I knew we were in trouble the first time a school official came back from a workshop about the Common Core State Standards.
Pretty soon you English teachers arent going to be teaching literature any more, he said. Its all going to be informational texts from now on.
Unfortunately, however, his confusion isnt rare, judging from accounts pouring in from all over the country as different states begin implementing the standards.
Forty-six states have adopted the math and English language arts CCSS, with the ELA standards including literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. That broadening of the standards to include other disciplines is driving much of the misinformation.
Ill set aside the concerns involving the mathematics standards and let the teachers grappling with those changes speak to them. I wont say anything about the criticism lobbed from people suspicious of any uniform national curriculum and the way it might encroach on local control of education. And I will only allude to briefly the troubling fact that many of the school reformers pushing the CCSS stand to profit from the textbooks and materials being generated.
For now Ill address the biggest confusion for those of us teaching English the percentage requirement. According to the standards, no more than half of the materials that elementary children read should be literature. The rest should be nonfiction. By high school, the percentage is 70/30 in favor of informational texts.
The standards writers have pointed out that if students read informational texts in their social studies, science and technical classes, students can still read literature in their English classes and meet the percentage requirements.
But that isnt what school officials are hearing. Instead, English teachers are being forced to swap out effective reading instruction using literature for untried curriculum selections such as Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management, by the General Services Administration, or the Federal Reserve Bank of San Franciscos 2009 FedViews.
For example, Jamie Highfill, Arkansas middle school teacher of the year, had to replace her six-week poetry study and a unit on the legends of King Arthur with essays by Malcolm Gladwell and a chapter from his book The Tipping Point.
Im struggling and my students are struggling, she told the Washington Post this past December. With informational text, there isnt that human connection you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. Theyre getting bored. Im seeing more behavior problems in my classroom than Ive ever seen.
Im a fan of Gladwells writing. Whenever he publishes in The New Yorker, I read his work after I peruse the cartoons. And The Tipping Point is a provocative and interesting account of social behavior.
But Im not 12 years old. When I was 12, King Arthur spoke to me in a way Malcolm Gladwell cant hope to.
In a public policy paper published by the Pioneer Institute, Mark Bauerlein from Emory University and Sandra Stotsky from the University of Arkansas argue that good, challenging literature is the best way to keep students engaged while giving them college and career readiness reading skills. The problem, they say, is in giving students dumbed down literature instead of supporting them as they learn to read more challenging works.
That suits me. Literature is the tool I use best for teaching students to think critically, and I like my tools sharp.
My task as an English teacher isnt to prepare my students just for a job. Its to prepare them for the rest of their lives, and that includes much more than how they end up making money.
It means helping them discover what matters most, the things William Faulkner called the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. The poets, the writers, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poets voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Literature isnt a frill but an essential way we learn and make sense of the world. Our brains are designed to understand narrative better than almost anything else. Students need the real world facts of nonfiction certainly but they first need to love reading. The way to accomplish that is to make it relevant to them through their natural affinity for stories.