This afternoon I spent some time developing a unit of study on characterization for 3rd grade. Common Core Standard 3.3 states that students will “Describe characters in a story (e.g. their traits, motivations, feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.” We currently use William Steig’s Brave Irene to introduce the idea that readers learn about characters by noticing their actions, their thoughts, and what they say. For now, we’re not going to change this. The CC standard goes deeper, though. Examining a character’s motivations isn’t something we’ve taught before. Thinking about how a character’s actions contribute to the sequence of events sounds like cause and effect, but this can be challenging for third graders. I know we’re going to have to model this more than once, and provide lots of opportunities for students to practice this deeper thinking. With this in mind, I went through a shelf of picture books looking for another appropriate text and found Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney’s gorgeous story of a woman who wanted to make the world a more beautiful place. This book is one of my all-time favorites. I lived in Camden, Maine for two summers during college, and I have vivid memories of driving down Rt. 1 for the first time and seeing all the lupines growing wild. Needless to say, I think this book is an ideal choice to share with students to address this or any other standard.
I did check the Lexile level (although I have many misgivings about this metric; more about these in another post) and Miss Rumphius, with a Lexile level of 680, is within the 2-3 grade level band. I also used the “Qualitative Measures Rubric” for literary text to evaluate the story in terms of its meaning, text structure, language features, and knowledge demands. As is often the case with rubrics, it was difficult to pinpoint where this narrative falls. Miss Rumphius is a frame story, which increases its complexity. Yet the story within the frame is told chronologically. There is some archaic vocabulary. Students are probably unfamiliar with words such as “stoop,” “figurehead,” and “prow.” Allusions to the cultures of the far-off lands Miss Rumphius visits also increase the complexity level of this story. After going through this process, I felt my instinct to use Miss Rumphius was validated. It may seem that this was a waste of time, but, as Lucy Calkins pointed out in her closing remarks at Saturday’s TCRWP Reunion, teachers have to build their knowledge base about the CCSS. Being familiar with this qualitative rubric is critical if we are to keep appropriate books in the hands of our students. Relying on Lexiles alone would be dangerous and unacceptable.
Will subjecting this beloved story to lessons based on the CCSS ruin it? Only if we let it. Again, if we know what the standards say, and design lessons that incorporate best practices to meet them, our students should be able to gain deep insight into a character who is generous and warm-hearted, motivated by her desire to have adventures, and to fulfill her grandfather’s directive to “make the world more beautiful.”