Why Can’t We Be Friends? The Common Core, Informational Text, and Literature

summer reading

summer reading (Photo credit: ruminatrix)

This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curriculum“, an article that went viral this weekend.  As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think that it was alarmist and extreme.  For those who haven’t read it, the article claims that “Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger‘s Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of ‘informational texts’.”  It goes on to say that classrooms will no longer read literature and instead students will be required to read “insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.”.

 

I wish that some of these reporters who write about the Common Core would actually talk to teachers who are implementing the standards.  Standards are not curriculum, despite headlines that like to insinuate that those words are interchangeable.  Standards tell me, the teacher, where my students should end up.  I decide what our journey will look like.  I decide how far we will meander down one fork before choosing a different direction.  I decide when we sit and spend a while enjoying the scenery.  And my path may not look like the path the teacher down the hall, across the street, or in another state takes.  But as long as the destination is the same, we have the freedom to make our own choices.

 

I’m not afraid of the Common Core State Standards. I admit I was skeptical at first.  I definitely don’t support the testing that will be developed to assess the implementation of the standards.  But I do support the standards.  Are they perfect?  Not at all.  But they are a great place to start.  As teachers, we need to lead from the floor and take charge.  We need to take ownership of the standards and their implementation.

 

The misinformation out there about Common Core scares me and the attempt by some districts (and publishers) to use it as an excuse to implement a scripted curriculum worries me. Nowhere in the document adopted by 46 states is a prescribed list of books assigned.  Nowhere in the standards is there a script teachers must follow.  The most-maligned aspect of the standards is the call for students to read 70% nonfiction/informational text by 12th grade.  But what many administrators neglect is that that footnote (which should be in huge, bold letters) reminds teachers that the percentage is for all in-school reading and not just the reading done in English classes.  By senior year, most of our students are reading informational text the majority of the school day. A typical student spends 45 minutes in English class every day.  Over the course of the day they sit in an average of seven 45 minute classes.  That means that students in high school are spending about 14% of their school day in a class where fiction is read.  Sadly, many content area teachers, especially at the secondary level, don’t include fiction in their classes.  “That’s for the English teacher to do!  I have to cover my own curriculum!” is the typical explanation. So at this moment, many students are reading fiction less than 30% of their day!

 

14% of their school day.  That’s it. So I’m thrilled that the Common Core asks that 30% of what students read is fiction!  As for the 70% informational text?  It’s about time!

 

Have you looked at a textbook recently?  Most of them are dreadful.  I can’t tell you how dry and dull they are, not to mention riddled with errors.  Our students should be reading real-life informational text in their content area classes.  I want to see my students reading field guides in biology!  I want them to analyze journal articles and primary documents in history!  Why shouldn’t they read biographies of mathematicians in geometry or instruction manuals in CAD class?  There is no textbook in life, so they should be reading and interacting with these texts beginning in school.

 

And there is a place for literary nonfiction in the English classroom, too.  Does it need to push fiction out of the picture? Absolutely not.  But it should be offered as a choice.  Many of my students actually prefer nonfiction and rarely have a chance to see it in school.  But as English teachers we have the opportunity to reach across the aisle and facilitate interdisciplinary work with our colleagues in the content areas, to the benefit of our students.  As I am constantly telling my students, no one can claim that they are “just an engineer” who will never read and write as a professional.  Look at the job ads in any newspaper or online- almost all of them, regardless of occupation, require strong communication skills.  The world is not put into neat little boxes like our subject areas are.  The real world  is interdisciplinary!  A student just told me that she is working with a college engineering professor this semester and her first job?  Working alongside him reading and writing reports.  As an engineer!

 

Our students need to be prepared to the real world, for jobs that don’t even exist yet.  That means we need to bring the real world to them as often as possible.  The real world is not in a textbook.  The world is in Katherine Boo‘s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and David McCullough‘s The Johnstown Flood.  It’s in Dave Eggers‘ Zeitoun or Sue Halpern’s Four Wings and  a Prayer.  If the Common Core can help some districts move away from textbooks and into newspapers and literary nonfiction then I am all for it!

 

But for me, in my classroom? I’ve embraced the standards. My students are reading and writing more than ever before and I actually have the opportunity to add more literature to my curriculum. How? By working with my colleagues across disciplines to implement the reading and writing standards my students receive more instruction in informational text and I have more time in English! And I’m bringing the real world applications of the Common Core to my students as often as possible.  Most recently, I have begun interviewing authors about their experiences with STEM in the arts.  Full STEaM Ahead will allow me to bring these authors and their experiences to my students, who will see that being an author and being a scientist aren’t mutually exclusive.

 

We need to work with our colleagues in all disciplines in order to better serve our students.

 

What I have learned so far is that teachers can implement much of the Common Core just by bringing newspapers into the classroom, in any subject area.  My students read the paper every day and write in response to what they read.  They are surrounded by informational text mentors as I work with my history co-teacher, and then we draw connections between current events, the literature we read, and the information they study in history.  It’s truly a multidisciplinary approach and the students enjoy it!  The improvement in their reading and writing skills in just a few months is tremendous (and measurable!).  Even better?  They are reading more!  They pick up the newspaper and can think critically about the issue affecting their world.  Then they apply that same thinking to literature.  They also increase their background knowledge, very much like Kelly Gallagher has done with his Article of the Week, which enhances the reading they do, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. (To see what Jon and I are doing in the classroom, check out our weekly column on the NYTimes Learning Network.  Learn more about how we implemented it.)

 

You know what else?  I see more room for independent reading in the Common Core Standards.  I’m actually adding fiction to my English I class because we cover so much NF alongside history.  And I love sharing contemporary literature- YA and adult- with my students in 9th and 12th grade.  Now, thanks to the interdisciplinary call in the Common Core, I have an excuse to bring more of those books into my classroom.  Just take a look the summer reading suggestions my freshmen students receive.

 

The alarmist article did bring up one good point.  It’s about time teachers and districts started reevaluating the canon literature foisted upon every student.  Does every seventeen-year old need to read Catcher in the Rye? Or are there other, better books out there now?  Maybe every student isn’t ready for canon literature in high school.  So let’s get them ready by bringing them to the table and meeting them halfway.  Find what they like to read.  Offer them YA and NF, allow them some form of choice.  And get them reading!  There will be time for canon later. Right now, we need to get them to read.  As Penny Kittle says, “It’s not rigorous if they are not reading it”. So find what they like and bring that into the classroom! The standards give me more freedom to bring in newspapers and magazines, nonfiction books about math and mechanics, science and hobbies.  And those books can ladder to more rigorous texts.  And so on.

 

The standards give me the freedom to decide how I get my students ready.   I’ve found room for lots of choice. The examplar texts are just examples. They are not mandated. I’m sure there are districts who have decided to mandate them, but that’s a battle we need to fight as teachers.  Stand up to your administrators and set them straight!

 

Listen to me.  I am a teacher on the ground who is implementing the Common Core Standards every day.  Can we get one thing straight?  Nowhere does the Common Core state that literature must be removed from the classroom. If anyone is telling you, the teacher, that you can’t teach literature then you need to get out your copy of the Common Core and explain that they are wrong.  Don’t misunderstand me-there are plenty of districts making bad decisions around the CCSS. But the standards themselves aren’t as bad as these articles make them out to be.  Check out the Uncommon Corps for some real, in-the-field knowledge about bringing more nonfiction into classrooms.  Like me, Marc Aronson, Sue Bartle, Mary Ann Cappiello, Kathleen Odean, Myra Zarnowski think there is a dearth of fabulous nonfiction being shared with our students and they are embracing the call to action for more NF in the classroom.  And it’s about time.

 

There wasn’t a lot I could do, on a daily basis, about NCLB, Race to the Top, or other initiatives driven by lawmakers.  But the Common Core?  That I can drive with my own actions.  We are the ones on the ground, in the trenches, and we will lead with our actions.  We need to empower good teachers. Standards tell me where my kids should end up. I get to decide how we get there.

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30 Responses

  1. Can I just say, “Amen!” The CCSS are not the enemy and they are something that teachers can actually work with to improve student learning. By giving teachers and students a baseline objective, the CCSS has freed both teacher and student to make choices in how each individual student achieves and even exceeds those baselines. It is a real shame that our educational system and the media see such a need to be reactionary rather than proactive when we are given an opportunity. Thanks for the great article.

  2. Thank you for your well-written post and thank you for calling folks on their alarmism. In our district, schools and teachers have freedom to make decisions about which texts they will use in their classrooms, and as a district literacy specialist, I always encourage what you suggest here–an interdisciplinary approach and a pairing of fiction and non-fiction around themes and topics students enjoy and select. It’s the approach I used in my own classroom for over a decade because it works. Thanks, again. I’ll be sharing your blog with teachers in our district.

  3. Agreed! Well said!

  4. well done! Keep up the good fight, we need all the soldiers we can get. Today, educators not only have students to guide, but educators have to guide those outside of the school building who make generalizations about education based on observations from a media outlet. Standards are NOT curriculum and, until the Social Studies CCSS are formalized, ELA departments across the country are going to be under the microscope for ALL lit standards. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Very nice support for the ELA CCSS; appreciate all the evidence that you used in your own argument to support the standards. I wonder if even 10% of the writing about the common core is even written by teachers! (And I agree CCSS is great; accompanying assessments, not so much!)

    • It seems like none of the #ccss articles involve teachers. A few of them cite unnamed teachers, but I find that hard to take seriously. And the few teachers cited by name are probably taken out of context. Ugh.

  6. A kindred spirit! My last two posts were on the exact same topic. A response to Joel Stein’s article in TIME re: replacing Shakespeare: http://wp.me/p1FPEO-148 AND my latest on incorporating an informational text for a unit (heroes) in fiction: http://wp.me/p1FPEO-14x
    Nice post.

    • Yes, definitely a kindred spirit! I love your blog and your recents posts of CCSS. As teachers, we can take control of this movement and start a revolution. But we can’t do that by sitting back and complaining.

  7. […] Why Can’t We Be Friends? The Common Core, Informational Text, and Literature (thereadingzone.wordpress.com) […]

  8. Thanks for your powerful, persuasive commentary! I was the ed tech director in a large district and tried to get nonfiction into some of our high school tech classes, such as Soul of a New Machine (story of creating a new computer) and Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (searching for a hacker). These were great long-form nonfiction. The English department list of summer reading in those days had NO nonfiction books and in fact rejected both of these from their list. So I’m really happy to see teachers like you “reaching across the aisle” to other colleagues.

    I’d also like to recommend authentic reading/writing activities such as a pen pal in another country, perhaps with students learning English as a second language. This helps American students feel they are helping someone else while they are paying more attention to their own writing. American students find out that their stereotypes about other places are shattered when they learn what life is really like there today, that students know American music and movies and a whole lot more too.

    One high school teacher has rewritten the gr. 10 World Lit curriculum for her district to incorporate the CCSS and to include nonfiction from world sources as well as pen pal activities with students in the targeted countries. Danielle Hartman’s blog tells part of the story. http://danielle6849.weebly.com/blog.html Teachers can find partner classes and also get free student email accounts from ePals: http://www.epals.com/join. What’s nice about these accounts is that the teacher can set it so that a copy of the student emails also automatically come to her, so a student’s work is automatically turned in for the teacher. ePals also has a wealth of free projects and ideas. Danielle will share her work in a free webinar on Jan. 17 at 5 pm EST. Sign up: http://www.bit.ly/Jan17ePals

  9. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  10. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  11. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  12. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  13. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  14. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  15. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  16. Thanks a million for setting the record straight on the CCSS! Since you’re a teacher yourself, you’re certainly in the best position to explore its goals and to let people know how to use outstanding literary nonfiction to great positive effect.

    I’ve also blogged about all the misinformation out there in general and from The Washington Post in particular. You can find my comments in the blog I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) –Here’s the link: http://inkrethink.blogspot.com/2012/12/why-authors-drink.html

    • Thanks so much for sharing your posts. Of course, I follow I.N.K. and have for years! Keep up the great work!

  17. I am a fan of non-fiction, but I didn’t pick up these desire from any of my schooling. It was the rare lesson that had me picking through actual non-fiction books for a report or essay: my impression from these assignments was that non-fiction was useful as it allowed us to learn about ACTUAL things that were happening in REAL TIME, but it was such a rare occurrence that most of my classmates were confused with how to proceed. I think your view on the CCSS is a less alarmist and a lot more informed than what I’ve seen in mainstream media recently.

  18. Cheers for you who understands the difference between textbooks and nonfiction books, and teaching standards and curriculum. May all districts hear your call.

  19. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  20. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months. But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  21. The key to your whole article, to me, was the mention of the “other initiatives”. There is always a new one. My one concern with Common Core is the lexile levels. I hate it when middle school students are forced to miss good middle grade books because the reading level is too low.

  22. The good thing is that the standards don’t mandate lexile levels. They give examples, but that’s it. Of course, districts will make those decisions, which is why great teachers need to speak up. The states have only adopted the standards, not any of the extraneous material.

  23. […] "Our students need to be prepared to the real world, for jobs that don’t even exist yet. That means we need to bring the real world to them as often as possible. The real world is not in a textbook. The world is in Katherine Boo‘s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and David McCullough‘s The Johnstown Flood. It’s in Dave Eggers‘ Zeitoun or Sue Halpern’s Four Wings and a Prayer. If the Common Core can help some districts move away from textbooks and into newspapers and literary nonfiction then I am all for it!"  […]

  24. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months. But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curricul…  […]

  25. Very true! And thought provoking. The statement that was most profound was “….there’s not a textbook for life..”.

    Shannon

    http://www.irunreadteach.wordpress.com

  26. […] This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months. But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph's "Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curriculum", an arti…  […]

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