The new Common Core State Standards are starting to grind this former English teacher’s gears.
Take a second to think about the books you read in high school. Sure, not all of them were memorable. But I’ll bet that for 90 percent of you, among the dozens of books you read in those four years, a few rose to the top, emerging as your favorites of all time. I think back on the books I read in those four years — the books that I would soon teach to my own students — and I smile as I recall my favorite titles. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Catcher In the Rye. A Tale of Two Cities. Of Mice and Men. The Great Gatsby. Catch-22. Pride and Prejudice.
These books meant a lot to me, to say the least. I’ll always remember every detail — spoiler alert! — of the scene when Sydney Carton gives his life for Charles Darnay. I know the opening line of Jane Austen’s best novel by heart (“It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”), and the last of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”). I look to Atticus Finch for moral guidance.
No matter what anyone says, literature is important, and that’s why I’m worried about the new Common Core State Standards’ changes to English classes. The new standards, which are starting to be implemented and will be in place by 2014, require that nonfiction represents 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary schools, and up to 70 percent by grade 12. In an article in The Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton explains how this removal of literature has come about:
Proponents of the new standards, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, say U.S. students have suffered from a diet of easy reading and lack the ability to digest complex nonfiction, including studies, reports and primary documents. That has left too many students unprepared for the rigors of college and demands of the workplace, experts say.
Many English teachers are, not surprisingly, unhappy with the new standards. Arkansas’ middle school teacher of the year Jamie Highfill is worried about the fact that she’s had to replace poetry and King Arthur legends with Malcom Gladwell essays. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Malcom Gladwell — but in eighth grade? Seriously?) ““With informational text, there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature,” said Highfill to Washington Post. “And the kids are shutting down. They’re getting bored. I’m seeing more behavior problems in my classroom than I’ve ever seen.”
David Coleman, one of the leading authors of the new standards, said that educators are misinterpreting and overreacting to the new requirements. These works of nonfiction are meant to be assigned across all courses, he says — social studies, science, even math classes — saving plenty of time for literature in English classes.
In theory, that’s how these new requirements are supposed to work. In practice will be a far different picture. In practice, there’s no way algebra and chemistry teachers are going to assign nonfiction essays on top of the assignments they already give their students, and who can blame them? They have their own new set of standards to meet and subject matter to get through. Reading and writing is for English class, so nonfiction texts will fall to English teachers to assign.
In a speech last year, Coleman is quoted in the Washington Post article as saying the following:
“Forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with . . . [that] writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a [expletive] about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is, can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me? It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”
If that’s his argument for removing literature — that all students do in English class is write about their childhood — Coleman never had an English teacher who was worth his salt, and he never took a real English class. Because a real English teacher, in a real English class, will help his students learn to read well-written literature, think critically about it and analyze it, and then create an argument about the character’s actions or the text’s themes in a well-written essay. Because if Coleman had experienced that, he would know that those skills are what prepare millions of students for their future jobs, as the ability to read, write, think critically and articulate your point in written form are the most important components of white-collar jobs.
We read literature because it’s good for our souls. We do it because well-written characters speak to our humanity, because they’re just like us — capable of love and hate, fear and courage, joy and sadness. Good literature, and good characters imprint themselves on our hearts, and transcend anything a textbook could teach a student. As an English teacher, I always felt fortunate that I caught small glimpses of my students experiencing their favorite novels; that I got to witness them laughing out loud and sometimes even crying as they read these stories. How lucky was I, as a teacher, to watch them fall in love with these characters and these stories, in my own classroom?
Connecting to a work of fiction is an experience that transcends a 20 page reading assignment, an English class, or even a school. It’s a higher form of learning that goes deeper than any state standard could ever define.