The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Are These Tasks Right for Middle Schoolers?

on January 29, 2016

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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