For nearly an hour, Dowan McNair-Lee has been walking her 8th grade English/language arts students through ways to identify the central idea of a text. She's come at it from several angles, and no light bulbs are going off.
Using an article about labor leader Cesar Chavez's grape boycott and hunger strike, these students at Stuart-Hobson Middle School are doing a "close read," a skill prized by the new Common Core State Standards being put into practice in the District of Columbia. Ms. McNair-Lee had read the article aloud, then students read it on their own. Now, the class is diving into it together, analyzing word choice, structure, and other features of the text to determine its main idea.
It goes on with this thread for a while:
Remember, Ms. McNair-Lee tells the students, you can combine the text with your own knowledge to make inferences that can shed light on the main idea. She models it for them, pointing to the last paragraph, which reports that 50,000 people attended Mr. Chavez's funeral. "So I'm gonna make an inference here," she says, writing it on the board: "He made a difference."
The problem with this is that you shouldn't need to close read, make inferences, or anything else to get the main idea of an "article." Either the kids just don't understand the article, they have no interest in engaging with this lesson at all, or both. Or perhaps it is a poorly written article.
This may well be true:
"I know that this way of doing things takes a lot more effort than what we're used to doing," the teacher says. "But you need to know this."
But it is not clear that it is really driven by the standards. Maybe the most important role for the standards here is providing the right conceptual framework for aspects of learning. When I hear teachers complaining that students can't find the main idea or can't make an inference, it feels like a lousy model of the problem.
Today, the class is discussing types of allusions. "If I say I want to click my heels and go home, what kind of allusion is that?" Ms. McNair-Lee asks. "Literary," a couple students call out. Most recognize that a cartoon about the dangers of dating Henry VIII is a historical allusion.
Mikel doesn't seem clear on the concept. The teacher shows another cartoon, this time of a sad little train engine begging for change near a sign that says, "I Thought I Could, I Thought I Could."
"What kind of allusion is that, Mikel?" she says. Startled, he ventures: "Pop culture?" No, she says, it's literary. But she wonders: Did anyone read this story to him as a child?
I'm not sure that I'd be clear on the concept either if you asked me that question, but more importantly, is this going to be on the test? Do you need to know the types of allusions? I don't know that I know them. It seems to me this kind of terminology is actively discouraged by the CC standards. To be clear, here's the relevant standard:
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
First off, this is a good example of the lousy editing and poor "specific word choices" used in the standards. Are we only supposed to study allusion only within the context of "the impact of specific word choices?" Yes? No? Who knows?
Anyhow, I like the idea of using cartoons to cover allusions quickly and in an accessible context, but I think the better question, and more in line with the intent of the standards, would be simply "What's going on here? Is this a joke? Why is it funny or sad or whatever it is? Use evidence from the text!" The impact is what the standard is looking for. It is not the author's intent, clearly. Nor is it really asking for the individual reader's response. The standard is philosophically mealymouthed, the "impact" is an ill-defined abstraction. But that's what the questioning should focus on: What's the impact on the hypothetical and/or actual reader? You shouldn't have to teach this "tier 3" academic vocabulary covering a taxonomy of allusion.
The main point of this information text is that these, or any, standards are a very indirect lever for changing pedagogy, but the Common Core ELA is still just swathed in a haze of confusion, much of it self-inflicted.