Friday, April 20, 2012

The Problem with Pink Celluloid

You may know, as I did not until today, that celluloid was the first thermoplastic. It was first made in the mid 1800s, and was a cheap replacement for ivory. It's very flammable, though, and is quick to decompose, and so fell out of favor, and is now mainly used in guitar picks and ping pong balls. Who knew. [Thank you, Wikipedia.]

A few days ago, I was talking with a middle school teacher, the kind of middle school teacher you wish you had had, a teacher who is young and alive enough that students might be able to imagine that she, too, was once in 7th grade.

She was telling me of a district writing prompt accompanied by a reading passage, the understanding of which depended on decoding the phrase "pink celluloid dresser set."

Perhaps because I spent my entire adolescence reading, I did know what this meant. Then again, I have been reading for many, many years now. (Mainly Victorian novels.) I think maybe one 7th grader in that district did. I asked my 8th grade daughters what they thought a pink celluloid dresser set would be, and they guessed furniture.

So all these 7th graders read this story with the pink celluloid dresser set, and then were given these directions:

Write an essay in which you present your understanding of the characters and the overall meaning of the story. Support your ideas with examples and/or evidence from the text. 
Remember that your writing will be scored on how well you write an essay that:
  • shows your understanding of the author's message and your insight into the characters and ideas presented in the story;
  • is organized around several clear ideas and/or images from the story;
  • justifies your interpretation by giving examples and citing evidence from the text; and 

  • uses correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
The problem with the story could easily have been solved with a footnote explaining that  celluloid is a kind of plastic, and a dresser set is a collection that includes a comb, hairbrush, and hand mirror.

The problem with the prompt is a bit bigger.

What should be the focus of the essay? It's difficult to tell.

At first, you think the students' understanding of the characters and the overall meaning is the focus, which is not really that clear of a target, especially considering the confusion caused by the pink celluloid dresser set. (And I think we should be able to assume that 7th graders know what theme is, and dispense with "the overall meaning.")

But okay, the students are going to write about the characters, probably Katrin and Mama, although they might also write about Papa, Nels, Christine, Dagmar, and Mr. Schiller. And they are going to write about the theme, which has something to do with generosity and sacrifice (it's a redo of "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry). 

What exactly about the characters are they supposed to write? What exactly about the theme? The bulleted list is no help, because it introduces the need to write about the author's message and to organize the writing "around clear ideas and images from the story."

If I were a 7th grader, I wouldn't know what to write. If it's their understanding, many of the essays will probably start with "I didn't really understand the story."

This prompt couldn't elicit great writing. That's too bad, because maybe some of these 7th graders are great writers.

We could easily rewrite the prompt:

Write an essay in which you describe how Katrin changes from the beginning to the end of the story. 
In the essay, be sure to:
  • describe how Katrin changes in the story
  • explain why Katrin changes
  • support your explanation with specific details
  • use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation
Or, if we want to focus on the symbolism of the pink celluloid dresser set and the brooch:

Write an essay in which you explain what the pink celluloid dresser set and the brooch represent in the story.
In the essay, be sure to:
  • explain the meaning of the dresser set and the brooch
  • support your explanation with specific details
  • use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation

Or we could focus on theme, or Mama's sacrifice, or Christine's role in the story, or how Katrin's covetousness of the pink celluloid dresser set caused her to be blind to all common sense and family feeling, but her sacrifice transformed her.

There is plenty to write about. It's not a bad story; it is old-fashioned, which is a little unfortunate in a mandatory assessment, because that alone will distance a lot of kids.

Then again, I asked one of my daughters to read the prompt. She eyed it suspiciously.
Second Daughter: Is that a response to literature?
Me: What do you think?
Second Daughter: It's a response to literature.
Me: What are you supposed to write?
Second Daughter: The first paragraph is an introduction. In the second paragraph, you write about the theme. Then you write about the characters and give examples. Then you write a conclusion.
Me: Did you understand that prompt?
Second Daughter: I have that prompt memorized. That prompt is all we did in 7th grade.
She hadn't even seen the words "response to literature" on the previous page when she read the prompt.

As an assessment content developer, I want better for the students. As a parent, I want better for my children. Starting with opportunities to genuinely respond to literature.

No comments:

Post a Comment