or “ideal.”

While the language of the Common Core contrives to eliminate the author’s role in creating texts, those same texts students will be expected to “close read”, Erik Larson reminds us that authors do not write to meet a standard.

Authors write to create feelings in their readers, whether those readers are reading closely or not.

4 responses to Common Core Close Reading Confronts Author Erik Larson

  1. 

    It’s not that there is something wrong with the Common Core, just as there is nothing wrong with a hammer or Litmus Paper. They are all really useful tools for specific purposes. A hammer’s not particularly useful appreciating Rodin, Litmus Paper is not going to help you derive more pleasure from a good wine, and The Common Core comes up short when it comes up to appreciating literature..

  2. 

    What a wonderful set of analogies!
    It’s spring break…and so I had a little more time to reflect on your ideas about the CCSS as tools that “come up short”. I set off on a little research on tool design. I am not in any way an engineer, so I went for a fairly easy explanation in an online book. One section in had the following explanation:
    “The pencil is also the most general tool, used across all disciplines. The
    more the design process progresses, the more specialized the tools become.
    Design is closely related to the available production technologies and
    therefore the furniture designer uses different tools than the jewelry designer
    to experiment with designs. Every designer uses a domain-specific (sometimes even individual) toolset that is constantly honed and extended, and the designer’s skills in applying these tools are constantly improved through use, often to an extreme mastery.
    While tools remain a practical means to an end, this close connection
    with the tool also causes a dependency. Not only does the tool set the constraints
    for what we can design, it also defines how we perceive our work: It
    structures our approach and determines how much effort it will consume.”
    http://fritzing.org/media/uploads/publications/Knoerig08_DesignToolsDesign.pdf
    I was struck by the author’s use of “domain-specific” and “constraints”….which support the hammer and litmus paper analogies. I also took note of the last sentence regarding effort…and the CCSS are certainly consuming a great deal of that supply.
    Thank you for providing these ideas and giving me new ones to consider!

    • 

      I am quoting you about tools in my weekly memo to my staff. Quite a useful insight. Also this from Nabokov, via Karen Walker “The novelist Vladimir Nabokov said that the best reader has a combination of two very different temperaments, the artistic and the scientific. A good reader has an artist’s passion, a willingness to get caught up in the story, but just as importantly, the readers also needs the coolness of judgment of a scientist, which acts to temper and complicate the reader’s intuitive reactions to the story.” Certainly there are more ways to be a good reader than this, but certainly the Common Core pushes for the cool judgment and ignores-probably because it can’t easily be put into a metric- the passion.

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