I had a great conversation with a high school English teacher during #FYCchat about Common Core standards yesterday. As we discussed the shift to more informational text in the curriculum, he said: “I just hope we don’t throw out Baby Macbeth with the bathwater!” I thought that sentiment was captivating.
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 fiction’s 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.
The Common Core standards have suggested titles that they recommend based on reading levels. The only texts required actually are Shakespeare and American seminal documents. Yet article after article complain that literature is being dethroned. English classes should not be synonymous with Literature. Literature is a type of English class, just like Geography is a type of Social Studies class. English includes far more than Literature. Unfortunately in our high schools that has not been true. I was blessed to attend a high school twenty years ago that allowed us to choose two of our four English credits. I took a British Literature class and hated it. I learned to sleep with my eyes open and discovered Cliff’s Notes. This is from a person who has two Ph.D.s today. Don’t pretend this isn’t reality for most people, much less a 15 year old cheerleader.
When I took Writing & Research, Debate and Speech Communication in high school I thrived. Why? I understood the value. I loved being able to deconstruct what a writer said. I loved looking at a famous piece of art and researching the content of the piece, the context of its creation, and how it was intended to be read versus how people in that era actually responded to it. When I revisited Shakespeare again, I knew to look up criticism and praise for his work. I learned why he was a “great” from informational text. I read reports on how he is unparalleled and crafted fiction in such a unique fashion for his time. I had great composition, writing, and communication teachers who knew that my engagement was a part of their job. It was Mr. Pellerito who taught me to look for claims and warrants. It was Ms. Teague who helped me see that you can make an argument through your word choice or visual cues. It was Mrs. Brooks who taught me why Twain mattered to the American canon.
Informational text taught me why Shakespeare was worthwhile. The month long unit when an unnamed teacher plunked Julius Caesar in front of me along with a vocabulary list and test dates did not. She loved JC, but that did not make me love it. 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.
Common Core is akin to telling you that students have to learn how to play tennis or piano. They are expected to know the game. The game? Deconstructing text. Because in the real world you need to be able to understand text, create text, and interpret text. The Common Core does NOT state that you cannot teach poetry, fiction, or narrative nonfiction. What it does say is that you must teach ANALYSIS. Kids need to know how to deconstruct text. All text. English teachers lament all across the nation that they cannot teach their poetry unit as is. And they can’t. We, English teachers, no longer just teach content. We teach skills so that kids can tackle any content. If you are just teaching the content of books as the center of your curriculum, shame on you.
Just because you spent a month on 1984 does not mean that you have helped a child learn any of the Common Core standards. The reverse, however, is true. If you spend a month on the nine—yes only nine—standards you need to teach in literature and use 1984 as one tool to do it, you have helped your students. The message: You teach skills, not book content.
Here is an example from my own high school class last year. We read Othello. In the same unit we read Brent Staples informational article, Black Men in Public Spaces. In that same unit we read several articles about stereotypes, jealousy, and a critique of Othello. At the end, my students did not do a report on Othello. They decided on what commonality they found among these text and devised a thesis that represented their truth about life. They developed essays around their thesis statement, using textual evidence to support their ideas from the pieces we had read. A few created short Moviemaker films and a few wrote narratives about the prevalent themes they encountered. Did I have some traditional essays about Othello? Of course I did, but they were not summaries. They were critiques of the value of the text, comparisons to the modernized film O, with varying critiques. Was this hard for me to score? No. We looked at our standards and made a rubric that we could use to assess the skills rather than the content. When we finished, students scored their work on the rubric. I scored it for the summative grade and we critiqued each other in our online class platform by responding to posts and asking critical questions of each other.
Did I have the honors class? No. I had collaborative support in that classroom. Thirty-two Latino, black, and white students filled my room. Four of the top football and basketball players shared space with four girls who could not stay for tutoring because they had to work at the fast food restaurant to get their 35 weekly clock hours. In fact, my classroom had an interesting cast of characters that often had to submit work online through Edmodo or email me because they were suspended or at the alternative school for the month. These kids are the kids that cannot and will not stand for a teacher’s month long unit on Shakespeare for literature’s sake. It is kind of ridiculous that they should. This is not 1952 and what we are doing is not working! The definition of insanity…
Throw in the opportunity to read informational text about his plays, to explore themes and central idea, to stop being told what to think and just be given the tools to think. We have those tools nicely packaged…Common Core.
Reading, Roz Linder, Common Core