In a Time of Standardization, an Invitation to Authentically Read

Milton Avery Reclining Reader

“Reclining Reader” by Milton Avery

Last week third through eighth grade students across New York State took the three-day marathon known as the Common Core English Language Arts Test. And if the feedback left on testingtalk.org, the website set up by some of the best literacy minds in the country, is any indication, it was not a pretty sight. Words like travesty and debacle—and even sadistic—appear with some regularity as do many stories from both teachers and parents about student acting out in various ways to deal with the pressure and stress, such as the parent who came home to find her son beating a bush with a stick.

Many questions were also raised about what these test were actually testing, since careful close reading simply wasn’t possible given the time constraints and few, if any, questions required critical thinking, if for no other reason than that they were incredibly narrow and myopic. Additionally, as I wrote in an early post, many of the teachers leaving feedback spoke about the convoluted and confusing nature of the questions themselves and the fact that many of those questions asked students to discern insignificant or minor differences between several possible ‘right’ answers. And all that reminded me of this  quote by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Applied to our current situation, I interpret this as meaning that the whole one-right-answer approach to testing is a function of the vise-grip that powerful corporate interests have over education these days, not on some unequivocal truth. And in addition to adding my voice to testingtalk.org, I decided to push back this week by reviving an idea I tried out in my first year as a blogger: inviting readers to read a short text, this time 20/20 by author Linda Brewer, and share what they made of it, knowing that it’s the diversity—not the conformity—of our interpretations and the particular way we express them that enriches our understanding of ourselves, the text and the world.

Basic CMYKYour task, should you choose to accept it, is not to focus on, say, how paragraph four develops the main character’s point of view or why the author used the word ‘choked’ in line six. Instead I ask you to do what the test-makers seem to consider Mission Impossible: to think about the meaning of the whole story, which will almost inevitably entail looking at the story through the eyes of the characters, the eyes of the author and ultimately your own eyes, as you consider what you think and feel about what you think the author might be trying to show us about people, the world, or life through the particulars of this story. And I invite you to do that by simply paying attention to what you notice in the text and what you make of that.

Then in the spirit of collaborative learning, real reading and community, I invite you to share your thoughts about the story, how you arrived at them and what the experience felt like by either clicking on the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title or on the word ‘reply’ at the bottom of the post, right after the list of tag words. (Email subscribers can used the comment link at the end of the email.) And if anyone wants to try it out on some students, please go right ahead!

Just remember, though, there is no right answer! There is only interpretation and what happens between the mind of the reader and the words on the page. And now here is 20/20 by Linda Brewer:

20:20 by Linda Brewer

Now follow these simple instructions from the poet Mary Oliver:

Pay-attention-be-astonished-tell-about-it-mary-oliver-256832

 

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students Revisited

Level Z Reader_1

Almost two years ago, when this blog was quite new, I wrote a post about the dangers of students seeing themselves as reading level letters because of all the emphasis placed on levels. I felt compelled to write that post after noticing the artwork of several second graders who claimed that their dearest wish for the year was to achieve a certain reading level. And I’m returning to the same question now because of two things that happened last week: the news that Alice Munro, the great Canadian writer, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and a conversation I had with my valued colleague Anna Commitante, which led me to take a second look at a packaged 9th grade ELA unit that uses Karen Russell‘s wonderful short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

The Beggar MaidI was thrilled to hear the Nobel Prize news because I’ve been reading—and adoring—Alice Munro for over thirty years. I’m not sure how I first discovered her way back in my twenties, but I remember clearly the first piece of hers I read, a short story called “Royal Beatings,” from the collection The Beggar Maid. It’s about a young girl named Rose living in rural Ontario in what I took to be the 1940’s, who’s subject to periodic beatings by her father when her step-mother Flo thinks she’s being uppity.

My life was nothing at all like Rose’s, but reading the story I felt a bolt of recognition that I’d never experienced before and a sense of exposure that was both terrifying and deeply reassuring. She put into words all the complicated, ricochetting swings of mood and feelings I often felt—and rather than judging or downplaying them, she celebrated each twinge and stirring. And in doing so she gave me what the writer Maureen McLane says certain poems and stories can provide: “deep seas in which to swim and make a self.”

Here, for instance, she describes the almost exquisite sense of having been wronged, which Rose feels after a beating:

Never is a word to which the right is suddenly established. She will never speak to them, she will never look at them with anything but loathing, she will never forgive them. She will punish them, she will finish them. Encased in these finalities, and in her bodily pain, she floats in curious comfort, beyond herself, beyond responsibility.

And here she describes the moment when that sense of power collapses as, feeling contrite, Flo leaves a tray of food outside Rose’s door:

She will turn away, refuse to look, but left alone with these eatables will be miserably tempted . . . she will reach out a finger, just to run it around the edge of one of the sandwiches (crusts cut off!) to get the overflow, a taste. Then she will decide to eat one, for strength to refuse the rest. One will not be noticed. Soon, in helpless corruption, she will eat them all. She will drink the chocolate milk, eat the tarts, eat the cookies. She will get the malty syrup out of the bottom of the glass with her finger, though she sniffles with shame. Too late.

To me, this story was a revelation. And I’m so very glad that the Nobel Prize news prompted me to relive that first encounter and reread the story, which was in my mind a few days later when I talked with Anna.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by WolvesWe were commiserating about the sorry state we were in, here in New York City, where everything seemed to be conspiring to not allow students to have the kind of reading experience I just described. And at some point she asked me if I’d ever read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” or seen the New York State 9th grade unit on it. I’d read and loved Russell’s story (from the collection of the same name) and had come across the unit at some point, when I looked at it just long enough to note the great choice of text. But Anna said I had to read it because, she said with exasperation and heartache, “They got it all wrong.”

The story itself is wonderfully strange: A group of girls whose parents are werewolves have been sent to the St. Lucy’s Home at the urging of the Home’s nuns in order to become, in the story’s words, “naturalized citizens of human society.” Not all goes well, however, especially for one of the youngest girls who not only can’t but doesn’t seem to want to give up all her wild ways, despite the fact that it may leave her stranded between the worlds of humans and wolves.

Given how adolescents often straddle two worlds, I imagined there might be some 9th graders out there who’d find in the story a “deep sea in which to swim and make a self.” But when I took another look at the unit, I realized there was no room for that. Clocking in at 211 pages, the unit plan was ten times longer than the story itself, comprising 17 lessons with 130 text-dependent questions, almost 40 vocabulary words and lots of formative and summative assessments.

When we all think alike no one thinks very muchThat, in and of itself, seemed bad enough, but when I looked closer at the questions I understood what Anna had meant. Most seemed aimed at checking students’ basic comprehension and ability to cite evidence from the text, while others focused on vocabulary. But there were some like “Why is St. Lucy’s culture better?” that made me realize that what Anna and I took to be a story about conformity and indoctrination had been seen by the unit writers as a story about the need to assimilate. And the questions and prompts pushed students toward that—just as the nuns were pushing the girls to adhere to “civilized” norms.

A story this rich will inevitably spark multiple interpretations. But it’s hard for me to imagine that a writer who, in her own words, “mashes” genres together with such abandon and glee, would want readers to think that the central idea was “that girls who were raised by wolves must assimilate or adapt to human culture,” as the unit claims. But then again I’m not really sure the unit wants readers to think. The message it seems to be sending out is that it’s more important to cite evidence to support someone else’s idea (as folded into a question) than to construct an original idea in the first place, and that we read to practice skills and meet the standards, not to make a self.

Of course, I think it’s possible to meet the standards within the context of non-standardized reading and thinking. But we need to be mindful of both the direct and indirect messages we’re sending. And we might begin that by considering these words about stories from Alice Munro:

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished.”

Alice Munro

Information Writing for Dummies

Frequently as I look at the Common Core Standards for writing with teachers, a question keeps cropping up: Is there still a place for genre studies? These teachers and I know that narrative, information and opinion writing are not genres per se. They’re more like modes, which Katie Wood Ray defines in her wonderful book on inquiry-based writing units Study Driven as “the meaning ‘work’ that a writer is doing in a text.” Thus narration is the mode writers uses when they mean to tell a story, while information writing, a.k.a. exposition, is the mode for the work of explaining ideas or conveying information.

Genres, on the other hand, are what a writer makes with writing: a book review, a short story, an editorial, a feature article. These genres often employ more than one mode; a feature article, for instance, might begin by narrating an anecdote about the topic, then shift into exposition and end with some argumentation (another mode) that reveals the writer’s opinion.

The beauty of genres is that they can be studied in a way that gives students a concrete vision of what their work can look and sound like. This kind of study also invites students to be more intentional and artful as they apprentice themselves to master craftsmen and wordsmiths in a way that matches my favorite definition of a writer, which comes by way of Saul Bellow:

A writer is a reader who is moved to emulate.

The Common Core Standards don’t mention genres, though neither do they explicitly prohibit us from studying them. And so I encourage teachers to remember their right to implement the Standards as they best see fit, knowing that the benefits of such study are huge. First, closely studying great texts as writers gives students more options of how to organize and convey information than the deadly structure of the formulaic three- or five-paragraph essay, which at its worst asks students to first tell your reader what your going to tell them, then tell them what you said you were going to tell them, and then end by re-telling them what you just told them.

Studying genres also requires students to understand whatever they’re writing about deeply. And as such, the end products are often better assessments of content understanding than forms that encourage students to pluck and insert undigested facts. The third graders I wrote about last fall, for instance, who emulated G. Brian Karas’s Atlantic to write their “I Am China” books fully owned the information they presented. And eighth grade science students using the same mentor text to creatively write about the rock cycle came up with fresh language—such as, “Some of my minerals dissolve in water the way marshmallows melt in hot chocolate.”—which assured their teacher that they’d learned the content.

Finally (as I prepare to shift from argumentation back to exposition), there’s the fact that engaging in the same decision-making process that real writers engage in makes students better readers. For in considering what point of view or structure will achieve the effects they’re after and deliberating on exactly which details will best suit and support their purposes, students become more aware of the intentionality in an author’s choices. They see that those details and structures carry meaning, which positions them to attend to the meaning of the choices they encounter when they read other writers.

When it comes to information writing, I’ve helped teachers design units of study on feature articles, All About Books, and creative nonfiction like Atlantic. And I’ve invited students to study Dummies books, which they’ve then emulated to convey information about all sorts of topics, from babysitting to ballroom dancing to learning Albanian. Whatever the grade, these units begin by students first exploring some sample Dummies books to discover what they can about their structure and features. And from that, we co-construct a chart of what we learned, like this typed-up one from a fifth grade room that was writing Dummies books about topics of their own choice:

Then we look more carefully at how they’re written by studying two samples, such as these excerpts from Drawing Cartoons and Comics for Dummies and Cake Decorating for Dummiesto consider what might be similar in terms of word choice, voice, syntax,  and tone. (Tip: Looking at two samples allows students to move beyond the specifics of the content to notice similarities or patterns in craft.)

 

Here students are often able to notice that the writer talks to the reader directly, through the frequent use of the word ‘you,’ in a friendly and supportive way, and that he or she uses a range of punctuation—including ellipses, parentheses, dashes and exclamation points—to create a strong, flexible voice. Dummies writers also tend to use multiple examples of lists that follow the Rule of Three—such as three excuses for not decorating a special cake or three reasons why cartoons are important—which helps elaborate and support their ideas and creates a richer texture.

With these noticings in mind, I had the fifth grade students who created the above structure chart help me write the introduction to my topic, which was cooking my favorite food, pasta:

I imagine that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to shift from personal to more content-related topics, with students writing, say, Mummification or Renewable Energy or The Bill of Rights for Dummies. Such texts would surely be more fun to write and more fun to read than a five-paragraph essay while still accomplishing the meaning work of the mode and meeting the information writing Standard. And students would surely retain more of what they learned about both the content and writing because they’d be more engaged and proud of making such a product—especially when it’s graced with a classic yellow Dummies cover, which can either be drawn or made electronically through the Dummies Book Cover Maker online.

And isn’t that what really matters: holding on to learning and feeling the power of language to engage and inform us in so many ways? Let’s not forget that in the rush to meet all the bullet points of the Standards.

We Interrupt the Regularly Scheduled Program to Bring You this Important Message

For a few days last week I sat at my desk working on a blog post about reading poetry as New York City’s third through eighth graders sat at their desks, aligned in rows, to endure the three-day marathon known as the New York State English Language Arts Test. What happened on one of those days made the headlines after hundreds, if not thousands, of New York eighth graders took to their cellphones and computers to trade jokes, bewilderment and facebook postings about one of the reading passages and the multiple choice questions that went with it. Social media, it seems, was causing another uprising.

For those of you who don’t already know, the passage in question was a parody of an Aesop fable called “The Pineapple and the Hare,” which was taken out of context from Daniel Pinkwater‘s book Borgel and, according to the author, “edited out of any resemblance to what I wrote.” Pinkwater, who’s also the author of any number of hilarious and anarchic books, says that the story was meant to be nonsensical. He describes it as a fractured fairy tale told by an old man to his young nephew to prepare the boy for the even greater absurdity of discovering that God is an orange popsicle. In this way, you could say the story had a purpose within the bigger context of the book. But losing that context, it became even more absurd as it morphed into an exam text—or as Pinkwater puts it, “It’s nonsense on top of nonsense on top of nonsense.”

The nonsense was furthered by Pearson, the testing Goliath responsible for the exam, who reused the story in at least seven states over seven years, despite the fact that it left most everyone in those states as dumfounded by the story’s pointlessness as it did in New York. Pearson has said that it included the passage “as a way of comparing student performance among states.” But how do you compare meaningless answers to meaningless questions about a meaningless text in a meaningful way? Beats me—though I have to wonder if the passage wouldn’t have been recycled if school children had the kind of lobbyists Pearson has.

On the positive front, though, what all this has done is shed light on the insanity of judging students, teachers and schools by a standardized test. And it’s sparked a loud outcry among parents and educators. Brooklyn Prinicpal Liz Phillips, for instance, wrote a letter to the New York State Education Commissioner to urge him to review the tests because she believes the pineapple passage wasn’t just an aberration but an example of exams that are “deeply flawed.” Others have been making the argument that given how much rides on these tests—student promotions, teachers’ careers, and in some cases a school’s very survival—they should be made as public and transparent as the scores that are published in the papers, so that everyone can judge the tools being used to judge so many lives.

Of course, for many of us this is nothing new. For years we’ve known the limits of standardized tests to measure anything of real, lasting value. And we’re all too familiar with the way they can zap the joy out of teaching and learning. But I want to believe that the tide might be turning. Over the last few months, for instance, I’ve read any number of wonderful articles that both pre-date this latest fiasco and speak to the need to reclaim the teaching of reading and writing from the clutches of standardized test makers. And to keep the momentum of this tide growing, I share below links to four of my favorites in the hopes that they’ll inspire and empower you in the face of the deadening tests—or at least let you feel that you’re not alone, which is what good writing can do.

First up is “Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading” by a New York City couple who, in their attempt to turn their third grade son’s practice ELA test homework into a New Year’s Eve parlor game, discover the limits of multiple choice questions to capture what a text is “mostly about.”

The same couple, Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols, also wrote “A Lesson in Teaching to the Test, From E. B. White.” Drawing on a wonderful passage from White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, their piece reminds us that ultimately questions are as important as answers and that true teaching is about supporting and nurturing a child’s curiosity and thinking.

Coming from the Washington Post‘s blog The Answer Sheet, “Teacher: Dear Students, I’m sorry about the test I made you take,” is a letter of apology from veteran teacher Ruth Ann Dandrea to her 8th grade students who she applauds for answering an either/or question on a test with “Honestly, I think it’s both.”

And finally, from Education Nation’s The Learning Curve blog, there’s “Is ‘Accountability’ Undermining American Education?” by Carol Dwek, which looks at the dangers of fixed versus growth mindsets. She also shares the priceless wisdom of an Indian educator who, after hearing about our high-stakes testing culture, sagely explains that in India “when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”

Now go feed the children in your care with real reading and writing. I’ll be back next week with that post about poetry.

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: Reflecting on the Big Picture

New Years always prompts me to reflect as I look both backwards at the year just finished and forward to the one gearing up. And this year, with so many new terms in the air, like performance-based tasks and complexity bands, and more assessments than ever before, I’ve been feeling a need to set all those terms and assessments into the context of a bigger, more meaningful picture—what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the authors of the great backwards planning book Understanding by Design, might call an ‘enduring understanding’.

According to Wiggins and McTighe, an enduring understanding is an idea or concept that offers lasting value throughout life, not just in the classroom. Additionally, it should reside at the heart of the discipline, require uncovering or unpacking through inquiry, and be engaging to students. Enduring understandings abound on the internet, with a quick search on google yielding ELA samples like this: “Reading is a process by which we construct meaning about the information being communicated by an author within a print or non-print medium,” and “Language captures and records human aspirations and imagination, evoking both emotion and reason.”

Both statements do seem like big, enduring ideas that reside at the heart of English Language Arts. But neither, I fear, are particularly good examples of the way that language captures aspirations, imagination and meaning. As I’ve suggested before, I think we might do better by turning to writers like Anne Lamott who in Bird by Bird, her wonderful advice book to aspiring writers, speaks to both the power of language and the process of reading like this:

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfold world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die . . . . My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

For me, this goes to the heart of the discipline of English Language Arts. And as part of the backwards planning approach to curriculum development that Wiggins and McTighe prescribe, this understanding about the purpose and power of reading can be turned into essential questions that can frame students’ practice and exploration.

To be both engaging and authentic, I believe that essential questions should be truly open-ended and not loaded—that is, they should allow for real debate and disagreement, not just be our teaching points or agendas masquerading as questions. With that and Anne Lamott’s understanding in mind, those questions might sound like this:

  • Can a book really comfort us or make us feel less alone?
  • Can a narrative about someone else’s life really help us understand our own?
  • Can a book really tell us how we might behave? Can it show us how to live and die?
  • And if so, how does it do that?

The next step in the backwards planning approach would be to design assessments that would give students the opportunity to share what they thought about those questions, with evidence drawn from their reading experience as well as from texts. These assessments could take a variety of forms, from book reviews to podcasts to accountable talk circles, as well as the more traditional literary essay. But they’d all ask students to transact with a text to ultimately consider what meaning it held for them.

Of course, to do this, students will need strategies and skills, scaffolding and instruction that both models and allows them to experience for themselves how a reader enters a text knowing virtually nothing and emerges pages later with a deeper sense of what it means to be human. And this is where all those other terms and assessments come in. Knowing a students’ reading level, for instance, gives us some sense of what kind of text they have the best chance of transacting with; while instruction that provides the kind of concrete text-based strategies needed for navigating complexity bands allows students to access books that reflect the increasingly complexity of their own lives and world.

To help teachers facilitate this work, Dorothy Barnhouse and I also map out a process of reading in What Readers Really Do that helps students draft and revise their sense of what a text means as they make their way through it, with strategies and skills directly tied to meaning. We also adapt the work of the literary theorist Robert Scholes and break down the process into three distinct but related modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation, which we define like this:

  • Comprehension is the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line-by-line and page-by-page.
  • Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes.
  • Evaluation occurs when, having constructed an understanding of a text, a reader considers whether it has any personal or social value for him.

In the next few weeks I’ll put those words into action by using them with a short text, and I’ll share some ideas for meaningful assessments. But for now what seems important to remember is that reading levels and strategies and skills are the means to an end, not the end itself. And assessments need to be aligned to what we truly value, not just what’s easy to measure, with students asked to apply strategies and skills to some meaningful, enduring end. Only then, I think, can both we and our students begin to see the forest through the trees. And only then are we truly able to benefit from the insight reading can give us.