Friday, April 12, 2013

Common Core: Literacy

Sometimes I get really frustrated with things. One of those things is Common Core.

I think I have every conservative's attention now.

But wait until I say this: I don't hate it.

The educational system in the United States has needed an overhaul. We've got to try something. Why not this? If it helps—awesome! If it doesn't—back to the ol' drawing board! But certainly sticking with the status quo is not going to get us anywhere. As the adage goes, if you're not moving forward you're moving backward; there is no standing still. Okay, so that's not exactly how the adage goes. I paraphrased. Forgive me.

I just read a blog post lamenting the Common Core standards for literature found in this (transparent and open) PDF. S/he said they found it appalling that technical readings were included because Language Arts is an art! It should be about literature and poetry and learning to love books and language.

It still is. Trust me.

Let's take a look at the title page of the document, shall we?

Common Core State Standards For
English Language Arts


Literacy in History/Social Studies, 
Science, and Technical Subjects

appendix B: text exemplars and 
sample Performance tasks

Okay, so using my powers of observation I see that this PDF is talking about Common Core Standards for English Language Arts...weird squiggly symbol...Literacy in History/Social Studies...yadda...yadda...yadda... Whata, whata?! They want my kids reading such outlandish things such as My Librarian Is a Camel: How Books Are Brought to Children Around the World and *gasp* The Preamble to the Constitution in English class?! How dare they! English class is for English!

The Common Core will come after your children! It'll come after them in the night! ...I say we kill the beast!

Whoa...whoa...whoa... Put your pitchfork down.

That weird squiggly symbol? That is known as an ampersand. It's a ligature (two letters smashed together as one) of the Latin word et. Et means and in English. So, basically this isn't just a list of literature—it's also a list of sample texts that can be used in other classes (such as mathematics or history) to promote reading skills while at the same time teaching kids other stuff. Very tricky.

So that book about a camel being a librarian? That's a book listed under the informational texts section and would most likely be read in a social studies lesson, I'd wager, not language arts. It also looks rather interesting and I kind of want to read it myself, even though I'm not in grade five any more (darn it)!

I might be going out on a limb here, but I'm guess the preamble would probably also be read in some sort of social studies or history class setting.

All the government is saying is that you can use literature in English class and science class. It's important for children to read cute poems, yes, and classic novels are wonderful, too, but reading comprehension has to happen across the board so you'd better get them reading in history class, too!

So, what kind of things are actually suggested for English class? You can find those under headings such as stories, poetry, and drama, all of which is very artsy (fartsy (and, yes, that's likely the only scenario in which a word sounding like fart will ever cross my lips/fingers (except maybe also this))).

For kindergarteners, we've got Are You My Mother? and a cute poem entitled Poem. It's also suggested that the teacher read aloud to the students throughout the day—weird!—listing such wonderful classics as The Wizard of Oz and Little House in the Big Woods.

Those poor kids are going to be bored to tears pouring over those tractor manuals all day, aren't they?

By the time they get into grade 12 approximately 70% of their reading material should come from technical or informational texts. That's not 70% of English class. That's 70% of their entire year of education. If I take one English class per year and have six or seven other courses like art or history or math or science or psychology or dance or health or whatever else you took in high school, I can easily see 70% of the average high schooler's day being spent on nonfiction material.

In fact, the list of fictional stuff for a high schoolers to read is long—and might I just mention that this isn't an all-inclusive list; the list exists solely to "exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require."

So, for example, as an English teacher I wouldn't have to do Hamlet with my class full of juniors if I didn't want to. I could do Romeo and Juliet or King Lear or Richard III or, you know, long as I helped keep Shakespeare alive and well. Or, shoot, if I really had a thing against Shakespeare (and I'm trying to picture and English teacher with a thing against Shakespeare and I...can't) I could do something else entirely. I'd just have to keep in mind that it should be about as rigorous as decoding Shakespearian English and as culturally important.

Basically, I've been trying to get as up-in-arms about this as everybody else seems to be (okay; so I haven't been (I'm not an up-in-arms kind of gal)) but I just can't.

So the government wants to put out a list of texts they feel children of a certain grade level should be exposed to. If those texts aren't challenging enough for your children then they can still read them, enjoy them, and then read something else. If they're not supposed to read ahead when the class is reading a novel together (for purposes of "thinking ahead" exercises and so forth) then they can put the book down when they're finished with the assigned chapter and read something else. I did that all the time when I was in school and it didn't seem to hurt me.

If your child isn't ready for the texts at any given time—I know there are children in Rachel's kindergarten class who wouldn't be able to read Green Eggs and Ham on their own, for example—then I think it's nice to have a goal in mind. Standards aren't terrible things. In fact, I was taught my whole life that standards and goals were good things.

All I see is a list of texts that serves as an example of what should be covered in the classroom at any given grade level. It leaves plenty of leeway for teachers to use their creativity and preference when teaching. It allows for students to explore classical literature and doesn't at all have them reading farm machinery manuals.

Let's all take a deep breath, shall we?

(And that's my take on Common Core, at least when it comes to literacy. I'll tell you how I feel about math when I feel like reading about math, which probably isn't right now because...math).


  1. I've been trying to read through the common core too. What I've gathered, from student teachers and articles, is that English teachers can be expected to teach documents like the Constitution. Not that we don't teach the Declaration of Independence etc in American Literature some teachers don't. There are critics who say English teachers are not qualified to teach the Constitution etc. I really thought that would be the main fodder for American Government, but this may be no longer solely reserved for the history dept. The interpretation of this aspect of the common core is what is causing some uproar, I think. Subject areas have been encouraged at varying levels to teach content literacy but haven't been held accountable and there still seems to be very little accountability for the content classes (in that they teach facts and figures and not reading and writing skills for their content). The reading and writing standardized tests seem to be interpreted as solely the responsibility of the Language Arts/ English dept. The reading section of the state tests does seem to be focused primarily on literary interpretation and less on basic reading comprehension in a general sense. The writing test is more about being able to develop and support an argument which can and should be covered in all subject areas.

    From what I understand, each piece of literature is being counted, so a novel is on equal level with news article, biography, or critical analysis. By the time a novel is taught in context to history and culture, there are at least three or four nonfiction articles to go along with the novel (fiction). There really is no reason to think that this should drastically change college prep courses especially if one considers the research paper which is required in most districts for each HS Eng course.

    1. See, and that still sounds a-okay to me... :)