Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Common Core and Literature, a Deadly Combination?

[My classroom, Photo by Tiffiny Federico]

70% nonfiction.  30% fiction.  

That seems a bit backwards to me. 

The Common Core State Standards stresses that students be immersed in expository reading and writing in order to prepare them for both college and a career.

Now, the disclaimer is that the 70% / 30% is for the students' ENTIRE school day.  Therefore, much of the nonfiction will be read in science, history, and math classes.  Unfortunately, the push for nonfiction selections has settled into English curriculum.  District approved units of study, District assessment tests, and state test prep all pretty much focuses on nonfiction.  Literature is getting the squeeze.

For the past few years, English teachers have been asked to go back and adjust their curriculum to include a variety of nonfiction texts.  My department has gone through the pieces of literature we cover and found database articles, newspaper articles, primary source materials, etc. to supplement students' understanding.  For example, "from The Noble Experiment" (the autobiographical piece about Jackie Robinson) in the 7th grade is paired with newspaper articles  and videos of interviews with Branch Rickey, the Dodger's GM.  And "from Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad" from the 8th grade is paired with multiple databases on the abolitionist movement.

We have also begun to include more "mini-research" units throughout the year.  It doesn't seem like much, but with all the days for testing, the prep for testing, the district units, and such, TIME to devote to teaching an entire novel seems to be slipping from our grasp.  In our meetings we bemoan the fact that years ago, we each taught two or more novels a year, and now we are lucky to get one in.

When I attend any district-wide trainings, the grumblings I hear are much louder.  My administration really values the teachers and gives us some latitude (as long as our test scores don't drop).  But I've heard horror stories from other schools where everyone MUST follow the district's lead lockstep.  It's very disheartening.

[Independent work, Photo by Tiffiny Federico]

The teachers at my school and the teachers in my district are not the only ones discussing how the CC is changing our curriculum. 

The conversation and concern over this 
has been loud and long.  

Here are a few samples:

In 2012, a Huffington Post article titled "Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark The End Of Literature, English Teachers Say" shows the concern and fear of English teachers.  Several classroom teachers describe their misgivings.  The interesting quote that stood out to me was from the POV of David Coleman who actually headed the process of writing the standards, "...principals and teachers are misreading the guidelines.  The boost in informational texts, he says, is intended across disciplines: When social studies, science and math teachers increase nonfiction and informational reading assignments, English teachers won't have to alter their literature lessons." If that's the case, then why all the fear?  Read article here.

In 2013, the article "Common Core vs. Great Literature" by Mark Bauerlein was published in the New York Daily News.  It takes a look at how the CC is being implemented in NY's high schools.  It takes note of the titles of texts given to students in particular units of study.  There is a trend moving away from traditional titles such as Jane Eyre and The Red Badge of Courage and replacing them with articles from the NY Times, NPR, Fox Business News, etc.  The comment that stood out to me was, "This is not what the architects and contributors had in mind when they crafted the ELA standards. (Disclosure: I served on the English Language Arts 'Feedback committee' for the Council of Chief State School Officers.)  The push for informational texts was not supposed to displace outstanding literary texts." Read article here.

There are many videos related to literature and the common core.  I watched several debates with "experts" (Huffington Post Live), and there were multiple videos that were promoting the common core (I'm guessing those were used in teacher PDs).  Then I chanced upon a series of YouTube videos by two teachers, Noah and Janet.  They have created uncommoned.com, a website in which they share lessons and ideas.  They have taken control of the CCSS and made it their own.  Until the politicians decide to suspend or replace the common core, we are stuck with it animist find ways to make it our own.  I appreciated how Janet chose to work within the confines of the CC, but keep English English.  A bit of common sense to the common core.

I wish my administrators, and those in my district, would take a look at this particular video: A Common Teacher Talks About Common Core: Informational versus Literary Texts.

My take on this?

I have been teaching English for 22 years.  



No questions asked.  

To fail to teach lit. is to fail to teach English.  

I have experience.  I have the respect of my peers and my administrators.  I know that when I shut the door to my classroom, I'm in charge.  Yes, I will cover nonfiction as it supplements the literature, but I will NEVER cut literature out of the curriculum.  I fear for those who are just joining the ranks of the profession.  Those who will fear for their jobs and follow every district sponsored unit to the jot and tiddle.  They will need the passion and the courage to maintain control of their curriculum.


"A Common Core Teacher Talks About Common Core: Informational versus Literary Texts." YouTube. UnCommonEd.com. 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 3 May 2016.

Bauerlein, Mark.  "Common Core vs. Great Literature." Daily News. NYDailyNews.com. 10 July 2013. Web. 3 May 2016.

"Bye Bye Gatsby: Can New Requirements Destroy a Love of Reading?" HuffPost Live.  The Huffington Post, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 May 2016. 

"Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards mark the End of Literture, English Teachers Say." Huffpost Education. The Huffington Post, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 May 2016.

Oh the Changes I Have Seen....

[Walter Reed, photo by Tiffiny Federico]

I started teaching English at Walter Reed Junior High in 1993.  I taught 7th and 9th grade. This was a few years before we became a true middle school, 6th - 8th grade.  I loved it.  I didn't realize just how much freedom I had... This was before STANDARDS based education. 

Imagine... t's the week before school starts and your department chair tells you to look in the textbook room and pick a textbook to use, because there is more than one available.  I asked what I should cover, and she tells me whatever you want.  Complete freedom to design a curriculum; that seems so unimaginable today.

Fast forward to the late 1990's and the implementation of the California State Standards for Language Arts.  This meant one standards-aligned textbook for all.  This meant weeks and weeks and days and days of trainings.  All of the sudden everything had to align with the standards or else.  

I was a literacy coach at the time and I got kicked out of an administrative meeting downtown.  The powers that be were sold a bill of goods by the textbook company who basically told them that if teachers didn't exclusively teach the textbook, they weren't teaching to the standards.  What about novels?  No time for that.  No room for that.  Doesn't fit with the standards.  You can imagine my outrage.  After a heated back and forth, the moderator asked me what school I was an administrator at, when I told him I was a literacy coach, I was asked to leave.  Loved my principal's reacting to the whole thing.  She told me not to get so hot and bothered.  That if I felt that we should be teaching novels, then we would be teaching novels.

[My classroom, photo by Tiffiny Federico]

Fast forward a few years and a new president to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  Out went everything associated with the California State Standards and in came material for the CCSS.  Although, with the current budget crisis, no new textbooks, not week long trainings, very little PD, and a lot of scrutiny.    This time, the standards have a huge focus on college and career readiness.  What does that mean?  It means 70% nonfiction to 30% fiction.  It means an all encompassing focus on expository writing and expository reading.  It means a crazy focus on testing and test scores.  It means little to no freedom or creativity. 

As an English teacher, this is very disheartening.  The heart and soul of English class is NARRATIVE.  Narrative reading and narrative writing.  Finding places to keep this in the curriculum was becoming more difficult and felt quite rebellious.   My struggle with the content and the CCSS was just a reflection of the conversation happening all across the nation.
[Reading Time, Photo by Tiffiny Federico]