For schools in Common Core State Standards states (holding at 45 at this date), an essential direction for advocacy efforts is first figuring out, then explaining to the school community, school librarians’ roles in teaching the Standards. Two key (and probably fairly evident) roles are suggesting resources to teachers and collaborating in using them effectively – but turning those nice-sounding ideas into practical strategies is still rather a work in progress. Luckily, the March SLM offers some great inspiration!
To build understanding of abstract concepts through reading and discussing across texts, Jean Donham recommends strategies for selecting and teaching texts connected by big ideas, such as immigration, family, and revolution. In the March School Library Monthly article, “Text Sets, Deep Learning, and the Common Core” and the accompanying “Use This Page: Sample Texts for Conceptual Text Sets,” Donham offers criteria for selecting text sets (such as varied representation of topics) and questions for discussing texts with students (such as asking about similarities and differences).
Donham takes what may sound like a familiar literacy learning practice into the realm of critical reading of complex texts. When I was a first grade teacher about ten years ago, we teachers structured our literature-based curriculum around “themes,” such as homes, family, and all about me. So when we taught “all about me,” we paired easy readers for students (like Anthony Browne’s Things I Like) with read-alouds like Franklin Goes to School and Chrysanthemum as the basis for related learning experiences in literacy and math.
As I think about that approach to teaching now, I think we were just on the edge of building text sets to support the learning of abstract concepts, as Jean Donham proposes. Beyond the more literal interpretations of the themes – say, “homes,” for instance, stories like A House Is a House for Me, The Little House, and The House that Jack Built contain seeds of ideas about place, change, and perspective. If I were to teach “homes” with students today with a “text set” approach in mind, I’d develop more purposeful questions to explore these ideas and stories. I’d also look for (or ask my librarian for!) texts that show diverse ways of interpreting “home,” and perhaps choose stories like What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan, about a little girl’s reluctance to leave her family’s prairie farm and her familiar surroundings, or maybe stories that show not brick and mortar “homes” but other instances of belonging, familiarity, and connection to a place.
Reference: Donham, Jean. “Text Sets, Deep Learning, and the Common Core.” School Library Monthly 29, no. 6 (March 2013): 5-7.
A few weeks ago, I was in Houston and made a casual reference to Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, which extols authentic reading and extensive classroom collections. Miller is a Texan, and I was in Texas, but her work was new to many folks I talked with.
Then I remembered that a long, long, long time ago, I asked one of my school library management students if I could share her take on The Book Whisperer on this blog. And I never had.
Well, y’all, one of the big issues arising from the Common Core State Standards is the issue of close reading. I think we can all agree that it would be terrific if all kids did this. And I’d say that most educators fight this fight on a regular basis — nothing new here. After all, we’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who said, “Oh, no. I only focus on shallow reading. Just skimming. That’s good enough.”
But, but, but.
There’s some controversy about close reading. There’s some talk that “close reading” means “no pre-teaching — just leap into the text and good luck, folks. If you’re an English Language Learner or have a special ed diagnosis or have never been more than five miles from home, and your novel is set in the Antilles 300 years ago, well, just find the information you need in the text.”
So here’s the landscape as I see it … and please correct me if I’m off-base.
First, the strategy of “close reading” is not actually in the standards. In fact, there’s nothing in the standards that indicates how someone should teach to get the students to master the standards. Here is what the Common Core Standards’ “Myths vs. Facts” web page says on the topic:
Myth: The Standards tell teachers what to teach.
Fact: The best understanding of what works in the classroom comes from the teachers who are in them. That’s why these standards will establish what students need to learn, but they will not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.
Pretty clear, eh? And here’s another:
Myth: These Standards amount to a national curriculum for our schools.
Fact: The Standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.
So … we agree … how to teach is a local decision, right?
Not so fast.
It turns out that two of the chief authors of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Susan Pimental and David Coleman (now newly-appointed head of the College Board, which administers Advanced Placement tests and the SAT, which Coleman wants to align with Common Core, even though some states have not adopted CCSS) wrote a set of publishers’ criteria on what CCSS resources should focus on. This document is where the phrase “close reading” crops up — it comes up 10 times, as a matter of fact. (That’s nothing once you realize that the word “careful” comes up 31 times!) It says:
At the heart of these criteria are instructions for shifting the focus of literacy instruction to center on careful examination of the text itself. In aligned materials, work in reading and writing (as well as speaking and listening) must center on the text under consideration. The standards focus on students reading closely to draw evidence and knowledge from the text and require students to read texts of adequate range and complexity. The criteria outlined below therefore revolve around the texts that students read and the kinds of questions students should address as they write and speak about them (page 1).
Reading strategies should work in the service of reading comprehension (rather than an end unto themselves) and assist students in building knowledge and insight from specific texts. To be effective, instruction on specific reading techniques should occur when they illuminate specific aspects of a text. Students need to build an infrastructure of skills, habits, knowledge, dispositions, and experience that enables them to approach new challenging texts with confidence and stamina. As much as possible, this training should be embedded in the activity of reading the text rather than being taught as a separate body of material (page 9).
Wait … the very folks who said that the standards won’t dictate how to teach are now going to articulate the questions students should address? Why, yes. But I digress.
The criteria make plain that developing students’ prowess at drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading; reading well means gaining the maximum insight or knowledge possible from each source. Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text. Hence evidence and knowledge link directly to the text (page 1).
This idea is great in theory — of course we should dig into the text to find evidence. This builds on the work of Junior Great Books, Shared Inquiry, and more. It’s powerful.
The problem is that this idea has been extrapolated (and I’m working on digging out the source of this) to indicate that there shouldn’t be pre-reading scaffolding — that students should explore the text in isolation, uninfluenced by outside factors.
One of my preservice teachers reminded me of just how difficult this would be. Imagine Shelley’s Frankenstein. Can you read that text without having some understanding of what academic learning looked like in the time of the novel? Some sense of Milton’s Paradise Lost, from which the Creature learns about humanity? Some understanding of European geography? She worked in a working class school, and her answer was NO. (Plus, who isn’t influenced as a 21st-century reader by cartoons or Brooks’ Young Frankenstein? It’s impossible to ignore prior knowledge.)
The point is that when we ask comprehension questions of students, we should keep the questions confined to the text itself. Page 6 says, “Eighty to ninety percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis.” Okey-dokey.
Assigning simpler texts isn’t an option. Page 2 says:
Far too often, students who have fallen behind are only given less complex texts rather than the support they need to read texts at the appropriate level of complexity. Complex text is a rich repository of ideas, information, and experience which all readers should learn how to access, although some students will need more scaffolding to do so.
Ah, scaffolding. OK. Now we’re getting somewhere. I can handle that — instead of substituting easier texts, do the hard texts but add scaffolding.We did that in decades past. I suppose it’s doable.
Well, let me turn this over to reading expert Dr. Douglas Fisher. This video, posted on the McGraw-Hill web site (note: McGraw-Hill bought Grow, the company CCSS co-author Coleman founded), should clear things up. (If you prefer transcripts to videos, click here.)
So did that clear everything up, folks? Good. Because you don’t want to get me started about Coleman saying things like “kicking our butts” (see part 3) or “nobody gives a sh-t“ in a 2011 New York Department of Education speech. That would just be tacky.