Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
– Common Core ELA Anchor Standard 5
Critical Classrooms (Katie Lapham) has a lovely piece on the shortcomings of ReadyGEN Common Core curriculum. Basically, the text on Rachel Carson, had been paired with a reading skill. In this case, craft and structure,specifically analyzing figurative language and word choice. The post author eschewed the assigned skills, and did a nice lesson focusing on other areas that were more appropriate to the reading at hand. The post is worth a read, and can be found here.
This piece struck me because the assigned skill is based on Reading Standard 5, a standard I’ve had some concerns about. My first concern has always been, this is NOT a standard to be used with any and every text unless you really want to frustrate yourself, and your students. I was fortunate that I have more curricular control (for now), and the novel we started the year with, Hatchet, is a marvelous example of author word choice. I had two students do writing on that topic and they did some really marvelous analysis of the truncated diction, and repetition of words and phrases to convey internal mood and feeling of the main character. This year I was not brave enough to “assign” this question to all the students (it was an option among three), but this novel is one piece that I can picture focusing on this standard with.
Now, my next concern would be around how do we judge what students come up with when we ask them to look at author choice? I did venture into Standard Five again this last week in a question I asked students about the new novel we are reading, Esperanza Rising. The author has a pattern in how the chapters are named, titling them (in Spanish) after various crops. The first chapter is Las Uvas, the next Las Papayas, etc. Here is the question I asked, and paraphrases of some of the responses I got:
Look at the names of the chapters in Esperanza Rising that we’ve read so far. What is the pattern in the names, and what do they mean? Why would the author make that choice?
Fruits she is eating at the time. It starts with fruit that royalty eat (grapes) and it getting to cantaloupes (which everybody eats). He thinks the author had a hard time thinking of less-expensive fruit.
It’s fruits that are being grown. It means that Esperanza is not starving, and has servants to get her food.
It’s fruits, and they represent the seasons.
It’s fruits that have a specific part in the story in each chapter.
So my question is that these are four different answers. All of them have gotten the connection to fruit, but that’s real surface level stuff. Each of them has further observations of why this is so, but are all very different. The fourth answer is clearly the most on target, but are the others “wrong”? How will answers like that be “graded” by a roomful of temps, or god-forbid, a computer algorithm? Number one in particular brings some outside knowledge in that you could argue adds to, or leads him off-track in his answer, but he has down cold what is going on at the point we are in the book (Esperanza’s father has been killed, and she and her mother are heading to work in the fields of California’s Central Valley). He has gotten the zeitgeist of downward mobility going on.
My final thoughts–You will only get expected answers when you ask the expected questions. When you ask students to think more critically this requires they leave the confines of rote thinking, and you can’t punish them for being outside the box.