Pathways to the Common Core: Ch 4


Chapter 4 examines the Common Core State Standards for Reading Literature, focusing on the Anchor Standards and applying them to one representative work, Charlotte’s Web, to see how a teacher might scaffold instruction and guide discussion to support the work described in the standards.

First, teachers must focus on a literal understanding of the text. Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman caution that “If anyone tries a ‘This reminds me of…’ detour and you want your work to be aligned to the Common Core, steer the discussion right back to the text.”

After checking for literal understanding, teachers should then help students draw out “central ideas and themes” and analyze how those ideas and themes “develop and interact over the course of a text.” Then, response should shift to examining how the text works at the level of craft and structure–how it achieves its effects. This is exactly the kind of work we ask students to perform on mentor texts in workshop classrooms, but that rich and invigorating work is rendered oddly lifeless by the standards, perhaps because the work of understanding texts is dissociated from actual people throughout the standards. In the language of the standards, texts seem to mean all by themselves. There are no writers or readers performing actions or trying to achieve effects, only words and phrases and structures achieving effects.

The final section of the Reading Standards focuses on text comparison. It’s not okay to make text-to-self- or text-to-world connections if you’re doing CCSS work, but you’re definitely expected to make a lot of text-to-text connections.

Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman rightly point out that this kind of text comparison work is something readers do all the time: “we hold onto books after we’ve read them. We do not just read and think about one text, and then put that text behind us, as if we had never read it.”

They suggest that teachers “consider what texts you could lay alongisde the one you are talking about, to deepen your understanding and extend your thinking.” Continuing with the example of Charlotte’s Web, they suggest comparing the book to the film version, reading another book by E.B. White, or “reading more about raising pigs.”

That last suggestion seems a bit forced to me.

After Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman sketch out what classroom discussions need to cover if they’re going to be CCSS-aligned, they make some recommendations for all ELA programs.

Only strong readers are going to be able to do the higher-level analytical work called for in the standards, so students need to be reading a lot. Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman argue (following Richard Allington) that students need to spend at least 90 minutes per school day reading, eyes-on-print reading. Not talking about reading or filling out worksheets about reading or writing letters to the characters in their books. Reading.

Schools need to support classroom libraries, and those libraries need to be filled with high-interest, engaging young adult literature and other books that students can read with 95% accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.

In fact, Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman describe a classroom that’s a lot like a reading workshop. The teacher is the master reader who shares her thinking with her students. She selects appropriate mentor texts and models reading techniques during mini-lessons. Students then spend the majority of the class period reading their own books and apply the close reading techniques described in the standards to their own independent reading. The teacher provides feedback on students’ reading responses and designs follow-up mini-lessons to help students continue developing their skills. 

Pathways to the Common Core continues to be a useful introduction to the CCSS. One question I do have after reading this chapter on Reading Literature is how we might develop a yearlong curriculum to support this work. The school year begins to seem quite repetitive if all we do is ask students to replicate the same kind of close reading analysis on text after text. The standards suggest that variety comes in the form of ever-increasing text complexity.


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