On My Twelfth Year of Common Core, David Coleman Gave to Me…

…a tightly written College English 1 essay.

And not a whole heck of a lot of anything else.

Three months ago, I wrote about the very narrow theoretical perspectives that appear to inform the Common Core Reading Literature standards from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and I followed it in October with an exploration of how the incentive systems written into the Race to the Top grant programs are likely to lock in a very narrow reading of the already narrow standards.  This entry takes a look at those same Reading Literature standards and posits what possibilities and pitfalls await young readers as the potentially learn reading via these standards.  This is speculative and highly dependent upon a certain degree of fealty to the Common Core State Standards project that is not precisely guaranteed.  However, in all of the discussions on the process and content of the CCSS English Language Arts standards, I’ve seen little that takes these standards and posits what they would mean in classroom implementation for teachers approaching literature instruction using them.

I want to open by stating that people I admire think that aspects of the CCSS ELA standards have potential, and it would be a mistake for any opponent or advocate to assert that the literacy acquisition standards are entirely with or without merit.  In any complex endeavor such as the adoption of common standards for the ELA, there will be conflicting views of the research and developmental appropriateness of the standards.  Regardless, the International Reading Association (IRA) has taken a stance of what I would call cautious optimism that, if implemented correctly, the CCSS ELA standards have strong potential especially in literacy acquisition, fluency, and vocabulary development.  Throughout the chapters in the linked book, authors offer hopeful visions of what teachers could accomplish with the standards, but also sound cautionary notes about the need for development, education, quality materials, and systems that do not narrow what teachers are doing.  P. David Pearson of the University of California at Berkeley notes:

Teacher prerogative and the comprehension model, two assumptions that are strongly represented in the standards and clearly based on research, will not, in my view, be implemented with a high degree of fidelity because the guidelines in the Publisher’s Criteria (Coleman & Pimintel, 2011) are likely to undermine the standards as they are written. Only if schools can resist these guidelines and stay true to the version of the standards in the original document do we have a hope of a high fidelity implementation of what we know about reading comprehension and about teacher learning within school change efforts.
He goes on to state that he still supports the standards because he believes they are an overall improvement because they are “the best game in town”, a hope that they can be used as a “living document” that can reflect best research knowledge, and his reading of the research literature on reading and comprehension supports that the standards are a “move in the right direction.”
I should note that I know Dr. Pearson personally, having studied with him in graduate school, and I have a deep admiration for his body of work and his perspective.  I also note that the qualifications he has made on his endorsement are striking to me because given the policy environment that surrounds CCSS most of his cautions, just like the cautions of his fellow authors for the IRA volume, are being plainly ignored in states that adopted CCSS alongside the high stakes testing and teacher evaluation models based upon them.  Further, while the questions of early literacy acquisition and text complexity are worthy of continued discussion, I remain convinced that the CCSS ELA standards on reading are so text-centric that questions of student engagement and the very purpose of a complete English Language Arts curriculum remain woefully underdeveloped as the nation moves into full implementation of the standards.
Blogger Peter Greene took the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, to task recently in a response to an essay entitled “Cultivating Wonder” where Coleman, who has never studied early or adolescent literacy and who has never taught in a secondary ELA classroom, posits the “proper” way that teachers can inspire students to engage deeply with texts with “good questions.”  Greene shrewdly notes that Coleman’s perspective on reading literature is so tightly confined to reading within the “four corners” of a page that he misses that Shakespeare’s lack of stage directions is a likely byproduct of the playwright being present at productions himself, and he misses aspects of Shakespeare’s story telling craft that are common across his plays.  Professor Nicholas Tampio of Fordham University goes further than Greene, postulating that Coleman’s approach to reading does not prepare students for college because his intense focus on what is just in the text limits students from being able to make insights within and across texts, and preparing them to be graded by software:

As a professor, of course I demand that my students provide evidence to support their arguments. Coleman’s pedagogical vision, however, does not prepare students for college. He discourages students from making connections between ideas, texts or events in the world — in a word, from thinking. Students are not encouraged to construct knowledge and understanding; they must simply be adept at repeating it.

His philosophy of education transfers across disciplines. After analyzing literary passages, he observes, “Similar work could be done for texts … in other areas such as social studies, history, science and technical subjects.” Like a chef’s signature flavor, Coleman’s philosophy of education permeates the myriad programs that the College Board runs.

Computers can grade the responses generated from his philosophy of education. Students read a passage and then answer questions using terms from it, regardless of whether the text is about history, literature, physics or U.S. history. The Postal Service sorts letters using handwriting-recognition technology, and with a little tinkering, this kind of software could seemingly be used to score the SAT or AP exams.

Grading writing by computers is probably a long way off, but taken together, both Peter Greene and Professor Tampio’s critiques highlight that David Coleman’s reading perspective is narrowly confined to the “four corners” of the page of text which, when coupled with high stakes testing and teacher evaluations based on testing, will likely produce students responding narrowly, citing small segments of text, in ways that will fall into predictable patterns.

Looking at the CCSS 11-12th grade Reading Literature standards, we can see the boundedness that Peter Greene calls the “four corners of the page” because even in standard number 7 which deals with “multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem” the language of the standard draws readers immediately to evaluate “how each version interprets the source text” with no indication how it is that different actors, designers, and directors might come to various stagings of a play as representative of time, place, and audience; the analysis remains text bound.  The other anchor standards are similarly bound, with standard 1 calling on students to “Cite strong textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly, as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain;” standard 2 stating students will “Determine two or more central themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text;” standard 3 requires students to “Analyze the impact of author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g. where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed);  standard 4 requires students “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful;”  standard 5 puts students to work to “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g. the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact; and standard 6 says that students will “Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meany (e.g. satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).”

I do not have enormous difficulties with much of this.  The Reading Literature standards for the upper grades of high school outline a tightly textual approach to analysis that, if done well, could train college bound students in the kind of “text as puzzle” thinking that is often rewarded in introductory level college courses.  The standards require students to support their statements about the meaning of the text with “strong” evidence from the text, and they set students both to understand the tools of text that authors employ when writing and to speak and write analytically about those tools.  It seems very likely to me that a student armed with a mastery of these Reading Literature tools would be capable of crafting spoken and written arguments that would satisfy the grading criteria of many introductory college English courses.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) this remains a narrow vision of what an English Language Arts curriculum can be.  For example, the standards make frequent notice of Shakespeare, and Mr. Coleman’s “Cultivating Wonder” essay includes a pass at making students “wonder” at Hamlet, but can one truly imagine a English Language Arts classroom bounded by just the tools needed to write a competent college English essay?  It is not that those tools are unimportant, but given the Sword of Damocles hanging over teachers via assessment, can they expand their vision of powerful engagement with literature outside of those tools?  I have my doubts, and I have my doubts that David Coleman sees that engagement as important.

However, most English teachers I have known would agree that it is critically important.  Hamlet, for example, even for students in a college preparatory curriculum, is far more than a textual puzzle to be picked apart and analyzed to determine if Shakespeare believes that Hamlet has actually lost his mind or if the scholarly and dickering Hamlet is actually ill-suited to rule compared to the villainous but capable Claudius, the noble and active Laertes, or the militaristic and decisive Fortinbras.  It is a play worth reading and performing because it holds up an uncomfortable mirror to our own human failings, and it asks ourselves what we value in our most human of endeavors, seeking understanding of our place in the continuity of human experience.  And that is because the English Language Arts are much more than tools for advancement to the next phase of education or economic obtainment; they are an exploration of the richness and power of language, which ranks with religion and art as the most universally deployed tools for understanding ourselves.  William Shakespeare has not survived for four continuous centuries of reading and production because his works provide interesting textual puzzles for essays; he has surveyed because he remains one of the English language’s greatest instructors in the meaning of being human.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Coleman, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Also troubling is that the Common Core way of reading literature makes no express acknowledgement of what we know about sophisticated reading in adolescent literacy.  There is no mention of students reading intertexually, using what they know from other texts and applying it to create nuances in the meaning of what they are currently reading.  Nor can one tease out an understanding of the processes by which a student reads in order to make sense of how they will use the close reading perspective so privileged by the standards themselves.  Before a student can deploy the directives of the standards to create a piece of close reading analysis, that student will first need to read and comprehend, and as demonstrated in the Rosenblatt text I’ve linked to, that is a layered process that deploys an incredible number of resources both inside and outside of the text.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  it does not matter that the lesson is directed at citing “strong textual evidence” in order to substantiate a point about the text, if the lesson does not allow for the face that two different readers will be drawn to different points and different “strong textual evidence” depending upon factors that exist entirely outside of the text itself.

It is not that teachers and readers cannot acknowledge that reality within the confines of the standards; it is, however, something they will have to acknowledge entirely on their own because the Reading Literature standards provide no vision of a reading process.

If teachers were holding that perhaps this tightly contained vision of the ELA was restricted to upper secondary levels, it looks like that hope is in vain.  The first three Reading Literature standard looks like this in 8th grade:

Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
And like this in 5th grade:
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
And like this in 3rd grade:
Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
Even in Kindergarten, children who are not yet fluent are tasked with being little reading detectives:
With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.
With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.
What is striking in this backwards engineered set of reading standards is not what is included, but what is excluded and how it remains excluded (and how it cannot help but remain excluded given that states agreed to add no more than 15% of their own material to the standards upon adoption).  I have no problem with Kindergarten students having reading discussions with teachers to practice recall and retelling.  I have no problem with 3rd graders asking questions that can demonstrate whether or not they comprehended what they read.  There is no harm in a 5th grader being asked to locate where in a text he or she developed a particular idea about the text or in an 8th grader honing that skill into a more formal tool.  None of these things harm children, and for those on a path to a four year liberal arts education, the end goal is defensible.
But what is left out absolutely harms them.
What is left out is an understanding of both reading as a process to be fostered and developed over the lifetime of a reader, and what is left out is also any reason for reading that strays from that eventual college English 1 essay and into the multitude of reasons why people read.  As written, these Reading Literature standards would make at least somewhat subversive a teacher who asked students to consider why certain features of the text attracted their attention, who asked students how a piece of reading made them feel initially, who asked students to place authors and literature in the context of place and time to see them as social commentary, who connected works of literature to other works of art, who asked students to connect the text to other pieces of literature except to delve into the author’s use of allegory, who explored the role of literature in the history and sociology of a culture…all of these can only be squeezed into the standards after the total fidelity to close textual reading has been duly observed.
And with the policy system that is currently in place, I fear many teachers will have no idea how to find the space for all of the other purposes for reading literature.  I can think of few tactics more likely to DISCOURAGE a lifelong relationship with reading outside of the classroom.
I’ll take my A on that essay now, Mr. Coleman.  Can I have my Tolkien back, please?


Filed under Common Core, teaching

3 responses to “On My Twelfth Year of Common Core, David Coleman Gave to Me…

  1. gloria41488

    Very well said. The irony is that Coleman actually is drawn to create, out of Martha Graham’s essay on dance, a little lesson about the value of suffering in the pursuit of becoming a better reader. Reading is a matter he draws out of his own experience and concerns, and not the text itself.

  2. W. Thomas

    From my limited perspective (middle school social studies teacher in a title one district), the CCSS are vague. I’m stuck in the middle. State tests are usually content driven. CCSS does not mention content. Skill on one set of documents or readings does not readily transfer to others.

    Most of the students I work with would be hopelessly lost and confused answering CCSS types of questions. And rightly so. Even with material provided, they do not have the background to reason or understand.

    The types of skills that CCSS demands only come with enormous content knowledge. Knowledge gained over years of serious study. Correct answers on a multiple choice test at this level might only indicate a shallow understanding. I would even say that if you don’t have that background knowledge, doing well on CCSS tests is meaningless.

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