Archives For ELA CCSS

Perplexed: adj.

1. bewildered; puzzled.
2. complicated; involved; entangled.

(o _ 0 )  ?

I am perplexed as to why this word is on the EngageNY first grade vocabulary list, and again perplexed when I review the first grade units for English Language Arts (ELA) on this website. I am perplexed because I can see that several units in our current grade five curriculum (Early Settlers and the American Revolution) and our entire grade six curriculum (Ancient World History) have  been bundled into a series of units that will be taught in first grade.Did I mention that EngageNY complicates these areas of study with content area lessons on the human body and astronomy in first grade?

All these complications have me even more perplexed as to why so many people are recommending that educators visit and use EngageNY resources. In two separate incidents over the past two weeks, I have heard educators from the State of Connecticut recommend the site. One recommendation was made directly to the Commissioner in the State Department of Education, Stephan Pryor, during a roll-out of the state’s Common Core website. I hope he does not take these recommendations seriously.

Remember that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were supposed to guide teachers to teach less and focus more. The CCSS were promoted as a means to stop instruction that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The CCSS were promoted to allow teachers to select their own materials, an opportunity to move away from scripted programs, stating,”Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.”

Engage NY curriculum contrasts with these both of these goals; it is both staggering in its breadth and it is highly scripted.

A look at the Grade One English Language Arts curriculum in the “Listening and Learning Strand” demonstrates the breadth in a curriculum that is organized into 11 separate content area Domains. An examination into Domain 4, titled “Early World Civilizations” shows a unit that is 21 days in length for 6 year-old students using  a Tell It Again! Read-Aloud Anthology. Engage NY explains that this unit:

“….for Early World Civilizations contains background information and resources that the teacher will need to implement Domain 4, including an alignment chart for the domain to the Common Core State Standards; an introduction to the domain including necessary background information for teachers, a list of domain components, a core vocabulary list for the domain, and planning aids and resources; 16 lessons including objectives, read-alouds, discussion questions, and extension activities; a Pausing Point; a domain review; a domain assessment; culminating activities; and teacher resources.”

A further examination of Domain 4 means reviewing its 81 student objectives. That number is not as intimidating as the language in the content area objectives. The first ten objectives state that “by the end of this unit, students will be able to….”:
  1. Locate the area known as Mesopotamia on a world map or globe and identify it as part of Asia;
  2. Explain the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the use of canals to support farming and the development of the city of Babylon;
  3. Describe the city of Babylon and the Hanging Gardens;
  4. Identify cuneiform as the system of writing used in Mesopotamia;
  5. Explain why a written language is important to the development of a civilization;
  6. Explain the significance of the Code of Hammurabi;
  7. Explain why rules and laws are important to the development of a civilization;
  8. Explain the ways in which a leader is important to the development of a civilization;
  9. Explain the significance of gods/goddesses, ziggurats, temples, and priests in Mesopotamia;
  10. Describe key components of a civilization…
Consider the readiness for first graders to meet these content objectives, and consider their readiness in meeting  other content area objectives in this unit including:
#16 Explain the significance of gods/goddesses in ancient Egypt;
#26 Define monotheism as the belief in one God….

The problem with these content area objectives is that the response, (and remember this is a six year old’s response), is limited to a shallow or cursory understanding to any of these larger questions. Entire courses at higher grade levels, middle and high school, have been developed around these objectives, and many of these objectives will be repeated again in these higher grade levels.

Next, consider that the unit that follows Domain 5-Early American Civilizations, is dedicated to a study of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan societies. These first 10 objectives for Domain 5 state that “the student will be able to….”

  1. Explain that a shift occurred from hunting and gathering to farming among early peoples; compare and contrast hunter-gatherer societies and Mayan society;
  2. Explain the importance of extended family to the Maya;
  3. Identify the areas in which the Maya/Aztec/Inca lived;
  4. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca farmed;
  5. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca developed large cities or population centers, or empires, many, many years ago;
  6. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca had leaders (kings or emperors); identify by name the emperor of the Aztec, Moctezuma;
  7. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca each had a religion;
  8. Describe the significance of the stars and planets to the Maya;
  9. Explain the significance of the Mayan calendar;
  10. Identify the Aztec capital as Tenochtitlan; identify that Machu Picchu is an Incan city…
There are 32 more objectives for students in Domain 5, and there are nine other domains with an equally daunting number of “the student will” objectives in the Listening and Learning strands. There are more objectives, with overlap, in the Skill strands for each of remaining nine Domains. According to the curriculum in EngageNY, a first grader would be expected to have a basic understanding of Early World Civilizations and Early American Civilizations as well as these remaining nine domains:

Domain #1: Fables and Stories
Domain #2: The Human Body
Domain #3: Different Lands/Similar Stories
Domain #6: Astronomy
Domain #7: The History of the Earth
Domain #8: Animals and Habitats
Domain #9: Fairy Tales
Domain #10: A New Nation: American Independence
Domain #11: Frontier Explorers

The most striking characteristic of this list of domains is the breadth of content area material that a first grader (remember, these are 6 year-olds), is required to “explain” or “identify” or “describe.” These are at best low level comprehension skills in Bloom’s taxonomy. This list clashes with the CCSS objective to become “more focused and coherent” especially when this list of domains does not appear to be connected by any central theme; their inclusion appears random.

All this content will be important to developing a student’s background knowledge over the course of several years, but how critically important is this material at the first grade level when instruction time is at a premium? Practice in reading and writing should be a priority, and the content used for in the development of reading and writing skills should not overwhelm students, but rather complement student cognitive ability.

Nevertheless, EngageNY provides equally dense ELA curriculum at each grade level. Students often “revisit” content that they may not have understood earlier, an enterprise that could be unnecessary given the cursory treatment that may given a topic at an earlier grade level (example: studying War of 1812 in grade 2).

Like any other website with lessons aligned to the CCSS, teachers may find value in some resources on EngageNY. A cautionary note, however, is that these are not “teacher-tested” lessons, but highly scripted lessons from the juggernaut of publishing and testing, the UK based Pearson. This raises a frightening scenario of having the creators of student achievement tests (Pearson) hold teachers and students accountable for the content they (Pearson) have also created in the lessons.

Connecticut’s adoption of the CCSS should remain true to its stated goals of allowing teachers to select their own materials in the development of focused curriculum at each grade level. The damage may already be done, however, since the website Pryor was offering in the state rollout of the Common Core already contains numerous links to EngageNY resources.

Which brings me to another 1st grade word on the EngageNY vocabulary list.

The English I Honors teacher in my department recently suffered a serious concussion; no reading or writing for several weeks. Her classes must go on, however, and the new unit on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is next in the curriculum.  A long term substitute is scheduled for next week, and the students could easily read the novel before her arrival.

Moreover, there is a packet of information and worksheets in the file cabinet with background information on the 1930s and the author, John Steinbeck. The practice of providing such a lengthy introduction, however, is associated with “over-teaching”, a practice now discouraged in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. In statewide tests students will have to meet the standards of the Common Core, and they will encounter texts from many different sources. The recommendation is that students should practice “close reading” where they can independently mine the language of the text for meaning:

“Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally” (ELA Common Core)

The 9th graders could be staggering indeed; they have just completed a unit on Greek tragedy using Oedipus the King. Some students might suffer whiplash in the jump from 5th Century BCE Ancient Greece to 20th Century California in the Salinas Valley. There needed to be a powerful “bridge” to prepare students for this leap in time and ensuing debate between free will and fate.  What could be accomplished without the teacher directed lecture, especially if the teacher is not available? What format could saturate students in an environment of the 1930s?

A few minutes of research on YouTube provided an answer; I could have a substitute show students several versions of the Bing Crosby’s song recording of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The historical accuracy of some of the photos in this first rendition may be questionable, but the message of an average man’s struggle to find employment in the early 1930s is made very clear. The second version below is a sing-a-long-version that is particularly good as a karaoke opportunity. After watching the first version, all students sang along, some with more gusto than others, following Crosby’s cadence in the second version:

After singing, the students reviewed the lyrics:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

These lyrics provided students an opportunity to “close read” the context of the Great Depression, particularly in the lyrics “Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell” and “Half a million boots went slogging through Hell.” While they understood that after the stock market crash there were unemployed men who had helped in the building of railroads and towers, more than one student made the connection that there are currently soldiers who have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who have not found employment either. Their brief discussion was enough to set up Steinbeck’s tale of Lennie and George, who share a dream of finding employment to be independent farmers raising rabbits.

Once the background was established, students could then read the novel independently, the way the Common Core recommends in the reading standards. Additionally, the long-term substitute can now complete the leap from classical to contemporary tragedy without having to dwell on historical context. The only downside might be getting rid of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”… a song-worm now in their brains!


Author H.H. Munro also known as Saki

H.H. Munro was the NYTimes crossword across clue last week, and as it so often happens, I just happened to be talking about H.H. Munro to the sophomore English class these first days of school. Just name dropping Saki, his pseudonym, caught their attention.
“What kind of a name is that?” they asked.
When I told them he might have been referring to the Saki monkey, a small South American primate, they concurred that he had chosen a cool pen name. 

Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course which complements the Modern World History course offered the same year. Our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and  complex texts are those that meet four criteria:

1) Meaning: Multiple levels of meaning (such as satires, in which the author’s literal message is intentionally at odds with his or her underlying message).
(2)  Structure: Complex, implicit, and (particularly in literary texts) unconventional structures.
(3) Language: Figurative, ironic, ambiguous, purposefully misleading, archaic or otherwise unfamiliar language
(4) Knowledge Demands: Everyday knowledge and familiarity with genre conventions required; cultural and literary knowledge useful.

Saki’s work meets the CCSS criteria above, but I have learned that the practice of close reading never follows the lengthy tortuous path suggested by Common Core developers who have no classroom experience. My students stray.

The text selected was “The Interlopers”. (SPOILER ALERT For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story and want to read it before I reveal the plot twist, link to the text. There is also an audio-text.)

To prepare students, but careful not to “overteach” before reading, I gave students slips of paper with 25 words from the story. The slips including some of the more difficult vocabulary (languor, succor, marauder) and some plot details (woodland, feud, detest). Some of the students sorted the words alphabetically, but others grouped words that shared some commonality. After a few minutes of discussion, we joined together to predict what the story would be about using the grouped words; there would be a dispute in the forest that was linked to some feud, just like the feud in Romeo and Juliet.
Then we read the story.

Thirteen minutes later, some heads shot up. They had reached Saki’s iconic last word…”wolves!”

“Wolves!” one student questioned, “does that mean they die?”
There was much stirring. Some seemed surprised; others seemed confused.
In contrast, I thought the ending was obvious. Two men, trapped under a tree, end a bitter feud over forest land only to eaten by wolves.

Several, but not all, of my students thought differently.

“They weren’t rescued?” asked Kailey, “but one of them said he had men that would be there to rescue them in the forest.”
“He was bluffing,” responded Logan. “He was trying to scare the other guy when they first met.”
“But there was a gun,” pointed out Stephan, “one could have used the gun.”
“They had their arms ‘pinioned’,” I responded, trying to slip in another vocabulary word, “pinioned means to tie up the arms of…”
“They could have wriggled out when they saw the wolves,” insisted Stephan, “the rush of adrenaline would make them so strong, they could un-pinion their arms.”
“But there is no evidence to show that,” I responded. “The last word is their last word because the wolves come upon them.”

I had thought the story was straightforward. There were no flashbacks, and no change in setting. This was, according to Aristotle, a story that demonstrated unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.

Yet the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS. There is the figurative language in the character Ulrich’s statement, “We have quarrelled like devils all our lives over this stupid strip of forest, where the trees can’t even stand upright in a breath of wind.” There is the ironic wish, “If only on this wild night, in this dark, lone spot, he might come across Georg Znaeym, man to man, with none to witness – that was the wish that was uppermost in his thoughts.” There is also the multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man and the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? I began to consider the renegade students’ position.

“See,” insisted Kailey, “look at the text, Georg says he has seven men out with him before the tree fell. These seven men would hear their screaming.”
“Yes, there would be screaming. Their last words were, ‘AHHH!!! OUCH!!! THAT HURTS!!'”Jay yelled.
“But that does not mean they were definitely eaten,” corrected Kai, “this guy Saki wants you to make up your mind.”

Which is true. Saki does not end the story with screams of pain or with tales of rescue. He trusts the reader to use evidence to make up his or her own mind. Several of my students did not want to see Ulrich and Georg meet their demise, especially when they had settled their long standing feud.

The class discussion continued with each piece of evidence for the “eaten by wolves” side being countered by evidence from the “escaped with their lives” side. The students were definitely close reading, but they were exploiting Saki’s ambiguity to defend their differing positions. A case could be made for both.

Yes, they understood the importance of irony in the story, and yes, they were familiar with plot twists, but they still held out hope. Saki had made them care for these characters in the 2100 words of this short story. He had given just the right amount of contradictory information to leave room for just a sliver of hope. A 99 and 44/100’s sort of hope.

Did they hold out hope because of their youth? Aristotle suggests that, “Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.” Yet, Aristotle is also credited with saying, “Hope is the dream of a waking man.” 

In retrospect, Saki himself would probably have enjoyed their commentary. I discovered too late for the discussion that Saki has been quoted as saying, “A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.”

Continue Reading…

"Dawn spread her rosy fingers..."

“Dawn spread her rosy fingers…”

Our 9th grade classes have been reading Robert Fitzgerald’s excellent translation of The Odyssey. At the beginning of every book, “young Dawn spreads her fingertips of rose to make heaven bright”. My students have heard this phrase so often that they chorus back to me “fingertips of rose” when we read aloud. One morning this past week, I raced up the hill to school to get my iPad so I could capture this picture of the “rosy fingers” and put it on the class wiki.

We dutifully started The Odyssey with the “Invocation to the Muse” and Books 1-4, but the Telemachus “coming of age” story did not really capture their interest. Meeting Odysseus in Book 5 did not improve their respect for the “worthy man of twists and turns.” Once we read Book 9,  the meeting with the Cyclops, Polyphemus, their interest was revived. Apparently, they enjoy a good story of man-eating monster as much as previous generations from 2020 years ago.

I have only been able to locate about a dozen copies of this translation in the secondary market, so we did have to buy a class set. These replaced a worn set of the Richmond Lattimore translation. There will be an audio version of the Fitzgerald translation available in November 2013 I will be ordering so I will finally be able to hear how to pronounce all those Greek names!.

Our final project for the Odyssey is a narrative that students complete called “The Wamogossey: A Day in the Life of a Freshman at Wamogo High School.” Happily,  writing narratives are once again favored in curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

The inclusion of the narrative confirms what most writing teachers recognize, that writing a narrative gives a students a better appreciation for reading a narrative.

In writing The Wamogossey, we allow students to organize themselves as individual narrators or in groups of two or three. Our instructions to the students are based on the following premise:

You and your partners are to create a modern equivalent of The Odyssey. The setting is Wamogo High School; the hero a 9th grader – Fresheus or Freshiope.

Your character must make their way through a day at school, facing modern equivalents of the Lotus Eaters, Cyclops, Sirens, and all that Odysseus encountered. The goal is simply to get home alive, where the or she can relax and feel safe.You must mirror Odysseus’ adventures, including how he solves the problems (trickery, patience, skill, self-control, etc).  The essential nature of the obstacles must be the same, in the same order, but set in modern Wamogo.

Each student in a group working on The Wamogossey is required to write three adventures: a single narrator needs three (3) adventures; two people writing the Wamogossey need six (6) adventures; three members of the group need nine (9) adventures. This organization assures that there is an equal sharing of responsibilities regardless as to the size of the group. They compose the narrative on Google Docs; each narrator writing in a different color ink.

In addition, to assure fairness in grading, we allow students to have some feedback on the distribution of points. The project is assigned a base grade (EX: 40 points) Once the project is graded based, that number is multiplied by the number of students in group. For example a project worth 40 points may be awarded only 34 points. If there were three members of the group, then there are 34 X 3 points available, or a total of 102 points. The members of the group then determine a fair distribution of points; slackers are usually “outed” by members of their group. We rarely need to intervene.

The Wamogossey narratives must begin with an invocation to their muse. These are usually very personal and often reflect that we have a vocational agricultural program. For example, from this year’s submissions:

Sing in me, Brandon,
and help me tell the story of tractors, you, skilled in all ways of contending,
the fixing, harried for hours on end,
after the break downs and endless driving in the field.
I saw the end of the last row of corn
and learned that good crops come slowly
and weathered many bitter days
in the early morning cold, while I fought only
to save my life, to get home to the barn.
But not by will nor valor could I save all the gas I use,
Of these adventures, Brandon, tell about me in my school day, lift the great song again.
Begin when the alarm rang, calling me to adventure, when all I hungered for was for home, my  Farm All tractors, and being ready…

In addition to the modernized twists of Homer’s plot, each adventure needs an epithet (“grey-eyed goddess”) and one Homeric simile. My students call these similes “enough already; we get the point” similes.There is also extra credit for using vocabulary from The Odyssey.

So far, several of The Wamogossey entries parallel Odysseus’s adventure very nicely. One student’s encounter with “Eaganphemus” (the Cyclops/our principal) is clever:

Encounter with the Cyclops- Book 9
I was hurrying to class, I was going so fast, I felt like I was in a race car, and the people around me are in a fuzz.  All of a sudden, I saw the huge Eaganphemus standing in my way. I almost slammed into him, my wheels spinning so fast. I tried to get around him, but I couldn’t  But, I happened to have M&M’s in my pocket, so I threw them at him. He seemed overwhelmed! He tried to catch all of them at once!! Once he was trying to gobble them down I raced past, now that he was distracted. I somehow survived getting past him.

As the semester ends next week, the students will have finished their hero’s journey. Odysseus will return to Ithaka and to Penelope, and, yes, another “Dawn will spread her rosy fingers…”.  I may get to run up the hill again to snap another picture.

Screen Shot 2012-12-02 at 10.44.58 AM

What SHOULD be a tenet of the Common Core State Standards.

The 11th Commandment from Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? Thou Shalt Read Informational Texts.

This edict from on high, from current College Board President and co-architect/promoter of the CCSS David Coleman, has had a seismic shift in curriculum at all grade levels. English/Language Arts Curriculum directors and teachers are jettisoning fiction from their lesson plans in the mistaken belief that they alone are responsible for addressing this new found commandment. For the uninitiated, informational texts in the CCSS replaces the genre previously known as non-fiction and includes many other genres including essays, speeches, and reports.

Columnist Joel Stein exposes the foolishness of this effort in his commentary “How I Replaced Shakespeare” in the 12/10/12 issue of Time Magazine when he discovered that his writing was being analyzed by students. (Note: Diane Ravitch, education activist has the full post on her blog) His response to students who were assigned his articles and who were parsing them for literary devices or thesis?

“Transfer high schools immediately! To one that teaches Shakespeare and Homer instead of the insightful commentary of a first-rate, unconventionally handsome modern wit! Also, don’t do drugs!”

Stein readily admits that students should have some exposure to different genres and explains that he learns how to write in different genres by looking at examples. Similarly English/Language Arts curriculum require students to write in various genres as well through models as well; for example, students are taught with models as to how to write in the genres of essay, business or friendly letter, book review, and poetry.

However, Stein refutes one of Coleman’s most quoted talking points. Coleman said, “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’” Stein’s response? “I agree with this, but only because no one has ever asked me for a market analysis.”

Stein points out that fiction provides the models that makes writers better. “No nonfiction writer can teach you how to use language like William Faulkner or James Joyce can,” he continues. Stein also mentions how the themes in fiction, and he mentions Shakespeare specifically, prepare students for real life choices. Othello, he notes, can help students make better choices about choices in working partnerships.

Instead, the shared blame for students not knowing how to write well or be able to read non-fiction lies with other disciplines such as history and science, a charge echoed by Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers who, along the National Governors Association, created the Common Core. Stein quotes Wilhoit saying, “History class assignments tend to be short textbook summaries, not primary sources.” Indeed the CCSS anticipated that reading across the disciplines is the most effective way to increase student understanding, so the CCSS made clear that a student’s diet of reading should be 70% informational texts and 30% fiction. Unfortunately, the explanation as to how this percentage would play out in the average student’s school day was relegated to two footnotes. On page 5 of the CCSS English Language Arts (down load) is the footnote that illuminates the 11th commandment of how Thou Shalt Read Informational Texts:

The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70
percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.
As with reading, the percentages in the table reflect the sum of student writing, not just writing in ELA settings.

When the CCSS were announced, the misreadings of this the English/Language Arts standards began immediately. The footnote was largely ignored. Instead, the movement to jam informational texts into English classes began. Literature was dumped in order to meet the set ratio in English classes alone rather than a move to increase the reading of informational texts in all other disciplines.Stein recounts how Wilhoit highlights the reaction of the small, vocal group who objected. “It (CCSS) upset people who love literature. That happens to be a lot of high school teachers,” Wilhoit said.

In How I Replaced Shakespeare, Stein adds his voice to the small vocal group who love literature.  He is a former writer for the Los Angeles Times and now is a regular contributor to Time. He is a good writer who recognizes that all students would be far better served to read great literature (Shakespeare,Faulkner, Joyce)  rather than his column of “informational texts.” The loss of literature at every grade level in an attempt to serve ratios-50% fiction/50% informational text in elementary and 30% fiction/70% in high school- is too great a price to be paid to meet the goals of the yet unproven Common Core.

To some educators, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) could be consider the work of control freaks. To other educators, the CCSS could be interpreted like the line spoken by Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Carribean, “the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

At my core I am a control freak with strong tendencies towards being a perfectionist. However, 21 years of teaching in real classrooms with real students has informed me to deal with these tendencies in order to achieve realistic educational outcomes. I must teach the student in front of me, not the student I want to teach. I must deal with each student’s  particular mix of strengths and weaknesses. As I deal with that reality, I have learned to hand over more control to my students in their choice of reading and their choice to demonstrate understanding at each grade level.

When I give up control, the results are often unexpected, occasionally raw, and generally more than I planned every year. However, this  process is messy and individualized which is probably why policymakers cannot wrap their neat little statements around what really happens in a classroom. I have learned teaching  in the classroom is more like following the guidelines rather than following a strict set of rules.

But there are those policymakers who claim that following the rules is more important. One argument for this ideology recently was posted by Kathleen Porter-Magee who argues for text complexity in a blog post on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute website, “Common Core Opens a Second Front in the Reading Wars” (8/15/12):

But the Common Core ELA standards are revolutionary for another, less talked about, reason: They define rigor in reading and literature classrooms more clearly and explicitly than nearly any of the state ELA standards that they are replacing. Now, as the full impact of these expectations  starts to take hold, the decision to define rigor—and the way it is defined—is fanning the flames of a debate that threatens to open up a whole new front in America’s long-running “Reading Wars.”

Her missive across the bow of education uses the motif of war, the subject of a 2007 post “Reading Wars Redux”  which scratches at the scab of the phonics vs. whole language debate associating a student’s “natural” selection of a text with whole language; a student’s reading choice does not fit with scientifically-based reading research reading programs. Porter-Magee references that argument as part of a strict adherence to text complexity as outlined in English Language Arts Standard 10 and the complexity determining software.

The ELA Standard 10’s arc begins in kindergarten where students will, “Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.” By grades 11-12, students should, “Read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11–CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.” Determination of a text’s rigor is suggested through six different computer programs that factored in the research study: ATOS by Renaissance Learning; Degrees of Reading Power® (DRP®) by Questar Assessment, Inc.; Flesch-Kincaid; The Lexile® Framework For Reading by MetaMetrics; Reading Maturity by Pearson Education; SourceRater by Educational Testing Service; and the Easability Indicator by Coh-Metrix. These educational commercial enterprises (only the Flesh-Kincaid is in the public domain) are the means to determine what Porter-Magee argues is critical to developing rigor in our classrooms.

I would argue differently. A curriculum is not rigorous because of a text; a curriculum is rigorous because of what a student does with a text. Assigning students a rigorous text, say Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in grades 6-8 does not mean the curriculum is rigorous. However, a curriculum with a lesson that has students read the narrative, compare this autobiography with  narratives from former slaves that were recorded in the 1930’s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, and then have students conduct research on slavery and tell a story based on their findings could be considered rigorous. This lesson would be an example of a whole class read.

This lesson, however, does not promote a critical learning experience. The lesson does not address a student’s love of reading. Students may enjoy the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, but I would venture that few 6-8th graders would choose to read the text independently. That is why there needs to be a place in every curriculum for independent choice where students may read above, on, or maybe even below grade level. Teachers are educating students so that we will be a nation of readers. My experience in the classroom informs me that handing a low level reader a complex text for close reading does not lead to a love of reading. Moreover, forcing rigor is not authentic; many adults do not choose complex texts, in fact, many admit to avoiding text complexity as a result of being force fed the literary canon in a misguided attempt to enforce rigor.

The ELA CCSS itself does not require the forced rigor that Porter-Magee implies. Appendix A of the ELA CCSS “Key Considerations in Implementing Text Complexity” notes the flexibility that educators have:

The tools for measuring text complexity are at once useful and imperfect. Each of the tools described above—quantitative and qualitative—has its limitations, and none is completely accurate. The question remains as to how to best integrate quantitative measures with qualitative measures when locating texts at a grade level. The fact that the quantitative measures operate in bands rather than specific grades gives room for both qualitative and quantitative factors to work in concert when situating texts. The following recommendations that play to the strengths of each type of tool—quantitative and qualitative—are offered as guidance in selecting and placing texts.

Quantitatively, a book may be at the level for a grade 10 student; qualitatively, the book may be too mature in theme, or the student may need additional support. The ELA CCSS recognizes this difference. That is why Appendix A offers guidelines rather than rules; suggested texts rather than required reading.

This is not a war. This should not be a skirmish. The ELA CCSS can be met with a blend of independent reading and complex texts. (see my earlier post  on blending independent student selected reading with whole class novels) Porter-Magee’s hyperbolic statement about a second front in a reading war is  one of ideology not reality. Teachers, even the most controlling, have an understanding of how text complexity can be balanced in the classroom today with the real students in front of them. Policymakers who see rigor through the addition of texts are distanced from the classroom. Magee-Porter’s post should be met with the same level of criticism as given to the pirates of the Caribbean, “You’re teachers. Hang the code, and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”

English teachers, defend literature in the classroom!

I teach English, and I am feeling a little defensive lately. In the past week, I have had two separate “literature-threatening” incidents.

The first came from a reader to an opinion piece I wrote that was featured in Education Weekly, 21st Century Students Need Books, Not Textbooks. The responder was repeating the myth that English classrooms need to abandon teaching literature in favor of teaching math and science texts:

“You need to look at the Common Core ELA [English Language Arts] standards and realize you now have a responsibility to teach reading and writing for STEM subjects. That is why this discussion is so wrong. Start reading math and science textbooks and start teaching what your students need, not what you love. I learned early on: the most boring subject is the world is another person’s hobby. Your hobby is reading “literature.” Your students need to learn to read and write STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] topics, and those are found in textbooks. PERIOD!!”-Ebasco

This kind of response comes from the mistaken interpretation that the 70% of informational texts suggested by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) need to be taught in English class; even the CCSS devotes a clarification to this on page 5 of their document in a footnote. Instead, reading is to be a critical part of all disciplines, generally 70% informational texts in all subjects and 30% fiction in English classrooms. However, English teachers can assign informational texts just as history/social studies can assign historical fiction; the genre assignment is fluid. An entire section of the ELA CCSS titled “Reading in History/Social Studies, Science, Math and the Technical Areas” is a guide devoted to improving the reading and writing standards in all disciplines. The push for reading informational texts is certainly a result of STEM, but literature is not being jettisoned out of the curriculum because it is a “hobby”.

Indeed, the benefits of reading literature is rooted in the second of the “literature threatening” incidents, in a WNYC Schoolbook blog post a piece titled Never Mind Algebra, Is Literature Necessary?  In this post, Tim Clifford made a compelling case regarding the stripping of literature from English classrooms in favor of Common Core, and again, the roots of this anti-literature movement are found in mistaken interpretations of the CCSS.

Clifford began his post with a multiple choice quiz based on the following quote:

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root everything else out.”

Clifford posed the question “Who said the above?” and then offered three responses:

a. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and educational gadfly
b. Michelle Rhee, staunch proponent of standardized testing
c. David Coleman, author of the Common Core standards

Then he offered the real answer,
d. Thomas Gradgrind, a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in the 1854 novel Hard Times.

The quote expressed the publicized sentiment of standardized testing advocates David Coleman, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee. (I had chosen David Coleman as my answer). In discussing the correct answer, Gradgrind, Clifford explained that Dickens’s character was an attempt to skewer those utilitarian values in the mid 19th Century. Like today, there was a push for informational facts and statistics at the expense of creativity and imagination in public education.

Dickens’s novel Hard Times expressed his belief that an over-emphasis on facts over creativity promoted contempt between mill owners and workers.  Gradgrind’s name, like other Dickens creations, immediately expresses to the reader that he is an altogether unpleasant man, espousing that all one needs is “facts and statistics.” His daughter Louisa’s breakdown towards the conclusion of the novel brings him to the realization that fiction, poetry and other pursuits are not “destructive nonsense.”   Oh, if only Gates, Rhee, and Coleman were characters that could be similarly convinced.

In his post, Clifford described how his 6th grade curriculum has been altered to fit the ELA CCSS. He bemoaned the earlier loss of vocabulary and grammar in context and the most recent loss of creative writing which, “has been chopped clean away, to be replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.” He continues:

“Even reading has not been left unscathed. Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.”

Clifford wrote about a successful novel writing project that, “engaged students on many levels and taught them story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition.” Unfortunately the project, “was jettisoned last year because of the national shift to the Common Core. It was replaced with an eight-page (for sixth graders!) research project.” He sadly noted, “The results were predictably dull and uninspired, but Gradgrind certainly would have approved. The papers were filled with facts but devoid of imagination.” In Clifford’s scenario, a successful unit of reading and writing was eliminated to favor lesson plans that do not have the evidence to prove success.

Where is the evidence that eliminating writing literature in favor of writing research papers will serve a mission statement of educating  “productive problem solvers and decision makers” who are “personally fulfilled, interdependent, socially responsible adults” ? Why are so many interpretations of the ELA CCSS rigidly eliminating what does work in favor of what might work? More to the point, why is there even a 70% vs. 30% split in reading genres, and why do stakeholders keep missing the point that the increase in informational texts must come by increasing reading in other content areas?

The positive impact of reading literature was discussed in the NYTimes article by Annie Paul Murray, “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction”. Reading fiction, “is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” To summarize, the data using neuroscience proves that reading fiction is good for you.

I teach literature, and my students make connections to the real word (Macbeth to Afghan Warlords; Frankenstein to the science of cloning) in my class everyday. Literature helps my students make sense of the world; they do not need to suffer under a despot, but they can experience a corrupt political system in Orwell’s  Animal Farm. They do not need to crash on a deserted island to understand how quickly very civilized young people can tun into savages when they read William Golding’s  Lord of the Flies. They can contemplate how precious is the relationship between a father and son who cling to decency and humanity without having to survive an apocalyptic nightmare  from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  They  can better understand the historical context of Jim Crow laws from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and in Kathryn Stockett’s more recent novel The Help.

And they can also learn about the utilitarian movement in England during the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle class, the frightening system of government-run workhouses, and the dangers of child labor in another Dicken’s novel,  Oliver Twist. Dickens’s literature demonstrates the power of fiction as a means of providing background information. Read a textbook of facts and statistics explaining the Industrial Revolution, and then read Oliver Twist. Which version will you vividly remember?