Bigger, Better and Beyond the Book?

I was introduced to Dr. Rozlyn Linder’s blog today by a friend.  She’s the K-12 District Literacy Specialist in Douglasville, GA and an avid advocate of the Common Core State Standards.  Today she opined that those of us who are critics of the Common Core, in particular, the ELA standards are uninformed and we need to read the standards.

She wrote:

As a proponent of the critical analysis shift demanded by Common Core I regularly speak out about the divergence from teaching the canon and centering all instruction on works of fiction. As I read blogs and posts I have finally come to realize that there is a serious misconception about what it means to teach skills rather than text. Battle lines are being drawn that demand that teachers get on fictions side or the oh, so, awful side of informational text. This fierce call to battle is misguided and ironically built on a failure to read—the actual Common Core standards.

I agree.  Read the standards.

The topic of concern for many of us is the chart on pg. 5 of the ELA standards.

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It’s in the standards.  It’s certainly being misinterpreted, and unfortunately it is being applied to literature classes.  Something that Common Core folks fail to understand is that kids get plenty of informational text in all of the other classes.  Almost 100% of their reading is informational text.

I’m not against reading informational text – we all do it every day.  What I’m not thrilled about, and Dr. Linder does nothing to alleviate my concern, is the introduction of more informational text into Literature class of which she makes a passionate defense:

I love literature because informational text taught me how and why. I did not just curl up with the Scarlet Letter because I was told to. In fact I never read it in high school. Oh, I pretended to. I aced that test with the best of them, but I did not love it or like it. I was reading Sidney Sheldon and Malcolm X at my desk instead. It wasn’t until I became a teacher and I looked out at faces like mine, holding cell phones, and readily accessing information with the twitch of a thumb that I knew I needed to find out why Scarlet Letter mattered because I was told that for six weeks I should probably teach it. How? Our class read the Harold Bloom critical analysis first (informational text). We read the reviews of Demi Moore’s version of the book and searched IMDB for the risque’ photos and summary, again reading sometime scathing reviews of the film.. We even read comparisons to the pop culture version the Big A. We knew the full story before we ever opened the book. We read why this was significant and we read with critical eyes, challenging assumptions, and questioning as we went. At the end, some rewrote the ending; others wrote essays defending the book as a classic, while some crafted narratives about the characters back stories or lives after the end. Others created Prezis showcasing two different ways to view the protagonist. We laughed, we argued, we complained that these word choices ‘sucked’ and why they seem that way to us, but why they could be interpreted as exquisite. My kids may not love the Scarlet Letter but they know it, understand it, and ‘get’ why it matters. Would they get that through literature alone? Doubtful. Common Core is just asking teachers to think bigger, better, and beyond the book.

Is it just me or is she advocating for kids to read informational text that teach them what to think rather than how to think?  Unfortunately when you read a critic or a review you are coming to a piece of literature (or anything really) with a presupposition.  If a teacher wanted to guide students to learn about the context of a piece of literature, for instance give an introduction to the life and times of Puritans prior to reading The Scarlet Letter or a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne I could understand that.  What she’s advocating I can not.  By the way I’m not a fan of The Scarlet Letter either for a variety of reasons that don’t pertain to the subject matter we cover here.

I don’t want teachers to think bigger, better and beyond the book because I want them to teach the book.  I want them to educate, not indoctrinate.  Teach kids how to think, not what to think.  I would hope Dr. Linder would want the same.

Putting that aside there’s the whole matter about how they were written and implemented avoiding local input and the democratic process, but that’s a whole different blog post.

The Common Core Will Reduce Reading and Writing To Chore Status

kid-reading-manualMary Grabar who is teaches English at Emory University gave a very pointed critique at Roll Call of the literature standards for high school students within the Common Core.  She started off with a great analogy (something we learn to appreciate when reading good literature):

How good a player would Arne Duncan, former basketball pro and current secretary of Education, have been had he not been allowed to play a pickup game or idly bounce a ball? How many great players would there be had they not been able to play at the corner lot, instead forced through endless drills?

Kids would not have learned the lingo and mannerisms of basketball, or imagined themselves shooting jump shots next to Shaquille O’Neal or Larry Bird. The sport would have become a serious business; no longer would it be about the love of the game.

In short, the culture of basketball, so cherished by fans and players alike, would never have developed.

Yet Duncan proposes standards that make reading and writing a drill-like business. In the new Common Core guidelines, high-school English teachers would have to spend more than 50 percent of their time on nonfiction and informational texts such as court opinions, Federal Reserve bulletins and computer manuals!

The Common Core actually calls for 70% of the reading to come from “informational texts.”  Ms. Grabar goes on to make the following primary points.

This will further erode our literary heritage.

As a college English instructor, I am dismayed by how much we have already lost of our literary heritage. During the past 20 years, I’ve found each successive entering class to be less familiar with cultural and literary concepts. Often trained to parse imaginative works for political messages, students are rendered incapable of understanding the pathos of tragedy and the delight of humor evoked from sentences that build up complexly. They think that only facts are needed.

It diminishes kids’ writing ability.

They see writing as a chore. As a result, writing skills have deteriorated to the level of, well, a computer manual.

Driving those two points home she writes:

Every study I know shows a correlation between reading and writing. “Informational texts” do not offer models of elegant prose, nor do they invite readers.

We are losing not only writing skills, but cultural cohesion. What will the future hold when we have no frame of reference, such as a “Rip Van Winkle” or an “Invisible Man”?

Reading and writing shouldn’t be seen a chore, but that is what they will become with the Common Core Standards.

A Case for Literature Rather Than Informational Texts

Jane Robbins and Joe Mack of American Principles Project made the case why the common core state standards should be rejected based on its dependence on informational texts rather than original source literature.  They did so by sharing a top 10 list complied by Dr. Steven Lynn who is the Dean of the Honors College at the University of South Carolina.  Dr. Lynn wrote:

In uniquely powerful ways, literary study prepares students for richly rewarding and meaningful lives. No other reading experience or learning activity duplicates this preparation.

1. Imagination: Reading literature cultivates the imagination. That’s one reason why tyrants and dictators hate literature, banning or strictly controlling it. From the ancient Greeks to the present day, cultures steeped in literary study have thrived on creativity and innovation.

2. Communication: Writing and talking about literature helps prepare students to write and talk about anything. Not only are they working with words, with carefully considered language, but they are also considering how different kinds of people think and react to and understand words.

3. Analysis: Literary works—whether fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction—challenge readers to make connections, to weigh evidence, to question, to notice details, to make sense out of a rich experience. These analytical abilities are fundamental life skills.

4. Empathy: Because literature allows us to inhabit different perspectives (What’s it like to be a teenage girl, a Jew, in Nazi Germany? How would you feel if you thought your father had been murdered but no one else believed that?), in different times and places, we learn to think about how other people see the world. We can understand and persuade and accept and help these others more effectively and fully.

5. Understanding: We think in terms of stories: this happens, and then that happens, and what’s the connection between these events, and what is going to happen next? People who’ve experienced more stories are better able to think about actions and consequences. Experience is the best teacher; literature is the best vehicle for vastly enlarging our possible experiences.

6. Agility: Literary works often ask us to think in complex ways, to hold sometimes contradictory, or apparently conflicting ideas in our minds. As brain imaging has shown, this kind of processing helps us to be more mentally flexible and agile—open to new ideas.

7. Meaningfulness: Literary works often challenge us to think about our place in the world, about the significance of what we are trying to do. Literary study encourages an “examined” life—a richer life. It provides us with an almost unlimited number of test cases, allowing us to think about the motivations and values of various characters and their interactions.

8. Travel: Literature allows us to visit places and times and encounter cultures that we would otherwise never experience. Such literary travel can be profoundly life-enhancing.

9. Inspiration: Writers use words in ways that move us. Readers throughout the ages have found reasons to live, and ways to live, in literature.

10. Fun: When students read literature that is appropriate for them, it’s intensely fun. Movies are enjoyable, but oftentimes the written version, readers will say, is more powerful and engrossing. Students who don’t find literature to be a whole lot of fun are almost certainly reading the wrong things (too difficult, too removed from their interests), and not reading enough (perhaps they are slogging line by line, week by week, through a text beyond their growing capabilities). When students do discover the fun of literature, they will read more and more, vaulting forward in verbal skills and reasoning abilities, and becoming better readers and writers of other kinds of texts (letters, memos, legal briefs, political speeches, etc.).