Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The CCSS Dilemma: Comment #2 on the CCSS for ELA

student artwork used with permission

Comment #2  [see also Comment #1: Don't Buy the Split and my companion post Two Literate Responses to the Common Core]

"New standards do not require new methods, just new takes on old methods.  A little technology helps as well, but is not required." 

    The CCSS for ELA (well, not really for ELA are they?) add one thing to the reading curricula, k-12, that I celebrate: rigor.  We can measure this in lexiles, the grade level equivalents of which have jumped up almost two grade levels.  We can measure this by reading assessment indices.  Or we can measure it in terms of classics that have been in the curriculum for as long as any successful ELA/English teacher can remember plus new-classic and contemporary texts that deserve the label "literary."  It comes down to the same list.  We are talking about rigorous text.

    By this I mean: print text that is not "just right," friendly, safe, transparent, or easily recognizable.   For the most part, these are what we used to call literature and now call literary fiction texts. Students often label rigorous fiction "boring books."  They have been dropped from many classrooms because "students don't read them."  They don't appear in literary circles or book groups because they are not "a best fit" for the measured reading level.  They have been replaced by books that are not rigorous - readable, but not rigorous.  Worst case scenario - they have been replaced by "literary" nonfiction that approaches the same themes.  

    In better words than mine, Scott G.F. Bailey describes rigorous fiction texts in And there are sword fights

    "I'm going to claim that the works in question aren't "boring," so much as they are in some way difficult. What's difficult about the works in question is merely that reading and understanding them requires an active reader who is willing to pay attention and examine the ideas put forth in the works, to be willing to work within narratives that differ formally from other narratives they've read, to read books that might defy their expectations as readers. In other words, the difficulty is that there is work--action--required of the reader, rather than passive reading. This can be, for readers not used to the activity, fatiguing, and I claim that particular fatigue is often mistaken for boredom. (This does not rule out the soporific effects of some books.)"   

    Which brings us to The CCSS Dilemma: How to lead/teach students to read rigorous text at the grade level proficiency standard (do well on the test) if they will not, or can not, read the rigorous texts?  

    ELA teachers, you need to meet this question head on.  I ask you:

    • Have you recently read a legal document, a prospectus, a grant proposal, an R&D report, a scientific journal, an explanation of turbodrive or Medicare Part B, an action plan, a credit report, a terms of service agreement?  Would you say this is easy reading?  
    • Have you read from the Printz, Booker, National Book Award, or Best Books of 2012 list?  Would you read Proust? If you have, would you say this is easy reading?  
    My guess is that you, a college educated adult, have been fatigued by much of this text. You may not have finished it.  With so much comfortable, easy reading available to you, it is easy to close the page, file it away and forget about it, and seek a summary (if necessary) from another reader.  Not reading is an option, but does it get you anywhere? Does it gain you anything new?

    You are no different in this respect from many of your students.  Yet if you were to read such text frequently, you would get better at it.  Reading exercise shares this with body exercise.  It is NOT only true of "just right" reading that practice makes better.  That is a myth that has overtaken much of ELA curriculum in the last 7 or so years.  Rigorous texts, fiction (especially) and literary nonfiction, belong in the ELA curriculum at all grade levels.  Teachers who are daunted by them need to get over it.

    So here are some concrete ideas, most of which you have probably heard or read before. New standards do not require new methods, just new takes on old methods.  A little technology helps as well, but is not required.  

    • Clue students in to the difficulty of their reading.  Talk with each about what makes the text rigorous.  This is where testing data can be your ally, along with knowledge of the reader as a person.  
    • Differentiate by reading down and up the standards as necessary and by being sensitive in terms of reading "activities." Less able readers should read as many rigorous texts below grade level as possible (short is good), increasing complexity and length as the child is ready.  I  have had students grow as much as two years this way. More able readers should be turned loose to read.  GoodReads or similar online social reading network is very helpful here, but daunting and often embarrassing for the less able readers.  
    • Differentiate by content.  I have found that many frustrated, bored, or "lower level" (by assessment) readers make great strides when they are reading a challenging text that is a fit in terms of genre and point of view.  Many middle schoolers, for example, prefer to read an "adult-centered" text because their lives and responsibilities are already more adult than we would like to think.  Other students continue to love the "child hero," "child adventure," or the "child problem" genre.  Take the time to talk about life with each student - before reading.  I found it helpful to begin each year with literary nonfiction in the form of memoir - short essays like "Death of a Pig" for example, or chapters from a longer texts like Bad BoyThe Things They CarriedI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  These are avenues not just for reading-to-standard, but for you learning about students and students learning about themselves.  
    • Cover the UR classics (Alice, Wizard of OzArabian Nights, fairy tales, etc.) before grade 7.  Surprise!  many of these lexile over 1000, so be aware of their rigor!  Because you are reading more for story (patterns, stock characters, symbolic settings, core themes) with these texts, you can spend more time with vocabulary and related writing.  It is important to make the books fun so that they will be memorable.
    • Reading partners - not groups, but trusted and liked partners in the same class with whom a student can discuss hard text.  I use my husband now, but have also used my teaching peers or a book group pal.  The partner can be an iPartner (email, chat, wiki, blog, etc.), but there is nothing like the immediacy of oral f2f sharing.  I have been lucky about half of the time to be able to build trust groups of 3-5 around a shared text, but when this does not work, reading becomes a waste of time, literally.  And this is not pair-reading, by the way.  Sometimes the partner will have to be you (:  )
    • Read with media support - in many posts (and in my Classics in the Classroom Scoop.It) I make a case for graphical, video, audio and performance interpretations of classical and difficult texts.  Making these presentations is one way to meet CCSS standards.  Viewing them, experiencing them, is a powerful way to gain an appreciation and understanding of rigorous print text. This is also, by the way, the only rationale I can accept for read-alouds after grade 5.
    • Don't read the entire text. OMG !  A rigorous text is a complex story with complex, diverse characters, settings, moods, tones, symbols... The strongest readers, and often the fastest readers, will complete the whole text.  For others, a smattering, experienced fully and closely, will do.  Check out Moby Dick in Pictures or The Graphic Canon (any volume will do) if you want to see the power of careful selection.  The advantage of this, of course, is that selections are what students will be asked to respond to on tests.  Having students select the passages for their peers to read is also always successful.
    • Don't over-teach the text.  Reading questions, vocabulary lists, plot lines, character charts, Cornell notes, trifold organizers... all of these interrupt the reading of any text.  Remind yourself of best practices that might well be reexamined for the Common Core by reading this post from Julie Adams: What Makes a Teacher Effective...  I could not disagree more. For the most part, instead of engaging students, these practices disengage.  Let the kids read.  We used to teach one novel during each quarter of the year - overkill!  and boring to all.  I despair when I read requests for "lessons and activities" to accompany a classic text.  Throw them out, stop sharing. is about as complex as most readers will ever need, and students can access it on their own.  Your job is build in students appreciation, understanding, and facility and the ability to communicate these to others (orally, digitally, in writing).  Many a bad poster, bad video and boring presentation result for student failure to actively engage in a text.
    • Require some form of "marginalia" response of all readers (I would not do this for purely choice reading done mostly outside of class).  Pre and post-reading discussions and journaling are helpful if you follow the 5-minute rule (each student must read/discuss for 5 minutes... - and grade this 0 or 1 every class), but providing texts that can be annotated (with a pen, post-its, or digitally) is the most useful preparation for analysis and the most helpful overall rigorous-reading skill for college.  Students need to know that responding is a expectation for much school-based reading. Let the kids design their own short-hand for annotation (adult models are often not sensible or palatable for kids). Some kids have an almost photographic memory for the passages that grab them and need only to "turn the page down". Some kids take  in-text notes. Some kids like copious paper notes. Some kids do best with highlighting.  Some kids like symbolic marginalia, other like words, others make lists and indexes (on paper, in the back of the book, using digital tools...).  Give them space to explore - but require active responses.  Provide basic categories if necessary.  
    • Build appreciation and skills for reading a specific text before beginning it, not while it is being read!  For example:
      • Multiple narrators can flip a  upper elementary or MS reader sideways the first time - do dramatic exercises until all students understand what it means to have multiple narrators (including omniscience, of course) - this ties in nicely with a creative/interpretive writing piece (iJournalism, I-essay)
      • Complex sentence structures will lose readers until they get the hang of reading the author's rhythms.  Begin with random sentences for students (again in pairs perhaps) to simplify and restate, to read aloud (recorded readings if possible), to talk about (punctuation, perhaps other grammar), use good audio recordings and (if available) textually accurate video 
      • Shakespeare and other dramas are vastly more teachable if they are acted (yes, memorized) and viewed (acting by professionals)
      • Cover any necessary historical /biographical background before reading - don't let it interrupt the narrative!   If possible, take advantage of literate informational text and media to address some of those other pesky standards.
    • Reading a truly daunting author (e.g. Bradbury, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Joyce)?  Use a story instead of a novel.  Readers who are intrigued will read more on their own.  Your lesson materials will still be useful, by and large.  Read, for example, Gabriel García Márquez's "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings."   
    • Accept the fact that hard text is hard work.  It will be hard work for you too.  If you fall back on pat lesson plans gleaned from the net, you will fail and so will your students.
    • Steer students to texts that you like and appreciate.  
    • Expand the options.  This means accessing more than is available in the classroom library you may have inherited. Use eBooks, use digital freebies, borrow, swap...  
    • Remind yourself and your leadership of this:  You are NOT teaching college students.  Don't accept the fact that you have to pretend you are.
    This will probably be my last long comment on CCSS for ELA, at least until testing begins.  This is a challenge for ELA teachers, a sort of gauntlet thrown down. Whether or not you agree with the CCSS, the reading bar has got to be raised.  A throw-back task?  Partly. But as the teacher leaves the front of the room, as digital tools are embedded in the reading experience, it is a task that is eminently more doable than it was just 10 years ago.  

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