COMMON CORE MEETS COMMON SENSE–Reading/Language Arts (Part 2 of 3)

Having hopefully established the case for education reform in last week’s post, a closer look at CC Reading/Language Arts (RLA) standards is in order.  For clarification purposes, these same standards are sometimes referred to as English/Language Arts (ELA), depending on the source of the information.  We will use RLA and ELA interchangeably, as well.  Regardless of what we call them, they definitely aren’t your father’s elementary school standards.  Click here and simply scroll down to “K-8 Standards” for an in-depth look at these rigorous expectations.  By selecting your child’s grade level from the drop down menu, you can readily access everything he or she is expected to know by the end of this school year.  Specific standards are broken down into six categories (Literature, Informational Text, Foundational Skills, Writing, Speaking/Listening, and Language).  NOTE:  The actual standards are listed in tables with blue headiings.

If you’re scoring at home and assuming you read last week’s post, the word rigorous has already been used three times.  The idea of educational rigor means different things to different people.  In the interest of developing a common, working understanding, allow me the liberty to define rigorous as difficult.  Interestingly, www.thesaurus.com lists brutal and burdensome as being synonymous with rigorous.  As a principal, I am comfortable defining rigorous as difficult, brutal, or burdensome.  I am even willing to accept rigorous as meticulous, another synonym.  Candidly, however, I sometimes wonder if we are labeling impossible expectations as “rigorous standards.”  In other words, if a wonderfully rigorous standard is introduced at the wrong grade level, what we really have is an impossible expectation.

To illustrate this concern as it applies to the rigorous vs. impossible debate, let’s play a quick game.  I’ll provide a random CC ELA standard below, and you guess the grade level at which a student is required to master the expectation.  Ready?

“Students will write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, including some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

What grade level did you guess?  Third?  Fourth?  Wrong.  The “rigorous” Writing Standard above was taken directly from Tennessee’s ELA Standards for FIRST GRADE.  I am blessed to interact with 100 first graders every day.  They are many things, including cute, funny, and willing to hug most anybody.  They chew with their mouths open, run when nobody is watching, and smell much better before recess than after.  Some can read fluently, and some are working hard to be able to do so.  Generally speaking, however, most first graders are not capable of “signaling event order with temporal words” or “providing a sense of closure to their writing.”  The RLA standard in bold above would be considered appropriately rigorous for a third or fourth grader, in my opinion.  For first graders, the same standard is bordering on impossible.  In most cases, six-year-olds’ idea of providing narrative closure is to draw a heart or a car at the end of their stories.  Advanced first graders might attempt to provide a sense of closure with “The End.”

Perhaps I am selling six-year-olds short.  They are definitely like little sponges, soaking up virtually everything put in front of them academically.  Maybe after a year of CC ELA standards at the kindergarten level, these little people will be quite capable of the ominous standard referenced.  What concerns me, though, is educators’ propensity to turn children into what Uncle Buck fought against way back in 1989.  Who could forget this hilarious movie clip?  CAUTION:  Apologies for the bad word at the 2:22 mark.  To avoid it, simply mute the clip between 2:20 and 2:24.  To paraphrase Uncle Buck, I’m not sure I want to know a six-year-old who is good at signaling event order with temporal words.

Setting aside this objection to developmentally inappropriate standards–really, the only one I have–there are many, many things I appreciate about CC RLA.  These new standards call for a 50/50 balance of complex fiction and content-rich non-fiction.  In other words, CC requires that students enjoy exposure to both quality literature and detailed informational texts.  That seems like a reasonable idea to me as a learner, as a principal, and as a father.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could choose to live and learn exclusively in the make believe world of our favorite fictional genre?  Too bad that’s completely impractical.  Non-fiction is a necessary part of adulthood, so I believe it should be a necessary part of childhood, too.  Besides, some students (stereotypically boys) hate reading until they stumble across a book about snakes, snails, or puppy dog tails.  Consider a couple of examples.

When my wife and I began dating, her 13-year-old brother was in middle school.  His teachers wanted him to read The Outsiders and Chronicles or Narnia, but he was too busy devouring JEGSMotor Trend, and National Dragster magazines.  He is now happily married with two children and getting along quite nicely building race cars for a living.  With apologies to Hinton and Lewis–not to mention Ponyboy and Mr. Tumnus–if my brother-in-law had it to do over, I suspect he would choose the same informational texts.  Classical literature undoubtedly has value, but for too long we have prioritized it well above non-fiction.  I’m relieved that CC makes room for both.  This paradigm shift is without question my favorite piece of CC.

My own son preferred the Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds over Junie B. Jones or Diary of a Wimpy Kid at a very early age.  Thanks to great teachers, he eventually found some Mike Lupica books (sports fiction), but that was well after he had practically memorized the dog book and worn the cover threadbare in the process.  Now a high school senior, this same young man has suffered through books labeled “classics” by people he has never met with different tastes than his own.  Simply put, he endures the fiction he is forced to read, but he devours the informational texts he chooses to read.  My freshman daughter, on the other hand, loves and prefers fiction.  Do I encourage her to read fiction that I would never consider for myself?  You better believe it.  When she asks if I will take her to buy a new novel on its release date, the answer is always yes.  Reading is reading in my book (pun intended).  My simple-minded reading philosophy is this:  Figure out what a kid enjoys, and give them literary access to everything you can find on the topic–magazines, books, and even supervised internet time.  Well-intentioned educators and parents make a mistake when they classify reading into two categories–“reading for fun” and “reading for information.”  For some kids, reading for information IS reading for fun.

Finally, writing and speaking skills have been expected, but not necessarily taught, in upper grades for a long, long time.  CC ELA now requires educators to formally teach students to write and speak as early as kindergarten, and those skills are continually refined in every grade as students’ cognition allows.  As a former high school teacher, I am incredibly grateful for this new focus on student expression.  The majority of the juniors and seniors I taught were terrible writers.  I remember thinking, “Why did nobody teach these students to write?”  When I asked high school English teachers and friends (who could more aptly–and lovingly–be called high school literature snobs) about this problem, they blamed middle school English teachers.  When I asked those middle school teachers (again, friends and literature snobs) what happened, they blamed inadequate elementary instruction.  I blame nobody.

How can we blame any teacher for not grooming great writers and public speakers?  For too long, traditional RLA standards have left a great deal to be desired when it comes to student expression.  In fact, for most of my 20-year career, RLA standards could have been much more accurately identified as simply R standards–reading.  Language arts, according to my English teacher friends (now maybe former friends because I called them literature snobs), was “taught” through writing.  “Research supports teaching language arts through writing,” they said.  “Well, it’s not working,” I replied.  Research also supported fen-phen, New Coke, and the Flat Earth Theory.  Turns out, those research findings were wrong, too.  Before CC, I felt like we should pause for a moment of silence to remember the hieroglyphics of diagramming sentences.  Let me step down off of my soapbox in order to conclude.

Considering the totality of CC RLA standards, I would consider myself a proponent.  For the record, I think all CC RLA standards are worthy of students’ time and teachers’ instruction.  My only objection is based on the age at which some standards are expected to be mastered.  Assuming we don’t call an impossible expectation a rigorous standard, I am happy with all six categories of CC RLA (Literature, Informational Text, Foundational Skills, Writing, Speaking/Listening, and Language).  As a pragmatic reader and “grammar nazi,” I am ultimately thankful that CC provides something for everyone, especially my former?? friends and literature snobs.  S.E. Hinton and C.S. Lewis might not be thrilled with CC ELA standards, but I believe Uncle Buck would approve.

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