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.










One response to “Are These Tasks Right for Middle Schoolers?

  1. Thank you, Dr. Yatvin. I believe what you have done with this post is exactly what the process needs…tweaking suggestions, not frontal assault and generalized condemnation.
    As a professional, I appreciate Dr. Yatvin outlining her (impressive) credentials, especially her capable leadership of the Council of Teachers of English, an organization(of which I have been a member) which should be included in the necessary future modifications of the CCSS design. Perhaps we need a grassroots movement to have Joanne’s voice added to the group who evaluates the tweaking process?
    And, as I read the poorly-written rubrics (did they subconsciously WANT people to hate their ideas?) and Dr. Yatvin’s arguments for and against the suitability of each standard, I consoled myself by acknowledging that there are ways in which we can all contribute to the success of this important reform goal.
    We need to change the language and the tone in the conversation about testing–it is too often spat out. We need good tests administered and used responsibly. Those tests will provide data with which people will try to improve the schools we educators provide America’s taxpayers.
    And it seems like we should crowd source our lesson plans for these standards. We could design whole units. The very best part about teaching for me has been problem-solving with master teachers, people who could easily have run corporations or represented governments but chose instead the humbling profession of teacher, to work at developing our most important national resource, good citizens.
    Joanne, I will concede education credentials and years of experience to you, but I have actually taught Whitman’s “Captain” to deaf high school kids at the KY School for the Deaf, to seventh graders (traditional language arts classes) at Westwind Academy in Mt. Holyoke, MA, to seventh and eighth graders at Clark-Moores Middle School in Richmond, KY, and to seventh graders at Meadow Park Middle School in Beaverton, OR), and I pretty much covered everything that you say can’t be.
    I believe that, if a teacher is creative, he/she can teach quantum physics to kindergarten classes. Maybe we should use your blog to crowdshare some of the ways these more challenging concepts can be introduced to our distracted, gadget-addicted school children
    The nationwide establishment of standards will all take a lot of time and energy, but–and you know this, Joanne–nothing is better than when you can see and feel education working. I suspect that is a feeling you grew familiar with, as both a classroom teacher and a building principal.
    I envision a future where American elementary students learn algebra, philosophy and psychology using age-appropriate, motivational techniques that have been derived, in part, from information we have gleaned from reaching together for difficult but attainable standards. We sell our students and their teachers short when we proclaim them incapable without first rising to accept the challenge.
    We all know 13-year-olds who can not only recognize and distinguish between analogies and allusions, but they can write and produce movies explaining those distinctions.


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