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Common Core and PARCC wring the love out of literature

There are special, unforgettable moments in some books, especially books for children. Sadly, the new Common Core standards and PARCC exams that Illinois students are taking now blur these moments with confusion, stress, and a misunderstanding of what reading should be.

SPRING SEMESTER: This article is part of an ongoing series in which area teachers weigh in on the big challenges facing education.

My life as a reader was built out of those moments: Leslie’s fateful, failed swing across the creek in Bridge to Terabithia, or Billy and his dogs meeting a mountain lion in Where the Red Fern Grows. So when I recently sat down to talk about the final chapters of Stone Fox with my thirdgrade students, I was excited and scared. The last chapter, about a boy trying to save his grandfather and their farm by winning the prize money in a sled dog race, knocks you down with its tragic ending. How would my students react? Were they going to hate me for making them read it? Would they be emotionally exhilarated?

“Wow!” I said as we sat down. “What did you think?”

“I thought Willy was sad when Searchlight died,” one student said, but that was it.

“Um, yeah!” I said, “I bet!” I faced just silence and blank faces. I panicked.  Why weren’t they upset? It seemed like they hardly cared.

I’ve been pushing my students to explain their thoughts about a book by referring to specific passages, to make sure I was covering the new Common Core state learning standards and to prepare them for this spring’s new PARCC exams, which test knowledge of the Common Core. The biggest difference between previous state reading tests and the new PARCC reading tests are questions requiring students to choose which excerpt from a passage supports their answer to a previous question. These questions are confusing and difficult. To prepare my students, I’ve constantly prodded them all year to give more support for their answers. “Is that all the book says about it? What else?”

The professional development for the Common Core stresses that questions about a book need to be “rigorous,” and that probing about on how students feel doesn’t cut it – too squishy, not backed up by evidence. But here is where the Common Core and PARCC fail us.

When I read the last chapter of Stone Fox, I was devastated. My eyes burned. With my students, I turned my book around to show them the note I made when I got to the end, which said “NOOOOO! This is horrible! I hate this! Aaahhhhhhhhh!!!”

One student stirred, “I was sad,” he said, “I love dogs.”

“Yeah, that was weird when Stone Fox stopped and said he would shoot anyone who passed them,” said another.

“Why did he do that?” asked a third.

“Good question!” I interjected, a feeling of relief washing over me. I hadn’t totally broken their connection to books; I had just scared them into providing only answers they could point to. We finished our discussion with a little more feeling, but I could tell they wouldn’t remember this book the way I do.

I can’t stop asking my students to connect their answers to the text. But I can make that take a backseat to our actual reading experience. A life-long reader is built out of those “Aaaahhh!” moments. Chicago Public Schools chose to administer the PARCC to all schools this year, in spite of its confusing, often developmentally inappropriate content and format. I worry that PARCC isn’t just going to eat up valuable learning time and resources; it’s going to undermine our kids’ love of stories. I am holding out hope that the right people will realize that “rigorous” questions do not make passionate readers. Personal connection does.

Evelyn Pollins is a third-grade teacher at Swift School, a Chicago public school. The Illinois Writing Project is the Sun-Times partner for the teacher essay series. The essays reflect the views of the individual writers only.