Making time for reading has been a bit of a challenge for my students this week. As we are getting closer to crunch-time, in terms of the standardized-testing portion of the year, reading for pleasure seems to be viewed as a luxury activity. Language arts lessons are supposed to be dedicated to test preparation through district-approved materials rather than applying these skills through the act of reading. While my students and I may not agree that this is the best way to apply knowledge of reading skills and strategies, we are still obligated to participate in these assessments.
Through the NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act), all US schools are required to participate in annual standardized assessments in all subject areas. Reading and Math performance are considered “high-stakes tests” because the results of these determine school funding and accountability. Student performance groups are targeted into sub-groups, of which LEP (limited-English-proficient) students’ scores are separated out. Therefore, my population of students has more pressure on them than their native English-speaking peers to perform well on these assessments.
Despite all of these pressures, my students are managing to make room for literature AND language skills in their lives, as was demonstrated to me this week in scoring my lowest proficiency students’ assessment portfolios. Under NCLB, students that are recent arrivals to the country and/or do not have sufficient comfort with English to be able to meaningfully participate in annual assessments are either given a one-time exemption or allowed to demonstrate their knowledge of content in an alternative format. They do this through completing worksheets to be placed in a binder, serving as student-work portfolios. Each child is required to demonstrate their ability to apply knowledge of various language skills and literary devices such as cause/effect, sequencing, distinguishing between characteristics of biographies versus autobiographies, classifying literature by genre, and fact/opinion, just to name a few.
Tolkien is chock-full of examples demonstrating many of these literary devices and my astute students were able to find them. I would like to share with you some of the examples that I discovered of them connecting Tolkien’s works to these essential-knowledge skills. Out of my class of 13 students, Bombur, Dwalin, Nori, and Thorin all completed these portfolios. For more specific information regarding their language proficiency, see The Traveling Party page of the blog.
Bombur– (on The Impact of Cause and Effect on Plot in Fiction) “The cause of Lord of the Rings is that Frodo has the ring and has to destroy it and the effect is that monsters are trying to take the ring away from Frodo, so he will have to destroy the ring in the mountain of doom. It impacts the plot because the ring is evil. ”
(on Plot Development) “The first event was that Frodo got a ring from his uncle. He have to destroy the ring. The next event was that there are lots of monsters and monsters are trying to take the ring away from Frodo. The final event is that he destroys the ring in the mountain of doom. The conflict in this story is that the ring is evil and monsters are trying to take away the ring from Frodo. The conflict is resolved when the ring is destroyed at Mount Doom.”
(on Comparing and Contrasting Information from Different Texts) “In the Lord of the Rings, they have to destroy the ring and defeat Sauron, the eye. In The Hobbit, the dwarves have to go back home and defeat a dragon. In both books, there are lots of enemies, Gollum, they’re both written by J.R.R. Tolkien, they both have mountains, dwarves, elves, hobbits, humans, war and adventure.”
(on The Elements of Narrative Structure) “The theme of the text is be brave and the conflict is character against character.”
Nori– (on Author’s Use of Vocabulary and Style) “The vocabulary word is favourite. This tells me based on the spelling that the author is English.”
Thorin– (on Identifying and Asking Questions that Clarify Various Points of View) “Frodo is a character that is a good guy that wants to destroy the ring so that Sauron can’t get it. His clarifying question would be why does he want to destroy the ring. Sauron is a bad guy that wants to make everyone evil. His clarifying question would be why does he want to have the ring.”
Dwalin– (on Plot Development) “An event is that Bilbo finds a ring, which could make him evil if he wears it. Then Gandalf tells him to get rid of the ring. Then Bilbo gives it to Frodo to destroy the ring at Mount Doom. The conflict in the story is that there is an evil ring. It must be destroyed in the volcano, which is called Mount Doom. The conflict is resolved when Frodo destroys it before Gollum gets it and keeps it for himself.”
I believe my students’ answers demonstrate how their reading of Tolkien’s works is influencing their test performance. Not only are they grasping many elements of these complex plot lines and sifting their way through challenging vocabulary despite a lack of proficiency in English; they are also applying their knowledge. Though we have not finished the book, many of them are speculating on the resolution of the story based on their knowledge of the film series. They may not have the details worked out, due to the significant differences between the film adaptations and the book, but what is important to me is that my students are living up to the educational standards that are required of them by law and also going above and beyond by challenging themselves through reading difficult literary works. I am hopeful that exposure to Tolkien may also influence my students’ test performance in a positive way by allowing them to use skills such as decoding and comprehending unknown words, which both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have required them to do, to sift through the difficult language of the test. While these tests can be cumbersome and time-consuming, my students have carried on despite the disruption to their schedule and have continued to place value on reading for both knowledge and enjoyment.