Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Teaching Literature with the Common Core

One exercise that would be useful for people to understand the Common Core ELA standards is to think of a work of literature you care about, particularly one you've taught, and then to go through the standards for literature at the relevant level. What came to mind for me was Kafka's In the Penal Colony, which I once taught to junior and seniors in an alternative school. I'm not saying I turned the kids into Kafka scholars, but it was a successful unit.

I'm not really sure where this falls on the Common Core text complexity scale. I considered it to be reasonably accessible, as the heart of the story is a compelling and rather horrifying description of a unique, um, torture and execution device. It works on a straightforwardly visceral level, there's not much complex plot, dialogue, etc. Of course, that's partly because so much is under the surface. Seeing how much of the nuance street-wise kids pick up on is part of the fun of teaching literature in this kind of setting. But regardless, conceptually, this text gives graduate students plenty to work with, and if anything is perhaps too difficult for high school students.

Actually, this description captures it well:

In the Penal Colony is written with stark simplicity of language and economy of style, yet nearly every paragraph contains irrational, baffling or contradictory events.

So, let's go through the standards, thinking of a specific work:

  1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text,including determining where the text leaves things uncertain.
    OK, I really don't know what is wanted here. What is "analysis of what the text explicitly says?" Is that some fancy way of proving comprehension? Do they mean criticism? What kind of analysis? Any kind? All kinds? For example, ADP says:
    H8. Analyze the moral dilemmas in works of literature, as revealed by characters' motivation and behavior.
    I know what that means, at least.
  2. Analyze how multiple themes or central ideas in a text interact, build upon, and, in some cases, conflict with one another.
    For In the Penal Colony I'd write something about how the theme of "man's integration into the amoral organized industrial system" relates to "man's alienation from himself." It took a bit of thought to come up with that, and I'm still not sure what I have to say about the specific question of the relationship between the two themes, other than to point out that they are complimentary.
    I'm not sure why this particular aspect of theme is so important that in many cases, it will be not only be specifically analyzed in every single literary text read in 11th and 12th grade, but the selection of appropriate texts will over time be influenced by the need for clear interactions between multiple themes.
    In my opinion, they're reaching for MOAR RIGOR here and overshooting considerably their target of "not having to take remedial English at your local community college."
    ADP simply asks for:
    H9. Identify and explain the themes found in a single literary work; analyze the ways in which similar themes and ideas are developed in more than one literary work.
    Much clearer, thank you!
  3. Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama.
    OK, this is pretty clear. One specific question I'd address along these lines is why none of the characters in In the Penal Colony have names.
  4. Analyze in detail the condensed language of poems (or particularly rich language use (sic) in a narrative or drama), determining how specific word choices and multiple meanings shape the impact and tone.
    This is fine -- I specifically remember spending a fair amount of time on the word "harrow" in the text.
  5. Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure a text (e.g., electing at what point to begin or end a story) shape the meaning of the text.
    That's fine, as an assignment, at least. In the Penal Colony jumps into the middle of the one long scene that comprises almost the whole story and is very parsimonious in dribbling out back story, so you can definitely analyze the effect of that.
    Although, to be nitpicky, how that shapes the meaning of the text is a particularly subtle question. I'm not sure if the story was framed or structured differently it would have a different meaning. Depends on what "meaning" means.
    The old NCEE New Standards said:
    "(the student) evaluates the impact of authors' decision regarding word choice, style, content, and literary elements.
    "Impact" is better than "meaning." Come to think of it, can't this standard just be merged with #3?
  6. Analyze an author's use of satire, sarcasm, irony, understatement, or other means that requires a reader to understand various layers of meaning in a text.
    Yes... you can clearly do a lot of this with Kafka. I'm not crazy about the wording. Do we need to analyze the use of these things or is it enough to understand their use? Are we interpreting or critiquing?
  7. Compare and contrast multiple interpretations of a drama or story, distinguishing how each version interprets the source text.
  8. There is not a readily accessible adaptation of the text. Note that this standard will influence what works are included in the curriculum.
  9. (Not applicable to literature)
  10. Analyze how an author draws on and transforms fictional source material in a specific work.
    This isn't directly relevant to this text (and again, also a disincentive to read it under these standards).

Whew, that seems like a lot of stuff! The problem is, under these standards that's all you do with literature in English Language Arts grades 11 and 12. It seems that the authors of these standards are completely out of touch with how standards are used in many American school districts now. For example, in lots of places, you're expected to have the standard you're addressing written on the board at the beginning of class, and if an administrator walks in, he or she expects to see a clear connection between what's going on in the room and the standard. Which means, if you're working on In the Penal Colony and the assistant principal walks in, you'd better be:

  • analyzing how themes interact
  • analyzing some language from the text in detail
  • analyzing the impact of Kafka's decisions about structural aspects of the story
  • analyzing the use of features of the text that require the understanding of various levels of meaning

And that's it. Anything else is off-topic, not related to increasing student achievement, college or career readiness, and cause for you to get a bad evaluation.

Generally speaking, I do think that the traditional high school English curriculum can be way too literature-heavy. These standards take things way too far in the other direction. They simply fail to address the reasons anybody reads or writes literature, even in comparison to other very narrowly drawn, business-oriented US standards like ADP and the NCEE New Standards.

I would note in conclusion that this took me forever to write, is a complete mess, overly long, and perhaps unreadable, which underscores the difficulty of analyzing this mess. I'm not optimistic that a clear explanation of the problem with the ELA standards at the secondary level will actually emerge.


james boutin said...

Wow - thanks for the work you obviously put into this post. Standards are definitely a bitch to dissect.

I hear your concerns, but I'm wondering exactly what a good standard is in your view. You reference other standards, but by your definition, I think even those would be "tasks." How do we write a standard write a skill-standard without making it a task. Even if you came up with something overly simple like, "identify," that could still be interpreted as a task. I'm afraid I lost your point in semantics.

You also say "analyze what the text explicitly says" is ambiguous. I don't think I'd agree. "The author writes this, and the reason s/he did that was because...."

Lastly, you complain that some standards are too long and should be made into two. I could agree with that. But I also think your example of the everyday classroom in which an administrator enters and expects the class to be interacting with whatever is on the board is more a downfall of unrealistic evaluation techniques than it is standards.

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely appreciate your points here. It's not that I think that Common Core State Standards are perfect, by any means, I just like what the promise of putting teachers in different states on the same page suggests.

Tom Hoffman said...

I'd agree that the ADP standards are relatively tasky. I mainly was using them as examples of very similar standards (both by Achieve) that are more straightforward and better organized and designed. If you wanted a different approach entirely, you could look at Finland, for example:
• learn to understand the figurative nature and interpretive diversity of language;
• consolidate their knowledge of literary genres and their distinctive characteristics;
• develop in the analysis of fictional texts, using different approaches to reading and
interpretation and the necessary concepts of literature studies;
• learn to justify their interpretation of texts both orally and in writing;
• gain practice in using the linguistic devices studied on the course appropriately in their
own expression.

re: "You also say "analyze what the text explicitly says" is ambiguous. I don't think I'd agree. 'The author writes this, and the reason s/he did that was because....'"

It seems to me that what you're doing there is starting to draw an inference, not "analyzing what the text explicitly says." And yeah, maybe I'm being pedantic, but if you can't be pedantic about the wording of proposed national English standards, when can you be?

I'm not someone who would fight any national standards to the end, but these ELA standards are a lot weirder than most people realize, and their implementation is going to be a train wreck.

james boutin said...

I take your point about the Finnish standards, and I think you're absolutely allowed to be pedantic here.

So - if we took "learn to understand the figurative nature and interpretive diversity of language" and restated it as, "identify and employ figurative language" and "explain the interpretive diversity of language" then you would have a problem with it? I think I see what you're getting at - but I think I would prefer the "tasky" language because it helps orient teachers toward a goal rather than a more abstract notion of student knowledge attainment (although that doesn't mean I don't see the value in the Finnish standard).

On the point of analyzing what an author explicitly says. If analysis is to break into smaller parts and use those reduced pieces to be carefully considerate of a piece of work, then I would hope that a student would be making an inference. I see what you're saying - I sort of skipped a step with my language. But if a student is making an inference about why an author uses a particular word or explains the purpose of the author's tone or rhythm, then I think that would do a considerable amount to help prove to me that they had indeed analyzed the work. I guess this may be another more subtle form of our argument over the tasky nature of the standards.

Lastly - why do you think the implementation will be a train wreck?

Tom Hoffman said...

I'm A-OK with performance standards. For example, "write a persuasive essay," "write a narrative report," etc. is fine with me. "Show understanding of X, for example, do Y, Z, A, B or C" is fine.

I'm not sure that there is language for the distinction I'd make between what's going on in the Common Core and in more typical performance standards. There are too many things that are literally one question, and maybe you could dress it up a little by having kids answer that question in a Power Point this time and in a video of a fake talk show the next time, etc. But basically, it is a question. And all you can do with these things is every time the kids read something, you ask them exactly the same questions. Because the standard is essentially "read something and answer this question," and the test will be "read something and answer this question."

And you really aren't allowed to go beyond the question to the underlying understanding, because nowhere is that really addressed in the standards. The standard is really just "answer this question."

Also, the word "analysis" is basically sprinkled liberally through the standards to give them the flavor of rigor. If you compare the usage of that word in the Finnish standards, it is there, but there are some standards that address various modes of analysis, so there is some context for the use of the term. Also, in Finland (and many other standards) they use the term more sparingly. Often it is really OK to say, for example, "outline the plot" or "describe the theme." That's not necessarily less rigorous than "analyzing" the plot or theme, unless you really want an analysis of the theme or plot, which requires understanding an analytical framework (e.g., a feminist analysis of the theme), which doesn't seem to be the case here, but it is hard to say.

Tom Hoffman said...

I think the train wreck part comes when you actually try to build a high school English curriculum around these standards. They simply aren't a sturdy or complete enough framework to hold up the discipline.

james boutin said...

Thanks for the feedback, Tom. I see what you mean about the, "it's essentially one question" thing. You're suggesting that they're too specific in what they're asking of students and don't allow for a broad range of skills and concepts to be taught, right?

You may be right. I will need to do what you did and apply the standards to something I teach and see what I come up with.

Would you say that the things the standards specifically ask students to do are bad though? Because the writers have said over and over again that these are basic standards, that teachers should go above and beyond them as often as possible.

Tom Hoffman said...

I think that some of the structural analysis of informational texts is a waste of time. If you follow these standards closely you'll spend a lot of time analyzing the construction of informational texts that is pointlessly nitpicky. That's an artifact of the repetition of the same reading standards for literature and informational texts.

Essentially doing literary analysis of not terribly rich non-fiction. Boring, probably confusing, and not at all something you'll have to do in college or anywhere else.

And there are some things which seem fine on the surface but when you read them closely make less sense. This is different than the inherent ambiguity of standards. It is just poor execution.

But overall, it is just too fragmentary and incoherent.

james boutin said...

Thanks for the exchange. It's been enlightening. I'm going to do some more research and apply the standards to one of my teaching units and see where my thinking goes from there.

Tom Hoffman said...

I'll be looking forward to an upcoming post!