In my English 10 class, I used to teach a lesson about satire through Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book. To begin this lesson, I would tell students, “While this is, on one hand, a children’s book, it is also a satirical look at the Cold War era and arms races. Let’s talk about what you already know about the Cold War,” and doing due diligence to pre-reading activities, we’d begin listing everything we knew about the Cold War era.
Then, we would read the book aloud together in its online format. Afterward, returning to pre-reading activity in its post-reading form, we’d talk about what we learned in terms of satirical writing: How did the characters represent the countries involved in the Cold War? How did the weapons in the butter battle represent the nuclear arms race? What do you think about the leaders in Cold War countries based on the way they are portrayed by Seuss?
Looking back on this lesson with my common core lenses, I took all the joy out of reading from my students. Because I unlocked all the secrets of The Butter Battle Book for them and did all the work of dissecting the piece as part of my lesson planning, I left them with only the bones of a Thanksgiving turkey having picked away all the meaty parts myself.
Where I went astray of common core expectations.
What the common core asks us to do is to stop doing all of the work of reading for our students, to stop stealing the fun of reading and put it back in their hands. We want them to explore, uncover the mysteries, inquire, and pick away at the text to figure it out. You may have heard some of the controversy recently surrounding David Coleman, primary writer of the English language arts standards statements, and his seemingly anti-pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading comprehension strategies. What Coleman and the common core standards want us to do is stop frontloading so much information because what we research and dig up to tell our students in an attempt to build context for a reading is information they can dig up on their own while we guide and facilitate their reading. Oftentimes, in doing pre-reading activities, we give away all the answers, such was the case in my Butter Battle lesson, unfortunately. When we ask students to complete anticipation guides in which we address the themes of a text, we are doing the work of finding the themes for them.
Deep reading, the kind of reading encouraged by common core standards, asks students to “read like a detective” (NYSED) where they are looking closely for details. Kelly Gallagher (2004) describes deep reading in terms of baseball. When he took his daughters to baseball games as children, they missed all the intricacies of the game such as the signals sent from the coach to the player on first base or secret signs passed around by the players:
Isn’t this how many secondary students read text? They rarely get below the surface to the richer, deeper meaning of the text. The think one reading is sufficient; they don’t have the skills to uncover the craft, the complexities, and the nuances of the text. They can read and ‘comprehend,’ but they do so almost exclusively on a surface level. They miss much of the deeper beauty of the game. (3)
Deep reading forces students to dig further into the text by asking them to re-read, re-visit, and search for the hidden intricacies of the text.
Deep reading through text-dependent questions, or “Another area where I went astray”
When I asked my students “How did the characters represent the countries involved in the Cold War?” they could answer without having to look back in the text. In fact, because we had already discussed the Cold War and how the countries behaved, they could probably answer that question without having read The Butter Battle at all! Again, my question itself did all of the work for the students; I left them no responsibility for dissecting the text.
A text-dependent question forces students to go back to the text. It is a question they could not answer if they did not read, and even if they did read, they will still need to refer back to the text to answer the question. In his research in both Texas and Vermont, Coleman found that 80% of the questions students in grades kindergarten through twelve were asked to answer did not require them to go back to the text.
To help teachers understand text-dependent questions, achievethecore.org, created by the Student Achievement Partners, has created exemplar lesson plans and has published its “Guide to Creating Questions for Close Analytic Reading.” Good text-dependent questions, according to the guide, cause students to do at least one of the following tasks:
- Analyze paragraphs on a sentence by sentence basis and sentences on a word by word basis to determine the role played by individual paragraphs, sentences, phrases, or words
- Investigate how meaning can be altered by changing key words and why an author may have chosen one word over another
- Prove each argument in persuasive text, each idea in informational text, each key detail in literary text, and observe how these build to a whole
- Examine how shifts in the direction of an argument or explanation are achieved and the impact of those shifts
- Question why authors choose to being and end when they do
- Note and assess patterns of writing and what they achieve
- Consider what the text leaves uncertain or unstated
For a student to complete any of these tasks, he or she would have to read and comprehend the text and revisit the text to analyze it. While asking these kinds of questions requires planning in advance–I know I would have a challenging time making them up on the spot!–it is a different kind of planning than we are used to because instead of preparing to give away all the information, we are planning to ask probing questions that guide students in uncovering the information.
What does deep reading do for our students?
Deep reading, text-dependent questions, and teaching them to uncover the mysteries of texts leads our students to become more critical readers. Because they are doing the work of analyzing the text, the expectations of the common core are that students will become more critical consumers of texts in their college and careers—areas of their lives when they will not have teachers around to impart the secrets of texts to them before they read.
This kind of reading also relates to the writing expectations of the common core standards that require students to deeply analyze texts, to identify the author’s explicit argument and claims to support it. If students are being asked to “read like detectives,” they are being asked to “write like investigative reporters,” which means building their own arguments in response to texts (NYSED video).
Reflection is the heart of our practice.
If I were to teach my Butter Battle lesson again, I would start with reading and get rid of all the frontloading. I would present them with the whole Thanksgiving turkey and have them dig in on their own. I would then guide their learning by pre-planning questions that make them dig deeper and deeper into the levels of meaning: How does the use of the phrase “kinks in his soul” define the view the Yooks have of the Zooks? What causes VanItch to “look quite sickly”? What is Dr. Seuss saying through the growing intensity of the weapons? Why does Dr. Seuss end the book with the “Big-Boy Boomeroo” standoff?
The common core standards ask us to change the kinds of questions we ask and to require our students to do more work on their own. They ask us to let our students unravel the mysteries of reading.
For more, this post by Tim Shanahan was absolutely fantastic!
This video of a high school English teacher leading a text-dependent analysis of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” highlights how this strategy works in practice:
Gallagher, K. (2004). Deeper reading: Comprehending challenging texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
NYSED. (2011, April 28). Bringing the common core to life. Video retrieved from http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/resources/bringing-the-common-core-to-life.html