Thursday, January 03, 2013

Better Get Used to This Question, Kid

Noa Rosinplotz, a sixth-grade student in the District of Columbia public schools:

Each ELA test has 30 or so questions, give or take a few. The questions are related to several passages presented in the test booklet, which can include poems, nonfiction texts written exclusively for the test, and fictional stories. There are usually two written response questions on each test. Sometimes the questions are fine. More often than not, they don’t make sense in context or have multiple or no right answers. For example, question 11 on the first test this school year was as follows:

If “Nasser of the Shaduf had been written in the third person, the reader would probably have learned less about which of the following?

a) Nasser’s childhood

b) Nasser’s sisters

c) how Nasser felt about working the shaduf

d) how his father felt about Nasser

I think they’re all a little bit wrong.

The answer is pretty clearly c). It is only difficult if you aren't used to this kind of question, and believe me, under the Common Core, everyone is going to get used to this kind of question. The Common Core emphasizes textual analysis, but really only a specific subset of analytical tasks. This question seems to be aimed at 5th grade reading literature standard 6:

Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.

There are only 7 reading literature standards per grade level, and each level contains some variation on this task. The Common Core argues that this line of analysis is of great importance:

  • Grade 4: Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations.
  • Grade 5: Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.
  • Grade 6: Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.
  • Grade 7: Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.
  • Grade 8: Analyze how differences in the points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor.

These aren't bad tasks, but the (over-)emphasis seems random. In any other country, this wouldn't be a standard or objective at all, just a fragment.

Noa should expect to answer a question of this type roughly twice a week for the next six and a half years. I'm sure she'll get the hang of it.


Tom Hinkle said...

This is beyond nuts. Having just been teaching fiction to students, one of the things that comes out most clearly about point-of-view is that changing from 1st to 3rd person *never* means losing information. It allows you a lot more power -- among other simple things it lets you describe what your character looks objectively, something that matters a lot to beginning writers.

The first person of course enables you to develop a stronger voice and sense of personality (though lots of literary writers actually have elements of personality and voice spill through in close third person narration, truth be told). That's the only thing it allows you to do that the third person doesn't.

Since third person narrators vary so widely in subjectivity/objectivity and in distance, the very structure of this question is completely idiotic. The one thing that seems clear is that the person writing the question has never tried to write fiction.

I've always taken it for granted as true that grammar instruction is basically all wrong. It turns out you can teach kids grammar wrong and it doesn't do too much harm, and you can probably even teach them to ace tests with grammar questions based on woefully bad notions of grammar and it won't have any adverse effect on their writing (think of the way we've all mastered the utterly stupid notion of "adverb" as described in traditional grammar). It seems like now with Common Core we can start teaching a bunch of bullshit about fiction that is patently true -- teaching our students that third person narration is less likely to tell you how the main character feels, for example.

My only consolation is that, if the example of grammar holds up, we at least won't be doing any harm. We'll be teaching a bunch of made up truisms that students don't understand anyway. The best of them will learn them well enough to do well on the made up tests we invent, but none of it will have anything to do with the actual skills involved.

Tom Hoffman said...

Yes, Tom, not actually teaching English for a while I seem to be more able to think like a test writer and just go with the flow!

My feeling about this and a lot of these standards is that they're written in a particular way which makes them either very formulaic -- I was thinking you could probably write down a good set of rules for this entire sequence of standards on one single-spaced page (and then turn it into a song, maybe...) -- OR they're quite subtle, like voice slipping through the 3rd person narration. There's not a lot of inbetween.