A blogger who calls him/herself “LiberalTeacher” explains how the requirements of the Common Core transformed a novel he loved: The 39 Steps by John Buchan. When he was a student, the book held him spellbound.

 

He wrote:

 

I tutor many students and two weeks ago one of my students needed help in analyzing an excerpt from The 39 Steps. Of course it was just an excerpt because as we all know Mr. Coleman feels it is a waste of time for students to possibly read and enjoy a whole novel. But what was even more amazing was the fact that this excerpt was in a 6th grade common core workbook. Obviously, I read it in high school and remembered that many concepts had to be explained to us at that time. I recall being fascinated learning about the cultural differences between us Americans and the British in the waning days of its Empire. The book is obviously beyond the scope of an average sixth grader. But I had to confirm this for myself. I decided to use common core’s favorite readability formula on this excerpt—Lexile. Lo and behold, but not surprisingly, the Lexile score was 960. To put it in terms that we old teachers understand, the book is on the 10th-11th grade level. After all, to Arne, David and Bill, rigor is the “code word” of the day.

 

The excerpt my student read was the first couple of pages from the book. The excerpt starts with the protagonist’s experience in visiting London from South Africa where he is mining engineer. Richard Hannay is described in this excerpt as being somewhat uncomfortable on this trip to his native land. He feels out of place and bored. All of a sudden, upon returning to his apartment, one of his neighbors barges in to his “flat” and after suspiciously checking all of the rooms say this sentence: ‘Pardon,’ he said, ‘I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead.’

 

What did this common core workbook want the student to do with the text? First, he had to read it twice. Of course, a close reading had to be done. His task was to circle key phrases that showed the “tone” of the passage. This was difficult for him because of two reasons. First, he had no understanding what was meant by tone and I had to explain and give him concrete examples of this common core concept. Next, the passage itself floored him because he had no background information to hook into. He had no conception that the main character was a colonial from a British African colony and that he felt out of place now in his mother country. Why should he know any of this when this curriculum forbids students from using any background information—especially in the area of social studies—when pieces of text are analyzed?

 

The teacher then explained how his student reacted to the excerpt and how little he understood of the novel, which he had–of course–not read.

 

But why did the book matter? The teacher still remembers how it affected the way he felt and thought. Analyzing the decontextualized text as a “close reading” missed whatever was important to him when he had read it years ago.

 

He writes:

 

When I read The 39 Steps, I recall so many lively discussions. It was the time of the Vietnam War. One discussion I distinctly remember centered on the theme of risking your life for your country when your nation in itself was deeply flawed. We also discussed some of the political issues brought out in the novel, such as powerful industrialists profiting from wars and conflicts between nations and that it was in the interest of such people to forment war. The discussions that we had over this book represent real higher level thinking skills. It is the type of critical thinking skills that create a citizenry that questions its government. It is the type of learning that creates a true educated citizenry that is able to participate in relevant political discourse. Forcing students to read and describe the structure of a passage five years above grade level is not education, but frustration that will lead to a hatred of learning because it is purposeless. Whereas this novel gave me a life-long love of spy novels and got me thinking about wider issues, the excerpt my student read led to confusion, misunderstanding and a feeling of inadequacy.