July 15, 2013
The Common Core’s “six shifts in literacy,” or the big ways in which the standards aim to overhaul teaching, can be boiled down a la Michael Pollan: Read complex texts. Mostly nonfiction. Very closely.
Through that close reading, teachers get clear opportunities to foster critical thinking. Attempting to help students access texts, previous standards and curricula in many states have focused on previewing the material, skimming it, and connecting it to the outside world, the self, and other texts — at best, achieving a rich holistic understanding, and at worst, dancing around the challenges posed by the author’s actual words.
But the Common Core’s reverence for the text as “the master class,” as chief creator David Coleman said in a 2011 speech, means that students’ personal interpretations are deemphasized — and even denounced. That particular pendulum swing has me concerned because, in my experience, students must also bring their own perspectives and experiences to the text if they are to read critically.
The Common Core does asks students to bring their own opinions to the text in standards that challenge readers to analyze authors’ intended meanings and even critique their methods. But while the imperative “provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments” does not outright prohibit students from having personal reactions to a text, none of the language in the Common Core suggests that they should, or that their personal reactions could be useful in assisting their analysis. Indeed, Coleman said in the same 2011 speech, “What we’ve done too much is tried to go outside the text to motivate kids. ‘You should be interested in this because of your background. It should remind you of something.’ We try to sell it almost in advance of reading it, when the only source of motivation that’s reliable is the richness and beauty of [the text] itself.”
I could see that imbalance in the way my incoming sixth-graders engaged with texts at the beginning of last year. As per their training in elementary school, their responses to literature were all about connections: “This character reminds me of my sister, who’s really brave.” I had to work hard to bring their attention more closely to the text. What has this character (not your sister) done that seems brave? On what page, and in what line, do you see the bravery demonstrated? Our students do desperately need to make this shift back toward the author’s intended meaning.
But the Common Core architects are throwing out reams of sound research, theory, and practice if they wager that students will (or should) be motivated to read an author’s words in a vacuum. Coleman’s statements signal what I think is a dangerous omission, especially in terms of reading literature, because it disregards what renowned literacy theorist Louise Rosenblatt called the transactional nature of reading.
As Rosenblatt put it, “Books do not simply happen to people. People also happen to books.” Her meaning is that a work of literature is just spots on paper until a reader’s mind brings those spots to life. Truly critical, engaged reading requires a human connection with the text, not just a magnifying glass. So developing readers, especially reluctant ones, need the space to ask both, “What does this mean?” and “What does this mean to me?”
For example, I’m confident that reading “The Road Not Taken” was a more meaningful experience for my sixth-graders thanks to discussions we had about difficult choices they’ve had to make. We did carefully analyze Robert Frost’s actual words, but we also got to the heart of why I think he wrote them: to help readers reflect on their own lives. One student raised an ordinary but very real choice for him as an 11 year-old: “This morning I had to make the choice to bring my little sister to school on time and be late myself, rather than making my sick grandmother take her.” Another girl reflected on a more high-stakes decision, whether to stand up for a friend who was being ostracized by the “popular kids.” She said that Frost’s final stanza captured the way she felt: “I did the harder thing, the thing not as many people would have done, and it made a big difference.”
I do believe that the Common Core is based on an honest assessment of what our kids need, and I trust that the people who designed it understand the value of connecting texts to our lives. In his 2011 speech, using Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to illustrate a Common Core approach to text analysis, Coleman does point out that in the final paragraphs, “King himself goes beyond the letter. That is, he begins to make analogies to Hitler’s power. He begins to make analogies about other laws. He invites us, I’m trying to say, to go beyond it with him.” King does indeed invite readers to connect his experiences to others, and our students should follow his lead.
My concern lies in the fact that Coleman outlines the reading of King’s letter as a six-day classroom activity. I pray that our students don’t tune out before day six, when they’re finally encouraged to think beyond the text to the world they live in.