Saturday, September 12, 2009

How to Teach to the Test: Stone Soup

[update 11/2012: Maine has adapted the CCSS, The Hunger Games is a has-been, both of which may bring about a change in ELA reading curricula. But that still remains to be seen. I stand by this post.]

I spent Saturday morning in room 403, Bonney Hall, USM, Portland, where I took the Praxis II, Middle School English Language Arts. For just over an hour I answered multiple choice questions (90), the majority of which required knowledge of "the classics" I read in college, high school and middle school. In some questions, I was asked for authors; in some questions, I was asked for titles; in many questions I was required to place a text in its literary movement. One of the two short essays challenged me to write about the development of mood through detail and imagery - the passage was by D.H. Lawrence (Sons and Lovers?).

Every teacher wishing to earn Maine's 6-8 Language Arts endorsement has to take this test. I was well prepared, due almost entirely to high school, college, and adult independent reading of classic and contemporary classic (Morrison) texts. There was nothing "current or contemporary" on the entire test, save a mention of Harry Potter in an expository passage.

Two things occurred to me on the drive home. First - The test was interesting, challenging and fun, due almost entirely to the fact that it asked me to access and process information and learning that I have gathered over time. Second - Teachers without my age and 35 years of middle school ELA experience may well have floundered, in part because they do not have deep knowledge of YA novels popular 30 years ago, in part because the teaching of grammar has been out of fashion for almost 20 years now (they may not know what the simple predicate or the past perfect tense is), and in part because they may be too young to have read and studied Lawrence, Melville, Hawthorne, Austen, Wordsworth, Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Poe and other "blue hairs" of literature. Time brings change in the English classroom, as it does everywhere else. Over the last 10 years alone there have been significant changes in the content of Language Arts/English curricula. Differentiation, student reluctance to read required novels, the rising importance of "informational texts," literature circles, the current fascination with realistic and fantasy YA fiction, the decline in reading scores, technological revolutions, time-pressed teachers who can't make room for grammar - all of these and more are driving change.

As a test, the Praxis II is out of synch with what is happening in the public school English/LA classroom. One particular "change in the making" is worth a close look.

What do I think about the "everyone reads a novel of choice" approach to English? It seems clear to me that future LA teachers who learn and study in this environment will not cover all the bases necessary to do well on the Praxis II. Unless, of course, the test undergoes a drastic revision over the next few years, which I doubt ETS will or would do (for one, it would be expensive to purchase copyright permissions from an equivalent number of living authors). Given a library of choice, it is the rare student who will select from the "blue hairs." In a "literature of choice" curriculum, scope and classics will be sacrificed. Over time, it would make sense for these titles to disappear from middle and high school courses of study, replaced by an ebb and flow of popular and just-past-popular novels. Students might actually read more and read more often, which in itself will have a positive impact on reading scores. For this to happen definitely, the LA classroom will become a place where students read (fewer than half of my students this year willingly read at home, even though I require it - a growing trend all over the country). What might be additional impacts of this pardigm shift in ELA curricula?

Good impacts would include a ramping up of teacher reading. Although many claim to do so, only masterful teachers can truly meet ELA standards of literary text study when there are 20 or more (in today's classrooms, alas) different novels being read in the classroom. The ability to teach or guide learning is largely dependent on the teacher's familiarity with the titles. In sum, the LA teacher who wants to teach well needs to have read every text the students are reading.  Of course, someone will have to pay for this reading.  I purchased over $2000 worth of books yearly, many of which went home with student readers.  If every district were to fund classroom libraries to this degree, students would read more and better.  That would be an impact!

A second impact would include student exposure to "reader response" critical theory. I learned about this theory through the Praxis II study materials; it was too new to be part of my high school and college coursework. Focusing student discussion on "shared responses" rather than on close study of text ("new criticism") creates a common ground for students, fertile in terms of writing options and activating multiple intelligences, and an ideal match for blogging, wikis, and online discussion boards. That it might be vapid in terms of standardized testing is beside the point if the goal is for students to enjoy reading and achieve a personal learning gain. The teacher's role is to create opportunities for learning by working 1-1 with students to set goals and by closely following and consistently responding to their oral and written responses to the reading. This is very hard to do.

On the other hand, standardized reading tests (3rd grade - Praxis II) all assume that students are well schooled in "new criticism" - that they can apply a common vocabulary for a close understanding and analysis of a text. They also assume that students have been exposed to a core of "recognized quality texts" either appropriate to their grade level or "classical" (depending upon the test). It is sad but true that most of these "recognized quality texts" are significantly more challenging in vocabulary, sentence structure, and imagery than today's jvenile and YA fiction. Additionally, when a group (or all) students read the same text, direct instruction relating to literature forms, language, and tools can occur. Without this focus, students do not get the necessary practice with critical analysis. We come to the crux of the issue: if students read only contemporary fiction of choice, they will develop a habit - perhaps even a love - for reading, but they will not develop as critical readers (who can do well on standardized tests).

Open choice and guided choice and no choice are all required in the English/LA classroom. The goal is a stone soup, the stone being the essential questions and skills that are driving the unit. The LA teacher, instead of embracing one strategy or the other, instead of despairing over what has been lost, needs to become the Julia Child of the LA curriculum: choosing the best ingredients, chopping and mixing them as necessary, and timing the cooking perfectly. Like a great cook, the teacher must rely on knowledge and instinct to make the right choices in the classroom. At times open choice will be best, at times limited choice will be best, at times no choice will result in the desired learning outcomes.

I am currently using open choice (or random choice) for the purpose of exposing students to as many fairy tale stories, characters, settings, and remakes as possible. I am using "reader response" to generate dialogue about the common emotional underpinings of these stories and to drive the development of discussion and questioning skills. With one or a limited number of texts, this would be impossible.

Next, we will work in a limited choice situation, where students work in groups to focus deeply on one of six Grimm's stories, each of which retold in at least five ways. This will develop "new criticism" skills, as students compare/contrast characterization, language, illustration and voice in the various books and media versions. I will be giving direct instruction on literary analysis terms (figures of speech) daily. The Grimm's version, by the way, will be the most difficult of all to read - and everyone in the group will read it (some will also hear it read).

We will all be reading the same expository texts about fairy tales and other stories. We will all be reading the same biographies of the Grimm brothers. These are guided reading exercises, complete with questions to answer and notes to take.

Then we will spice up the class by reading from a limited choice (choice directed by me) of novels that transform fairy tales. I have selected largely 20th century YA novels, but I have been tough, and yes, I have read them all - some several times. These are quality novels, rich in vocabulary and language, selected for students at different ability levels.

Quite a classroom stew to make from such a simple literature genre! A bit of a stone soup.

Last note: Yes, I do intend to include some "blue hair" writers in this year's literature study. There will be Poe, Bradbury, Thurber, Kipling, Jackson, nameless balladeers, and many others. I want my students to be prepared to do battle with standardized tests, whatever my personal feelings about those tests might be.

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