Monday, September 19, 2011

How to “Do” Rigor Part II: Enough with the comprehension questions already!

by Douglas Grudzina

A few weeks ago, Prestwick House had the privilege of hosting an “externship” in cooperation with the Delaware Business and Industry Education Alliance. On the final day, one of the points our teacher-extern made was that, for the past two decades, everyone has been clamoring about (re)introducing “rigor” to the curriculum and to routine teaching and testing practices. Both an experienced Advanced Placement and a relatively new International Baccalaureate teacher, our intern observed that many teachers simply do not know how to “do rigor.” The models of rigorous instruction are few and far between, and often what is labeled “rigorous” is actually the same, old stuff repackaged with a DVD instead of a filmstrip.

At Prestwick House, we like to think that many of our materials do indeed model rigorous instruction and assessment, and we do support initiatives like the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers’ Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is all about rigor. So…to honor our former extern’s request to help her colleagues know “how to do rigor,” here is the second of a three-part series.

Part II: Enough with the comprehension questions already!

In preparation for this blog post, I did a little homework (actually a _very_ little homework). I went to the shelves about seven feet behind me and grabbed an anthology from one of Prestwick House’s competitors.

It doesn’t really matter _which_ anthology because as student and teacher (40+ years all told) I found all the “big book” anthologies to be pretty much the same. Maybe the literature included changed from edition to edition, but what they did with the literature never did.

Trust me, though, that the questions I am going to cite come from an anthology that is _not_ the fifth-grade-level in its series, and it is _not_ a remedial or introductory level in its series.

One of the poems in the poetry section is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells” (the one with all the onomatopoeia). The text of the poem ends on the right-hand side of the book (even numbered page), and the questions appear on the left (odd numbered page).

The first section of questions, labeled “Recall”1 (and I’ll rant on that in a minute), include:

  • What do the bells in the first two stanzas foretell?
  • What bells are introduced in stanza 3?
  • What bells does the speaker describe in stanza 4?

(Do you see a possible trend developing here?)

The second section is labeled “Analyze”2 and includes this:

  • Identify the different meanings bells have for the speaker.

And the “Evaluate”3 section boasts this:

  • Decide whether or not there is a pattern to sentence and stanza length in the poem.

Here are my rants, and then we’ll talk about how to do rigor.

1. If the question comes _on the absolute next page_ after the poem (on the _same two-page spread_ as the poem), we’re not asking the kid to “recall” anything. At best, we’re asking him to flip back a page or two and find the answer.

1. a. Even if we asked the question in an appendix at the end of the book, is the ability to identify “silver bells,” “golden bells,” and “iron bells” the reason we’ve had kids read this poem? Do we really suspect that such identification was the motivation for Poe’s _writing_ the poem?

1. b. Even if we assume that we _must_ ask a certain number of _comprehension_ or “basic, surface understanding” questions (and I think this is a thoroughly anti-rigor assumption), will a march-through-the-chapter series of questions really do what such questions are supposed to do?

2. A question that begins with the verb “identify” is probably ¬_not_ an analysis question—and this one certainly is not. It’s comprehension. It translates into nothing more than, “Go back and paraphrase the word or words the poet uses to describe the feeling he gets from each kind of bell.” Or something like that.

2. a. In a poem that _is_ a huge, extended metaphor; in a poem ¬_full_ of onomatopoeia and other sound effects; in a poem in which the shifting and deteriorating rhythmic pattern _absolutely mirrors the poet’s deteriorating emotional state_, this is the best attempt at “analysis” we can make?

3. This is not an “evaluation” question. It _might be_ an analysis question. It is very close to a comprehension question.

3. a. In this case, the kid doesn’t get to decide anything. Poe already decided that there _would be_ a “pattern to sentence and stanza length,” and he decided what it would be. All the kid needs to do is figure out what that pattern is, and then maybe _evaluate_ the extent to which this pattern helps or hurts the poem (and why).

The first thing you have to do if you want to “do rigor” in your classroom is change the kinds of questions you ask. Everyone talks about Benjamin Bloom. If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you probably can’t count the number of times you’ve sat through a workshop in which you were told about Bloom as if his first book or article only just came out last week, and memorizing a list of five or six verbs were really going to revolutionize education.

(And among those verbs are indeed, “comprehend,” “analyze,” and “evaluate.”)

Because this is a Prestwick House blog, and because I am a Prestwick House employee—but also because I am very proud of this product and would use it if I were still in the classroom—I’m going to insert this one bit of shameless marketing:

Our new line of reproducibles, _Levels of Understanding: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Explore Literature_ does a masterful job of working the kids through all levels of Bloom’s thinking skills hierarchy. And it doesn’t just throw around terms like “analyze” and then really ask the kids to only comprehend. You should check it out.

End of shameless promotion, we now return to our regularly-scheduled blog post.

So the first thing you have to do is change the kinds of questions you ask. Why must the majority of every unit plan, every study guide, every … whatever … simply be a “march-through-the-chapter”? Unless I’m in the Cash Cab or playing Team Trivia at a local restaurant, it doesn’t matter whether I remember silver, gold, iron … or whatever. In a poem like this, indeed in most literature (including nonfiction), there are more important things than checking to makes sure the kids know Hester’s hair color and whether the hump is on Chillingworth’s left or right side.

Comprehension is indeed on Bloom’s taxonomy, and it is true that you can’t really analyze the finer points of an argument if you don’t understand the argument … but that does not open up every single trivial detail to scrutiny. In fact, I’d go so far as to say …

... There are only two suitable reasons for asking a comprehension question:

1. Is it a hard, complex, or complicated fact (something the kid might actually misunderstand)?

Let’s face it; the kid’s not likely to mistake an iron bell for a platinum one. He’s not likely to confuse a wedding with a funeral.

Some facts, however, _are_ potentially confusing:

Linton (first name) is the son of Heathcliff (no last name) and Isabella Linton (last name). He is the nephew and heir of Edgar Linton (last name), Isabella’s brother. Catherine Linton is the daughter of Edgar Linton and Catherine Earnshaw. She is, therefore, Linton (first name)’s cousin.

In order to understand how Heathcliff ends up owning both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, these family relationships are pretty essential, but since the names are so similar (i.e., identical), even a good and careful reader needs to pause and make sure he’s/she’s understanding the basic facts of the story.

But to waste the kid’s time and mental energy reciting the names of the two houses, or how Heathcliff came to live at Wuthering Heights, etc., is … uh … a waste of time and mental energy. Some comprehension simply needs to be assumed, or we’ll never get any further up the scale.

But there is another reasonable justification to work with the kid on the comprehension level:

2. Is it important? Must the kid be especially aware of this fact in order to understand something deeper or something important that will happen later?

This is what I call—feel free to use it, but do give me credit—“the gun in the desk drawer.” In the final pages of the book-story-play, the protagonist is trapped in the study with no hope of escape. The antagonist breaks in the door and rushes toward the pro, who takes cover behind the desk. _If the pro is going to reach into a desk drawer and pull out a gun with which to shoot the ant, that gun needs to be placed in that drawer in Chapter 2._ (or Act I or some time earlier in the story.) Because you want the kid to be able to anticipate pro’s using the gun, because you want pro’s finding the gun to _not_ be a _deus ex machina_, when your student reads the chapter or act or whatever in which the author establishes the presence of the gun, it _is_ worth the time and mental energy to pause and point it out. Just to make sure.

The flip side of this is, if the gun is in the drawer because the anti-gun pro took it from his/her son because the son was being careless, and if pro’s using the gun to shoot ant establishes the author’s pro-gun theme, it’s probably worth a minute to make sure the kid does note the gun in the drawer, even if it’s not an obscure or complicated story fact.

And that’s it. Why else would you want to dwell on the surface … What did she do? What did he say? What color was the red jacket? and so on …

Comprehension is not all that hard. It’s ¬_certainly_ not hard to peruse “The Bells” and find “silver = sleigh ride = merriment,” “gold = wedding = happiness,” “brass = alarm = fright,” and so on. Is that _really_ what we want the kid to get out of this poem?

So get rid of the comprehension questions already! If you want to “do rigor,” then when the kid reports to class, you have to hit the ground running … how do the synesthesic adjectives contribute to the overall feeling of the poem (crystalline delight)? What’s happens to the established rhythm pattern as we proceed through sections III and IV?

How do tone and mood mimic meaning?

That’s the good stuff.

That’s rigor.


It also helps if you’re honest with your kids about what you’re asking them to do. One of my big gripes with the anthology (and it is a real, honest-to-goodness anthology used in many a high school classroom) is that it misidentifies a comprehension question as “analysis,” and it calls something “evaluation” which is not the least bit evaluative. It happens a lot in this particular book.

It’s pretty much the opposite of rigor.


Want to read more? Check out Part I and Part III of this article.

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