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.

Introducing……Full STEaM Ahead!

Full STEAM Ahead

As a humanities teacher in a STEM-based school, I frequently hear from students that they “hate English” and “will never need to write papers or do research” when they become engineers or scientists.  After I count to ten, I always list off the many examples of friends and colleagues who work in those fields and are responsible for reading and writing more than they ever imagined back when they were high schoolers.  For the past few months I have been brainstorming ways to show my students that the world isn’t divided into cubicles and that the real world combines math, science, reading, writing, language, health, speaking, listening, social sciences, history, and so much more.

Take me, for example.

I am a reader, writer, teacher, blogger, social media user, therapy dog handler, and citizen scientist.  I wouldn’t be happy if could only work in one field. And in the 21st century, we need to prepare our students to be more than paper-pushers and solitary worker bees.  Another issue I frequently think about is the need for our students to be innovators.  STEM- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics- is the new buzzword for schools around the country.  I love what my colleagues and I do at our school and I think the cross-curricular opportunities we provide our students with are priceless .  My students need to be innovators and thinkers, brave enough to try fail and then try again, over and over. And they need to learn how to fail in school.

For a few months now, I have been working on a new series for the blog.  I am a STEM-loving English teacher who often feels caught between my love of science and my love of literature.  While I have managed to find a job that allows me to embrace both, and hobbies that do the same, I meet far too many students, teachers, and parents who believe that life must be lived within the confines of either/or scenarios.  Either you are a scientist or a writer.  Either you are a linguist or an engineer.  Either you are a mathematician or a reader.  While I know that this could not be farther from the truth, it is still a stereotype I butt heads with on a  regular basis.

That’s when I started reading about STEAM.  I spent a lot of time exploring STEAM-notSTEM and found myself agreeing with almost everything they stand for.  As they say on their website, “creativity enables innovation”.  We need innovators and that’s a skill that needs to be cultivated in our students.  If we want to succeed as a country, we need to encourage and incubate innovators. So what is STEAM?  It’s a call for the addition of a national arts curriculum to the science, technology, engineering, and math focus that is the focus of many educational institutions right now.  The arts are proven to be a key to creativity, which in turn leads to innovation.  According to  STEAM-notSTEM

The future of the US economy rests on its ability to be a leader in the innovation that will be essential in creating the new industries and jobs that will be the heart of our new economy…STEM is based on skills generally using the left half of the brain and thus is logic driven. Much research and data shows that activities like Arts, which uses the right side of the brain supports and fosters creativity, which is essential to innovation. Clearly the combination of superior STEM education combined with Arts education (STEAM) should provide us with the education system that offers us the best chance for regaining the innovation leadership essential to the new economy.

I’m not an artist by any means.  I can barely draw a stick figure, bubble letters leave me frustrated, and my coloring leaves something to be desired.  But I love doodling, sketchnoting, and writing. I completed a NaNoWriMo novel, writing 50,000 words during the month of November.  My art is usually related to writing or reading, with a infrequent Pinterest-inspired craft thrown in the mix.  But that NaNoWriMo novel I wrote last year? It is focused on the migration of the monarch butterfly.  Science informs a lot of my writing and my teaching, and I realized that many of my favorite books also include real science.  This was a eureka moment for me and I had an idea.  Why not reach out to writers who delve into real science in their books and have them share their stories?  Those authors, of books that I would classify as lablit, as this NYTimes articles details, have become experts in a STEM-related topic in order to write the story they needed to tell.

Science and art have not always been relegated to separate corners.  Leonardo Da Vinci and the renowned Persian polymath Omar Khayyám, both of whom I study with my freshman humanities students, were readers, writers, poets, astronomers, inventors, designers, and scientists. . One of Carl Jung’s mythological archetypes was the artist-scientist, for heaven’s sake!  The artist-scientist archetype represents builders, inventors, and dreamers.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And according to Scientific American, “Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.”   It’s time for us to recognize these geniuses and those who are among us today, moving effortlessly between poetry, science, design, math, and much more.

I reached out and a fabulous group of authors agreed to share their experience with STEM as part of my new blog series, Full STEAM Ahead.  It’s time for the STEM world to embrace the arts, and reading and writing are a great way for teachers to bring STEM and STEAM together in the classroom.  The feature will be running weekly, with the first author scheduled to share his story on Thursday.  Eliot Schrefer, author of the National Book Award nominated Endangered (one of my favorite books of the year!) will be sharing how he researched bonobos and spent time studying them while working on his book.  Please be sure to come back on Thursday to read the first entry in the Full STEAM Ahead series here on TheReadingZone!

My NCTE Reflections

It’s been almost a week since I flew home from NCTE and I’m still recovering. NCTE is the best conference I attend all year and it’s a must-not-miss for me. I am reinvigorated, excited, and passionate after meeting with my fellow English teachers and learning from them. This year was the best year of all, because I connected with so many of my Twitter pals and they enriched my conference experience.

Chris and I arrived on Friday afternoon, ready for dinner. Unfortunately, due to the 3 hours time difference, it was only lunch time. (Sidenote- by the time I got used to the time difference, it was time to go home. Can’t wait for NCTE Boston because it’s on the East coast!). Chris and I checked in to the MGM Signature and it was best hotel decision we could have made. The Signature is connected to the MGM Grand, the convention hotel, via moving walkway and it’s about a 5 minute walk. But the Signature has not casino, is quiet, and has it’s own Starbucks that didn’t have a line all weekend. So awesome!

After grabbing a quick lunch, I left Chris to rest and explore while I hit up the exhibit hall and planned the rest of my day. The Southwest flight we arrived on had wifi, so I had made dinner plans with the amazing Chris Lehman and a few other tweeps.  I wanted to get the lay of the land first, so I spent some time wandering the exhibit hall (and picking up books, of course).  Then, I headed to the Mexican restaurant in the hotel and shared a fabulous meal with Chris, Meeno Rami, Franki Sibberson, Jen Vincent, Alyson Beecher, John, and many more.  Fabulous conversation, of course.  It was wonderful to put faces (and voices!) to Tweeps after chatting on Twitter for so long.

Then, it was time for us all to head to the NerdyBookClub party.  Yes, we were some of the only people in Vegas partying it up in a suite where the conversation centered around books.  And it was awesome.

Donalyn addresses the wild Nerdy crowd.

If NCTE is made up of my people, the NerdyBookClub is my tribe.  A room full of introverts, noshing on brownies, talking about books.  I met so many wonderful folks and got to know many of them better.  A huge thank you to Donalyn, Colby, Cindy, and the entire Nerdy-dom for a fabulous, fabulous party.  (At this point, I have to admit that I did sneak off a few times to see if the National Board results were posted yet.  Once a nerd, always a nerd.  At one point, the website went down and I knew the results were being uploaded.  I couldn’t handle finding out the results in the middle of the party, so I headed back to my room.  Plus, my body thought it was 3am at this point!).

The nerdybookclub party!

Can we have a Nerdy conference?  Because the party was seriously awesome.  R.J. Palacio (Wonder) was there, Beck McDowell (This Is Not a Drill), and Jonathan Auxier (Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes).  Jonathan Auxier treated us to a booktalk about Peter Nimble and he did ridiculously awesome yo-yo tricks while talking.  He used to yo-yo professionally!  Needless to say, it was pretty much the best party I have ever been to.  So many Twitter friends were there, I made new friends, and we shared stories about books and connecting our students with books.

I headed back to my room around 3am EST and once I got back, I decided to check my National Board results one more time.  As my phone was loading the web page I was taking out my contacts.  I glanced over and freaked out when I saw that the website looked different.  I squinted, flailed around for my glasses, finally found them, and then read the magic words: “You are a National Board Certified Teacher”!  And that’s how I closed out my first night at NCTE.  Pretty darn awesome!

Saturday was devoted to lots of workshops.  I started the morning off bright and early in the sports betting area of the hotel, where Chris placed a bet on the Rutgers game.  Then, I headed to my first workshop while he settled in to watch the game in the comfy recliners.  My first session was about connecting high school English teachers and first-year compositional teachers.  The presenters were an AP English teacher, a first-year comp professor, and a mutual student. It was a great session and made me wish that more students presented at NCTE.  It was great hearing from all three stakeholders!  I was also happy to hear that college writing teachers do not ban the use of 1st person.  Instead, it’s about the students learning to make choices based on audience, tone, and voice.

After that session I rushed to the Folger Shakespeare session on assessment while teaching Shakespeare’s plays.  I had never made it to a Folger presentation before and I was impressed.  However, I did not get much out of the session that I hadn’t already learned from their fabulous professional books.  I ended up leaving a few minutes early because my phone was dying and needed a charge.

Then I spent some more time in the exhibit hall, where I chatted with lots of publishers and finally met up with Zsofia from Stenhouse.  Zsofia and I have been emailing for a few years and it was a pleasure to finally meet in person. She showed me a few upcoming books, which I will be posting about in the next few weeks.

Of course, I picked up a bunch of books for my classroom and waited on a few author signing lines.  Then I had a fabulous meeting before heading off to the NerdyBookClub session.  First of all, The Eagles (yes, those Eagles- the band) were in soundcheck right on the other side of the wall.  The NerdyBookClub really is made up of rockstars!  The session was awesome and the panelists traveled from table to table, presenting on a variety of topics.  Mindi made my day when she told us about Haikudeck, an amazing Ipad app for presentations.  But all of the presenters were great and I learned so much.  (I was tweeting so much that Chris had to bring my charger downstairs so I could recharge mid-workshop!).  Colby Sharp and Tony Keefer presented on their Nerdy Book Club, Jr. and reminded my how much I loved doing the Mock Newbery with my 6th graders.  I think it’s time for a mock Printz with my high schoolers.  I have ideas….

That night, Chris and I decided to see a little bit of Vegas.  We walked to the Bellagio and watched the fountain show, which was pretty cool.

Bellagio

Paris

Paris Hotel

You know what is not a good idea?  Walking to the Hard Rock Hotel from the Strip.  Everything in Vegas is much farther away than it appears.  Almost two miles later, through some very shady areas, we made it to the Hard Rock.  But we got our meal from the secret menu, so it was awesome.

The famous “Gambler’s Special” at the Hard Rock Hotel

Sunday morning started out bright and early with some Starbucks before Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts’ fabulous session on research and note-taking.  What a breath of fresh air!  I did my student teaching at a TCRWP school and have used lots of their strategies in middle school and high school.  However, it’s been a long time since I was in a room of TCRWP folks and this reminded me how much I love them.  Chris and Kate were amazing and I am still thinking about what they said. Below are some of my tweets from the session.

I had to leave the session early because I needed to get to the exhibit hall to see Eliot Schrefer and Matthew Quick.  I felt so bad leaving the session, but I had promised signed copies to some students (and I needed some for me!).  Thankfully, the session was tweeted all over so I was able to continue following the last few minutes.  And on my way to te exhibit hall I ran into Donalyn Miller and the Paul Hankins, two English idols of mine!  Donalyn is a friend, but I had never had the pleasure of meeting Paul in person until that moment.  Of course, I was also impatient to get to the signings, but luckily no one understands that more than Paul and Donalyn.  So we hugged and chatted before I ran off and made it just in time for my signings!

I spent the rest of Sunday networking in the exhibit hall before spending a fabulous lunch with lots of my tweeps.  I also made sure I was out of the exhibit hall before the publishers started giving away books they didn’t want to pack up and bring home.  My suitcase was already full!

Later that afternoon I spent a wonderful time with Kellie, of Walden Pond Press.  We talked about upcoming books, books in the classroom, and lots more.  Kellie is absolutely fabulous and I am looking forward to chatting with her more at the next conference.

Finally, I ended my conference by popping into the ALAN cocktail party.  Before entering, a bunch of us Nerdy Book Clubbers met up for a photo.  I LOVE this picture and I’m so grateful for this fabulous PLN that has enriched my life.

At the party, I chatted with Mike Mullin and probably scared Seth Rudetsky when I practically ran up to him.  What can I say?  I’m a huge Broadway fan and love all of his work!  I also said my goodbyes and made my way back to the room to pack my last few books.  Next year I am definitely attending ALAN!

Sunday night Chris and I went back out on the Strip and visited the Siren show at Treasure Island, the waterfall at the Wynn, and a few other landmarks.  We picked up a few souvenirs, packed our bags, and took a quick nap before checking out at 4am.  Our flight left right on time at 6am and made it home at 5pm EST.  It was an exhausting weekend but one I would not miss for the world.  I left Vegas feeling invigorated and brimming with ideas, both personal and professional.  I can’t wait to put some of them into action and I look forward to connecting with my PLN even more over the next year.

I guess it’s time to start working on my NCTE proposal for Boston?

How Today’s Students Learn

Watch this short video summarizing some of the most important characteristics of students today – how they learn, what they need to learn, their goals, hopes, dreams, what their lives will be like, and what kinds of changes they will experience in their lifetime. Created by Michael Wesch in collaboration with 200 students at Kansas State University.

While the video is aimed at college level professors, the statistics apply to almost all of our students. While my students don’t spend time on facebook in class, they do spend hours at home on Myspace (which they are not even old enough to be a part of) and AIM. I think many new teachers, and some older teachers, are seeing this and adjusting their teaching for it. But too many teachers are continuing to teach out students in archaic methods that don’t apply to their lives. I love telling my students that many of them will have careers in industries that don’t even exist yet. However, we must do our best to prepare them for this. Make technology a part of your daily classroom lessons!

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