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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- Compare and contrast multiple interpretations of a drama or story, distinguishing how each version interprets the source text. There is not a readily accessible adaptation of the text. Note that this standard will influence what works are included in the curriculum.
- (Not applicable to literature)
- 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.