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Guest Column: Will This Be on the Test?

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In my classroom, we begin each morning with a poem. These days, when teachers write lesson plans, they must say which standards they address, including strings of numbers and letters that look like this: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4. It looks best if the lesson addresses several standards, so you want a series of these codes.

What does CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 mean? According to corestandards.org, it means: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

Are we doing this each morning? Yes. Do we need these itemized standards? I don’t think so. They waste teachers’ time and taxpayers’ money. Moreover, the standards do not include: “Learn to love poetry,” or “Discover a favorite poet,” or “Write a poem, even though it was not assigned.” These are the standards I strive for.

Once, we read a poem by Emily Dickinson. She is famous, and also local, so I went ahead without checking whether Dickinson’s poems are in the “text complexity band” for middle school, as outlined by the Common Core. Dickinson lived in Amherst; the landscape she wrote about is our landscape, I told my students.

We no doubt covered several of the literacy standards discussing Dickinson’s word choice and use of rhyme. I might have left it at that, had not one of my students said, “I like this. Can we read another one by Emily Dickinson?” I was thrilled, since “Request a poem,” is another standard I aim for.

We read Dickinson the following morning. The students asked for more. I spent the weekend with my Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, reading with my students in mind. Soon kids asked to look through the book themselves and choose a few. “Ask to borrow book of poetry,” would make another good standard.

Before long the kids requested a trip to Emily Dickinson’s home. It is not an exaggeration to say that every single student paid attention during the tour. Because there was not enough time to see the home of Emily’s brother, the kids were eager to make a second visit. How could we say no?

In between the two trips, one student voluntarily wrote a letter to the tour guide to thank her. Several kids wrote poems in the style of Emily Dickinson, and one wrote a poem about her. None of this was assigned.

Eventually we moved on from Emily Dickinson, but for the rest of that year, the kids paid attention to poetry. They liked it. One of those students came to visit me two years later and said, “You know the poem that David Wagoner wrote about his father? Can I have a copy of that?” She remembered the poet’s name and wanted to read the poem again. I am not sure where that is in the list of standards, but I know it is exactly what I strive for as a teacher of literature and writing.•

Eloise Michael is a teacher at Four Winds School in Gill.

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