A Common Core lesson gone wrong

In A Common Core Lesson Gone Wrong, Diana Senechal looks at a lesson — featured on LearnZillion — on Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. (It’s the one with the daffodils.)

The lesson has “little or nothing to do with Wordsworth’s poem,” writes Senechal. It could apply to any of a thousand poems.

It also gives bad advice: Students are told to read a difficult poem one stanza at a time, restating each stanza in one’s own words and writing the summary on a sticky note.

That takes students “away from the language of the poem,” writes Senechal. “To restate a stanza is to stop it at the border and say, ‘You may not cross over into my mind with your own goods; you must exchange them for mine’.”

The teacher tells students the poem uses imagery, which lets readers “see the images playing in their minds like a movie.”

Images can “be puzzling, even confounding,” Senechal writes. “They do not make things pat for us, nor do they have to do with sight alone.”

I would have the students take in the language of the poem—without turning it into anything else. Have them listen to it several times, and maybe, on the third time, make note of things they found striking. Some might point to “I wandered lonely as a cloud”; others, to “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” Some might be drawn to the lines, “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.”

Many, I think, would find something in the final stanza, maybe in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” After they had brought up specific things that struck them, we could start to look at how the poem fits together as a whole, listening to it again along the way. In particular, we would look at the shift to the “inward eye” in the final stanza.

The lesson is targeting a standard that calls for attention to specific texts, writes Senechal. It reads: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.”

However, the standards “are worded generically and thus encourage generic approaches to literature,” she writes. Beyond the Core, there’s a tendency for teachers to teach strategies rather than subject matter. 

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  1. For most kids, paraphrasing meaning is absolutely essential for them to understand poetry. It is just a first step towards appreciating a poem, but “taking in the language” if you don’t understand any kind of literal meaning might not lead you anywhere. The Common Core standards for ELA aren’t particularly good, IMO mainly because they make no commitment to knowing any specific works, authors, literary moments, cultural knowledge, etc. But I don’t feel that this particular approach to any one poem is terribly bad.

    • The problem with this lesson is that it has little or nothing to do with this particular poem. As I found out later, it’s one of a series of six lessons–none of which actually takes the poem on its own terms. All six lessons swing a strategy bat at the poem and miss it badly. (The worst of all is the crowning lesson on “theme.”)

      As for summarizing a poem, stanza by stanza, that may be helpful for certain long narrative poems, but in this case it’s both unnecessary and distracting.

      If students are having difficulty with basic comprehension, maybe there are words they don’t know. Maybe the syntax is stumping them. In this case, they’re much better off actually listening to the poem, and then working through it, than writing summaries on sticky notes.

      In my experience, children do understand poems (at varying levels) when they actually have a chance to go into them. One reason (not the only reason) students have difficulty with poetry is that they’re taught to do everything but see what the poem is.

      Now, granted, poetry can be challenging– but that’s no reason to do stupid things to it. One can think and listen and read and think some more.

  2. Kirk Parker says:

    granted, poetry can be challenging– but that’s no reason to do stupid things to it.

    Granted, seconded, and unanimously approved.

    That being said, ability-to-paraphrase seems to me to be a huge indicator of comprehension, but really we should be applying it first to expository, simple narrative, or hortatory passages, and then maybe we won’t even need to try it for poetry.

    • Thank you for these excellent points. This raises another question: when it comes to expository and narrative passages, what good is paraphrasing unless one has basic comprehension in the first place? The ability to paraphrase may well be an indicator of comprehension–but it won’t boost comprehension if the paraphrasing is incorrect.

      Yes, paraphrasing can help a reader “chunk” certain kinds of texts and assemble the chunks into larger meaning–but it should not stand in for the text itself, nor should it replace the more detailed parsing.

      I often have my students paraphrase philosophical passages–but they won’t get it right unless they understand what the passage means and how its parts fit together.

      With certain poems (such as this one), paraphrasing can ruin things–because the literal meaning isn’t the point. Imagine the following:

      Stanza 1: I was lonely and sad but then I saw a whole lot of daffodils.

      Stanza 2: They were in a long long row like stars, and they were dancing.

      Stanza 3: They were really happy. I was happy too, but I didn’t know it.

      Stanza 4: Sometimes when I’m feeling down, I remember the daffodils and get happy again.

      (That’s probably a bit better than some of the summaries that would come out of this.)

      What’s missing here? Well, in the first stanza, “lonely as a cloud” cannot be paraphrased or summarized. Nor does a summary capture the sound repetition of “fl” and “h” (“floats” and “fluttering,” “high” and “host”), an implicit association between the loneliness and the deligthful sight. (No, I wouldn’t expect young children to talk about “implicit associations,” but they can intuit such things if given a chance to hear the poem.)

      In the second stanza, one can’t paraphrase the effect of the fourth line, whose initial stressed syllable creates a feel of triplets (“Tossing their heads in sprightly dance”).

      In the third and fourth stanzas, a paraphrase couldn’t capture the parallel between “I gazed–and gazed–but little thought/ What wealth…” and “In vacant or in pensive mood”–a return, in tone and feel, to the wandering “lonely as a cloud.” There’s a fascinating suggestion, here and throughout the poem, that the “inward eye” and the loneliness and the joy are part of the same thing–that the “bliss of solitude” comes out of a kind of ache. Even that is too pat; the poem puts it more subtly and delightfully.

      Again, I don’t expect elementary school children to discuss the poem at this level (though their insights can be surprising). But I see no need to reduce the poem for them. I remember reading many poems as a child that I didn’t understand–and being haunted by them. Not understanding them was no terrible thing; I carried them with me for years and eventually understood them better. Paraphrasing, in this case, would close the door on the poem, as would the “strategies” presented in the other five lessons.

      • Kirk Parker says:

        Perhaps I was a bit too terse.

        By “indicator” I meant that, if a reader *can* produce a paraphrase of a passage that’s adequately accurate (lotsa hand-waving here to gloss over the difficulties in defining ‘adequate’ and ‘accurate’), that’s a fairly decent quick test of whether they have actually understood it.

        In other words, I’m not looking at paraphrasing here as an end in itself (“what good is it”) but merely as a diagnostic tool. It certainly *can* be–the ability to produce an accurate summary or abstract is priceless!–but both beyond the scope of what I was saying, and less applicable to poetry than to just about anything else.

  3. In content-based ES ELA curricula like Core Knowledge, kids are exposed to poetry from the beginning and I would expect that kids with that background would be able to understand level-appropriate poetry without difficulty.