I guess Dana Huff teaches at a private school, so she doesn't have to worry about state or national standards, but let's look at her recent blogging about her plans for her 11th grade Brit Lit class and the Common Core standards for reading literature in 11th and 12th grade.
First, here again are the draft Common Core standards:
- 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.
- Analyze how multiple themes or central ideas in a text interact, build upon, and, in some cases, conflict with one another.
- Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama.
- Analyze in detail the condensed language of poems (or particularly rich language use in a narrative or drama), determining how specific word choices and multiple meanings shape the impact and tone.
- 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.
- 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.
- Compare and contrast multiple interpretations of a drama or story, distinguishing how each version interprets the source text.
- (Not applicable to literature)
- Analyze how an author draws on and transforms fictional source material in a specific work.
OK, now, let's look at Dana's essential questions for the year:
- How do our stories shape us? How do we shape the world around us with stories?
- How is a period of literature a response to the culture/history of that period?
- How is a period of literature a response to the previous period?
- What themes/ideas transcend time and culture?
- What are the key concepts, values, and literary forms of the various periods
- How has the English language changed over time?
These are the right questions to ask in an 11th grade literature class. They represent important and authentic reasons for reading literature in school. One might argue, as the Common Core standards do, implicitly and explicitly, that perhaps this puts too much emphasis on teaching the history of the art of Literature. One might also argue that Dana's is really a humanities curriculum. Certainly the Common Core's confusion about whether or not its standards address "literacy" or "English Language Arts" doesn't help.
Regardless, there is a large gap between Dana's questions and the Common Core standards. They don't fit together. The relationship between standards and essential questions is more a question of art than science. Let's take a quick look at the relevant NCTE standards, which I'd guess Dana might have used as a reference:
- Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
The connection between Dana's questions and these standards is evident, as is the difference in approach between the Common Core and NCTE standards. In Understanding By Design, the fundamental planning process is:
- Identify desired results - big ideas, enduring understandings, essential questions, real-world performances.
- Determine acceptable evidence - performance tasks, exams, etc.
- Plan learning experiences.
The Common Core standards jump straight to step two; they are either specific tasks or suggest a narrow range of possible assessments.
Let's look at Dana's initial outline of her assessments:
In thinking about the literature, I drafted a list of potential essay/writing assignments, which would make eight major writing assignments in year, or four each semester.
Prospective Composition Assignments
- 2 Narrative Essays—College essay
- Persuasive/Argumentative Essay—Beowulf as hero
- Literary Analysis—characterization in Canterbury Tales, courtly love in CT
- Creative—Macbeth directing a scene, Literary Analysis—characters, theme, symbols in Macbeth, Persuasive—witches’ influence, who is to blame, Lady Macbeth’s influence
- Persuasive/Argumentative Essay—Satire (A Modest Proposal)
- Literary Analysis—Poetry Explication
- Annotating a text
These assignments correlate rather directly with the Common Core standards. For example, "Persuasive/Argumentative Essay—Satire (A Modest Proposal)" maps pretty directly to "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." Her "Literary Analysis—Poetry Explication" just has to become the more specific "Analyze in detail the condensed language of poems (or particularly rich language use in a narrative or drama), determining how specific word choices and multiple meanings shape the impact and tone."
"Literary Analysis—characterization in Canterbury Tales, courtly love in CT" is a little problematic because the most relevant standard is very specific: "Analyze how multiple themes or central ideas in a text interact, build upon, and, in some cases, conflict with one another," so one would have to come up with other themes in CT and how they interact with themes related to courtly love. A few other narrowly drawn, somewhat arch analytical tasks would have to be added (and all this presumably repeated in 12th grade).
So... what does this add up to? Probably well-wrought literature classes in high performing schools can modify their tasks to fit the Common Core standards, maintain their higher level foci, and suffer relatively little. But for the secondary English teacher, these aren't so much standards as anti-standards. They say to the teacher "Standards, as your discipline has conceived them, don't matter. Big ideas, reasons are optional. Just complete this list of assignments and whatever else you do is irrelevant." On the other hand, in many if not most schools in the US, teachers will only be permitted to undertake activities that are directly related to these tasks, and assessed and rewarded or punished based on these and the rest of the Common Core standards/tasks. What the long term impact of that will be, nobody knows.