It helps when the teacher knows where we’re going

by Mr. Sheehy

Though I am not an NCLB poster child, I have been mostly satisfied with the validity of the test we in South Dakota use to measure our juniors’ knowledge. Not that I wouldn’t change some things if given the chance, but when I have seen the results of individual students I have had, they seem to correspond with my perception of those students’ abilities.

This year I am trying to improve in the areas where my students typically have not fared well, and that includes the literature devices, as I mentioned before, and students’ ability to evaluate a work based on its historical and cultural context.

That historical and cultural context is the kind of thing I need to emphasize while my sophomores read Elie Wiesel’s Night. How can you miss how the historical background is connected to the text for a work like this, after all? To address it better, I thought I would create guiding questions for the unit–questions that would essentially be a friendly and curiosity-like version of the unit’s objectives. Perhaps at the end of the unit, having moved through the reading and the projects, my students could sit down and answer the guiding questions in a thoughtful narrative response, proving they have met the objectives, and also connecting the dots of a text and its context.

To do this I turned to the set of achievement indicators issued to me by the district (and thus, by the state), thinking I could frame the questions out of the indicators.  Basically it’s double checking that my unit’s goals are actually meeting the goals the state’s curriculum committee has set. Makes sense, right?

Unfortunately, that appears to be where the “sense” ends. I cannot for the life of me understand how to do it. Here is the major indicator and its examples:

Students can understand possible differences between author’s intent and reader’s interpretation through various cultural and historical perspectives.

To meet this standard, students:

Compare and contrast the background of the author to that of the reader.

Trace different interpretations of war literature and its effect on society.

Underneath this indicator a series of texts and genres are listed, including Night. Thus, it is with this specific indicator in mind that Night has been added to our curriculum.

Now, I can understand what the words are saying–I’m not a complete fool–but I am at a loss to see how this helps my students connect the dots between the context and the text. The difference between what Wiesel intended and what we interpret? That seems like an odd pursuit to me, and I don’t really see it being a fruitful endeavor.

And the examples don’t help much more, either. Compare the background of the author to that of the reader? Can you imagine what my students would say to me if I asked them that question?

Me: How, students, how is your life different from Elie Wiesel’s?

Students: Um, we weren’t dragged into a concentration camp to watch our neighbors and family die at the hands of the German special police, lucky to live ourselves?

I don’t quite get it, or at least I don’t find it obvious what I am supposed to do with this standard, and I think my not getting it is indicative of why our students are struggling on this part of their NCLB-test. If this is what the indicator is looking for, how have my students possibly gotten it wrong on a test? What on Earth is this test asking my students?

I am not interested in ignoring these indicators/benchmarks; I would like my students to achieve them, so I wrote the following questions to drive our study of Night:

  • What is the Holocaust and how did it effect the lives of Jewish people living in Europe?
  • What might Elie Wiesel’s goals have been in writing Night, and how well does he accomplish those goals?
  • What do we as readers gain from reading a book like Night? How do we gain it? (That is, how is our gain accomplished? How does Wiesel help us accomplish it?)

The questions are new to my unit this year and I hope they will help me fill out the weaknesses of the study I present to students. While I like the questions, I am not confident that they match what I should be asking. My worry with this set of indicators is that if there is any lack of clarity, there is going to be trouble, eventually.

Confidently I lead my students through the wilderness of the English language, checking map and compass, focusing our energy upon reaching our goal; when we arrive, however, I fear we will discover that the state meant for us to go somewhere else entirely.

Thanks for reading.