The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Are These Tasks Right for Middle Schoolers?

In today’s post I will look at the CCSS tasks connected to reading fiction in Grades 6-8. In addition to passing judgment on each task, I will give my reasons for approving or disapproving each one.  Although I have never been labeled an “expert” by any government body, I claim that my 45 years of experience as a teacher of almost all grades, K-12, an M.A. in English, a Ph.D. in Curriculum Development and Applied Linguistics, awards for excellence from the state of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin, membership in the National Reading Panel, and my position as the 2006-2007 President of the National Council of Teachers of English qualify me, as much as anyone else, to judge the appropriateness of these tasks.

What readers should know about the creation of the CCSS for the English Language Arts is that they were developed by a group of private consultants assembled by state governors, written in secret, and never opened to review by educators or the public. Although several critics have denounced them over the past five years of their existence, the public has been largely unaware of the materials or tasks recommended in the official documents.  A few days ago, I listed the tasks for elementary level students reading non-fiction and marked them for age-appropriateness. However, I failed to explain my judgments. This time I have taken on the fuller responsibility of explaining the reasoning for my judgements.

            Sample Performance Tasks for Stories, Drama, and Poetry

Gr. 6 Students analyze how the opening stanza of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” structures the rhythm and meter for the poem and how the themes introduced by the speaker develop over the course of the text.

Reasonable with support. If the teacher leads this exercise and points out that the changes in rhythm and meter differ over time, students working in small groups should be able to see how the themes develop as the poem progresses.

Gr. 6 Students cite explicit textual evidence as well as draw inferences about the drake and the duck from Katherine Paterson’s The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks to support their analysis of the perils of vanity.

Reasonable as Group Work. Students working in small groups should be able to identify “the perils of vanity” and point out the specific clues that lead to that conclusion.

Gr. 6  Students explain how Sandra Cisneros’s choice of words develops the point of view of the young speaker in her story “Eleven.”

Reasonable. If the teacher gives a couple of examples first, individual students should be able to offer explanations after studying the poem carefully.

Gr. 6  Students compare and contrast the effect Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” has on them to the effect they experience from a multimedia dramatization of the event presented in an interactive digital map analyzing the impact of different techniques employed that are unique to each medium.

Not practical for most classroom situations. I don’t see many classrooms that have the technology needed for this task. I suspect that only students familiar with the technology mentioned could make any judgments about differeint techniques.

Gr.7 Students compare and contrast Laurence Yep’s fictional portrayal of Chinese immigrants in turn-of-the-twentieth-century San Francisco in Dragonwings to historical accounts of the same period (using materials detailing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) in order to glean a deeper understanding of how authors use or alter historical sources to create a sense of time and place as well as make fictional characters lifelike and real.

Ridiculous. The skills required for this task are far beyond the experience of 7th graders—or even 12th graders. They haven’t read and analyzed enough high quality fiction to be sensitive to the creative skills of authors of fiction.

Gr. 7  Students analyze how the playwright Louise Fletcher uses particular elements of drama (e.g., setting and dialogue) to create dramatic tension in her play Sorry, Wrong Number.

Reasonable. This would be suitable for a class discussion if teacher has identified the elements of drama previously.

Gr. 8  Students summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through characters, setting, and plot.

Reasonable for a writing assignment. If the class has practiced this as a whole group discussion for previous novels, individual students should be able to do this task.

Gr. 8  Students analyze Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” to uncover the poem’s analogies and allusions. They analyze the impact of specific word choices by Whitman, such as rack and grim, and determine how they contribute to the over-all meaning and tone of the poem.

Ridiculous. Students of this age do not have enough experience in recognizing analogies and allusions or understanding the difference between them.

Along with my labels and explanations I must add that I consider the concept of “analysis”  age-inappropriate for middle school students.  My contacts with such students over several years convinced me that few, if any, are ready to go through the time consuming and painstaking process of analysis.  They are far more inclined to make quick judgments based on their initial perceptions.










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Are the Student Tasks Suggested in the CCSS Age-Appropriate?

I am sorry that this post is two days late. But, actually, that’s a miracle. The work I just completed should have taken me a week. For the first time I went through Appendix B for the English Language Arts which is one of the supplements to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I had looked at it at the time of the CCSS publication, getting an idea of the texts suggested for grades K-12, but I had never read through the examples of student tasks until now.

What I had hoped to find in going carefully through Appendix B to the CCSS were examples of Informational readings and assignments for students that I could recommend to teachers for use in their classrooms. Unfortunately, both the lists of texts and tasks were too long for me to cover in this format. (Appendix B is 183 pages in length.) To do them all justice I would need to write a book. In addition, I think it would be unfair to mention the titles of only a few of the texts that appear appropriate when so many looked good to me, and I haven’t read any of them. So, what I will do here is to give only the examples of what I consider “age-appropriate ” and “ age-inappropriate” tasks for each grade level by marking each one with an “A” or an “I”. For today, I will cover only the elementary school grades.

Grades K-1

(A) Students identify the reasons Clyde Robert Bulla gives in his book A Tree Is a Plant in support of his point about the function of roots in germination.

(A) Students identify Edith Thacher Hurd as the author of Starfish and Robin Brickman as the illustrator of the text and define the role and materials each contributes to the

(A) Students (with prompting and support from the teacher) read “Garden Helpers” in National Geographic Young Explorers and demonstrate their understanding of the main idea of the text—not all bugs are bad—by retelling key details.

(I) After listening to Gail Gibbons’ Fire! Fire!, students ask questions about how firefighters respond to a fire and answer using key details from the text.

(I) Students locate key facts or information in Claire Llewellyn’s Earthworms by using various text features (head- ings, table of contents, glossary) found in the text.(A) Students ask and answer questions about animals (e.g., hyena, alligator, platypus, scorpion) they encounter in Steve Jenkins and Robin Page’s What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?

(A) Students use the illustrations along with textual details in Wendy Pfeffer’s

From Seed to Pumpkin to describe the key idea of how a pumpkin grows.

(A) Students (with prompting and support from the teacher) describe the connection between drag and flying in Fran Hodgkins and True Kelley’s How People Learned to Fly by performing the “arm spinning” experiment described in the text.

Grades 2-3

(I) Students read Aliki’s description of A Medieval Feast and demonstrate their understanding of all that goes into such an event by asking questions pertaining to who, what, where, when, why, and how such a meal happens and by answering using key details

(A) Students describe the reasons behind Joyce Milton’s statement that bats are nocturnal in her Bats: Creatures of the Night and how she supports the points she is making in the text.

(A)Students read Selby Beeler’s Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions Around the World and identify what Beeler wants to answer as well as explain the main purpose of the text.

(A) Students determine the meanings of words and phrases encountered in Sarah L. Thomson’s Where Do Polar Bears Live? such as cub, den, and the Arctic.

(I) Students explain how the main idea that Lincoln had “many faces” in Russell Freedman’s Lincoln: A Photobiog- raphy is supported by key details in the text.

Grades 4-5

(A) Students explain how Melvin Berger uses reasons and evidence in his book Discovering Mars: The Amazing Story of the Red Planet to support particular points regarding the topology of the planet

(I) Students identify the overall structure of ideas, concepts, and information in Seymour Simon’s Horses (based on factors such as their speed and color) and compare and contrast that scheme to the one employed by Patricia Lauber in her book Hurricanes: Earth’s Mightiest Storms.

(A) Students interpret the visual chart that accompanies Steve Otfinoski’s The Kid’s Guide to Money: Earning It, Saving It, Spending It, Growing It, Sharing It and explain how the information found within it contributes to an understanding of how to create a budget

(A) Students explain the relationship between time and clocks using specific information drawn from Bruce Kosci- elniak’s About Time: A First Look at Time and Clocks.

(I) Students determine the meaning of domain-specific words or phrases, such as crust, mantle, magma, and lava, and important general academic words and phrases that appear in Seymour Simon’s Volcanoes

(I) Students compare and contrast a firsthand account of African American ballplayers in the Negro Leagues to a secondhand account of their treatment found in books such as Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, attending to the focus of each account and the information provided by each.

(A) Students quote accurately and explicitly from Leslie Hall’s “Seeing Eye to Eye” to explain statements they make and ideas they infer regarding sight and light.

(A) Students determine the main idea of Colin A. Ronan’s “Telescopes” and create a summary by explaining how key details support his distinctions regarding different types of telescopes.


I would appreciate responses from those of you who strongly agree or disagree with any of my opinions on a student task.






Another Response to a Response

Here’s Don Bellair’s response to Doug Garnett.  These two views are especially interesting  because they show how much our experience shapes our opinions.  I hope to post interesting responses from other readers in the future, but for now I plan to return to my own experiences and opionions.

(Doug–I work around a lot of Brits and everyone says “Cheers” for just about any reason.)

“Rich” metrics seems to mean nuanced understanding of test results. I think every human being is going to handle the result of a test differently–there are people out there who lean on numbers, and some of them are the aggressive parents of school-aged children. Teachers have to generate grading data–it rarely means very much, but it mollifies parents. And “objective” data is protection for teachers when administrators try to strong-arm undeserved grades for athletes or the children of privileged parents. The grades themselves, motivation more than evaluation for good teachers, help the kids identify how they stand in a class–pretty important in the kid’s world.

But in my teaching world, when a kid fails a test, it means I failed a kid. Conversely, when a kid aces one, it means I did my job. Every test that classroom teachers give is a “standardized” form for that class. Unless a teacher is designing individual tests (there are ways to do this without adding work to a writing teacher’s 80-hour week), the class test is always a standardized test. Always.

We can do some different things (watch for my book on reform) to give us information about a kid’s progress, but we are always going to need some universal tests that, while unable to identify individual intellect in non-academic areas, will identify collective progress in computational skills and reading comprehension, if only to provide information with which we can hold teachers and administrators accountable. THAT is the real reason we are even talking about this.

I think schools should redact kids’ names and publish ALL the test scores with only the teachers’ and administrators’ names. I would vote to never tell the parents or the kids their individual results, but that’s not going to happen. Some parents require evidence from teachers that they are raising flawless prodigies.

But writing is a different matter because it requires evaluations without test questions (although there is software that grades writing; it counts misspelled words and complex sentences). I cannot tell you how many times, late at night, I just made up numbers to try to keep a kid interested in my class or to send a signal, but deep in the pit of my heart, I felt guilty for not helping every kid improve every paper.

It is really hard to teach writing–I honestly don’t think many people know how. For my first few years, I didn’t. I think a lot of teachers get credit for stuff kids can already do…and those kids who can already write well sure are easier to “teach.”

But I was fortunate to be a young teacher in Kentucky when they launched the statewide education reform moment called KERA, where EVERY public school teacher in the state was required to have a basic understanding of what constituted good writing at different grade levels. We were ALL retrained (big $), even the middle school PE teachers. Grading was on a 1-6 scale, with six categories evaluated for each paper–cohesion, use of vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. We had to submit properly-graded portfolios to the state, where experts randomly checked them. Improperly-graded portfolios resulted in wide swaths of returned portfolios. It was expensive and difficult to achieve but, in Kentucky, we were finally working on the writing skills of ALL students.

To my surprise, I arrived in Oregon in 1996 to discover the schools in the midst of a statewide writing reform (CIM/CAM) that was exactly like the one I had been using in Kentucky. The problem with CIM/CAM: There were no teeth behind it. No sending portfolios for grading checks. No rewards or consequences. No training. I was required to attend ONE after-school training workshop in Oregon in seven years (where I demonstrated mastery of the evaluation process but was never asked to help my peers). I fear that is the fate of most reform. The reports that reach the public are filtered through PR specialists.

My (elusive) point is that real writing reform is possible in American public schools but requires lots of work that many people can’t or won’t do, flat out–but it is important to recognize that writing reform has little to do with these much-maligned “high-stakes tests” (and Dr. Yatvin’s ill-advised stand against CCSS). That argument is all about “teachers” unions and state legislators seeking to avoid responsibility for how they spend education funding. Cheers, y’all.



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Another Great Response

Yesterday, when I posted several thoughtful and well-written responses to pieces that had appeared recently on my blog, I never expected to get a response to a response.  But I did; from Doug Garnett, a business expert.  Although he and Don Bellairs, a talented educator, disagree on the usefulness of metrics in education, I think they are both wise and reasonable in their opinions.  Below is Doug’s response, and if Don wishes to answer him further, I will post that, too.


Thanks, Don, for pointing out an issue for clarity. What I oppose is corporate style management of schools using high stakes standardized testing based metrics. I don’t think this sounds like a gun owner at all. But there’s a lot buried in that definition of what I oppose that didn’t come across clearly.

As an expert using metrics in marketing and business, I thoroughly endorse what you describe. The metaphor I use is that businesses want metrics to be a satellite image we can use to determine everything needed for success. In fact, we are explorers in St. Louis in 1840. We need to gather all the information (first hand accounts, maps, pieces of maps, theories, etc…) in order to make a wise journey into the wilderness and (hopefully) end up where we desire. Marketing is both an art and a science – and the science informs the art but is not complete by itself.

That sounds like how you use testing within the classroom — I thoroughly endorse that approach. In business, we make tremendous progress by using metrics as indicators that inform and guide our decisions. We fail when the metrics become the only thing considered.

You note you are looking for my reasoning “metrics are providing absolutes and will operate in a vacuum”. Excellent question. I’ll fill you in.

In your classroom, the metrics operate within context – you understand them in a rich environment and as just one of many indicators you use.

Once the metrics are published in the local paper, handed to state or federal legislators, are used as a political football, or adopted by a distant “philanthropical” foundation to justify their projects, they no longer live in a rich context – they are removed to the arid realm where only the metric matters. Now, distant from their true meaning, they are used with impunity to make big (high stakes) decisions about schools. (Don’t know if you’ve read about Campbell’s Law. But it describes the effect of this use of specific metrics.)

This is no different in corporations. In business what we see is that a good metric gets started by people who understand its strength and weakness and is very productive within their area. But at some point a politically motivated executive adopts that metric and it becomes a part of a high level “dashboard”. Then the game begins – where hitting metric targets is more important than company health. (Usually metric targets come with big bonuses making the game even more of a problem.) Suddenly, the metric means nothing.

Back to education: I want my sons to be able to communicate in writing. I presume you use metrics in the classroom to help judge their progress on the path to communicating in writing. But at the state and federal level, standardized test scores (which do NOT effectively evaluate communication – only tools that are part of writing) are presumed to be the ultimate judge of school success. Legislators lack the subtlety to understand, for example, what the metric does NOT measure and presume it is a complete summary of the topic.

Making massive spending and program choices based on this partial knowledge without rich understanding of of the context always leads to failure. Hence, my absolute sense of the topic.

I hope this makes a bit more sense. 🙂




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Readers Respond Thoughtfully to the Treasure Hunter


Over the time this blog has been in existence I have received many comments from readers. As long as they were not nonsense or a plug for a commercial product, I  approved them for publication. But, unfortunately, all comments appear at the bottom of the blog page and quickly fade when a new essay is posted.  Today, I am giving myslef a day off by posting  comments on two recent essays by readers who took the trouble to write thoughtful responses. I hope that other readers will read them and consider their points of view.  My plan is to do this again in the future as long as I continue to get serious and well written responses.

Responses  to “Learning to Sing and Read are Natural Human Developments”

Music can be a powerful component of a reading program. Dr. Timothy Rasinki, well-known expert in fluency, regularly advocates singing songs while looking at the text of those songs as an important practice for promoting fluency. (By the way he is not a half bad singer!). Some individuals who stutter are completely fluent when singing. So, you’re on to something. Proponents of analytic phonics have long considered the importance of meaning cues. Their critics quickly fall back and cite research showing the limitations of context clues. What those critics fail to consider (or research) is the power of crosschecking. I wrote a little song for my kids “Say the first sound, think of the clues, then you’ll know all the words to use.” It works for many of them. It’s designed to help students use both meaning and visual cues concurrently. It often helps those students who will simply do nothing, to take the first step in problem solving their word. That said- there are also children who thrive when synthetic phonics are used. Why must teachers choose one or the other? Why can’t teachers learn to teach both analytic and synthetic phonics, and use the approach that best works for the particular student they are helping? Kids are natural born problem solvers. Our job as teachers is to coach them into problem solving their words with whatever strategies work for them.

Sam Bommarito, retired reading specialist.


I don’t think I learned as much about reading theory as I should have but I do know that it’s difficult to say there is any one way that children or adults learn to read. When I was in grad school we learned every method known to teach reading — we did it all. And it was a tremendous amount of work. I suppose if most children lived surrounded by books and people reading (modeling) and being read to, they would more easily learn to read. I personally learned to read at 5 because my mother read to me constantly. I memorized what was on the page. However, it wasn’t the best way to learn for me because I have to read every word, and I am terribly slow.  I rarely used phonics when I taught. I still think there are many better ways to teach including reading to them every day, telling stories, singing songs and memorizing rhymes and poems, providing lots of reading materials, teaching them sign language (rudimentary), making books, writing sentences that they say to tell about a picture, take dictation (in other words) about their dreams, encourage their telling stories, read the same book over and over, let them catch you reading all the time too — now I’m speaking as a parent. But many of these activities can take place in the classroom. We set up writing stations where young ones could pretend to write letters. Also, starting with tactile letters is fun. Writing down their favorite words, seeing if they recognize them next day. (Sylvia Ashton-Warner). This is from many years ago so my memories are rusty. But never did use phonics really.

Joan Kramer, blogger and retired educator


Response to “Our Schools Are Not Businesses–And our Kids are not Products”

Mr. Garnett presents evidence for his anti-testing stance with rhetorical flair. I am having trouble ferreting out his reason for assuming metrics are providing absolutes and will operate in a vacuum outside other, less objective standards which are applied to most “evaluations” involving all aspects of education efficacy. Mr. Garnett has acquired this insight in his business environment; my understanding of the concept comes from the domain of the English lit classroom, where we teach kids about similes like Andrew Lang’s: “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.” Mr. Garnett’s life experiences and Andrew Lang’s poetic observation are inarguably worthy considerations lest we overvalue what we glean from the much-maligned “standardized” Good classroom teachers use tests not only to evaluate and rank students, but to motivate and increase self-awareness–both behaviorally and existentially. Mr. Garnett’s essay presumes that test results are used detrimentally; he would be nearer the truth if he argued that they CAN BE. This is self-evident, and a danger that requires built-in safe guards and steady diet of oversight and scrutiny. But numbers are the language of the physical world, and measurable, objective standards have a valuable function, especially in a domain like public education, where there lives some understandable concern about transparency and accountability. The anti-testing people must not realize how much they sound like the gun owners on this one.

Don Bellairs, blogger and retired educator


Response to “The New Law is Better but Not Good Enough’

Educate, cultivate and advocate. A Nation At Risk was debunked by the Sandia Laboratory Report that never got published. Our public deserves accurate information on the true status of our educational system and how we got to where we are today. Not many people in Oregon know about what I call the test audit bill, HB 2715, co-authored by Reps. Lou Frederick and Shemia Fagan which tasks our Secretary of State to do an audit of our summative evaluation system. This bill has passed; it is one page in length and very specific as to what must be audited. I for one can not wait to see the required report back to the Oregon Dept. of Ed. and to our legislators. The audit could point the way towards a more sensible assessment system such as the highly effective assessment system being crafted by the ODE in collaboration with the OEA and the now defunct OEIB. I recommend that people take the time to write the Secretary of State, the Governor, and their legislators letting them know that HB 2713 is very important to the decision making process. Paul Pat Eck, Leader of AGHAST

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