Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

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The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.

test-prep-strategies-©

We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness

Cracking Open the Word Craft

Cracking Open Nuts

For those of us who have taught writing workshop over the years, we tend to think of craft as the particular moves a writer makes that we can invite students to emulate in their own writing, such as using sensory details or repeating a line as structural device or refrain. Writers, we tell students, make these moves to engage their readers and bring whatever they’re writing about more vividly to life, which is indeed true. But that concept of craft is very different, I think, from what’s meant by the word in the Common Core Standards, where three “Craft and Structure” reading standards exist for both literary and information texts from kindergarten up to twelfth grade.

Those standards require students to consider the significance of, say, the particular sensory details a writer has chosen and to analyze how those choices contribute to the overall meaning or tone of a text. And if New York City is any indication, there’s a fair amount of contention brewing around those standards—especially in the way they were tested in the recent state ELA exams where students faced a barrage of multiple choice questions that asked them why an author used a particular word, detail or phrase in a given text. Many of the over 600 parents, principals and teachers who left comments on the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project ELA feedback site, for instance, saw this as a troubling emphasis on minutia over big understandings, with Lucy Calkins, the Project Director, summing up those sentiments this way:

“. . . I think the test makers are interpreting the standards, even for 9 and 10 year olds, to be all about ultra-ultra-law-school-literary-criticism-level-close analytic reading, asking ‘why did the author include (mean by) X in line Y?’ and not at all about reading to acquire knowledge or construct big ideas about a comprehensible story. How will a test like this alter reading and writing curriculum, and will that yield a generation of engaged, curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers and writers?”

Rat DissectionI’ve made no bones about my fears of where curriculum is headed, and have questioned how certain models of close reading, which encourage students to dissect texts, like science lab mice, through teacher-driven text-dependent questions, can possibly yield those curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers that I, too, want students to be. But for all the questions and worries I have about analysis as the end goal of reading, I do think it’s important to ask students to consider the possible significance of details for authentic reasons.

Every time, for instance, that we infer a feeling or motivation from a detail a writer gives us, we’re engaged in thinking about the writer’s choices, automatically but invisibly asking ourselves, Why is the author telling me this? What is she trying to show me? That’s because thoughtful and knowledgeable readers know that, as I wrote in an earlier post about the writing mantra ‘show don’t tell,’ writers actually show and tell, through details they’ve purposefully chosen.

One Green AppleFrom a reader’s perspective then we can think of craft as how writers use and arrange specific details, words, images, and figurative language to convey their story’s meaning—i.e., to show and tell. And readers construct those desired big ideas by attending to and interpreting those choices.  Here, for instance, is a group of fifth graders I worked with recently reading Eve Bunting‘s great book One Green Apple, which tells the story of a girl named Farah who, having recently moved to America, takes a giant step toward belonging during a class field trip to an orchard.

If we stick to some of the common methods of thinking about theme or the gist of a story, such as thinking about what a character learned or using a Somebody Wanted Something But So chart, students may think that this is a story about the challenges of learning a new language. That certainly is something Bunting explores, but when I asked the students if they noticed any patterns—recurring words, details, images, ideas that the writer had purposely woven into the story—their thinking got much deeper.

As they made their way the first time through the story, they noticed how many details were about things that were different. There was Farah, herself, who was different from the others, the language she spoke, the head scarf she wore, the way boys and girls sat together, and the green apple of the title, which came from a tree that was different than the others. And as the story progressed, they noticed a shift, with fewer details about things that were different and more about things that were the same. The green apple was “small and alone” like Farah, and lots of sounds were described as being the same in America and Farah’s homeland, such as people laughing, sneezing and belching and dogs crunching on apples.

OneGreenApple2OneGreenApple3

Noticing all this allowed them to move beyond the lesson about learning English to something deeper that Eve Bunting seemed to be exploring through these patterns: how our similarities might be more important than our differences. And with this in mind, we revisited the story to develop and refine that idea, with the students noticing even more. They noticed that the day, itself, was different; that among the three dogs, one was different; that the words belong and blend were repeated; and that there were differences among the other children, with some being friendly and some smiling “cruel smiles.”

They also took another look at a page that had puzzled them before where one of the boys attempts to stop Farah from dropping her green apple into the cider press. On their first read they had developed two ideas about why the boy tried to stop her: that he may have feared that the apple, being green, wasn’t ripe and would spoil the cider, and that he might have wanted the apple for himself because it was unique. Each idea was somewhat grounded in the text—the apple was green and it was unlike the others—but with a heightened awareness of the patterns Bunting had crafted and the link between Farah and the apple, they now wondered if perhaps the boy didn’t want the green apple—and by extension Farah—mixing with the others.

OneGreenApple1

Paying more attention to the details of the story and how the author used them helped these students consider something they never had before: that bigotry can exist among children even now. And like the students discovering the gender issues in The Paper Bag Princess earlier, they had much to say about that. And that brings us to another authentic reason for thinking about craft: It helps us reap one of the great gifts of reading—to expand and enrich our understanding of people and the world.

The Blue GhostIt also helps students become more aware of the intentionality of details, as two third graders of teacher and blogger Steve Peterson discovered when they returned to the beginning of a book they’d finished, The Blue Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer. As Steve recounts in his post “Re-reading to Discover Author Choices,” going back to the first chapter helped these readers see how the author had planted all sorts of clues they hadn’t noticed the first time around. This could, of course, help them analyze the text. But more importantly it will help them enter the next book they read with a greater awareness of how writers craft a text by arranging and using details that develop everything from character to theme. And, in the end, I believe that will make them more college and career ready than any multiple choice questions will.

So let’s not discount the importance of craft. Let’s just be sure that both we and students see how thinking about it really helps readers.