I am writing this post in response to an article titled “New education standards elbow out literature” by Alex Halperin at the online news magazine Salon. The standards that Halperin refers to are the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which all but four states have adopted as their K-12 curriculum standards. Halperin suggests that the CCSS are edging out the body of literature that has long reigned in middle and high school English classes in our country. As educator in my second year of working with CCSS, I can assure you that they are going to require a paradigm shift in our ideas about teaching and learning. However, I feel that the idea that they are pushing out literature is a myth, and I want to explain why.
While English teachers will have to incorporate more informational text into their curriculum, the CCSS do not aim to eradicate the important study of novels, plays, short stories, and poetry. If you look at the standards (which I wonder if Halperin has), you will see that they are built on ten anchor standards that apply to both fiction and informational texts. These standards are clustered into four groups: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Ideas, and Range of Reading/Text Complexity. For each grade level, there are standards for Reading Literature and Reading Informational Text that address all of these categories. As far as the standards go, it appears that Literature and Nonfiction are weighted the same.
However, Halperin is right when he suggests that the standards are pushing a greater emphasis on informational text. This is because we have spent too long basing almost our entire reading curriculum on fictional text and our students have not been prepared to handle college-level nonfiction texts. I can testify that starting from day 1 of Kindergarten, teachers are teaching literary elements. Five year olds are talking about character, setting, story events, problem, and solution. (Common Core is even telling us to change the verbage “events” and “problem and solution” to the word “plot” so that younger students are familiar with that word.) Young students are interacting with fictional text on a daily basis. Yet interaction with nonfiction texts is often limited to the teacher (or a couple of strong readers in the class) reading the text to the students and the students making a flip book or doing an experiment related to the material. Not bad activities by any means, but the focus is on content and skills, while Common Core wants to teach kids how to read and make meaning from various texts.
I had the privelege of hearing Dr. Tim Shanahan, renown educational leader and researcher in literacy (who was also quoted in the Washington Post article Halperin referred to), speak to administrators and coaches in my district just yesterday. He told us that when it comes to informational text, teachers are telling students what the text says, not making the students read it. “Teachers have become experts at making powerpoints,” he said. I agree. As an ESL Coach, I am probably part of that problem because I tell teachers they must develop background knowledge and vocabulary and comprehensible input as they are helping their English Learners work with content area texts. Yet Shanahan encouraged us to scale back the background building a little and allow the students to grapple with the text on their own first before we intervene with scaffolding techniques.
This has its challenges. In his article, Halperin quoted an eighth grade English teacher who had to cut a poetry unit in order to work on nonfiction texts. Her students are uninterested and unmotivated, which creates less meaningful learning and more off-task behaviors. I am not surprised, and I think many teachers will face the same challenge. This is going to be a side effect of focusing more on informational text. We are going to have to get creative when choosing pieces to give to our students to read.
When I was teaching high school ESL, the one informational text that I remember my students really enjoying was from a book of essays on opposing viewpoints about immigration issues. They were assigned a viewpoint (the idea that they could argue for an opinion that was not their own blew their mind), had to read their essay, and had to participate in debate on the topic. As immigrants themselves, they were invested in the topic. Still, my curriculum relied heavily on fiction texts because the students could understand them better and relate to them better than nonfiction texts. One might argue that this is a key ESL strategy to allow students to make meaning from texts, but my friend who taught freshman English next door could say the same about her curriculum. Unfortunately both of us were handicapping our students.
You see, Anchor Standard 10 (Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently) is what we must apply Anchor Standards 1-9 to. We can talk about main idea and details; we can analyze text structure and author’s purpose, and we can critique texts and connect them to other texts. Yet Common Core asks us to do so with a variety of types of text and with texts that are complex and difficult. English teachers have been asking students to read a variety of literary texts for decades, yet they have left it up to the other content area teachers to teach the kids how to read nonfiction. But those teachers haven’t done it, because they thought the English teachers were doing it. Yesterday Dr. Shanahan said, “The Common Core Standards are not just for English teachers. They are for all teachers, all students, all schools, all administrators, all states.” In other words, everybody, even Biology teachers and history teachers, must teach students to read informational text.
That said, the term “close reading” is circling around the education field now. We must ask students to do a “close reading” of non-fiction texts, perhaps reading the same text three or four times in order to interact with it it different ways. Strangely, I first heard the term “close reading” in a grad school poetry class. That’s because it’s a term that orginated from literary theory. The New Criticism era of the first half of the twentieth century told us that we should stop relying so much on the historical and cultural significance of texts and dive into the texts themselves to find their meaning. So we are applying a literary skill and activity to informational text. This gives teachers a great opportunity to connect ideas about fiction with ideas about nonfiction, and to impress upon students that the overarching goal is to help them read successfully.
Halperin asks, “Is prioritizing these modes of language over a more literary curriculum, before students have even reached college, of any lasting value?” I wouldn’t say we are prioritizing because we value informational text more. We must prioritize it now because we have not valued it enough in the past.
Still, I have something I want to ask Halperin: If you teach me about photosynthesis and dynamic characters, then I will know about photosynthesis and dynamic characters. If you teach me how to read, understand, analyze, and critique challenging informational texts, I can know about anything I want to know about. Which one is more valuable?