CCSS implementation: Pretty good Gatsby is not good enough

Film critic Roger Ebert penned a damning critique of the too-often-used practice of giving struggling students a retold version of a more complex literary classic. He talks in particular about The Great Gatsby. The entire article is worth reading, but his most salient point is this

There is no purpose in "reading" The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

Ebert illustrates this point brilliantly by comparing, side-by-side, several parts of the book, including the conclusion, which in the "retold" version, is boiled down to this:

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.
Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.
Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?

As Ebert succinctly notes, "this is an obscenity—No possible reading of the book, however stupid, could possibly conclude that."

Unfortunately, using such bastardized translations rather than the original version of books is common practice in far too many classrooms. (Particularly in places where standards and curricula are focused more on teaching abstract reading ?skills? than on ensuring that all students read and understand rich literature.)

We now have the opportunity to change that.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Common Core standards are going to change "everything." Some people believe that they the CCSS promote constructivism. Some believe that they will usher in an era where performance assessments all but replace more traditional forms of assessment. Or that we'll finally have a set of standards that will help teach students "how to think."

I disagree. The CCSS aren't about constructivism. They aren't about abandoning traditional measures of assessment wholesale. Nor are they about abandoning teacher-directed learning.

In the end, the CCSS will only change "everything" if we allow them to refocus our time and attention on the importance of reading sufficiently complex texts and using evidence from those texts to guide discussion, writing, activities, etc.

To my eye, that is among the most significant take-aways from David Coleman's and Sue Pimentel's publishers' criteria. That we need to stop feeding our struggling readers dumbed-down versions of complex texts. That we need to stop focusing on empty skills like making "text to self" or "text to world" connections. And we need to stop organizing our curricula around broad and empty themes that may only be tangentially related to the texts students are reading.

That is to say: We need to refocus literature class on actually reading literature.

If we get that right, we won't have to teach kids "how to think" or tell them what to think. They'll figure that part out on their own. And if we want our students to become great readers and to be prepared to do the thinking that will be required of them in college and life, that's what they must do.

Yes, student understanding of these texts will evolve over time, and yes it may take a long time for students to struggle through the most complex texts. But the CCSS have challenged us to allow for that evolution and for that struggle. Now, let's step up to that challenge and stop pretending that "Pretty Good' Gatsby" is good enough.

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