We were middle school teachers looking at the texts on myth and we agreed that the majority of our students wouldn’t have enough prior knowledge to make sense out of the readings. We knew if we passed out these texts without substantial scaffolding, we would likely encounter frustration, boredom and, possibly, acting out. In the good old days, that is the pre-Common Core days, some of us might have given a definition, led students through a guided reading of a myth pointing out features of the genre, maybe read another, have them read one on their own…. But we had gotten together to look at a lesson designed using Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and we were looking for more.
Instinct told us to change texts. To find something more accessible.
But we knew Common Core (a bit of personification, I think) is asking for something else—what Charlotte Danielson, (in an interview with Anthony Rebora in “Charlotte Danielson on Teaching and the Common Core”) calls “a real change in mindset.” That change starts with close reading. Sheila Brown and Lee Kappes define it as “an investigation of a short piece of text”—a journey of multiple readings, text-dependent questions and discussion that leads the reader to deep analysis, comprehension and, in some cases, appreciation. Brown and Lee continue their description of close reading in “Implementing the Common Core State Standards: A Primer on Close Reading or Text” as a “way of thinking and processing text” that is a cornerstone of Common Core. Close reading, we read, was a way of giving a measure of equal access to rigorous and challenging text—the kind that our students need to be able to read, process and use information as they continue in school and/or start careers. We had to challenge them so they would be able to challenge themselves.
Okay. So how do we figure out how to enable those readers who may have never heard of Artemis, Athena or Atlas? Front-loading? Scaffolding? Yes and no. Brown and Kappes say yes, we do tap into the students’ background knowledge, but with a very specific intentions.
The student who enters the class, who may have read Percy Jackson or D’Aulaires book of Greek mythology has a foundation. The myth lesson would require them to update, discard or realign pre-existing information. We knew that before CCSS. The approach to the less experienced reader requires more selective scaffolding.
Brown and Kappes say we have to be clear about what we’re doing. We have to differentiate between providing students with enough background to make the text comprehensible and telling the students what we want them to discover. Enough access to allow them to participate and struggle in a meaningful way, but not so much that there is no struggle. They must have the discipline and stamina to “discover the content independently”.
Our (teachers) work is in selecting “high quality, complex texts” and developing text-based questions that call attention to significant elements of the text and build comprehension to make these discoveries possible. The students’ work is to struggle with, to decode, to analyze and evaluate ideas and information. To struggle. Brown and Kappes assure us that struggle is okay. In fact, they report that teachers who have implemented close reading are finding that their students are not discouraged by the more complicated readings. Instead, they are motivated. “Implementing the Common Core State Standards: A Primer on ‘Close Reading of Text” promises that “grappling with rich, complex texts is an exciting, thought-expanding experience that can change minds and mold beliefs”.
Which of course is what every teacher wants for their students, right? So we looked at our lesson on mythology and prepared ourselves to struggle and grapple and see Common Core State Standards as “an exciting, thought-expanding experience” for us and our sixth graders. After all, Rick Riordan got kids to read about Daedalus.