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.

Free Form Friday (or Google’s 20% Time in High School)

My colleagues and I are currently in the second year of my favorite “experiment”.  Last year, inspired by Google’s 20% time, we decided to try a variation of the project with our freshman.  I am extraordinarily lucky because my colleagues are fabulous and we teach an integrated curriculum (Biology, English, Software Applications, and World History).  This means we control the schedule for all of the freshman every morning.  We are able to divide the time up between our classes in whatever manner works best and we do cross-curricular projects as often as possible.

So we decided we wanted to try our own version of Google’s 20% Project, which encourages Google employees to spend one day per week working on a project of their own design.  While we can’t devote one day every week to our experiment, we ended up with Free Form Friday.  Free Form Friday is an experiment- last year we had no idea how it would turn out when we turned the kids loose and we were thrilled with the results.  This year we made a few adjustments and sent the kids off to work.  I’m so excited about the projects they have come up with and can’t wait to see the end results.

Introducing the project to the kids was a lot of fun.  We told them that we would be giving them the option to work on a project of their choosing for the next two marking periods.  There would be no rubric and no guidelines other than their project had to bring together Biology, English, Social Studies, and Technology.  This always got the whispers going.  As we continued, the hands would go up and the volume would rise.  Our students are not used to working without limits or rules and this project is scary for many of them.

Before we answered any of their questions, we shared out fears and what we, as teachers, were excited about.

Some of our fears:

  • that students will not use their time wisely
  • that students will choose groups before choosing topics
  • that students will ask questions we don’t have the answer to

What we are excited about:

  • that students will ask questions we don’t have the answer to
  • that students will amaze us
  • that we will learn from each student

And then we gave them a period to brainstorm individually.  This is important, because we want each student working on something that they are passionate about, so they can’t make groups until they know what they want to focus on for the duration of the project.  This is a very difficult step for many of my freshman.  They want to be with their friends, and how can they ensure that happens if they can’t talk to each other during the brainstorming period!  But we provided notebooks and computers and set them loose.  They had until the next week to post their ideas on our wiki and “pitch” to the rest of their class.  This way, students with similar ideas would have the opportunity to try to work together and other students would have the option to work alone or in pairs if they preferred that.

Watching the wiki over the next week was a lot of fun.  Lots of students pitched ideas and started talking about them in school.  I witnessed students approaching each other about what they read on the wiki the night before, trying to convince a peer that they had similar ideas and could combine them.  So much fun

As of today, all of the students have projects and are working.  We try to have a Free Form Friday every other week, devoting 140 minutes on Friday morning to the project work.  The students have access to laptops and a computer lab, along with various classrooms and our MPR.  But the best part is the work going on outside of class.  Some freshman boys approached a group of juniors who are taking a programming class and asked them to teach them the programming they need for their idea.  Other students are emailing experts in their field of study and networking with scientists/professors.  We have students designing webpages and blogs, Google surveys and data analysis.  It’s amazing!

The students are working on some amazing projects, too.  We have everything from parkour to lucid dreaming.  One pair is studying modern censorship and a scientific study that showed people who read fiction are more emphathetic than those who do not.  Last year a group of girls produced an amazing documentary and website about the culture of beauty – they even interviewed employees at various stores in a local mall about the hiring process.  Afterwards, they interviewed managers at those same stores and learned that the “party line” is not the same as reality in most cases. What an eye opener for them and their classmates!

I can not recommend 20% Time projects enough.  The students are incredibly engaged and the connections they are making across the curriculum are pretty mind-blowing.  And personally, I love that they are working without a rubric.  It’s very difficult for some of the more grade-oriented students, but it’s such a valuable experience.  They also know that at the end of the project they will be deciding how we (the teachers) will assess them.  The grading criteria will be designed by each group for their specific project.  I love this, because it means they get the chance to think critically about their own work, rather than relying on a third-party.

They are responsible for keeping us abreast of their progress after each Free Form Friday.  By the end of the 140 minutes they have to file an update that explains what they accomplished that day and what they plan to accomplish for next time. It keeps everyone accountable without inundating them with extra work. They file the reports in a class binder, according to group, which allows us to access them while also allowing the students to go back and look at the evolution of their project from start to finish.

Free Form Friday is one of the best parts of the year for me and I can’t wait to see the final projects that this year’s group comes up with!  Are some of our students confused about the project?  Of course.  But many of them are also excited.  And slowly, that excitement is spreading.  We have students talking about their projects outside of class time.  They are divvying up work and going above and beyond our “requirements”.  Some of them started planning back in September, after they got wind of the project via the sophomores.  Talk about engaged learners! And even those who are confused can see the value of the project; we have many alum who work or have worked at Google and it’s a job many of our students aspire to.

Do you do anything similar to a FedEx Day or Google’s 20% time in your class?  I’d love to hear about it!