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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Milo fights the Common Core again -- this time his mother responds

my daughter is getting upset now; she wrote
this column; for some background on her -- 
she has written a book, published 
many articles, and designs web sites

here is a link to some articles

and here is a link to web sites she built for me

Every night when Milo asks for help with his homework I get a little nervous.  As long as he needs help with a researching a report or writing something or practicing spelling words I feel on safe ground - these are things I know how to do -  but I've been waiting for the day when I have to tell him I simply don't know the answer to something.  That day turned out to be yesterday.

Milo reported that his class had taken a practice "assessment" (they don't call them tests because they don't want the kids to freak out about being tested all the time, so they call them assessments so that instead the kids can eventually freak out about being assessed all the time).  He had gotten two answers wrong on the assessment so his assignment was to change the answers to the correct ones and explain why those were the correct answers.  Since he wasn't sent home with an answer sheet this meant his homework was really to guess at the correct answer, make sure I agreed, and then come up with an explanation for the answer we'd agreed upon.

Much to my dismay, the assessment he brought me wasn't math homework, which I still feel pretty confident with since we're at a 3rd grade level, but reading comprehension.  I totally, totally suck at reading comprehension.  Or, more accurately, I suck at reading comprehension "assessments."  I scored the same on the math and verbal SATs despite the fact that I never really got math and spent huge quantities of my childhood with my nose in a book. 

I took Milo's reading comprehension assessment and sighed.  This was going to be okay now, right?  After all, I'm an adult.  I read lots of books and one assumes I comprehend them or I would have stopped reading long ago.  Not only that, Simon and Schuster and the New York Times agree that I'm a writer.  No published author could be bad at reading comprehension, right?

The first thing I did was look over the questions and the answers, which was how I always approached reading comprehension as a kid.  The passages they give you to read are always so mind-numbingly boring that my usual strategy was to see if I could answer the questions without actually reading the passage (wait, maybe that explains why I never did well on these things ... but I digress).  My heart sank as I realized in order to help Milo with his assessment I was going to have to actually read the passage.  It turned out to be a mind-numbingly boring passage about a kid who went to camp to learn to swim.  He didn't want to be in the group with the non-swimmers, even though he couldn't swim, so he kept asking when he could be moved up into the group for swimmers.  Day after day he goes to the camp, does the stuff he's supposed to do, and asks if he can be moved up to the group with the kids who can swim.  Eventually he learns to swim and gets moved up into the group.  The end.  ARE YOU STILL AWAKE??  Just checking.

So the first question Milo had gotten wrong was something like: 

The kid in this story is:
a. lazy
b. keen
c. reckless
d. angry

Milo had put down that the kid was lazy. 

"I get that," I said to him.  "I totally get that.  You put down that he's lazy because he didn't want to have to do all the things he had to do to learn how to swim, right?"

"Yes," said Milo.  "He just wanted to go right to the group for kids who knew how to swim."

"Here's a tip that it took me a really long time to learn," I said.  "The answer is never that the main character is lazy.  Or mean, or evil, or a slob.  The main character in these things is always something nicer than that.  I can't explain why, but that's how they write them.  Even though you're right.  He is kind of lazy."

"So maybe it's reckless?"  Milo said.  

"Maybe," I said.  "I mean, anyone who doesn't actually take the time to learn to swim and just tries to swim is a little reckless.  It's not angry, though I could make an argument for why it could be angry.  Maybe he's angry about having to be in the group for non-swimmers."

"Is it angry?" Milo asked.

"It's not angry," I said.  "Let's look up what 'keen' means."  Milo was shocked that I didn't know what it meant.  I explained it's a word that no one has used in the last fifty years, so it makes perfect sense that it would appear in a reading comprehension assessment for eight year olds.  The definition for "keen" is 'confident'.  The answer was "keen."

We moved on to the next question.  And for the life of me I couldn't figure out the answer.  I found myself making an argument for every single answer.  They all seemed equally valid.  And then I remembered why I couldn't do reading comprehension as a kid.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn't stop arguing with the people who wrote the test.  I always felt like if they would just give me the chance to make my case in person I could convince them to see it my way.  I wanted to accompany my responses with long essays about how all answers could be right if viewed in the right way.  It wasn't that I didn't care.  It was that on some level I cared too much about writing and reading to fill in a letter on a bubble sheet and move on.  I always found myself editing the passages as I read them, thinking about how I would rewrite them.  As I read through the answers I saw them all as correct because writing is fluid and open to interpretation and that is what makes it such a joy to experience.  One person may see a kid in a story as lazy and another may see him as angry and they are both right, and if you don't understand that then you haven't comprehended anything about what you've read.

In the end I had to ask Steven what the right answer was.  He knew.  He always knows what the people who wrote the test are really asking for; it's a skill I will apparently never acquire.  

When I was a kid I took my failure at reading comprehension personally, as though the test takers were telling me that I'd never be a writer, that my love for reading was misguided, that the one thing I thought I was good at was a lie.  I don't take it that way any more, but there is still a small part of me that wants to print out the list of places I've been published and mail it to the makers of this assessment, along with a clearly thought out essay on why "lazy" could be the right answer.  Because really, it could.  Take another look, Common Core people.  Open your minds a little.  You might find the main character a little lazy.

1 comment:

TBerman said...

I love this article. I'm with you Hana. I mysteriously earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern, but I'm somewhat uncomfortable when it's time to help my 3rd and 5th graders with their homework.

I'd like to add that I don't recall my parents helping me much, but my kids cannot do most of their assigned work without significant supervision and assistance. I feel like the homework assignments are really directed at me, and if my kids fail, the question will be why I didn't help them more.