Last Thursday, on day nine of the new school year, Kim’s fifth-grade son, Nathan, came home from school crying. Within moments of reaching the safety of his mother’s presence, his distress escalated to sobs.
What could possibly make a fifth-grade boy, one who has always happily worked his hardest in school and amiably gotten along with others, this upset?
Bully on the playground?
Trouble with the teacher?
When Nathan finally had enough composure to communicate what was wrong, he uttered four letters (imagine gasp-y hiccups in place of hyphens): U-D-H-R.
UDHR? Kim was desperate to find out what UDHR was and what it had done to Nathan to reduce him to an inconsolable puddle!
As it turns out, UDHR stands for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is a document committed to protecting the fundamental human rights of people around the world. It was drafted by a team of international representatives at the United Nations in 1948. The UDHR is chocked full of period language–such as “whereas,” “shall,” “proclaimed,” and “asylum”–and long, complex legalese that, quantitatively speaking, puts it on a college reading level (based on online readability tests). Qualitatively speaking, one would need a great deal of background knowledge to truly understand the important ideals the authors of this complex text were trying to communicate.
Nathan’s class was reading the UDHR in its original form. (To see the source of Nathan’s angst, scroll to page 12 of this link).
In fact, on day nine of school, Nathan had been reading the UDHR for seven days and his class hadn’t gotten past the opening paragraph and article one. With 29 articles left to work through, Nathan just didn’t think he could take it anymore.
He cried, “I’m bored.”
He cried, “I hate school!”
He cried, ” I hate reading!”
And we, Jan and Kim, cry that there is something seriously wrong, here!
When the authors of the Common Core set in place their ideals for “college and career readiness,” they issued a call for students to read more complex text and more informational text, including more primary source documents. They also communicated that students should read these texts closely and carefully. This story stands as a cautionary tale, however, warning of the risk we are taking when we misinterpret and misunderstand what reading closely and carefully truly mean.
While surely the UDHR is complex reading for college students and lawyers and UN delegates, for fifth graders, it is simply too hard to understand. Reading several times for the purpose of decoding and then several times more (over days and days) deciphering a surface understanding of the text is NOT close reading, it is only rereading.
With close reading, the idea is to notice textual subtleties and nuances that went unnoticed during the first read. The idea with rereading that is productive is to emerge with a deeper understanding. If the first read yields little to no understanding, a reader is very unlikely to notice nuance and subtlety in second and third reads. While Nathan and his peers across New York State have been told that they are practicing reading closely, in fact, they have been misinformed. They have been engaged in unproductive rereading.
One key indicator that students are unproductively rereading versus reading closely is that you (the teacher) have to do almost all the work. If you are talking during a lot of the lesson, perhaps MOST of the lesson, then the text is probably too hard. If there are so many problems–whether decoding challenges, vocabulary challenges, or limitations with background knowledge–that students can read and reread without actually accessing more and more information with minimal support from you, then find another text!
In the frenzy to implement the Common Core State Standards, there has been an onslaught of materials created, most of which claim to simplify the implementation process. As educators evaluate these materials, it is important for us to relentlessly check them against the guide we have been given–that is, the thirty-six, actual standards for reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language. When directions for implementation defy both the standards themselves (in this case reading, standard ten, which calls for students to read grade level appropriate text independently and proficiently by the end of the school year, and standard one, which calls for reading closely and making inferences) AND common sense, listen to your gut and abandon the text!