Home > Uncategorized > Fact vs. fiction on Common Core literature requirements

Fact vs. fiction on Common Core literature requirements

February 4, 2013

There is a compelling story going around the blogs locally and nationwide that the Common Core State Standards require English teachers to water down and deaden the teaching of fiction literature in their classes.

According to this story, familiar works are eliminated and replaced by boring instructional material, or dry non-fiction text such as government reports and publications. It sounds awful. It’s also a great opportunity to get up on one’s high horse in defense of literature. Here’s a snarky example from the Washington Post:

Forget “The Great Gatsby.”

New Common Core standards (which impact 46 out of 50 states) will require that, by graduation in 2014, 70 percent of books studied be nonfiction. Some suggested texts include “FedViews” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the EPA’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation,” and “Invasive Plant Inventory” by California’s Invasive Plant Council.

Forget “Catcher in the Rye” (seems to encourage assassins), “The Great Gatsby” (too 1 percenty), “Huckleberry Finn” (anything written before 1970 must be racist) and “To Kill A Mockingbird” (probably a Suzanne Collins rip-off). Bring out the woodchipping manuals!

Invariably though, the original “fact” which triggered the outrage is faulty, and comes from the blogger himself or another second-hand retelling, inspired by a misreading or a total absence of the primary CCSS documents. Sometimes the outrage is attributed to a package of learning materials purchased from a vendor – but so far, no vendor names or package titles have emerged.

Other blogs report the elimination of the entire works of Shakespeare, “Catcher In The Rye,” Tom and Huck, or whatever is calculated to inspire the most outrage. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ironically, the outcry points to a deficit of skill in reading informational texts, where the rebuttal can be plainly found (the Common Core documents themselves).

Like I said when I started this blog: “The market for opinion-oriented education blogs seems to be saturated at the moment. I hope to rely on facts, with a preference for primary documents. ”

Do the Common Core standards forbid teaching literature in English class? Hardly. Shakespeare, Tom and Huck, Scout Finch, and Jay Gatsby are all alive and well in the Common Core standards, as are all the novels and poems you read in your English classes. If you think Common Core prevents you from teaching these and other works from the canon of literature, blame your local administration, not the standards.

The Common Core standards don’t eliminate any books, don’t have required reading lists, and leave teachers free to design a literature curriculum just like the ones we read in our youth. Don’t believe me? Read the standards yourself.

The Common Core State Standards consist of dozens of lengthy PDF documents, and reading them is laborious. I confess I haven’t read every word (and I don’t plan to). But one thing I can do is look up the veracity of a claim.

The primary documents for this topic are:

What is the origin of the claim?
Like every good piece of misinformation, this one starts with a grain of truth. This chart in the CCSS document English Language Arts Standards » Introduction » Key Design Consideration is the origin of the (false) claim that CCSS requires English teachers to teach 70% informational text:

These are NAEP guidelines which are incorporated into Common Core. But it makes plain that ELA classes must focus on literature, and that the bulk of informational non-fiction reading must take place in other classrooms: From ELA Key Design Considerations:

Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes…

 
But what about those banned books and strict reading lists?
First of all, Common Core doesn’t ban books, and doesn’t have any reading lists. The source of this myth is Appendix B, which contains the “examplars” (examples) of the types of reading material that should be taught at each grade level. Before you get to the exemplars though, you will hopefully have read this passage at the beginning of Appendix B:

Selecting Text Exemplars
The following text samples primarily serve to exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with. Additionally, they are suggestive of the breadth of texts that students should encounter in the text types required by the Standards. The choices should serve as useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms. They expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list.

So much for banned books and restrictive reading lists.

The absence of your favorite book doesn’t mean it is “eliminated,” and the presence of an uninteresting book doesn’t mean it is “required.” English teachers have nearly complete latitude in designing their own reading lists from the canon of literature (unless your own administration imposes further constraints).

But for the sake of argument, suppose you WERE required to teach the EPA’s Recommended Levels of Insulation (one of the examplars for informational text). Any English teacher worth their dog-eared copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” should be able to spend a day or two teaching an example of technical writing, which is an authentic part of the English curriculum. And then use it as a launching point to teach a brief introduction to technical writing: voice, tense, word order, choice of words, purpose, when to use charts or other visual aids, and what makes it different from fiction.

Now that I think about it, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if it WERE required to teach a few days of Recommended Levels of Insulation in English class. Who better than an English teacher to explain the mechanics of technical writing? After all, your students will be tested on informational writing and you will be accountable for the score. Would you really want a Science or Social Studies teacher explaining it to your students?

If you do encounter some literature-unfriendly requirements
I just attended several high school open houses in preparation for my son’s entry into high school. I specifically asked about Common Core and ELA requirements, and none of the English teachers reported any significant change. In fact I was quite pleased with the reading lists they mentioned to me.

Your administration shouldn’t be imposing requirements that require you to change your ELA reading very much at all, and they shouldn’t be buying instructional material that does. If they do, parents are counting on teachers to be the first line of defense. Make sure you understand the Common Core requirements, and make sure you aren’t forming opinions based on second hand information. Use the primary documents.

Then tell somebody – tell parents, tell administrators, anonymously tell a local education blog, but tell somebody. Give the name of the person who told you to use the material. Report the vendor and title of the offending learning materials.

Just in case you won’t read Appendix B
I know a lot of people won’t believe me about the requirements, and also won’t read Appendix B. So I’ve copied an excerpt here (forgive the formatting), which is an excerpt from the Table Of Contents listing the texts just for Grades 11-12 (read the whole TOC to see the exemplars for all grades):

Grades 11–CCR Text Exemplars……………………………………………………………………….. 140

Stories ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 140
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales ………………………………………………………. 140
de Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote …………………………………………………………………. 140
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice …………………………………………………………………….142
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.”…………………………………………………143
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre …………………………………………………………………………….. 144
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter ………………………………………………………..145
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment …………………………………………………. 146
Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.” …………………………………………………………….. 146
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor …………………………………………………………………..147
Chekhov, Anton. “Home.” ……………………………………………………………………………………148
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby…………………………………………………………….. 149
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying……………………………………………………………………… 149
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to ………………………………………………………………….. 150
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God………………………………….. 150
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths.”…………………………………….. 150
Bellow, Saul. The Adventures of Augie March ………………………………………………….151
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye……………………………………………………………………………152
Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban …………………………………………………………………152
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake…………………………………………………………………………..152

Drama ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………153
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet ………………………………………………..153
Molière, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. Tartuffe ………………………………………………………..153
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest ……………………………………………..154
Wilder, Thornton. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts………………………………………….156
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman……………………………………………………………………156
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun…………………………………………………………..156
Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman: A Play……………………………….. 157

Poetry ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 157

Li Po. “A Poem of Changgan.” …………………………………………………………………………… 157
Donne, John. “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” …………………………………….. 157
Wheatley, Phyllis. “On Being Brought From Africa to America.”…………………158
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” ……………………………………………………………….158
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” ……………………………………………………………………..159
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” ……………………………. 160

Tagore, Rabindranath. “Song VII.”……………………………………………………………………. 160
Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”…………………………………………. 160
Pound, Ezra. “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”…………………………………….. 160
Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” ……………………………………………………………………………161
Neruda, Pablo. “Ode to My Suit.” ………………………………………………………………………162
Bishop, Elizabeth. “Sestina.”……………………………………………………………………………….162
Ortiz Cofer, Judith. “The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica.”…………………………………….162
Dove, Rita. “Demeter’s Prayer to Hades.”…………………………………………………………163
Collins, Billy. “Man Listening to Disc.” ……………………………………………………………….163

Sample Performance Tasks for Stories, Drama, and Poetry………………………….163

Informational Texts: English Language Arts ………………………………………………… 164
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense……………………………………………………………………….. 164
Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence…………………………………. 164
United States. The Bill of Rights (Amendments One through Ten
of the United States Constitution). ……………………………………………………………..166
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden…………………………………………………………………………..167
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Society and Solitude.”……………………………………………..167
Porter, Horace. “Lee Surrenders to Grant, April 9th, 1865.” ………………………….168
Chesterton, G. K. “The Fallacy of Success.”……………………………………………………..169
Mencken, H. L. The American Language, 4th Edition …………………………………….169
Wright, Richard. Black Boy …………………………………………………………………………………170
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.”……………………………………170
Hofstadter, Richard. “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth.”………………170
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” ……………………………………………………………………………….170
Anaya, Rudolfo. “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry.” ……………………………….171

Sample Performance Tasks for Informational Texts:

English Language Arts …………………………………………………………………………………….171

Informational Texts: History/Social Studies …………………………………………………..172
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America……………………………………………….. 172
Declaration of Sentiments by the Seneca Falls Conference ………………………… 172
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?:
An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852.”……………. 173
An American Primer. Edited by Daniel J. Boorstin ………………………………………… 175
Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe. “Education.”…………………………………………………………. 175
McPherson, James M. What They Fought For 1861–1865 ……………………………… 175
The American Reader: Words that Moved a Nation, 2nd Edition………………… 175
Amar, Akhil Reed. America’s Constitution: A Biography……………………………….176
McCullough, David. 1776 ……………………………………………………………………………………..176
Bell, Julian. Mirror of the World: A New History of Art ………………………………….176
FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco……………………………. 177

Informational Texts: Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects ……………179
Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy:

Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences …………………………………………..179
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things
Can Make a Big Difference…………………………………………………………………………….179
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “Gravity in Reverse:
The Tale of Albert Einstein’s ‘Greatest Blunder.’”………………………………………179
Calishain, Tara, and Rael Dornfest. Google Hacks:
Tips & Tools for Smarter Searching, 2nd Edition ……………………………………… 180
Kane, Gordon. “The Mysteries of Mass.” …………………………………………………………. 180
Fischetti, Mark. “Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control.”…………..181
U.S. General Services Administration. Executive Order 13423:
Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy,
and Transportation Management ………………………………………………………………….181
Kurzweil, Ray. “The Coming Merger of Mind and Machine.” …………………………182
Gibbs, W. Wayt. “Untangling the Roots of Cancer.”……………………………………….182
Gawande, Atul. “The Cost Conundrum:
Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas.” …………………………………………………………183

Sample Performance Tasks for Informational Texts:
History/Social Studies & Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects……..183

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  1. John Young
    February 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Reblogged this on Transparent Christina.

  2. MHS
    February 4, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    Great post – thanks for dispelling these urban myths that Common Core Standards is the end of traditional literature in the English class curriculum

  3. John Young
    February 5, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    It has many other problems to contend with.

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