English class under the Common Core Standards

January 11th, 2013

We noted in December that many English teachers are concerned that, under the new Common Core State Standards, “they will have to replace the dog-eared novels they love with historical documents and nonfiction texts.” This fear comes in large part from the Standards’ requirement that nonfiction texts comprise half of all reading assignments for elementary school students and 70 percent of reading assignments for students in grade 12. 

Writing for the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog, Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature and Classics in the Classroom, responds to these concerns. 

She notes:

What seems to be causing confusion are the comparative recommended percentages for informational and literary text cited in the Common Core’s introduction. These percentages reflect the 2009 [National Assessment of Education Progress] Reading Framework. I served on that framework committee and can assure you that when we determined that 70% of what students would be asked to read for the 12th grade NAEP reading assessment would be informational, we did not mean that 70% of what students read in senior English should be informational text. The National Assessment for Educational Progress does not measure performance in English class. It measures performance in reading, reading across the disciplines and throughout the school day. […]

It may be the case that in some schools high school English teachers are being told to cut back on the poetry and teach more informational text. I’m hoping this mistaken directive can soon be reversed. English teachers need to teach more poetry, more fiction, more drama, and more literary nonfiction. More is more when it comes to reading. And we have evidence to prove it. Just released vocabulary results from the 2011 NAEP Reading Assessment demonstrate a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. And how do students built their vocabularies? Not by memorizing lists of words or playing word games but by reading complex text. […]

If you are thinking that today’s busy, over-programmed kids don’t have time for reading, I urge you to consider the 2010 Kaiser Family Media Study. Their research reports that young people ages 8-18 consume on average 7 ½ hours of entertainment media per day: playing video games, watching television, and social networking. These are the same students who tell their teachers they don’t have time to read. Children have time. Unfortunately like Bartleby, they would simply prefer not to.

To reverse this trend we need to make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day. They need to be spaces where anyone who didn’t do the homework reading feels left out. They need to be places where students compare the lives of the Joads as they left the Dust Bowl to travel west to California in “Grapes of Wrath” with the lives of those who stayed behind through seven years with no rain in Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time” (winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Nonfiction)I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.

With Steven Greenblatt, author of “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” — a [Pulitzer] Prize-winning example of literary nonfiction — I believe with all my heart that, “literature is the most astonishing technological means humans have created to capture experience.” Let’s use that technology to make real change in America’s schools.

Indeed! (And did you catch the Bartleby reference? It comes from Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” part of our Meaning of America curriculum. The story raises great questions for classroom discussion about what sort of compassion we owe to our neighbors and fellow citizens.)

This sort of close reading with great conversations about the text is exactly what What So Proudly We Hail seeks to encourage, and we provide many resources to teachers to help them do this in their own classrooms. Check out our Meaning of America curriculum, which includes stories by authors such as Jack London and Mark Twain; discussion guides to help teachers lead thoughtful conversation in class; and recorded video conversations of the editors discussing the major themes of the story. 

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