kitchen table math, the sequel: Drear

Monday, June 10, 2013

Drear

I've finally tuned in to Common Core a bit, mostly because I've been chatting with a Common Core person here in my town, who directed me to NYC's Tasks, Units & Student Work.

So today I took a quick look at NYC's sample ELA Tasks and Units and saw only one sample Task, across all 14 grades (Pre-K through Grade 12), that had anything whatsoever to do with fiction: Grade 9 Literacy in English Language Arts: Who Is to Blame for Romeo and Juliet’s Death.

It's always worse than you think!

Number one, Romeo and Juliet is too hard for 9th grade students to read, especially 9th grade students who've just spent 9 years reading "informational text" and writing "calls to action."

But, number two, even if 9th-grade students could read Romeo and Juliet, there is no earthly reason for anyone to undertake a "Task" that involves answering the question "Who Is to Blame for Romeo and Juliet's Death?"

Real English professors don't assign Tasks requiring students to figure out "Who Is To Blame for Romeo and Juliet's Death?" (Real English professors, in my experience, don't assign Tasks at all. They assign papers.)

Real English professors don't assign Tasks requiring students to figure out "Who Is To Blame for Romeo and Juliet's Death?" because Romeo and Juliet is a play, not a feature story in the New York Times. Romeo and Juliet are fictional characters; they don't actually exist.

Who is responsible for Romeo and Juliet's Death?

You got me.

William Shakespeare, maybe?

If this is Common Core, public school is about to turn into 13 years of SAT reading.

Thirteen years of SAT reading is nobody's idea of a good time. Let us pray that our policy elites do not manage to lengthen the school year before Common Core passes from the stage.


What actual English professors think students in English classes should write about:
Norton: Writing About Literature
Norton: Identifying Topics
English paper thesis statements 

The complete list of sample ELA tasks and units.

38 comments:

Allison said...

You may be right, but given that I read Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade nearly 25 years ago and had to write essays almost identical to that for all of 12th grade AP English, it doesn't seem like this is a step down from before. If that was bad (and it certainly turned me off of ever studying literature) it is in line with expectation of a supposedly rigorous program.

Anonymous said...

"What actual English professors think students in English classes should write about..."

I'm not sure that I care what actual English professors think students in English classes should write about.

High school students spend most of their writing effort writing (badly) about literature. Which actually should be seen as a bit strange because outside of literature departments, NO ONE DOES THIS. People *read* literature on their own. And they go to plays on their own. And some people care about history (and maybe reason about current events using history that they know). And STEM contents is used by some people for real.

But writing essays about literature pretty much doesn't happen outside of academia (and maybe the New York Times book review?). "The best papers originate in an individual response to a text and focus on a genuine question about it," claim the folks at Norton. Really? I don't think so. I think the best papers come about when someone writes about something they care about. And the literature they are forced to read in high school is not that!

But writing about literature is how most kids are taught to write! There really seems to be a disconnect between the folks in the literature programs (high school and college) and the rest of us.

What *I* mostly remember about high school writing was:
(a) making BS up about stuff that I didn't care about [and didn't think that there was any particular content to], and
(b) learning to *NOT* come to the point clearly, because if I wrote clearly then I wouldn't hit the required page count.

Other than spelling and grammar, I had to unlearn much of how I learned to write in school when I got out into "the real world."

Sigh.

Paul Graham has a great essay on this that I always like to post when the subject of school essays comes up:

http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html

So, the kids are being asked to write about who is responsible for Romeo and Juliet's death? Fine by me. It isn't worse than what we were doing 25 years ago. And I don't expect that the kids will be writing about non-literature any time soon.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

Well, Mark, you are as one with the people running Common Core.

They don't care about disciplinary specialists, either!

They may not even know what a disciplinary specialist is.

Catherine Johnson said...

write essays almost identical to that for all of 12th grade AP English

Your AP English classes asked you to psychologize fictional characters as if they were real historical people?

Really?

Anonymous said...

"Your AP English classes asked you to psychologize fictional characters as if they were real historical people?"

Mine did.

Except that it wasn't an AP class. We did this a lot with Faulkner.

And ... though it doesn't come through clearly ... I think that I got an excellent liberal arts education at my high school. Including writing instruction.

Which says something about how badly I think the writing instruction is in high schools in general :-(

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

"Well, Mark, you are as one with the people running Common Core.

They don't care about disciplinary specialists, either!"


Not quite.

I don't care about *THESE* disciplinary specialists.

Partially because my experience is that the way they teach some specific skills is counterproductive to the way that most people will need to use those skills.

And partially because from watching other people, I find that one large side effect of the way that literature is taught is that many (most?) kids are turned off of it and never want to see it again after school is done.

If you want to kill a kid's interest in an author or genre, teaching that author or genre in high school seems like a great strategy.

THIS IS NOT THE INTENT OF THE FOLKS TURNING KIDS OFF OF GREAT STORIES. But this is what happens a lot. And that is really sad.

And I'm just as critical of the disciplinary specialists in the 1960s who decided that math was best taught by first teaching kindergarteners set theory (go New Math!). Hey, all the rest of math is built on set theory, so it is clearly foundational, right? Which means that this is what we should be teaching five year olds.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

You wrote psychological analyses of fictional characters without knowing any psychology?

You used whatever folk psychology you had picked up over the years?

Did you write psychological analyses of characters in poems?

btw, I can't remember how often I've said this...but I have a Ph.D., from the University of Iowa, in film studies, which is essentially a English or Comp Lit (probably more like Comp Lit, unfortunately).

No one ever wrote psychological analyses of fictional characters.

No one in my English department today assigns such papers.

Here's a released AP test from 2004:

http://mrslivaudais.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/AP-Lit-2004-Released-Optimized.pdf

I'll try to get the essay questions up front, but for now, here they are:

The poems below are concerned with darkness and night. Read each poem carefully. Then, in a well-written essay, compare and contrast the poems, analyzing tbe significance of dark or night in each. In your essay, consider elements such as point of view, imagery, and structure.

The following passage comes from the opening of "The Pupil" (1891), a story by Henry James. Read the passage carefully. Then write an essay in which you analyze the author's depiction of the three characters and the relationships among them. Pay particular attention to tone and point of view.

Critic Roland Barthes has said, "Literature is the question minus the answer." Choose a novel or play and, considering Barthes' observation, write an essay in which you analyze a central question the work raises and the extent to which it offers any answers. Explain how the author's treatment of this question affects your understanding of the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.

The second question may sound like psychological analysis, but that's not what it's asking for...

Anonymous said...

"You wrote psychological analyses of fictional characters without knowing any psychology?"

We dug into motivations of the fictional characters.

And I clearly remember how the class concluded that Homer in "A Rose for Emily" was gay (there is no evidence for this as nearly as I can tell ... and no sex in the book at all).

You can probably guess that our teacher "helped" us to get the correct conclusion for the Faulkner stuff, as the class was in no way capable of figuring this out on our own (possibly because it has not real basis). But we learned to make stuff like this up and defend it with (tenuous) evidence from the text.

Yeah.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

By the way, an example of what I find to be non-BS literary analysis can be found here:

http://www.dansimmons.com/writing_welll/archive/2010_04.htm

I would have *LOVED* to have a literature class like this (in high school or college or ... now). But I'll note that I can follow the reasoning, but I can't imitate it.

And I did nothing as rigorous as this in high school (and even less rigorous in college).

And I don't think very many other kids are getting something this solid either. A few must have at one point, because Dan Simmons taught high school. But he doesn't teach high school any more.

-Mark Roulo

kcab said...

Catherine - I just want to add a current data point to add to Mark's comments. My daughter read Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade. I don't recall exactly what the students had to do for that unit, probably nothing all that exacting, however this year (10th, different school system) she has had to write about psychological motivations of fictional characters every.darn.essay. Well, just about. The English teacher did discuss some psychology with them, so that was what they were supposed to use.

For what it is worth, the Math Common Core requirements are causing more stress in this district than the ELA CC.

kcab said...

Also, perhaps of interest, the Smarter Balanced CC practice tests can be found at www.smarterbalanced.org/pilot-test

I think NY uses the other consortium though.

Catherine Johnson said...

And I clearly remember how the class concluded that Homer in "A Rose for Emily" was gay (there is no evidence for this as nearly as I can tell ... and no sex in the book at all).

OK, now I don't understand your argument.

You're saying this is a good thing?

Or it's a bad thing, but the Romeo and Juliet assignment isn't any worse.

And 'not worse' is an acceptable standard to impose on the entire country via Common Core....

(Gee. Can you tell I'm not very sympathetic to this line of thought?!)

That assignment is bad. It is beyond bad

It shouldn't be given to students, and the fact that teachers have always given bad assignments is not a reason to support giving it to students today.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have an absolutely fabulous English paper by a freshman that I would LOVE to post --- not sure whether I should. I have permission from him to use it in classes, but posting it is another matter (and I worry about providing it to other students searching the internet for papers...)

That paper was written by a college freshman in the 2nd-level remedial course in a non-selective college, and it is terrific.

There is no reason on Earth why high school students can't be taught to write about setting, tone, symbolism, imagery, etc.

NO REASON AT ALL.

Catherine Johnson said...

he has had to write about psychological motivations of fictional characters every.darn.essay.

This gets back to the issue of public schools never, ever, ever consulting disciplinary specialists.

I've been pressing the Common Core parent in my town (he works for NYC DOE, I think) to tell us whether Common Core consulted any disciplinary specialists. So far I can't get an answer. He just tells me that "professors" are involved.

I want to know WHICH professors.

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh, thanks for that link!

I'm looking now.

(You're right - we have PARCC)

I don't think PARCC wrote the NYC Tasks and Units. I think those were written by "300 teachers and administrators".... (300 is the figure the parent here gave me.)

Catherine Johnson said...

That said, the two test items in the Hacker op-ed were dreadful.

Those were written by PARCC, I assume.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm wondering about the issue of reading Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade....

I just don't know.

If the teacher read it with the class, line by line, and had them listen to it performed .....

I'm suspicious by reflex, so I may be wrong that 9th grade is too early. (I'm suspicious by reflex because of all the fake rigor I see....fake rigor meaning: give students something to read or write that's over their heads.)

Catherine Johnson said...

I just looked through every assessment item for "English Language Arts" on the Smarter Balanced site, and there's nothing on literature or poetry or drama.

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh that's Helen Vendler!

Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

"You're saying this is a good thing?

Or it's a bad thing, but the Romeo and Juliet assignment isn't any worse."


It was a bad thing and the R&J thing doesn't seem to be any worse.

I'd *LIKE* things to get better.

I just don't expect them to.

And I don't like Common Core because I loathe the idea of a national curriculum.

But I can't get worked up over bad curriculum A replacing bad curriculum B if the two seem roughly as bad.

"It shouldn't be given to students, and the fact that teachers have always given bad assignments is not a reason to support giving it to students today."

Right. But it looks like our realistic choices don't include good assignments.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

But it looks like our realistic choices don't include good assignments.

You think?

I can't help it. I absolutely gag on the thought of having students explain who's responsible for the deaths of two fictional characters who, any time you pick up the play to re-read, aren't dead.

Karen W said...

Catherine--I also read Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade honors English. The teacher walked us through the play and explained the jokes and the word play, then we watched a performance of the play.

I didn't feel unprepared--we read classic literature (not contemporary young adult fiction) at my junior high.

I recall my English teachers being interested in symbolism, themes, imagery, and comparing and contrasting--no psych analysis, no how do we feel about it type writing.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

If this is Common Core, public school is about to turn into 13 years of SAT reading.

Catherine,

The SAT tests exactly the *opposite* of that kind of assignment. The CB may have its problems, but no exam would ever ask that subjective a question. Everything is much more nuts and bolts comprehension, tone, imagery, rhetoric strategy, etc., even on the AP and Lit SAT IIs. It's the English teachers who are pretending that literary characters are real people and asking kids to psychoanalyze them. If anything, one of the goals of implementing CC is to counteract that kind of bulls**t by emphasizing "informational texts." That's not to say CC won't end up a godawful disaster in practice, just that some of its aims strike me as reasonable given that this type of assignment is, from what I gather, fairly common in AP classes.

By the way, you might be interested in my latest blog post: http://thecriticalreader.com/blog/item/359-memorization-is-a-component-of-critical-thinking-not-its-opposite.html

Some of the prose is a little clunky, so I apologize in advance. It started out as pretty much what the title says but sort of devolved into a rant about fake rigor. It is *excruciating* to watch a high school student make herself insane trying to complete a borderline incomprehensible assignment asking her to make moral judgments about fictional characters as if they were actual people. Excruciating. That sort of thing should be banned.

-Erica

ChemProf said...

One more person who read Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, in Honors English. In fact, all the English classes of all levels read it at the same time, and I remember we watched a cut version of Zefferelli's film after reading it (in part I remember this because our teacher was appalled we saw the cut version so we then watched the whole thing in her class).

We did read it out loud in class, which helped. And that year we'd already read Oedipus Rex, so it didn't feel too shocking. It was easily my favorite class that year, so I really don't think ninth grade was too early. I voluntarily took a course on Greek plays the next summer, but I am a weirdo!

Crimson Wife said...

I'm pretty sure it was 9th grade that we read "Romeo and Juliet" in my honors English class. I think we also did "Twelfth Night" that year.

10th grade was definitely "Julius Caesar" because my good friend and I had a running bet to see what idiotic things we could get our teacher to say. My friend got the teacher to say that the Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar" was not the same Mark Antony in "Antony and Cleopatra" but his cousin, LOL!

11th grade we did "Merchant of Venice" and "Othello". 12th grade we did "Hamlet" and "MacBeth".

SATVerbalTutor. said...

I remember doing R & J in eighth grade (and Midsummer Night's Dream in seventh). I don't recall any crazy touchy-feely assignments - I don't even have a clue what we talked about. I took a semester of Shakespeare in tenth grade, but that wasn't particularly well-taught either. The real education I got about Shakespeare came from performing it in summer theater.

allison said...

me: [had to] write essays almost identical to that for all of 12th grade AP English

C: Your AP English classes asked you to psychologize fictional characters as if they were real historical people? Really?

I had to write about whether Hamlet was merely depressed or actually crazy, using evidence from the text to support my topic sentence.

I had to write whether Ophelia or Hamlet's mother was a better example of the feminine ideal to Shakespeare, according to the text.

I had to write who best exemplified a hero in Henry IV, using text to support my argument.

To tell you the truth, I can't really see the difference between those questions--were some psychologizing the fictional and others not?

The AP test did come as a surprise. It asked about demonstrating the use of metamorphosis as a literary technique in some work of fiction. That was profoundly different enough from the drivel we'd been writing that most of us struggled. I wrote about Kafka's Metamorphosis, which I had not read more than 60 pages of. Got a 5 anyway. Then I went to a tech school and learned nothing more about literature except by just reading it occasionally.

Never occurred to me that these opinion based questions weren't what literature people did with their time. It seemed very much like the AP history test, where I was expected to use document to prove an opinion I had about history.

Anonymous said...

I read Romeo and Juliet in my non honors 9th grade English class in the 1970s.

froggiemama said...

We "read" Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade. Actually, we watched the movie because most of the kids in the class couldn't read well enough to slog through the play. Then we discussed teen love and romance. No papers. In senior AP English, though, we had to write papers on the psychological motivations of every character. I will never forget having to listen to the teacher yammer about some Hesse character having a Christ complex. Thankfully, that was the last literature class I ever had to take. I actually learned how to write in psychology, art history, and graduate engineering courses.

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Barry Garelick said...

From the San Jose Mercury about how three schools are "reimagining" their school:

"We're planning to use content so our students will be skilled at the college level," says Kaia Hamilton, principal at Willow Glen. "Instead of asking students about the characters, plot and overview of a novel, we'll be questioning them about the characters' motivations, why they are making such decisions. We're going to ask our students to think in a different way.

Barry Garelick said...

Article is here:

http://www.mercurynews.com/san-jose-neighborhoods/ci_23497389/three-san-jose-unified-schools-will-spend-next

Cassandra Turner said...

My son's final paper for 11th grade American Lit was to be on "What makes American Literature "American"? Oh and they had to use the 40+ texts they read in class to support their argument including:

The Scarlet Letter
The Red Badge of Courage
The Great Gatsby
The Grapes of Wrath

And selections from:
Willa Cather, Poe, Robert Frost and basically EVERYTHING from this book:
The American Standard: A Collection of Classic American Literature

http://www.amazon.com/American-Standard-Collection-Classic-Literature/dp/0980087805/

He got a "B" on the paper.

Cassandra Turner said...

BTW-
I read Romeo & Juliet in 7th grade. Independently. Then answered questions. I do not recall writing a paper. It was in an "Independent Studies" 7th grade English class, which required recommendation from the 6th grade teacher.

I was not allowed to continue in the class in 8th grade and was so mortified to be in with the "regular" kids that I made sure I ended up in Honors English in 9th grade.

The 1980's in MN. Such a happy time.

Cassandra Turner said...

Barry Garelick said...
From the San Jose Mercury about how three schools are "reimagining" their school...

And that is why the CMO I am working with in San Jose is flourishing.

Anonymous said...

Cassandra,

CMO?

None of these seem to fit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CMO

-Mark Roulo

Cassandra Turner said...

Mark,

Sorry! Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) are non-profits that operate more than one charter school and help others launch new ones. Examples:

Kipp
enVision
Basis
Green Dot
Great Hearts

http://www.charterschoolcenter.org/priority-area/charter-management-organizations

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