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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Guest Post: Kafkaesque Reading

Testing had turned the teaching of reading and literature positively kafkaesque

March 22, 2018

Guest post by Peter Greene


If the modern era of test-centered K-12 schooling has been hard on writing, it has made reading instruction positively Kafkaesque.

I’m only here for four posts, so we won’t wander down the many twisty byways of this topic. Let me just highlight a couple of the disastrous thoroughfares that we’re made to travel in this era in which all roads lead to the Big Standardized Test.

Common Core and its attendant testing do not, contrary to what you may have heard, turn your children into lesbian socialists. But they do make some odd assumptions about reading.

One is that reading is a constellation of skills that exist outside of any context. ELA standards writer David Coleman famously wants teachers to cover the Gettysburg Address without discussing the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, or the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg. In the Common Core approach to reading, understanding the word “Kafkaesque” would come through context clues or decoding skills; being familiar with Franz Kafka, his works, and his themes is not considered a legitimate approach.

Most readers lean heavily on the body of knowledge they already possess. Core-based reading denies that Knowing Things is an important factor. Put another way, in my 11th grade classroom, the solution to supposed reading comprehension problems is rarely context clue skills or decoding skills or the fabled "passage reading skills." The most useful skill at my level is discussion. You don’t understand the passage because you’ve never heard of collective bargaining? Then let’s talk about what that is.

This focus on skills has led to an unhealthy pre-occupation with reading “levels” in elementary schools. First, the skills-based analysis leads to some curious conclusions (The Sun Also Rises has a lower lexile score than The Hunger Games). Unfortunately, instead of discussing the many problematic myths of reading levels, too many schools have started strictly restricting readers to their prescribed lexile level (“Sorry, kid. I don’t care if you’re interested in dinosaurs—you can’t take that book out of the library”). Reader interest and prior knowledge have been discounted as factors in reading.

Test-centered schooling also prompts a shift toward short excerpts and quick response. As a teacher, I am forbidden to ever actually set eyes on a copy of the BS Test, but I know with absolute certainty that it will never ask my students to read an entire short story or novel, nor will it ever invite them to take a day or two to reflect on what they’ve read.

Instead, they will read either a short work or excerpt, stripped of all context, including the context of the rest of the work, and answer some questions RIGHT NOW!

The selections will be chosen to guarantee that prior knowledge and interest can’t be a factor. That’s why elementary students end up reading a passage about village politics in ancient Turkey. The questions will come with answers designed to trick students. A popular technique is to use a familiar word in a context that gives it an unfamiliar meaning, then see if the students will make the mistake of using their prior knowledge about the word.

Underlying all of this is the notion that for every question about a piece of reading, there is only one acceptable answer. My students may argue that there are several reasonable answers for questions on the order of “What is the author’s purpose…” or “Which sentence best supports…” but they must be reminded that their task is not to think about their own response to the work, but to figure out what response the test manufacturers believe is the correct one.

If you want to see just how Kafkaesque this gets, read this piece by poet Sara Holbrook who discovered that A) her work was being used on the Texas version of the BS Test and B) she could not correctly answer the questions about her own work.

As an 11th grade teacher, I work downstream of most of this. My students are largely done testing (except for those still trying to make their numbers). But the damage has ben done, and I find that in place of robust discussion and exploration, I face students who are trying to figure out what single answer I want them to give. I try to do what I can in 180 days, but I imagine that the final twist is that when they find themselves in a college classroom where there is not one single reading of a text, facing a professor who wants them to construct and support an answer rather than simply reproduce it, the students may find that whole experience rather Kafkaesque.

Peter Greene writes regularly at Curmudgucation





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