Friday, December 11, 2015

Common Core & Style

Fredrik deBoer:

My fundamental learning goal in teaching style is this: to demystify prose style. Very often, students coming to a formal consideration of prose style with a sense that prose style is a pure “feel” thing, that they know it when they see it but can’t put their finger on it. That’s romantic, but it stands in the way of their adopting prose style themselves. My intent is to demonstrate to them that style emerges from the text itself, that we can observe style the way we do any other textual feature, and that we can in type write with our own style by becoming more attuned to how great stylists write.

To that end, I teach a three part assignment sequence. First, students write a brief analysis of a writer’s prose, identifying its salient features and the textual properties that makes it stand out. Second, students parody a writer’s style, typically rewriting an already written passage in a caricature of another writer’s style, or writing their own narrative in that style. Finally, students write their own text, perhaps a narrative, review, or editorial, in highly stylized prose, working to inflect their own writing with some of the features they’ve recently identified in that of others. Assignment sheets for this sequence can be found in my Teaching Portfolio.

Since this is in the context of teaching freshman composition at a major university, it piques my interest in relation to "college and career readiness." How does the first part of this sequence -- students write a brief analysis of a writer’s prose, identifying its salient features and the textual properties that makes it stand out -- relate to Common Core reading?

Jumping to the chase a bit, the bottom line to me is that deBoer's assignment is arguably a better, clearer, if a bit unpolished "standard" than the Common Core equivalents, which would be:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Compare this to, say, the NECAP Grade Span Expectation:

R–12–6 Analyze and interpret author’s craft within or across texts, citing evidence where appropriate by…
  • R–12–6.1a. Demonstrating knowledge of author’s style or use of literary elements and devices (e.g., simile, metaphor, point of view, imagery, repetition, flashback, foreshadowing, personification, hyperbole, symbolism, analogy, allusion, diction, syntax, genre, or bias, or use of punctuation) to analyze literary works
  • R–12–6.1.b. Examining author’s style or use of literary devices to convey theme

The NECAP expectation seems closer to what deBoer is asking his incoming students to be able to do as the first part of a multi-part assignment. The Common Core is, as always, oddly fragmented and over-specific. Students jump right into assessing how point of view or purpose shapes style without preliminary standards teaching what style is. Standard four is mostly about the meaning of specific words, five about overall structure, and six is about point of view but also in the grade level standards slides away from authorial point of view into character point of view. The parts don't seem to add up to the whole.

Anyhow, I suppose deBoer will see in a few years if students start having a slightly different reaction to this assignment, clicking into their PARCC-ready close reading drill, and if that is better or worse.

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