Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An Incredibly Discouraging Example

New York 8th Grade ELA Test -- Example of a 4 out of 4 points written response:

53. The dolphin in "The Pod" is symbolic. What does the dolphin represent? How does the symbol help the reader gain a deeper understanding of the central idea of the story? Use details from the story to support your response.

In your response, be sure to

  • identify what the dolphin represents
  • explain how the symbol of the dolphin helps the reader gain a deeper understanding of the central idea of the story
  • use details from the story to support your response

The dolphin in "The Pod" is symbolic. What the dolphin represents helps the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the central idea of the story.

The full credit sample response:

The dolphin in "The Pod" is symbolic. The dolphin represents Jesse. In lines 77 to 78 it states, "The dolphin was disoriented. It kept heading back to shore." The dolphin heading back to shore represents Jesse distancing himself from his family after the accident. He is confused about what to do, now that his future is changed. He doesn't the (sic) sympathy his family gives him, so he swims to shore. "It looked as scared as he felt when they'd wheeled him into the emergency room that afternoon." The dolphin reflects what Jesse had felt the day of the accident. The dolphin in "The Pod" represents Jesse.

The symbol of the dolphin helps the reader gain a deeper idea of the central idea of the story. It gives us an idea of how things were going for Jesse and his family. The dolphin represents Jesse and the pod represents his family. In lines 82 to 84 it states, "Bud, you've got to save yourself... Nobody's going to do it for you. If you give up you're finished." This shows how Jesse is sort of giving advice to himself as well as the dolphin. Jesse needs to save himself. In the story it also states, "...the young dolphin turned toward deeper water and began to swim toward the pool. Waiting dolphins arced nearer as if in welcome... They had been worried because he'd been gone for so long. This represents his family because they are worried about him and they just want him to come home.

The dolphin in "The Pod" is symbolic of Jesse, and because it represents Jesse it gives the reader a better understanding of the story. What Jesse and his family had been through.

One thing this demonstrates is that Common Core advocates and critics are actually on the same page in some ways. Critics argue that the Common Core will lead to trite, stereotypical, repetitive writing where readers simply seek to find the single "right answer" in a text rather than a deeper understanding. This example confirms that indeed, that is exactly what Common Core backers want as well. There is a big difference between saying "Inevitably and unfortunately, some kids will end up writing very formulaically," and "Here's an example of someone getting the formula right."

Bear in mind that example and anchor essays are extremely important in writing standards. Phrases like "demonstrates insightful analysis of the text" are meaningless in isolation.

I disagree with the question's use of "symbol," at least insofar as it accepts the dolphin as a symbol for Jesse as the correct answer. One generally doesn't think of a symbol in literature as representing an individual. A symbol represents something more abstract. This imprecision is pretty consistent with the whole Common Core approach to literary analysis: "Well, close enough, whatever, we don't want to get hung up on what these "tier 3" words mean in English class."

Finally... the "main idea" of this story is actually fairly ambiguous. Jesse is recovering from an injury, and drives away from his family for a while. Finds the injured dolphin, separated from its family. He helps it, although ultimately tells it that it has to help itself, and it does. And then he goes back to his family as well. So... main idea...? Go back to your family and don't give up? Hopefully someone will find you and point you back in the right direction repeatedly? If you leave the house and visit the beach you may find inspiration in nature?

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