Friday, May 31, 2013

Small Victories with To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a required text for ninth grade at my school, but I have never had much success with it.  My students like the movie, but the text is much more subtle and sophisticated than its lexile score would indicate (more on that later).  Despite all my assignments, my lessons, our class discussions, our maps of Maycomb, too many of my students weren't really reading the book--a famous problem.  So this year I have ended up reading nearly the whole thing to them--out loud, in class, a chapter or two a day.  They have been doing writing and textual analysis at home, we've been talking about it in class--and I have been doing a lot of reading aloud.

I have played around a bit with how to manage the reading. After we'd done the beginning of the book aloud, the students seemed to be following it pretty well, so I assigned a couple of chapters as homework. When I gave reading quizzes on those chapters, over a third of the students failed, pretty much in line with my experience in past years.

So I went back to doing the reading in class. I did some more aloud, then tried having them read the book to themselves in class.  This, too, was a struggle.  A few students read it easily and quickly; many struggled to understand it.  I tried having students read it to each other.  This worked okay, but it was slow-going, the kids complained, and their comprehension wasn't great. Another thing I tried was allowing students who had done well on the previous reading quizzes to read the book on their own in the hallway while I read it aloud.  This worked fairly well, although there were a few students who used the time not to read, but to go get a drink or chat with their friends. These kids then failed the quick quiz I gave, and weren't allowed to read in the hallway the next time.

I wouldn't say that the book has been a great success this year, and some of the reading-aloud time has been plagued by students commenting loudly and distractingly on the book (A typical comment is the ever-popular "THAT'S SO RACIST!"), or whispering to each other about other things, or whatever.  Nevertheless, there have been some small victories.

  1. I have a student in one of my classes who asks me nearly every day if we can "just do something chill today."  I always say, "I'm reading aloud to you.  We're having storytime; it doesn't get any more chill than that!"  She says, No, I mean play a game or something.  I say, Reading is fun!  This has happened three times; finally today some other students in the class backed me up and said they were enjoying listening to the book.
  2. In that same class I have a student with some unique learning difficulties who finds it very difficult to understand the novel.  She is the only student in either class who has found it difficult to understand when I read it aloud. I let her read in the hallway, which sometimes allowed her to (barely) pass the reading quizzes, but when we got to the trial section of the novel I asked her to stay in the room and listen to it.  She was so anxious about failing the quizzes (until I knew this girl, I thought beating your breast in anguish was just an expression) that I let her skip the quizzes for a few days.  Then yesterday I handed her a quiz and she took it, saying "I think I understood it today!" As it turned out, she barely passed the quiz, but at least she passed, and at least--for the first time--she felt like she'd understood it. I was worried that the reading aloud was going to be a a terrible experience overall for her, but it doesn't seem to be so bad.  Maybe she's even learning!
  3. Today a student in my other 9th grade class, a girl who has proclaimed many times that she hates reading but whom I have sometimes caught reading her independent reading book when she was supposed to be doing something else, announced, unprovoked, at the end of class: "I hate to admit it, but I think this book is really good!" When I said I thought so too, even if I had some misgivings, she said, "Well, I think I would hate it if I had to read it myself."  Then three other kids jumped in and said that they too only liked the book when I read it to them--but that they were liking it.

So I'm still not convinced that it's worth spending six weeks on To Kill a Mockingbird, and if I were to do it again, I would do things differently, but I do think what I'm doing this year is better than what I've done in the past.

Reading instruction without reading... like growing up without eating.  Much of the reading instruction discussed in yesterday's New York Times article sounded like what I'm afraid a lot of the English curriculum is like in a lot of schools: classroom activities that mimic a test. Trying to raise scores leads to even more test-mimicking curriculum.  In the Times article, there was only one extended description of a classroom activity.  It went like this:

"...the teacher, guided the students in a close reading of a few paragraphs. But when she asked them to select which of two descriptions fit Terabithia, the magic kingdom created by the two main characters, the class stumbled to draw inferences from the text."

This is at what sounds like a successful school, with a thoughtful teacher.  But notice the two important things that are not happening here:

a) The students are not reading very much.  "A few paragraphs" is not much.  Now, of course it's possible that the kids are reading a lot at other times.  But none of the many teachers and experts quoted in the article ever mentions actually reading, so I think it's possible these kids may manage to do what a third of my ninth grade class did in middle school, and get through years without completing a single book.

b)  The students are not themselves describing Terabitihia; they are asked to "select" from two possible descriptions.  In other words, the students are answering multiple choice questions, not open-ended questions.

This is not reading; it is taking a test.  Taking a test can be educational--I always urge my Juniors to take the AP English test, because I think one day focused on a high-quality test can be a learning experience--but this is not what you need day in and day out.  It's as if, trying to get malnourished children to grow taller, we carefully measured their height every day, without ever letting them eat.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Front-page NYT article on raising reading scores never mentions actually reading

Today's paper of record has a front-page story about how much "easier" it is to improve student scores in math than in reading.  Predictably, the article mentions many specific skills and "concepts", but never explicitly mentions what would seem the most important factor: time spent actually reading.

The story describes lessons on close reading and inferences, it discusses acting out the dialogue in books, and it mentions narrative perspectives, subtext, character motivation, vocabulary, background knowledge, sentence length, text density, and cultural deficits.  It talks about the enormous differences in how much "literacy" children are exposed to outside of school.  But none of the teachers and experts quoted in the article suggests that perhaps the best way to raise reading scores is to have kids actually read.

A few months ago the same newspaper published an op-ed by a Mexican novelist, David Toscana, who asked a very important question:

One cannot help but ask the Mexican educational system, “How is it possible that I hand over a child for six hours every day, five days a week, and you give me back someone who is basically illiterate?”
A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” 

Too often, this is true in America as well. Our schools have our children six hours a day for twelve years. That is a lot of time. Let the kids read!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Books are still the best technology!

My department is about to spend a lot of money on three new projector carts.  I like projectors, but I wonder if it might be better to spend the money on building up some classroom libraries. As a recent study reminds us, computerized gadgets may be neat, but are not necessarily educational -- unlike books.

The study is from the National Bureau of Economic Research, and it finds that giving poor kids computers doesn't help them do better in school.  Free computers increase computer use, but do not lead to improvements in grades, test scores, attendance, or disciplinary actions.

This is another reminder that books are a more important educational technology than computers.  Giving books away in doctors offices works.  Having book-filled libraries is very important.  So maybe the NBER should do a study in which they tried giving some kids a thousand dollars worth of free books?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Evidence shows that reading informational text more frequently is correlated with lower reading scores

I have another little story about non-evidence-based BS.  I'm getting kind of tired of this topic, but I'm going to write it up anyway, just for the record, while my students are writing an in-class essay on Song of Solomon.

Is there evidence that reading more informational text is important?
Because it's being pushed by the Common Core, "informational text" is all the rage these days.  Lesson plans for high school English classes are looking more and more like SAT prep--read a brief passage and answer some factual questions about it--except that the passages and questions I've seen in lesson plans have been less interesting than the ones I used to see on the SAT, back when I used to work as a tutor. One of the people promoting the Common Core these days is literacy titan Tim Shanahan. Some of Shanahan's work on CCSS matters is pretty good--he has a decent take on how to handle close reading in the classroom that is much better than a lot of the dreck I have seen--but like DAvid Coleman he has, I think, too little to say about reading volume, and he has jumped on the informational text bandwagon too wholeheartedly.  In his most recent blog post, Shanahan writes, "CCSS is emphasizing the reading of literary and informational text to ensure that students are proficient with a wide variety of text."

I am skeptical of this claim, since my working hypothesis is that what's really important is overall reading ability, which is increased by reading a lot of whatever kind of text interests you. So I wrote a comment on Shanahan's blog post asking if he knew of any evidence for his assertion.  I wrote, "I have not seen any evidence that trying to make students read more informational text will lead to greater proficiency with informational text.

Shanahan quickly replied to my comment, saying that there was lots of evidence: "Actually there is quite a bit of research showing that if you want students to be able to read expository text, you have to have them read (or write) expository text"

I wrote back asking for specifics, which he didn't give (I understand--he's a busy guy), and then I spent a bit of time poking around.  What I found shouldn't have surprised me.  Here's the upshot: not only does there seem to be no hard evidence that reading informational text makes you a better reader of informational text, there is actually, oddly, some hard evidence that the very opposite is true: that the more regularly students read informational text, the worse they do on reading tests.

A leading scholar makes the case for informational reading, but has no evidence
Nell Duke is a Michigan professor who has spent much of her career pushing to get more informational text in U.S. classrooms; she also edits the "Research-Informed Classroom" book series. Duke has tried to make the case for more informational text in many articles over many years, and her efforts may be paying off: both of my children have been exposed to more informational text in the course of their schooling than I was. This is not necessarily bad, but it's not necessarily good, either.

For what Nell Duke has not done is provide empirical evidence that reading more informational text will make you better at reading informational text.  She is upfront about this: "While there is a great deal of agreement about the necessity of substantial or ongoing  experience with a genre (e.g.,  New London Group, 1996), there is currently no empirical research available to speak to the question of how  much experience  with a given form of written text is necessary for a particular level of acquisition" (Duke, "3.6 Minutes a Day," RRQ, 2000, p.207)  In other words, there is "agreement" among some researchers, but they don't have any hard evidence.

Do U.S. children "need" to read informational text?
In 2010 Nell Duke published an article in The Phi Beta Kappan called "The Real World Writing U.S. Children Need."  The article begins by citing an international test that shows US children doing slightly better on standardized test questions about literary text than those on informational text. The article goes on to make Duke's usual argument that students need to read more informational text.

Because I am skeptical of this claim, I looked up the international test Duke mentions, the PIRLS. As Duke reported, U.S. children, like those in many other countries, did a bit better on questions about literary text than informational text--but the scores were not very far apart.  What Duke did not report, however, was that the 2006 PIRLS study had actually done a bit of empirical research on the very question of whether more exposure to informational text is associated with higher scores on informational text.

The PIRLS study asked students how frequently they read literary texts, and how frequently they read informational texts.  It turns out, counterintuitively perhaps, that students who reported reading informational texts more frequently actually did worse on the reading test than students who reported reading informational texts less frequently.  Here's the relevant section of the US Government report on the 2006 PIRLS:

"The average score on the combined reading literacy scale for U.S. students who read stories or novels every day or almost every day (558) was higher than the average score for students who read stories or novels once or twice a week (541), once or twice a month (539), and never or almost never (509). In contrast, the average score for students who read for information every day or almost every day (519) was lower than the average score for students who read for information once or twice a week (538), once or twice a month (553), and never or almost never (546).

"The higher performance of U.S. students who read for information less frequently relative to U.S. students who read for information more frequently was also observed internationally."
(, page 16-17))

So, to clarify, the very study that was cited as evidence of U.S. students not reading enough informational text turns out to show that frequent reading of informational text is associated with lower reading scores.

What to conclude?
First, while those PIRLS data are weird and counterintuitive, and almost certainly don't mean that reading informational text actually harms one's reading level, one thing is clear: this is not a study that offers any support for the idea that U.S. students "need" to read more informational text.  The evidence for this assertion, like the evidence for explicit vocabulary instruction, for charter schools, for VAM teacher evaluation, for larger class size, for explicitly teaching reading "strategies" rather than focusing on meaningful, content-based reading and discussion--the evidence is simply very weak, if not outright negative.

Second, we are again confronted with the spectacle of very eminent scholars (Shanahan is a real bigwig, and Duke is a professor at a very good university who is quite well-established) making strong assertions in the practical and policy realms that don't seem backed up by evidence in the scholarship realm.  There is a striking contrast between the careful language ("may," "currently no empirical research available," etc.) used in scholarly papers and the bold, authoritative tone of articles aimed at teachers and the public about what children "need" to be doing, and what practices will "ensure" a particular result.

The takeaway for me, once again, is that we simply cannot trust any assertion that we have not ourselves looked into carefully--even, or perhaps especially, if it is accompanied by the label "research-based", or as Nell Duke's book series has it, "Research-Informed." Instead, we must rely mostly on our own common sense and our sense of humanity.  At the heart of our work should be: meaningful reading, meaningful writing, and meaningful discussion.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Salt is fine for you! (poor logic in public health and educational pseudo-science)

I'm busy, but this caught my eye, so I'll do it quickly.  It turns out that low-salt diets are actually bad for you.  

This is another in a long line of reversals for overly simplistic public health guidelines (butter is bad, mammograms are good, breastfeeding is bad, eat lots of carbs, etc.), and it should make us very wary of the educational pseudo-science, which often uses the exact same simplistic logic.

Salt was considered bad because salt consumption was associated with slightly higher blood pressure, and slightly higher blood pressure was associated with slightly more heart attacks.  So A was associated with B, and B was associated with C--but no one had actually checked that A actually led to C--that increased salt consumption meant more heart attacks or earlier death.  It turns out that it doesn't--quite the opposite.

This isn't so surprising--the human body is a very complicated system, and there are a lot of other billiard balls on the table besides just salt and blood pressure--but it is worth noting as a cautionary tale, because so much “evidence-based” discourse in the education world is highly dubious and likely to be disproven in the future.

Some examples 
I have seen this kind of logic--A is correlated with B, and B is correlated with C, so A must cause C—in arguments about all sorts of questions.  Here's an example that I wrote about a long time ago:

A.      Explicit vocabulary instruction can lead to some increase in vocabulary
B.      Good readers tend to have larger vocabularies
C.      Therefore, one of the most evidence-based ways to increase reading comprehension is explicit vocabulary instruction

Sometimes the arguments are even weaker:

A.      The texts assigned in schools are less complex than they were 40 years ago.
B.      Students are marginally less good at reading complex texts than they were 40 years ago (I think the evidence for this is very weak, but I’ll accept it for the sake of argument)
C.      Therefore, we should assign more difficult texts in school.

And sometimes they're painfully comical:

A.      Schools are spending more money
B.      Test scores are flat
C.      Therefore, we should get rid of teachers’ unions

Why not more logical arguments?
These arguments would seem to be self-evidently silly, and it might not be worth taking the time to respond to them, except that they are so widely accepted and so central to the major education debates of our time.  So we might ask, why not the following arguments?

A.      Many of our students go whole years without reading a single book.
B.      No one has ever become a good reader without reading a lot
C.      Therefore, we should spend a lot of time and money and thought on getting kids to read more.

A. In an appropriately leveled book, 1% of the words will be new, and readers will learn on average about 15% of those new words.
B. If you read 100 pages a week, you will learn about 45 new words, which is far higher than the ten to fifteen that kids are given in typical vocabulary instruction.
C. Therefore, teachers should stop spending time on explicit vocabulary instruction and should instead devote more time to independent reading.

A.  If you read books that are too hard, you don't improve as much as if you read books that are at the appropriate level.
B. If you read books that are too hard, you will read less.
C. Therefore, students should read books at their reading level.

A. The educational achievement of poor kids is much, much worse than that of rich kids.
B. No school has ever succeeded in educating poor kids up to the level of rich kids.
C. Therefore, if we want all kids to have the same opportunity, we should eliminate poverty.

But that last argument is its own refutation, because of course it is unthinkable anymore to seriously consider attacking poverty directly.  So instead we get ridiculous logic.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Krugman on Ed Reform

Paul Krugman has a good piece in the NYRB discussing the ill-judged move, over the past few years in the west,  to "austerity"-- that is, cutting government spending and raising taxes.  The article is worth reading even for people who aren't usually terribly interested in economics, both because this is one of the major stories of our time and because Krugman's analysis of how the opinions of the elites and the policymakers could be so wrong is more broadly applicable.  In particular, I think the analysis applies pretty well to the Ed Reform movement of the past decade.

According to Krugman, the move to austerity has a few notable features:

* It found support from scholarly studies that are, despite fancy pedigrees (Harvard!), shaky and dubious
* It had a simple moral and psychological appeal
* It did not demand anything difficult from the elites themselves

All of these fit the Ed Reform movement as well:

Support from dubious but ivy-league scholarship
Educational research is, like economics research, anything but conclusive.  A lot of pretty basic questions are surprisingly unclear: whether homework is worthwhile, whether class size makes a big difference, how reliable or valid standardized test scores are as measures of teacher effectiveness, whether vocabulary instruction is useful, and many , many more.  Nevertheless, you would never know this from the self-assured pronouncements of people like Bill Gates, who can move with dizzying fickleness from demanding small schools to demanding Common Core Standards to demanding that teachers be evaluated by test scores to demanding larger class sizes, citing studies for each new "evidence-based" proposal despite the fact that none of these proposals has more than the slimmest of empirical evidence in its favor.  

In fact, the Ed reformers' emphasis on standardized tests is striking in its radical departure from what has long been understood: that what matters is student engagement with the material in as authentic a way as possible.  But just as radical proponents of austerity economics have, on the basis of thin scholarship and simplistic moralizing ("We must tighten our belts!"), left behind the accepted wisdom of John Maynard Keynes--just so have the Ed reformers radically left behind the legacy of John Dewey on the basis of thin scholarship and similarly simplistic moralizing ("We need to get tough!").

Crude moral and psychological appeal 
Blame and punishment have an eternal appeal.  Just as the Germans blame the Greeks, and demand cuts and austerity from the Greeks even though cutting the Greek economy off at the knees means it won't ever get back on its feet, American Ed reformers blame teachers and schools, and demand punishment.  Never mind changing the larger system of inequality and poverty, never mind the fact that punitive measures never work, blame and punishment are appealing--especially if you can put them onto other people, not yourself or people you know.

Few demands on the elites themselves
Because cutting taxes on the rich helps the rich, cutting government spending doesn't hurt them directly, and failing to tackle high unemployment keeps wages down and corporate profits high, the wealthy proponents of government austerity are remarkably insulated from the bad effects of the policies they propose.  In the same way, the Ed reformers are very far from personally connected to the reforms they propose.  Not only have none of these people (Gates, Broad, Duncan, Obama, Bloomberg, Klein, Coleman, Emanuel, etc.) ever actually been a teacher, not a single one of them, as far as I know, has kids in public school.  The fact that all of the ed reformers send their kids to private school is significant for two reasons: (1) because private schools like Lakeside, Sidwell Friends or the Lab School do not follow an ed reform model now, and (2) because they will never have to.  New standards, new testing regimes, increased class sizes, teacher evaluation based on test scores--all of these dubious reforms will be imposed on those of us in public schools, but their architects and proponents are sheltered and insulated from them.  It is infuriating.

What Krugman says about proponents of austerity economics is, I think, appropriate to Ed Reform as well (and reminds me why the wonk is an invasive species).  Here's Krugman:

"It’s a terrible story, mainly because of the immense suffering that has resulted from these policy errors. It’s also deeply worrying for those who like to believe that knowledge can make a positive difference in the world. To the extent that policymakers and elite opinion in general have made use of economic analysis at all, they have, as the saying goes, done so the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination. Papers and economists who told the elite what it wanted to hear were celebrated, despite plenty of evidence that they were wrong; critics were ignored, no matter how often they got it right."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

$150 million of Gates money later, we're still clueless

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports that Bill Gates has given over $150,000,000 to promote and develop curriculum for the CCSS.  This is a lot of money. But we are still mostly clueless.

Yesterday my curriculum coordinator was asked what our department was doing to align our curriculum to the Common Core, and she didn't have a quick and easy answer, because there is no quick and easy answer. The Common Core English Standards demand an ability to read complex texts, ability to make coherent arguments grounded in evidence from text, and an increased familiarity with academic language and "content-rich non-fiction."  The most important things students need to be doing, in other words, is meaningful reading and writing--just what we should have been doing before.  The only new thing here is the emphasis on "informational texts," but the best way to learn to read non-fiction is to read a lot of any old text: I am pretty good at reading informational texts, but I read hardly any non-fiction as an adolescent; Malcolm Gladwell is a master of reading, synthesizing and writing informational texts, but the main thing he reads now, just as, no doubt, when he was in high school, is junky airport fiction. Again, the main job of English teachers should be ensuring that their students are doing as much meaningful reading and writing as possible.

Things may look different in other subjects.  The math department at Leafstrewn has apparently done all sorts of work on Common Core "implementation."  This is probably appropriate; in math, you have to decide which skills to teach when. In English, we should be doing similar things over and over again, just with different texts, and different types of writing.  Trying to teach to the Common Core's "Shifts" (yes, the word is capitalized--it is, in the eyes of the Common Core people, that important) is, as I have tried to show, very likely a mistake, since it will lead to a narrow focus, boring curriculum, and not enough reading.  What we need is reading and writing--provide kids with books, time, and a humane, caring community in which they can do their work.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Common Core's Supposed Emphasis on Close Reading is a Joke (not much reading, and not very close)

In the curriculum materials developed by the Common Core authors' own company, there is very little time available for high-volume reading, and the close reading questions lack depth or complexity.  Poor readers will not read enough to improve; good readers will be bored and very likely contemptuous.

Resources from the Standards' authors' own company
The Common Core standards are supposed to promote increased complexity of text, but they offer very little guidance on how to do it. Since the standards don't say much about what teachers should actually do, I couldn't be sure, but I have long been skeptical that the standards would do much to improve students' ability to read more complex texts, since the most important factor is how much students read, and the standards say very little about reading volume. Nevertheless, ready to be proved wrong, I decided to look at some curriculum that was developed with the Common Core in mind by an organization founded by the some of the authors of the standards.

Both Bill Gates and some corporations (I think GE gave 18 million dollars) have supported an organization called "Student Achievement Partners," which describes itself, awkwardly, as a "nonprofit organization that assembles educators and researchers to design actions based on evidence that substantially improve student achievement." (With tens of millions of dollars, you'd think they could have substantially improved their own writing!)  This organization has established a website called "," which offers "free, high-quality resources for educators to implement the Common Core Standards."  When I visited the site, I was surprised not only by the paucity of resources, but also by their relatively low intellectual level.

What about "literary texts" in high school? What about independent reading?
From a none too extensive list of lessons on close reading, I clicked on an eighth grade unit on Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken and Jeanne Watasuki Houston's Farewell to Manzanar--partly because I was surprised that Hillenbrand's book would be taught in the eighth grade (a strong student in one of my Honors Junior classes is reading the book and fnding it challenging because of the length, complexity and the unfamiliar historical content), but also because I wanted to look at a lesson plan on a "literary text", not on an "instructional text," and the site offered not a single lesson plan at the high school level for use with a "literary text." This omission, no doubt related to CCSS's infamous call for 80% of kids' reading in high school to be of informational texts, was disappointing enough--but then I dug into the lesson plan.

The lesson plan only focuses on a few passages from each book.   Each day of the five-day lesson plan has the kids reading one passage from each book, then hearing it aloud, then writing about it, then discussing it.   This would not be terrible--if time were built in for extensive reading beyond these few paragraphs--but the writing and discussion prompts strike me as tedious and shallow, and I am very skeptical that a class doing this lesson plan would have kids actually reading more than a page or two a day.

"Close Reading": Boring Writing Prompts and Discussion Questions

The lesson is prefaced by a warning that since this is close reading, the teacher should not offer students any introduction, background or context for the texts.  This strikes me as truly bizarre advice (the weakness of New Criticism with none of its strengths), especially when the texts in question are brief excerpts from much longer works.  The instructions read:

It is critical to cultivating independence and creating a culture of close reading   that students initially grapple with rich texts without the aid of prefatory material, extensive notes, or even teacher explanations.

These instructions are comically ironic, since this entire teacher-selected, teacher-directed, non-open-ended lesson plan seems designed rather to stifle independence.

Here is the first passage, from Unbroken:

The men had been adrift for twenty-seven days. Borne by an equatorial current, they had floated at least one thousand miles, deep into Japanese-controlled waters. The rafts were beginning to deteriorate into jelly, and gave of a sour, burning odor. The men’s bodies were pocked with salt sores, and their lips were so swollen that they pressed into their nostrils and chins. They spent their days with their eyes fixed on the  sky, singing “White Christmas,” muttering about food. No one was even looking for them any more. They were alone on sixty-four million square miles of ocean. A month earlier, twenty-six-year-old [Louie] Zamperini had been one of the greatest runners in the world, expected by many to   be the first to break the four-minute mile, one of the most celebrated barriers in sport. Now his Olympians body had wasted to less than one hundred pounds and his famous legs could no longer lift him. Almost everyone outside his family had given him up for dead.”

The writing prompt is:

In one or two sentences, briefly describe the condition of Louie Zamperini and the other men who were "adrift" in Japanese-controlled waters.

Then there are three discussion questions, one about how the author establishes "time and geographic location," one about the mental and physical condition of the men on the boat, and one about why the author writes about Louie Zamperini's past life and experiences.

For a good reader, these are boring questions.  They are neither very difficult--it is pretty obvious that the men are in poor shape--nor, just as important, are they open-ended.  These are not questions that could have more than one answer (in case the teacher is not himself a good reader, the lesson plan helpfully gives the answer; for example: "Hillenbrand describes Louie Zamperini's former condition as an Olympic athlete to show how, within a very short period of time, a popular star-athlete could quickly find himself weak, emaciated, and near death while floating aimlessly on a rescue raft in the South Pacific. This portion of text helps students establish a sense of how far Louie was from his former life before the war.")

It's hard to imagine a good discussion coming out of questions like the ones in this unit. There are things in the passage that seem interesting to me, either because I wasn't familiar with the phenomena (rafts turning to jelly, salt sores, etc.) or because I was curious about why (the looking at the sky, the singing of "White Christmas," etc.), or because the logical continuity of the writing seemed tenuous (in the last two sentences, there seems to be an implied connection between Louie's famous legs wasting away and his being given up for dead by folks back home, even mthough you wouldn't know his legs were wasting away unless you were on the raft).  But the questions in the unit just don't get at these strange and interesting elements of the passage, and if I were a student in the class I would feel like I was mostly wasting my time.

It seems to me that it would be much more worthwhile to have students mark up and make comments directly on the passage and then have a more open-ended discussion, beginning perhaps with a pretty broad question like "What didn't you understand in the passage?" or "What do you think the author is doing in this passage?" Open-ended questions will lead to real discussion, and real discussion will help students get better at answering even the boring questions like these.  But answering boring questions won't help kids learn anything, except to dislike school and reading.

Kids need to read a lot, and this lesson plan doesn't encourage that

If this were run as a five-day unit, the students would read a total of four pages in class, and at most another three pages at home.  An appendix does present the possibility of doing a three-week unit in which students would read one of the texts in full, but this possibility would require, for kids reading Unbroken, an average of over thirty pages per night, a pace which, for this demanding text, would lead nearly all students to cheat on the reading, pushing some into the arms of study guides, others into desperate skimming, and all into frustration and contempt.

Assuming that the unit is done as a one-week unit, students would get well-organized lesson plans on interesting, but very brief texts with boring tasks and very, very little reading.  This is not a good way to learn to be a good reader.  Students need to read a lot, and the discussions they have about what they read need to be based on interesting, open-ended questions to which the teacher or lesson-planner does not already know the right answer.

It might be tempting to think that this lesson plan is just a lemon, but it's not.  The Common Core sets an expectation that students will be "given frequent opportunities to read a high volume of
texts independently and be held accountable for this reading", but nothing in the Standards, or in the materials I've seen developed for them, or in presentations I've watched by David Coleman or others, offers any hint as to how this could be accomplished, especially in the context of all the other stuff students are supposed to be doing.  I know from experience, and from the very, very consistent literature on fostering higher-volume reading (by Mary Leonhardt, Nancie Atwell, Stephen Krashen, Richard Allington, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and others) that teachers must make a concerted effort to provide students with high-interest books, and with time to read them.  The Common Core just doesn't do this; therefore, unless we teachers take matters into our own hands, students will not advance on the "staircase of text complexity."

The high school lesson plans are no better
For the high school grades, there are no sample lessons on fiction or literature, only on "informational text," and for grades 11 and 12 there are only two sample lesson plans.  The first is a three-day lesson on a two-paragraph speech by the great jurist Learned Hand about America and freedom; the second unit takes "several days" to read and re-read Andrew Carnegie's four-page article,  "The Gospel of Wealth," about how wonderful inequality is, and how poor people should be grateful for it, since it allows rich people to spend some their wealth on philanthropic endeavors.  

Leaving aside the fact that these texts, especially the Carnegie essay, are of dubious literary quality and are essentially propaganda, there are again two major problems with these lesson plans:  (1) the questions and prompts are not not very interesting, and any good reader would hardly have to do any "close reading" in order to answer them; (2) they are together less than five pages long, and yet would seem, along with the "text-dependent questions" and the culminating essays, to be all that was intended to occupy the students for over a week of class time.  This is not a curriculum that is prioritizing reading.

The Common Core's supposed emphasis on close reading is a joke.  Again: in the curriculum materials developed by the Common Core authors' own company, there is very little time available for high-volume reading, and the close reading questions lack depth or complexity. Poor readers will not read enough to improve; good readers will be bored and very likely contemptuous. Of course, a good teacher could probably make these lesson plans work--but then, a good teacher wouldn't need them in the first place.

Although I am more and more sure that the CCSS effort is basically a stalking horse for standardized tests and for-profit curriculum, and that the authors are mostly clueless about how to help students develop into good readers, I do think it would be possible to develop a CCSS curriculum that would work very well.  That curriculum would involve large amounts of independent reading at the students' own reading level, along with focused close reading and instruction in how to read closely.  You might say, Well, that's just what Student Achievement Partners is trying to do!  Perhaps, but they are ignoring the independent reading side of it and doing the close reading side poorly.

In the future, I'm going to put up some curriculum I think would be better--and I'll also have to write about those lesson plans on how great America and inequality are...