Story Problems (This One’s for the Teachers!)

I was very productive today. I considered my 9th grade English literature units, and chose the “power standards” I’d be focusing on for each one. I began “unpacking” those power standards and developing “I can” statements to present to my students. I started to imagine how I’d deliver content to my kids in the most engaging way possible, and use formative and summative assessments to make sure they’d master it.

All week, my bosses have been presenting me with rubrics on the Common Core and standards-based grading—and excel-sheet-like record-keeping models on which I can record student mastery of each power standard. I totally bought it. How important! What a way to build students’ literacy skills! How great it will be to have quantifiable data!

So, I was surprised when I checked in with my immediate supervisor (one of three, that is).

Her (pointing to my power standards): “No no no, you should only focus on one of those.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Her: “You’ve listed five power standards you’re covering with A Raisin in the Sun, but we’re really zeroing in on one standard at a time and hammering that standard home until all the students master it. Then we move on to the next one.”

Me: “Oh! … Oh. But that’s so … that’s so boring.”

Her: “Yeah, see, with the standards-based grading model, we want all of our students to be able to check off when they’ve mastered each standard—it’s exactly like what the math department and Mr. Malone have their kids do.”

Me: “… So, I should choose … one … of these goals for the whole unit. OK.”

Crestfallen, I turned back to my plan and imagined ONLY requiring students to “identify evidence to support the claim.” I imagined doing that over and over again, while I ignored the rich character development, the big thematic ideas, the … wait a minute.

I turned to my boss again: “So, we’re not really teaching an entire work of literature. We’re using passages from the literature, or other shorter texts, to illustrate the particular skill we want the kids to master.”

Her: “Yes! Exactly!”

In my mind, an entire school year stretched out ahead of me, in which I’d merely present power standards and hand out one- to two-page articles—tasks that would ask students to answer the same question again and again and again. In my mind, a twelve-year-old me moaned, “it’s just like doing story problems in algebra! Gross!”

This is the problem I’m facing on the third day of curriculum development. I’m already dreading the way I’m being asked to teach—and I’m the one who has to generate excitement for my students!

As I walked the dog this evening, I thought, “But what about the big ideas and little mysteries that great literature contains? What about the stamina students develop when they read an entire novel, and the satisfaction they experience when they finish one? Isn’t this just a fancy way of teaching to the test? Are entire novels just for privileged kids, while the kids that I teach in St. Louis only get bite-sized Romeo & Juliet pieces?”

The bags under my eyes deepened, just slightly, as I considered the record-keeping notebooks I’d have to establish and manage for each student, the copies and copies of sample test passages I’d have to print.

It wasn’t the type of literature I fell in love with.

… But, hell, maybe that guy—that guy, literature, whom I started swooning over when I was a kid—maybe that guy was a fraud anyway.

I mean, if college is only designed to provide students with a job …

And literature class is only designed to provide students with a particular set of skills …

Then maybe I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time!

Stupid me. I thought literature was somehow related to a person’s soul.

Anyhow, there’s no other solution. I’m going to have to fucking lie. I’m going to have to keep teaching the good, meaty stuff about literature, the same way I always have, while ALSO tracking the practical, skill-based things the data people want to know.

It’ll be like passing my students little love letters about literature while I jot down evidence of their brain-numbers like an accountant.

It’ll be harder. It’ll be more work. But if no one else will do it …

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