The Hobbit: A Common Core literature unit falls short

There’s no end to discussion and controversy about the Common Core State Standards in English-Language Arts. Here’s a look at the inadequacies of one literature exemplar offered by a state Education Department, an issue that more broadly highlights some of the basic problems that are bound to accompany implementation of the standards. This was written by Darcy Pattison,  a children’s book author and writing teacher (darcypattison.com). She often provides professional development to educators in the area of English Language Arts and blogs about Common Core issues. She was the keynote speaker for ELA Grades 6-8 for the 2012 Smarter Online Common Core Educator’s Roundtable webinar from The Principal Center. A version of this appeared on her blog, Making the Common Core Practical.

By Darcy Pattison

With the recent release of The Hobbit movie, the Georgia Department of Education is offering a Common Core literature unit for J.R.R. Tolkein‘s “The Hobbit.” Written by Dan J Rock, it is targeted at Grades 6-8. The Lexile [a measure of text complexity] is 1000L, perfect for this age range.

“There and Back Again: What Science Fiction Can Tell Us About Ourselves” is the title of the unit, which is surprising since The Hobbit would generally be considered fantasy, not science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy are collectively called “speculative fiction.” In the same vein, some of the short information texts deal with reading science fiction, instead of fantasy.

The rest of the 27-page document includes tasks, assignments and suggestions for assessment. The main flaw is the failure to distinguish between science fiction and fantasy, but at least the unit is consistent in its failure. If I was going to use this, I would substitute essays about fantasy and/or discuss the distinguishing characteristics of the two genres.

Also, I would check the reading level of the suggested informational articles. For example, the interview listed with Ray Bradbury has a reading level of 1240L, which is 9th-10th grade reading level.

Overall, the unit does point ways to explore the story, but they seem misleading or inappropriate. Poor bibliographic notations give a poor example to students. A final disappointment is how the unit suggest a student use The Hobbit as the beginning point of narrative writing. Under the Common Core, narrative writing is writing about “real or imagined events”. Here’s what the unit suggests.

NARRATIVE
1. In the Ray Bradbury story “The Martian,” the Martian native involuntarily shifts his appearance and attitude to suit whoever he is with, subconsciously becoming what they want him to be, and the strain of this finally kills him. Do you believe that your attitude, beliefs, appearance, or values sometimes change to match circumstances? Convey an experience wherein remaining true to yourself or maintaining your integrity was difficult. Use dialogue in your narrative.

2. Choose a character from one of the texts we have read in class that you think resembles you in some way and explain the ways in which you identify with that character. Using dialogue to sharpen your narrative, convey experiences from your life that shaped you into this type of character. (p. 4)

After reading one of the most amazing stories ever written, this bland writing assignment is enough to put any student off reading any more fantasy. Why are students not writing their own fantasies, using Tolkien as a mentor text (as is the popular jargon these days)? Surely, that assignment would make more sense! And be more fun for the student. “Convey experiences from your life that shaped you into this type character”? What? It makes my head hurt just to think about that essay prompt.

Where is the fascination with dragons, elves, or Middle Earth? Why not create a map of an imaginary world? Maps are informational texts, that would be appropriate for the Common Core. Here’s another assignment from the unit:

Homework: Read Chapter 2, annotate with attention to Tolkien’s literary strategies using your own background knowledge of diction, syntax, imagery, figurative language, tone, style, etc. These elements will be discussed in class tomorrow.

If the students have just analyzed Tolkien’s literary strategies, doesn’t it make sense to ask them to USE those strategies in their own fantasy narrative?

As an exemplar unit for the Common Core, this unit leaves a lot to be desired.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · January 3, 2013