A Common Core Lesson Gone Wrong

I have seen many lessons that purport to implement the Common Core but botch the subject matter in the process. I ask: is this due to faulty implementation of the Common Core, a fault line within the Common Core itself, or something else altogether? A lesson on Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (commonly known as “The Daffodils”) serves as a good test case here. The lesson left me queasy; that’s a sign that my stomach is working well, so I am hopeful.

The main problem with this lesson (featured in video on the front page of LearnZillion.com) is that it has little or nothing to do with Wordsworth’s poem. You could take the same lesson, adjust only a few words, and slap it on any of a thousand poems. Second, it gives bad advice: it states that when tackling a difficult poem, one should proceed one stanza at a time, summarize the stanza in one’s own words, and write that summary on a sticky note. (No, no, no!)

The lesson begins: “What happens if you get stuck when you start reading a difficult poem?” The answer: “In this lesson, you will learn to analyze each section of a poem by rereading and restating in your own words.”

I question the premise that this is a helpful activity. Poetry is worth reading because it makes singular use of language; it cannot be translated into prose. Restating a stanza in your own words takes you away from the language of the poem itself. Yes, some poems have complex constructions that need to be teased apart, but that does not have to involve restatement; or when it does, one can restate the specific construction, not an entire stanza. To restate a stanza is to stop it at the border and say, “You may not cross over into my mind with your own goods; you must exchange them for mine.”

After this, the speaker makes a few generic statements about the poem: “The poet William Wordsworth used lots of imagery in his poem ‘Daffodils.’ Imagery is the use of vivid language that describes something so well that readers see the images playing in their minds like a movie.” Well, that isn’t quite right, but let’s leave that aside. It gets worse: “When we see images in our mind as we read, we can visualize to help us understand the poet’s words.” Maybe—but images can also be puzzling, even confounding. They do not make things pat for us, nor do they have to do with sight alone. “Visualization” is a much-abused concept; I see no need to invoke it. “Imagination” is more to the point.

The speaker then addresses the common assumption that poems are easy to understand because they are short. She counters that they take a great deal of concentration. (This is a good point—but it’s still generic.) She goes on to say that  readers often focus on what they don’t understand, rather than what they do. Instead, she says, they should focus on what they do understand. (This is not necessarily so.) From here, she explains the process of summarizing, which culminates in a sticky note. Along the way, she makes passing mention of the imagery in the first stanza—but otherwise does nothing to bring out the poem itself.

What would I do instead? I would have the students take in the language of the poem—without turning it into anything else. Have them listen to it several times, and maybe, on the third time, make note of things they found striking. Some might point to “I wandered lonely as a cloud”; others, to “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” Some might be drawn to the lines, “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.” Many, I think, would find something in the final stanza, maybe in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” After they had brought up specific things that struck them, we could start to look at how the poem fits together as a whole, listening to it again along the way. In particular, we would look at the shift to the “inward eye” in the final stanza.

Now I will return to the initial question: are the flaws of this lesson (and many others like it) due to faulty implementation of the Common Core, a fault line in the Common Core itself, or something else? I would say all three.

The lesson seems to target a standard along the lines of CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.” Some might interpret this as a call for strategy instruction: for instruction on ways to approach texts in general. Yet the same standard, a few grade levels higher, calls for attention to specific texts. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.4 reads: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.” Thus it seems likely that the author of this lesson misinterpreted the standard.

Yet the ELA standards themselves are worded generically and thus encourage generic approaches to literature. Granted, they call for attention to the specifics of the text, but they mention no texts except as examples, in passing. I am not suggesting that there should be a national literature curriculum; the chances are too great that it would turn out mediocre. My point is that the Common Core ELA standards are removed from the subject matter itself. This, in my view, is their main fault line. Because of this, they should be taken down a few notches; they should be secondary to curriculum. Even that isn’t a solution; the curricula must be good.

There seems to be still another problem: a tendency, stretching far beyond the Common Core, to avoid the subject matter, whether out of fear, ignorance, or deference to mandates. The author of the Wordsworth lesson takes pains to say that poems are difficult, that this poem is difficult, and that there are specific procedures one can follow in order to make sense of a difficult poem. Yet “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is not, at the surface level, a difficult poem. One can quickly grasp what is going on, until the final stanza. The challenge lies in the subtleties, which must be met on their own terms.

These problems have no quick solution, but they don’t have to mire us. The first step, as I have said elsewhere, is to insist on teaching important, compelling, beautiful, lasting things. Yes, this requires that we exercise discernment; but what else is education for? By exercising discernment, we help students do the same.  I do not mean that the curriculum should be up to every individual teacher, or even every individual school. I mean that listening to literature, reading it, thinking about it, discussing it should be part of the schools’ practices and among their highest priorities. There should be faculty meetings about works of literature, mathematical proofs, historical eras—the subject matter itself, not instructional strategies. Schools with this kind of intellectual culture could stand strong against the winds of nothing, which do great damage through their emptiness.

Three updates:

1. It turns out that this lesson is one in a series of seven. The others are at least as distracting and misleading. See comments below.
2. Joanne Jacobs blogged about this post. There have been interesting responses. Update: Diane Ravitch blogged about it as well.
3. LearnZillion no longer features this lesson on the front page. Instead, it features an array of lessons that, like this one, emphasize a skill over a work of literature. Some go into the literary work more than others–but from what I can see, all of them stick to formula and refrain from the idiosyncrasy and flexibility that literature demands.

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22 Comments

  1. Carol Jago

     /  January 3, 2014

    Faculty meetings on a poem. Yes, yes, yes.

    You and I are such similar teachers, Diana. Everything you say about a better way to approach a poem resonates with my own experience.

    Sticky notes, indeed!

    To an interesting 2014, my friend. Carol

    Reply
    • Thank you, Carol! I am honored.

      There are many ways to approach this poem, but one should approach it, at the very least!

      Yes, here’s to an interesting 2014.

      Reply
  2. EB

     /  January 3, 2014

    The part of me that would have busily written my paraphrases down on sticky notes is the part that was a good little grade grubber who liked to have easy tasks to deliver up to the teacher. The other part would have resented having to stop and write these phrases on the sticky notes instead of re-reading the poem or discussing the poem.

    Reply
  3. We have been told that we don’t teach content any longer, just “skills.” So every PD meeting and focus group is only about teaching “skills” – same goes for the observations we are undergoing. What skills were you teaching? Did the students learn the skills? How did you assess that they learned the skills? We taught that very WW poem you wrote about last year as part of a CCSS project – but the content of the poem was superfluous. We were teaching “close reading” skills. Very demoralizing to everybody in my department. But that’s what reform has brought us these days.

    Reply
  4. In defense of the teacher’s lesson that you chose to fault, this lesson is one of a larger set showing many different ways to approach this poem. Did you by any chance preview the other six lessons that make up this set? Did you review any of the additional resources?

    http://learnzillion.com/lessons/1104-analyze-each-section-of-a-poem-and-restate-in-your-own-words

    It’s been a few years since I taught poetry, but I know that students have to understand the meaning of language in their own voice before they can begin to gain meaning from another’s. Perhaps this poem has not been difficult for you or your students, but I know it would be for mine.

    Reply
    • Good god, no, I hadn’t seen those. I searched under Wordsworth, and nothing came up. (Foolish me, for searching under Wordsworth. Clearly, the lessons are about strategies, not about Wordsworth.)

      It gets even worse, I see….

      Going through the poem and circling “strong” verbs is not coming closer to the poem itself. “Saw” is apparently not a “strong” verb (according to the lesson’s author), but it’s essential to the poem. Why not pay attention to what the verbs actually are, and what they do in the poem?

      Distinguishing harsh from soft sounds could lead in a good direction–but in this case it does not, since the speaker does it mechanically, with attention only to the consonants, and not to the overall sound or structure. She says that the line “I gazed–and gazed–but little thought” has “many harsh sounds,” which she calls “cacophonous sounds”–but that’s misleading. What makes this line stand out is not any “cacophonous” sound, but its open space, its slowness.

      Then she advises students to write, “The poem has many _____ sounds, which makes it overall feel ____.” Awful!

      Reply
    • To top it all off, in the final lesson of the series, the speaker/author says that the “theme” of the poem–that is, its “general lesson about life”–is “Enjoy the beautiful, joyous moments in your life because if you feel lonely in the future, you can look back on those memories and be happy.” She adds, “That really is the lesson that readers are taking away from this poem.”

      Six lessons…. leading up to this?

      It would have been better to seek no “theme” at all. This poem does not teach a “lesson” about life. One thing (among many) that it does is to offer four (or more) aspects of solitude, and to suggest, subtly, that they depend on each other.. The vision of the daffodils comes out of that lonely wandering; similarly, the daffodils’ flashing “upon that inward eye” comes out of the lying on the couch “in vacant and in pensive mood.” There seems to be a quartet of solitudes here, or a quintet. But those things cannot be translated easily into a theme. They live in the poem itself.

      Granted, readers might have different interpretations–but saying that the poem is “telling” the reader to “enjoy the beautiful, joyous moments in your life” is utterly wrong. This poem doesn’t have a “life lesson” for the reader.

      The central error is repeated throughout the six lessons: the error of applying a generic strategy instead of going into this poem and finding out what it is.

      Reply
  5. I’ve looked at some of the other LearnZillion ELA lessons and had a similar reaction. I think you can blame CC insofar as this is what you get if you start designing ELA curricula from first principles if those principles are the CC standards.

    One thing I’ve become more conscious of is that, unlike any other standards I’ve seen, CC is based on the idea that reading literature and reading “informational texts” revolve around the same set of skills. For each type of text you get a variation on the anchor skills, but they share the same anchors. I don’t think anybody, including the authors of the standards, actually believes this is an accurate model, but somehow that’s what we got.

    Applying summarization to each stanza of a poem is an example of what comes from that basic flaw in the model.

    Reply
    • Thank you–I think you’ve nailed two of the big problems here: treating the CC standards as first principles, and having the study of both literary and “informational” texts revolve around the same set of skills.

      Reply
  6. Michael Fiorillo

     /  January 8, 2014

    Fear not: should the Common Core continue to be imposed, we won’t have any poetry to worry about. More likely, we’ll be focusing on the “the four corners of the text” of job training and electronic device operation manuals.

    Reply
  7. Puget Sound Parent

     /  January 19, 2014

    Diane,
    Right after I read your fine piece, courtesy of the fantastic Diane Ravitch, this scene from one of the greatest movies ever made, about education, or life, or anything else, immediately popped into my mind.

    It’s so very appropriate here. It says it all. Enjoy:

    Reply
  8. Puget Sound Parent

     /  January 19, 2014

    Whoops, my apologies for the above…I meant to say “Diana”, not “Diane”, in this instance. Sorry about that, Diana. 🙂

    Reply
  9. LHP

     /  January 19, 2014

    I think that one of the reasons that poetry really resonated with me in school is that I had a teacher who just read to us to get us excited about language. We would analyze the poems, but not until after she had us excited about them. Poems were meant to be read and recited, pondered and reflected over. There is to be a connection between the author and the reader or listener where the author shares an emotion, an image, an insight, or a story. The analysis on the part of the teacher and students is to help the students gain the ability to perceive and share insights on their own. I suppose that can be broken down into separate skills, but that would be like preparing beef, potatoes, and carrots separately, serving it with gravy on the side, and calling it stew.

    I see an underlying notion on the part of both the students and the developers of the Common Core that works of literature were somehow written with the intent of being studied in school rather than being written as the author’s self-expression with the aim of them being read in and of themselves. The point of mastering language is not to master just skills, but to develop as an educated person with all the inter-relationships among the various spheres of life supported by a broad background in arts and literature which recent neuroscience research shows enriches the synaptic activity in areas of the brain associated with emotion and inter-personal relationships.

    I daresay that the focus of the close reading called for by the Common Core is entirely too close and it keeps students from being able to see whole as anything more than a collection of parts. I would love to dial back the focal point and allow teachers to do what they do best: teach the children they have, rather than the ones the Common Core developers say they have.

    Reply
  10. Michael Paul Goldenberg

     /  January 19, 2014

    Anyone teaching poetry from the perspective that it’s just another form of prose (and probably non-fiction prose at that) is likely to find little if anything wrong with this lesson. Just cite David Coleman’s timeless idiocy in support of that viewpoint. The irony of the call for “close reading” is that this lesson illustrates just the opposite. It disrespects the artform and everything about it. It essentially ignores the integrity of poetic language and instead encourages the reader to reduce the art to a “message” that is more clearly conveyed in ordinary prose. What could be more idiotic? What could be less appropriate for literary analysis?

    Reply
  11. Bryan

     /  January 19, 2014

    Come on. I know LearnZillion is crap, but can you really attack the idea of taking each stanza of a poem and putting it in your own words? This is hardly a cardinal sin.

    I’m not a proselytizer for CCSS, but this really as nothing to do with Common Core. Any teacher might ask students to stop and check if they can interpret what they’ve read so far in their own words.

    Reply
    • As I have already said, my primary objection is to the lesson’s detachment from the poem. It is not about the poem. It is about a strategy.

      Yes, I do object to the idea of summarizing each stanza of this poem. I find it unnecessary and distracting.

      Reply
  12. “There should be faculty meetings about works of literature, mathematical proofs, historical eras—the subject matter itself, not instructional strategies”…reminds me of a coupe of posts at the Manufacturing Leadership Blog, namely

    Living in a Box of their own making
    http://www.idatix.com/manufacturing-leadership/living-inside-a-box-of-their-own-making/

    and

    It starts with respect for the product
    http://www.idatix.com/manufacturing-leadership/it-starts-with-respect-for-the-product/

    Reply
  1. A Common Core lesson gone wrong — Joanne Jacobs
  2. Playing Defense on Common Core | Education in Iowa
  3. Quid plura? | “Golden toddy on the mantle, broken gun beneath the bed…”

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