Experimental Approaches to Achieve Common Core State Standards

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The NYTimes has published a piece focusing on 100 New York schools experimenting with different approaches towards achieving the “Common Core” standards that attempt to shore up problems with the “No Child Left Behind” standards.

In general, I agree with clearer standardization of minimum standards (though it must be clear that these are minimums and not norms) than what the NCLB legislation provides for, but a couple things in the article stuck out to me in a negative fashion. Firstly, the stepped progression away from “literary” reading towards more nonfiction:

While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.

Will Poulter Eustace Scrubb Voyage of the Dawn Treader Narnia
Let’s not continue to manufacture Eustaces. We need more emphasis on classic literature, not less.

All I could hear in my head at this point in the article is  C.S. Lewis’ critique in the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Eustace’s problem is that “[he] had read all the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.” Instead, his preferred books were “books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.” That is not to say that “informational” reading should be avoided, but I think it’s especially important that students raised in this information-drenched civilization be even more immersed in classic literature, lest they become miles wide but only an inch deep.

I remain convinced that exposure to truly great literature—narrative that sucks a student into a different world, into a different way of thinking, forcing students to engage with deeper questions (but in an allusive manner)—is critical to developing better minds. Additionally, students who read (and learn to enjoy) classic, immersive literature are more likely to grow into regular readers than those who simply learn to read and digest information for classes. At these early levels, I’m convinced that should be the primary aim, not moving towards “informational” reading, which will come soon enough. I also think that students who learn to critically engage with classic literature are better able to analyze data and digest informational material once they have to deal with it—but it doesn’t work the same way in reverse.

The second point is less related to the standards themselves than a statement made by one of the common core’s framers:

Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who helped write the common core standards for how to incorporate reading into science instruction, said that as a whole, the standards make no adjustments for students who are learning English or for children who might enter kindergarten without having been exposed to books.

“If I’m teaching fifth grade and I have a youngster in my class who reads as a first grader, throwing him a grade-level text is not going to do him any good, no matter what the standards say,” he said.

Yikes. My thinking runs the opposite way: if you’re giving a fifth-grader who reads below grade-level material written for first-graders, that’s going to be even more detrimental than giving him fifth-grade material and helping him work through it. The last thing we should be doing is trying to assign “grade-level” material to students. Rather, we should be encouraging students to find good, classic literature that they find engaging and interesting and then help them through it where it’s above them—teach them how to look up the words they don’t know (easier today than ever), how to boost their reading level to match these classic books.

This is partly a reaction not only to Shanahan’s statement but to those who I have encountered who try to limit children from reading books “above their level” because it would be “too much for them,” despite the fact that the children are interested in those books. That kind of limitation is infuriating and illustrates an important point in the discussion of standards:  grade level standards for children should be understood as minimums, not as “norms.”

Back to the example of the fifth-grader reading way below grade level, the biggest effort needs to help that kid find literature that connects with him, something that he can become immersed in, something that she is interested in. Once the curiosity and interest levels are there, kids are capable of learning quickly—the trick is to find ways to get them motivated to learn (as I’ve said before, in our soft and prosperous culture, motivation is the real problem). They’re capable of a lot more than we think they are.

Tags: C.S. Lewis, Common Core Standards, Education, Educational stage, No Child Left Behind Act, Readability, reading level, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2 Comments. Leave new

  • As a first grade teacher in Dallas, Texas I have to say I disagree with you. I think you are right in your thinking about the classics but you are not thinking of one important thing: the massive amount of ELL (English Language Learners) students in America. C.S. Lewis’ Eustace came from a different world suffering from Enlightement thinking. Today’s children are in need of more non-fiction because they need to develop the ability to read and speak english in an academic way not just in a functional way (BIG difference).

    As for the fifth grader reading at a first grade level I have one question to ask, “Have you ever been a fifth or first grade classroom?” The difference is HUGE! More than likely you will have more than one child in this situation. Helping a child work through that material while still keeping the others on pace is virtually impossilbe (at least IMHO.)

    What I try to do to combat this problem is I read good fiction to them but I have them read books about ants, cells, clouds etc.

    Thanks for the post though, you definitely have a point.

    • All excellent points. I had figured someone would bring up the ELL/ESL issue, which is a really good one. As far as the ability to read and speak English in an academic way, I think one of the best ways to learn that is by engaging with great literature and having to interact with it in a meaningful way. So the “productive” part of the learning, the part where the student has to say/write something about what he/she has read is where they learn the language. The problem I have is that most “academic” writers are really quite awful, while the great writers are great for a reason.

      I also agree that the classrooms are difficult and that the problem of working through material with one (or a few) students who are behind is gigantic. That’s where I think we should revise how we group students in the classroom—I’m actually in favor of a wholesale ground-up revision in our educational system rather than limiting our reforms to clearer standards. A few examples of where I’d like to see things go: 1) Since younger children have a natural aptitude for learning language, the first four grades or so should focus on multiple language acquisition—I’d like to see Spanish, Latin, and Mandarin or German be standard fare for our younger children, who can learn these things with ease. 2) Group children by skill (or, alternately, by multi-age “levels”) rather than following the traditional age-based grade system. 3) I’d like to see schools implementing more tutorial-type instruction—essentially, as each school moves away from grade levels, increase the number of “roving tutors,” who would be responsible for working with students who are behind (or way ahead) in smaller settings for so long each day. I think the “differentiated instruction” model we’re trying to push now is exactly the wrong thing (and next to impossible for teachers to keep up with); I’d rather see more of a tutorial context for those with “differentiated” needs. Would this involve hiring more teachers (and thus some funding changes)? Yes. But I think that kind of change would be more productive than where we usually flush our money.

      I think your approach is a good one given the current constraints—reading aloud at least exposes them to good fiction. I commend you for taking that approach.

      The problem I see with how we’re working in general on that front is that that huge difference you’re rightly pointing out between first and fifth grade also applies individually to the student who is a fifth grader but can barely read. Odds are, the differences between what’s going to interest that child and a first grader are significantly different. The problem is finding a way to get him/her to be interested enough in the reading material that s/he’ll be motivated to learn. I’m a proponent of raising the bar and encouraging and motivating students to clear it rather than lowering the bar to variable (differentiated) heights, though your point is a good one also: if you raise the bar to heights impossible for a student to clear, that’s equally bad.


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