Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mis(sed)Reading Yeats: A Problem with Gr 7 Common Core Curriculum Maps


More than 4 million people viewed The Common Core Curriculum Maps and now they are offered (at a fee) in their second iteration. At the middle school level, 6 units of study per grade level have been developed and offered as models--exemplars if you will.  I recently composed a blog post that highlighted examples of instruction I proposed in response to "The Song of Wandering Aengus" by William Butler Yeats which is listed as a middle school exemplar text via the CCSS.  After I finished the post, I was curious as to what Lynne Munson and her Core Curriculum mapping team had developed in response to the Yeats.  What I found was disappointing.  I rarely would say something was misread, but in this case I do think that the authors of the grade 7, unit 4 map that highlights "The Song of Wandering Aengus" failed to actually comprehend the poem.

It helps if you take a quick look at my blog post before moving on as I am contrasting what I designed with this Common Core exemplar map.  You will find a copy of the poem there as well.

For me the Yeats's poem is steeped in Irish mythology and one of the challenges young readers might face is understanding the mythology upon which the poem is based, what a quest is, and how magic and the imagination (in)form a quest.   In contrast, the authors of the Grade 7, Unit 4 Common Core Curriculum Map understand this poem as a survival story akin to Call of the Wild and Hatchet. The Grade 7, Unit 4 is titled, "Survival in the Wild."  The overview reads:
Students read “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats and use it as a springboard for discussions of characters’ pursuits of the unknown. Students analyze the development of the theme of survival across various texts, evaluate nonfiction text structures, and present their analyses to their classmates. Students compare and contrast character experiences across novels, as well as the points of view in narration, and are encouraged to research the authors behind the stories, many of whom are wilderness survivors themselves. This unit ends with a review of Yeats’s poem in order to see how this unit led to deeper understanding of the work. In addition, students are asked to write an informative/explanatory essay in response to the essential question.
The essential question for the unit is: What similarities and differences exist among characters who survive in the wilderness?

I am baffled as to how the poem actually fits into the unit about surviving in the wilderness.  Here are some of the recommended sample activities:

Reading Poetry, Speaking and Listening, Language Usage
Introductory Activity: Read "The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats. Talk with a classmate about what you think the poem means, both literally and figuratively. Write your ideas down in your journal or on an online document. You will revisit this poem at the end of the unit to see if your thoughts and ideas have changed. (RL.7.2, RL.7.4, SL.7.5)
Informative Writing, Language Usage, Language Mechanics
Based on the novels read and discussed in class, write an informative/explanatory essay in response to the essential question: What similarities and differences exist among characters who survive in the wild? Cite at least three specific details from texts read. After your teacher reviews your first draft, work with a partner to strengthen your writing and edit it for the grammar conventions studied so far this year before final publication. Upload your essay to the classroom blog and consider posting your thoughts on a class wiki about survival in the wilderness. (W.7.9a,b, RI.7.8, RL.7.1, L.7.1,L.7.2a,b)
Reading Poetry, Speaking and Listening, Reading Fluency, Performance
Re-read the first poem read in this unit, "The Song of Wandering Aengus.” After this unit of study, describe how your understanding of this poem has changed. What new insights have you gained? Add these insights on the shared spreadsheet created in Activity 1 (in a new column next to your initial thoughts). Memorize and/or recite the poem aloud while emphasizing different words. Record them using a video camera so you can see and hear the different phrasing. How does changing emphasis change the meaning of the sentences? Follow the performances with a class discussion about how this poem relates to the theme of this unit (survival in the wild). (RL.7.5, SL.7.6)
Here are the texts for this unit:
“The Song of Wandering Aengus” (William Butler Yeats) (E)
Call it Courage
(Armstrong Sperry)
Far North
(Will Hobbs)
(Gary Paulsen)
Incident at Hawk’s Hill
(Allan W. Eckert)
Other Will Hobbs survival tales, such as Beardance
The Call of the Wild
(Puffin Graphics, Jack London) (graphic novel)
The Call of the Wild
(Jack London)
The Higher Power of Lucky
(Susan Patron)
Touching Spirit Bear
(Ben Mikaelsen)
(Gary Paulsen) 
Black Hearts in Battersea (Joan Aiken)
Guts (Gary Paulsen)
Jack London: A Biography (Daniel Dyer)
Will Hobbs (My Favorite Writer Series) (Megan Lappi)
Into the Ice: The Story of Arctic Exploration (Lynn Curlee)
SAS Survival Handbook, Revised Edition: For Any Climate, in Any Situation (John "Lofty" Wiseman)
Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1864)
Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes (1859)
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819)
Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836)
Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899)
Mark Griffiths, dir., A Cry in the Wild (based on Hatchet) (1990)
Peter Svatek, dir., The Call of the Wild: Dog of the Yukon (1997)
Richard Gabai, dir., Call of the Wild (2009)

 Art as Ancillary Text

In addition to the misreading of Yeats, the authors also decide to have students view and  analyze Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819) with Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream (1899). Specifically the students are assigned these tasks:
Art, Speaking and Listening, Narrative Writing
The works by Géricault and Homer are considered to be classic images of man’s survival at sea. Study the works separately, beginning with the Géricault. Note the many ways in which the artist emphasized the high drama of the situation (e.g., the dramatic surf and sky, billowing sail, imposing wave). Observe that half of the men are reaching toward a barely visible ship on the horizon, while the rest slip slowly into the surf. Then turn to the Homer and identify similarities with the Géricault (e.g., the coming boat). Which work do you think documents a real event? Listen to the story of the Medusa shipwreck. Write a short story describing the events that you would imagine either led to or came after the scene in Homer’s work. (SL.7.2, SL.7.4, SL.7.5, W.7.3)

As an artist, I find it difficult to even comment on this list of arbitrary tasks the authors attach to the art  for students to do.  Both images were controversial at the time of their painting as each disturbed the sensibilities of some of those who came to view.  I have read about the Géricault painting and don't feel expert enough to comment on it.  I have read more about and actually viewed the Homer work. There's a slim little book (Weathering the Storm: Inside Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream) based on a lecture historian Peter Wood delivered in 2002. Wood contends that matters of race and slavery offer an important insight into the painting. None of this seems represented in the tasks students must do.  Here's the image:
Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream.
It seems odd that asking students to guess which painting was based on a 'real' event would trump exploring the human condition, exploring race and social position exploring that the works seem to attend to. My only hope is that when students navigate to the Met page to view The Gulf Stream they click on the link that says Black and then take some time to listen to the visual essay by Aimee Dixon.

What concerns me with many of the "art" related tasks that are featured in these maps is that the art is situated as an extension of the fabricated unit 'themes'.  There's no mention in what I have read as to how students might enter in or engage with the visual, musical or film arts.  Rather, these works seem to serve as mere extensions to the rather contrived themes. 

As the CCSS are situated by so many as that which raises the 'academic' bar, this unit in particular ought to call such claims into question.

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