In the June/July 2013 edition of Reading Today, Catherine E. Snow writes a compelling article Cold Verses Warm Close Reading: Building Students' Stamina for Struggling with Text. She notes how teachers are creating rigorous lessons which incorporate close reading. The challenge however is that "if students find the tasks too difficult or too irrelevant to bother with, then the rigor will be of little value" (p. 18). In our rush to respond to the CCSS, we are forgetting Vygotsky's principle of the zone of proximal development which states that children will learn best when taught within their zone- the material is not too hard or too easy. Furthermore, a great deal of research discusses the need to engage the interests of student in order to teach them and one way to do so is to link what they are learning to how it is used in the future.
Now we can argue that our students should be more like international students who are more serious about their studies. They spend more time in school, expect more homework and are motivated to work. They are motivated to achieve, in many cases, because it is the only way to leave the desperately poor lives they live- the only way to achieve success is education. They also tend to respect their teachers because becoming a teacher is a difficult task and the professionals are valued by their culture in a way that is not universally seen in our country. School is seen as serious business not a fun place where entertainment is the rule of the road. Arguing that we have it different and so should not be asked to implement effective teaching is ridiculous and harmful to our students. We live in this world now. We teach these students. Get over the comparisons and do what needs to be done.
Our students will be more likely to successfully engage in rigorous close reading if we give them a reason for it other than the teacher said so. Ms. Snow identifies cold close reading as "reading without having been warmed up in any way to the topic or the task" (p 19). When we put our best students in these situations they sometimes rise to the challenge. When we put our struggling students in the same situation, however, they become frustrated, lose the will to push through and the activity collapses. Students who have opted out will learn nothing. Putting them in this situation dooms them to failure. Trying to recapture lost motivation is far more difficult than trying to build it at the beginning or sustain it when the first wiff of challenge rears its head. The reality is we need to walk the line between productive struggle and destructive frustration. The line is at a different point for each child and often on each day. As teachers, we need to walk that line carefully. Hard for the sake of hard is not productive.
We cannot and should not avoid presenting difficult tasks to our students, but we can recognize that there is a difference between challenging because it is within an individual's zone and challenging because it is far outside of it. Understanding where students are is critical to presenting material that is going to stretch them without turning them off. Pretesting and records from past years can guide our decision making. This is where differentiation must play a role. Varying the reading level, providing scaffolding, and teaching vocabulary are essential to meeting the needs of our students. Just because the student is in xth grade does not mean we should only draw from the xth grade CCSS reading list. Know your students, adjust for your students, prepare your students not for the tests, but for learning and life.