R.CCR.5 — that’s the fifth College/Career Readiness anchor standard within the Reading strand of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA/Literacy — reads as follows:
Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
There’s a lot of ways to implement this standard. For my brain, it helps to think of this in terms of questions I can ask to get kids thinking about how structural features affect the meaning of different kinds of texts.
One of my favorite novels of the past school year was All Quiet on the Western Front; I love the book for many reasons, but one of them is Remarque‘s inclusion of striking scenes that are at first awkward and then profound.*
In one of the novel’s early scenes, we find protagonist Paul sitting in a meadow with a couple of his comrades-in-arms. Everything is pleasant about the scene — they are sitting in a circle, playing cards, laughing, talking — except for one jarring detail: they are sitting on boxes with holes in the tops with their pants around their ankles. As we closely read this passage in class, I enjoy watching my students’ faces as, one after another, it dawns on them that these men are sitting in a circle together while defecating.
Once we get through with the scene, I begin to ask my students some questions:
- Knowing that Remarque wrote this novel “to tell about men destroyed by war,” why might this scene merit inclusion in this novel?
- Is this scene vulgar? Why or why not?
I give them a chance to propose hypotheses in pairs, and then we will go back into the scene, pencils in hand, and closely read it again with our questions as a focus. I will remind students that, in order to understand how this scene relates to the novel as a whole, we’ll have to look not just at what the scene says, but also what it hints at and what it doesn’t explicitly say. In teacherspeak, we’ll need to infer.
When we closely read the scene for the second time, students will notice that this isn’t such a pleasant scene after all: there are references to the nearby front, to badly wounded Kemmerich, to Paul and his friends having moments where there’s nothing they can say. After we’re finished, I have students ask three questions that they’re curious about (curiosity is a character strength that I explicitly teach students), and a big one that I’m hoping to see connects back to R.CCR.5: What on earth could have made these once civilized students into callous, crude, I-seem-to-care-more-about-getting-double-rations-than-I-do-the-deaths-of-half-my-company young men?
Through asking the right questions, students are led to discover that this scene is not flippant, but rather that it hints at the theme of the book: World War I was unlike anything humanity had ever seen; it devastated the men in death and life. Furthermore, this scene builds suspense at the start of the novel. It makes readers want to know what incurred such psychological damage on Paul and his friends.
2. Articles, Columns
Let’s take a look at a columnist who can usually be counted on to write cogent, passionate arguments every week for the Miami Herald: Leonard Pitts Jr. Whether you agree with his views or not, his argumentative writing hits on a variety of topics (a recent piece would be perfect for starting a CCSS Literacy-style debate in a health or government class) and it does a lot of work in a short space. Many, if not all, of the CCSS reading anchor standards could be taught using the work of columnists such as Pitts.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s look at Pitt’s piece on “the stupid giant.” I haven’t read this text with students yet, but I will be doing so in the fall for the sake of increasing student awareness of our need to drink deeply from a variety of complex texts.
In “The Stupid Giant,” Pitts makes an argument, but his structure is a far cry from the standard five- or six-paragraph essay that I teach students to write in timed writing situations. One way to tackle this text could be by asking students to answer these questions after an initial reading:
- What is Pitts’ argument?
- If you had to choose one part of this column where Pitts summarizes his argument, where would it be? In other words, what acts as a thesis statement? (Students could argue that it’s the title or that it is contained in other parts of the column.)
- Where does Pitts address people who might be prone to disagree with him? How does he respectfully address what Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst call his “naysayers”?
- How does Pitts give this piece a sense of beginning and closing? In other words, which parts of the column act like an intro and a conclusion?
- What does x sentence do for the piece as a whole? How does x reference contribute to Pitts’ argument?
Similar to articles and columns, poems are a great medium for teaching about text structure. Some potential questions:
- How does this stanza relate to those before and after it?
- What does this recurring line do for the poem’s theme?
My primary goal in teaching poetry is not to mold my students into future English majors, but rather to equip them with the ability to see the impact that structure has on a text. Poems can help with that.
4. Primary Source Documents
If you’re in a history classroom where students are required to do the primary-source-reading work of historians, students can look at the structure in a different way: structure can help them determine what kind of a document they are reading. Is this an advertisement? A comic? A political cartoon? An argument? A legal document? Ask students to figure these things out for themselves, in part by using the structure of the document itself.
As with many of the reading anchor standards of the CCSS, R.CCR.5 can be taught by providing students with complex texts, redundant literacy instruction, and well-designed questions.
* I taught the book to freshmen — a perfect audience for awkward moments.