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In order to familiarize English teachers with the Common Core Language Arts Standards, education policy expert David Coleman has been making the rounds with sample lessons and explanations. A video taken in NY , Close Reading of Text: Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. from EngageNY on Vimeo, has been posted on the English Companion Ning with the caption, “David Coleman leads a sample exploration of a complex text utilizing strategies outlined within the six shifts in instruction.” The text he discusses is Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail; the video takes 15 1/2 minutes to watch. One point he makes about extended close reading is particularly alarming. But first, a quick bio on David Coleman (supplied for seminar):

David Coleman is a Founding Partner of Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit  organization that assembles leading thinkers and researchers to design actions to substantially improve student achievement. Most recently, Mr. Coleman and Jason Zimba of Student Achievement Partners played a lead role in developing the Common Core State Standards in math and literacy. Mr. Coleman and Jason Zimba also founded the Grow Network – acquired by McGr aw-Hill in 2005 – with the mission of making assessment results truly useful to teachers, school leaders, parents, and students. Mr. Coleman spent five years at McKinsey & Company, where his work focused on health care, financial institutions, and pro bono service to education. He is a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Yale University, Oxford University, and Cambridge University.

Coleman is also on the board of directors of The Equity Project Charter School (TEP), a 480-student middle school in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City that opened in September 2009. The school has received much attention because of the  $125,000 salaries paid to teachers. The 2010-2011 results of NY English-Language Arts Assessment given to 5th graders saw a passing rate of  31.3%, below average for comparable schools. The school, however, has moved up 127 ranking points from 2009-2010, and its current standing in ELA assessment is 1972 out of 2291 NY state schools.

I think it is important to note that Coleman is not a teacher. He has not taught in a classroom.
Back to Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Coleman spends a great deal of time using a New Criticism approach, which is defined at the Bedford St. Martin VirtuaLit website as one that, “…stresses close textual analysis and viewing the text as a carefully crafted, orderly object containing formal, observable patterns…New Critics are more likely than certain other critics to believe and say that the meaning of a text can be known objectively.” This marks a shift from Reader Response Criticism, defined by proponent Stanley Fish as recognizing that the reader is active, and that “Literature exists and signifies when it is read,and its force is an affective one. Furthermore, reading is a temporal process, not a spatial one as formalists assume when they step back and survey the literary work as if it were an object spread out before them.”

Paragraph by paragraph, Coleman analyzes the language and structure of King’s letter, occasionally suggesting  that the letter can be a jumping off point for further study into historical injustice or to Socrates. Exactly how a teacher positions the students to make the intellectual jump to recognizing the strategies of King’s moral argument is not explained in Coleman’s video.  Instead, Coleman offers his possible interpretations of King’s letter. He models a lesson he would give, but he is not providing a strategy. Strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a vision; Coleman provides an example, not a plan of action. To be clear, critical thinking is a strategy and students need to have critical thinking skills. For example, at the Critical Thinking Community, there are eight elements of reasoning that could serve as strategy, a plan of action, for analyzing King’s letter:

  • What is the text’s purpose?
  • What questions does the text generate or try to answer?
  • What information is contained in this text to answer these questions?
  • What inferences are being made in the text?
  • What key concepts does the reader need to know when reading the text?
  • What assumptions can the reader make about the text (and its author, purpose)?
  • What are the consequences of having read this text?
  • Whose point of view is seen in the text? Whose point of view would be different?

I have not taught King’s letter, but I have taught challenging texts of similar length and complexity. I have taught Elie Wiesel’s 1999 speech to Congress The Perils of Indifference and George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. Both pieces were taught in conjunction with a work of fiction rather than “stand alone” pieces. Both texts took one or two periods to have students understand the purpose of the text and the information in the texts. I did not take students through all of the elements of reasoning; these were supplemental texts I chose to support fiction were we studying.

So when I heard Coleman’s position that a teacher should spend six to eight days on this letter, I was taken aback. Really? Six to eight days is two weeks in “school time”, the same amount of time I usually spend teaching the entire memoir Night by Elie Wiesel. Six to eight days represents the class time used for several grammar mini-lessons and two polished essays. Six to eight days represents a unit on (8) sonnets, or a unit on (5) short stories, or the in-class reading of three acts of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Again, I must reiterate that Coleman is not a teacher. He has not taught in a classroom.

Back to Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

The genius of King’s letter is how he combines the political and moral argument in an emotional appeal that is, like all great literature, immediately evident. I see the protracted dissection of his letter as akin to tearing a delicious muffin apart in order to reduce the muffin to its ingredients, all that is left are the (still delicious) crumbs. Furthermore, focusing so much attention on this one letter  could be construed as a little insulting to King. I sense he, like any author, did not intend for his work to be parsed in classrooms for such extended periods of time. Close reading is important, but inspection is another. Students generally are not interested in the minutiae of rhetorical composition. I also envision a cadre of dead American authors similarly frustrated rolling in their graves as students are forced to slog through weeks upon weeks of literature study…”Once upon a  midnight dreary…” .

In my classrooms, Coleman’s suggested time of processing extended reading over six to eight days would be met with frustration by many of my students, regardless of reading level. I speak from experience in the classroom where three days (reading, responding, discussing, and writing) in a 9th grade classroom spent on Edgar Allen Poe’s Cask of the Amontillado is sufficient; a fourth day would make them as mad as Montresor. Furthermore, his blithe remark that extended time will better allow all students to participate and make contributions again places the emphasis on time rather than on the engaging strategies that need to be in place.Yes, close reading is a skill, but that skill must be practiced with a multitude of texts. The application of close reading skills from one selection to another is where many students falter.  Strategies that improve a student’s close reading skills from one selection to another, from one genre to another, from one discipline to another should be the focus of teachers implementing Common Core standards. The disproportioned allotment of time to one text reduces the amount of time practicing with other texts. While Coleman could argue that a close reading of six to eight days would be taught only once in order to model close reading skills, the likelihood that students would replicate that lengthy  process on their own is unlikely.

A student’s level of appreciation of a text is still often tied to personal experience. Deep engagement with a text for student is,  as with many adults, a personal experience that cannot be forced. Coleman’s six to eight day formula may make a student aware of elements in a text but not necessarily personally engage in the same manner he espouses. His personal engagement with King’s letter is obviously one of reverence; his video explaining King’s letter borders on proselytizing. In comparison, King did that better-and he didn’t take six days.

The question started innocently enough. An assignment for a class I am taking offered through The Critical Thinking Community required that I integrate one of the elements of reasoning in a lesson. I chose the element of purpose and decided to ask my 9th grade students what was the purpose of reading a non-fiction essay ,”My Mother”, by Amy Tan. Several students dutifully raised their hands.

To know about her mother?”
“It’s a memory?”
“To remember what her mom said?”

Their responses were predictable and did not sound thoughtful; they sounded like they were guessing. I hate playing “Guess What the Teacher Wants to Hear”, so I shifted the question: “What is the purpose of reading an essay?”

Hesitation. Some disconcerted looks. A few timid hands.

“To read?”
“To understand what’s a good essay?”

I must have looked a little frustrated. “Why are you here?” I demanded.

Blank stares.

“Well, what is the purpose of English class? Why are you here?”

Then it hit me. They really had not given a thought as to why they were in English. I mean, they know what English class is, they have been in English every year they have attended school-nine years to date. They looked perplexed.

“Because, we are forced to come,” said Chris.
“Yes, we have to come,” agreed Mike.

They shifted nervously in their seats.

“That’s not purpose. That’s a result of someone else’s purpose,” I replied.

“To learn….(student voice trails off)…English?”

So, I took the cup of popsicle sticks labeled with each student’s name. “What is the purpose of English Class?” I asked each student after I called out a name. One by one they offered suggestions:

  • “….to learn…how to…write”
  • “…to learn how… to read?”
  • “…to learn about the comma?”
  • “…so we can go to college.”
  • “…to learn what is in a book…characters.”

After each response,  I asked the next student “Do you agree with that reason?” before I asked “What is the purpose of English class?”

As we went around the room, I explained there could be “no repeats“; the responders had to think more critically about what I was asking. Slowly, their responses became more sophisticated. Their responses did not have the sound of a question. They were answering my repeated question as a statement. They began to stir and leaned forward in interest trying to see who could come up with the “answer”.

  • “To learn about how characters are like people”
  • “To experience stories that we cannot really be in”
  • “To read and write about how we are all connected.”
  • “To be able to write so that other people can understand what we are saying and maybe believe what we write.”

They started to raise their hands to adding new ideas to this brainstorming sessions. They wanted to give the correct answer….to stop my interrogation. Honestly,  I did not have an answer. I had no idea where this exercise was going, I was simply letting them critically think about why they came into my class day after day. They were suddenly engaged and eager to answer. At some level, they understood the importance of English class, they just had not thought about the purpose. In defining the purpose, they suddenly understood the purpose of my original question. I went back and asked, “What was the purpose of Amy Tan’s essay?”

  • “She is feeling guilty and she wants to make it up to her mom.”
  • “Her mother was important to her, and now that her mother has dies, she wants to tell others about how they should appreciate their mother.”
  • “Regret is hard, and she is living in regret like so many people who make mistakes when they are young…this is a confession.” 

My spontaneous shift  from asking about an essay to the larger topic  of why they were in English demonstrated how important the element of purpose is  to teaching. My next step will be to have students internalize the question, “What is the purpose of this _______(book, essay, poem, article, assignment, class)?” on their own, every day, semester after semester.

In the courtroom, the saying is “Never ask a question if you don’t know the answer.” But in education, we ask questions as a means to discover the answer. The Critical Thinking Community website states, “We must continually remind ourselves that thinking begins with respect to some content only when questions are generated by both teachers and students. No questions equals no understanding.”

So go ahead and ask, “What’s the purpose of English class?” Get the students thinking.