By now almost every teacher in the country has experienced the Common Core State Standards. We’re teaching and assessing them; we’re advocating for them or pushing against them. We’re explaining them and giving them a chance, or we’re passing them off as the latest educational trend to come and go. In short, the Common Core State Standards are specific, high-quality benchmarks in English and math for students in grades kindergarten through 12. They were designed by educators to ensure students across America graduate from high school ready for college or their careers. In his recent article, "The Wisdom Deficit in Schools," one English teacher in California expressed concern that the standards emphasize technical reading skills over an appreciation for literature and traditional wisdom.
I’ve taught middle-school English for 15 years. Like Michael Godsey, the California teacher, the shifts got me thinking about the future of American culture. I thought: If I don’t hand these kids F. Scott Fitzgerald, who will? I wondered if we teachers were going to kill any kind of thought or creativity in American society. Am I perpetuating a society where adolescents can’t focus, just read snippets of articles, and get their information 140 characters at a time? Who will write the next great American novel? What will happen to Hemingway and Vonnegut and Lee? I went to college and got a degree in English literature. I spent four years reading, talking, and writing about books. I wanted to spend the rest of my adult life teaching kids to do the same.
Common Core allows me to do exactly that—and more.
English teachers like Godsey who are questioning Common Core cite these same concerns about literature in their classrooms. They’re reluctant to put away Animal Farm, The Outsiders, and Out of the Dust. And they should be! It is still our job as teachers to expose kids to great works of literature, to use them to teach valuable life lessons, and to reach kids in ways that video games can’t. It is still our job to teach kids to have individual thoughts and to evaluate others’ ideas and experiences.
There is nothing in the Common Core that says literature cannot be used. There is nothing that says there’s no place for creativity and individual expression. In fact, after three years of using them in my classroom, I’ve found that the standards acknowledge that I am an English teacher and that they trust me to do my job. The naysayers are right. I don’t need to be given a book list. I don’t need to be told what themes to teach. I don’t need to be told how to reach my kids. I do need help adding nonfiction to my curriculum. I need appropriate and valuable strategies to help my kids comprehend and analyze nonfiction texts—that’s the material that my literature degree didn’t adequately prepare me to teach. My state and the Common Core trust me to teach the literature, and they push me to expose my students to more challenging and diverse texts.
The Common Core language-arts and literacy standards call for "a true balance of informational and literary texts." Many teachers and administrators misinterpret that. They immediately focus on the shift to nonfiction texts and forget the "balance." There’s nothing in the standards about Ponyboy, but I certainly see how I could use him, with some nonfiction and multimedia texts about gangs, to give my kids a rigorous learning experience. And that’s my choice. I am an English teacher. I know how to use literature in my classroom; the standards don’t need to tell me how to do that. I can use scientific articles about genetic engineering in conjunction with Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron. What I have to remember is that not every child sitting in my room is going to take an American-literature class in college. They don’t all need to be experts at analyzing literature. Every kid in my room is going to read articles on the Internet and use a social studies textbook. Most will farm and read technical manuals for careers. They’ll be bombarded with ads, commercials, and campaign speeches that they’ll have to analyze and evaluate.
My job as a teacher is to help my students learn, help them become contributing members of culture, and to prepare them for life beyond high school. What’s a better assignment to help meet these goals—a 10-page paper on Pride and Prejudice or a research-based essay on cloning?
In 10 years, which kids do I want to be my doctor? Which ones do I want making decisions in my government? I want my students, who are learning to be both analytical and creative. By providing my students with a combination of literature and nonfiction media and the means to access, understand, and evaluate it, I’m teaching them to think critically and to make informed decisions. I’m giving them the tools to understand any type of text they approach, and evaluate its usefulness to their worlds. When they come across Toni Morrison, they’ll be able to appreciate and understand it. When asked to express their personal opinions, they’ll be able to do so in a concise and educated way. I’m not only exposing my students to great works of literature, I am teaching them the skills to analyze the texts, make connections to American society, form their own opinions and state their cases. And isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?
That’s what I love doing; that’s why I’m still an English teacher. Common Core has given me the opportunity and higher standards to make my classroom a place of rigorous and diverse learning for every student.
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