Archives For Kathleen Porter-Magee

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.”

NEWLY EDITED 12/29/12:
I hate Reader Response Theory, one that considers readers’ reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text.

I hate how Reader Response Theory has been abused by standardized testing. Two most annoying questions for me in the Connecticut standardized testing for reading (CAPT-Response to Literature) are reader response based questions to a short story prompt:

  • CAPT #1:What are your thoughts and questions about the story? You might reflect upon the characters, their problems, the title, or other ideas in the story.
  • CAPT #4: How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?  Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

After 10 years of teaching with this standardized test, I can recognize how many of my students struggle with these questions. Many lack the critical training gained from extensive reading experiences in order  to judge the quality of a text. Combine this lack of reader experience with the see-saw quality of the text on the exam year to year.  Since classic short stories such as those by Saki, Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, to name a few, are considered too difficult for independent reading by 3rd quarter 10th grade students, more contemporary selections have been used on the exam. For example, these stories in the past years have included Amanda and the Wounded Birds by Colby Rodowsky, Catch the Moon by Judith Ortiz Cofer, and a story written by Jourdan U Playing for Berlinsky published in Teen Ink. While some stories are well-written, many lack the complexity and depth that would generate thoughtful responses to a prompt that asks about “good literature.”  My students are in the uncomfortable position of defending an average quality story as good; the prompt promotes intellectual dishonesty.

So, I use a formula. I teach my students how to answer the first question by having them list their intellectual (What did you think?) and emotional (What did you feel?) reactions to the story. I have them respond by listing any predictions or questions they have about the text, and I have them summarize the plot in two short sentences. The formula is necessary because the students have only 10-15 minutes to answer this in a full page handwritten before moving to another question. The emphasis is one that is reader’s response; what does the reader think of the story rather than what did the author mean?

I teach how to answer the evaluation question much in the same way. Students measure the story against a pre-prepared set of three criteria; they judge a story’s plot, character(s) and language in order to evaluate what they determine is the quality of the story. Again, this set of criteria is developed by the student according to reader response theory, and again there is little consideration to author intent.

The newly adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Language Arts is designed differently. The  focus is back on the text; what the reader thinks is out of favor. For example, in three of the ten standards, 10th grade students are required to:

  • Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme;
  • Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text;
  • Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Please note, there is nothing in the language of the standards that asks what the student thinks or feels about the text.

In an article titled, “How Will Reading Instruction Change When Aligned to the Common Core?” on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute website (1/27/2012), Kathleen Porter-Magee  discusses the shift from the student centered response to the CCSS  “challenges to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.”

Porter-Magee  describes how David Coleman, one of the architects of the CCSS ELA standards, is promoting the close reading of texts, sometimes over extended periods of several days. The article notes that currently, “teachers often shift students’ attention away from the text too quickly by asking them what they think of what they’re reading, or how it makes them feel. Or by asking them to make personal connections to the story.” Coleman states that, “Common Core challenges us to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.” Instead, he advocates the practice of close reading, a practice that  “challenges our overemphasis on personal narrative and personal opinion in writing classrooms.”

In addition to the movement away from reader response criticism, the CCSS will be upgrading the complexity of the texts. Porter-Magee notes that,

“Of course, there’s only value in lingering on texts for so long if they’re worthy of the time—and that is why the Common Core asks students to read texts that are sufficiently complex and grade-appropriate. Yes, such texts may often push students—perhaps even to their frustration level. That is why it’s essential for teachers to craft the kinds of text-dependent questions that will help them break down the text, that will draw their attention to some of the most critical elements, and that will push them to understand (and later analyze) the author’s words.”

In other words, the quality of the texts will be substantively different than the texts used in the past on the Response to Literature section of the CAPT. This should make the response about the quality of text more authentic; a genuine complex text can be analyzed as “good literature.” How the more complex text will be used in testing, however, remains to be seen. A student trained in close reading will require more time with a complex text in generating a response.

I confess, the movement away from reader response is a move I applaud. A student’s response to a complex text is not as important in for the CCSS as what the text says or what the author intended, evidence will supplant opinion.

However, I am very aware that the momentum of the every swing of the educational pendulum brings an equal and opposite reaction. Swish! Out with reader response. Swoop! In with close reading of complex texts. Students,this swing is not about you.