Literature, non-fiction, lady or tiger?

Under the Common Core, students are supposed spend half their reading time on non-fiction in elementary school, 70 percent in high school. English teachers aren’t happy about the shift from literature. Susan Pimentel, a lead writer of Common Core standards, defends the stress on non-fiction in a Hechinger Report interview.

The “literacy” part of the English Language and Literacy standards includes reading in social studies, science, and technical subjects, says Pimentel. Seventy percent of reading in all classes should be non-fiction.

It’s really important that in science and history classes, students have access to important primary texts and that they be able to figure out what the speaker is trying to say. In English, there should also be great literary non-fiction, so students can uncover the meaning and understand the author’s perspective.

In talking to college professors and employers, Common Core writers discovered a “four-year gap” between high school graduates’ skills and the demands of college and careers, says Pimentel.

A New York City teacher is using literature to teach computer science, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report. 

“Literary texts are informational texts,” says Lev Fruchter, who teaches at a school for gifted students.

He’s developed a computer science curriculum, STORYCODE.  Fruchter uses works like Moby Dick, where characters talk about science, and “what if” science fiction. However,  he says “implicit” STEM stories are the most powerful.

Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 short story The Lady, or the Tiger?  helps students understand binary choices.

In the original story, a king discovers that his daughter is having an affair. To punish the princess’s lover, the King puts him in an arena with two doors. Behind one door is a woman the king thinks is an appropriate mate for the lover, behind the other is a tiger. Meanwhile, the princess learns from the tiger keeper which door is which, but the question is whether the jealous princess will lead her lover to his death or into the arms of another woman.

In coding terms, this is a 1-bit story, with the solution either being 0 if she chooses to send him to his death or 1 if she sends him to the other woman.

But Fruchter likes to add more layers. Fruchter adds that the lover knows about the princess’s jealousy and has to decide whether or not to trust her. It is now a 2-bit story with four possible versions. Fruchter then adds in that the tiger keeper is in love with the princess, thus introducing the possibility that the tiger keeper lies to the princess, making it a 3-bit story with eight possible outcomes.

Each students writes a version of the story, then retells it in code. For example 110 “could translate to the tiger keeper telling the princess the truth, the princess telling her lover the truth, but her lover doesn’t believe her.”

‘Paradise Lost’ in Baltimore

“Why do we have to read about dead white men?” James, a 17-year-old from a desperately poor, violent neighborhood of Baltimore, asked his young teacher, “Why can’t we read about authors who look like us?”

“Reading authors of all races and genders increases one’s chances of actualizing his or her human potential,” writes Irvin Weathersby Jr. in The Atlantic.

His students read pulpy “street literature” about hustlers, hoodlums and thugs, “sex-laden glorifications of drug culture, full of typos and grammatical errors.”

“It’s real,” said James. “We relate to what’s happening in the streets.”

But, “there’s so much more to the world” that Weathersby wanted his students to see.

He started a lesson on John Milton’s Paradise Lost by asking: Who was responsible for the downfall of man? Eventually, a boy said “women.” He asked what women had done. “Eve ate the apple, didn’t she?” someone said.

So they read about Eve and the forbidden fruit in Genesis.  The Bible doesn’t specify an “apple,” he told them. That was Milton.

 I went on to discuss his impact on the world during his time and beyond, his stated goal of explaining the ways of God to man, and his passion for completing the text even as he lost his sight late in life.

Then I showed them scenes from The Devil’s Advocate, the film starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. . . .  all were shocked to learn that Pacino’s character, the devil incarnate, was named John Milton. I had them then.

Because of the text’s complexity, I read most of it aloud as they followed along, stopping during important scenes to ensure comprehension and analyze the arguments offered by the principal characters. Milton, I explained, gave Adam, Eve, Satan, and God personalities that aren’t present in the Bible. By giving them voices, he depicted the events in the Garden of Eden in ways no other author had done before—so much so that people began reading the text as truth and not a product of Milton’s imagination.

Students debated which character was responsible for the fall of man and wrote an essay defending their point of view.

Because I was the school’s debate coach as well, I taught them how to compose, analyze, defend, and deconstruct arguments in the technical style of a policy debate. Then I separated them into teams and facilitated what would become an incredible display of competition and scholarship.

“They had read the work of a dead white man and enjoyed it, writes Weathersby. He went on to teach Shakespeare’s Othello, Emerson’s Self-Reliance and other classics.

They don’t read ‘Evangeline’ any more

In 1908, Minnesota’s recommended reading list for 7th and 8th graders included Longfellow’s Evangeline and the Courtship of Miles Standish, and works by Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and others, writes Annie Holmquist on Better-Ed. Most of the books were 50 to 100 years old.

She found the 2014 reading list for 7th and 8th graders in Edina, one of the state’s best school districts. Other than Tom Sawyer, The Diary of Anne Frank and Fahrenheit 451, the books were written in the last 20 years.



The 1908 list “is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish),” Holmquist writes. Children are introduced to classic writers.

The 2014 books touch on “current political and cultural themes such as the Taliban (The Breadwinner), cloning, illegal immigrants, the drug war (The House of the Scorpion), and deeply troubled youth (Touching Spirit Bear).”

In addition, the modern books use simple language and familiar vocabulary, she writes. It’s easy reading.

Nothing But the Truth starts:

 Coach Jamison saw me in the hall and said he wanted to make sure I’m trying out for the track team!!!! Said my middle school gym teacher told him I was really good!!!! Then he said that with me on the Harrison High team we have a real shot at being county champs. Fantastic!!!!!! He wouldn’t say that unless he meant it. Have to ask folks about helping me get new shoes. Newspaper route won’t do it all. But Dad was so excited when I told him what Coach said that I’m sure he’ll help.

Evangeline is a more challenging read:

 “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.”

Apparently, it wasn’t too challenging for kids in 1908.

Via The Federalist Papers.

Reading for wisdom — or info extraction?

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Literature can teach “wisdom,” writes Michael Godsey, an Advanced Placement English teacher,  in The Atlantic. But Common Core standards favor “objective analysis” and information extraction.

The Common Core promotes 10 so-called “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards” for reading that emphasize technical skills like analyzing, integrating, and delineating a text

College readiness is not the same as life readiness, Godsey argues.

. . . I’m making plans to teach the students how to “evaluate the sufficiency of the evidence” instead of asking them, “Who here sympathizes with Hamlet, or Ophelia, or any character, and how so?”

A consultant told Godsey to “ditch literature” since “literary fiction is not critical to college success.”

Achieve the Core, for example, an organization founded by the lead writers of the standards, explicitly encourages schools to teach students to “extract” information so they can “note and assess patterns of writing” without relying on “any particular background information” or “students having other experiences or knowledge.”

“None of the state assessments has a single question about the content of any classic literature,” he writes. It’s all about reading skills. There goes the “secular wisdom” of American culture.

Learning from TV

Fordham’s Netflix Academy is a list of free streaming videos on science, history and literature.

Via Walking with Dinosaurs, “my five-year-old already has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary, to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.), writes Mike Petrilli.

What kids were reading in 1914

The California Sixth Grade Reader, published in 1914, is back as an e-book with an introduction by science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle.

The reader is filled with stories and poems such as The Argonauts, The Courtship of Miles Standish, The Inchcape Rock and  Jubal and Tubal Cain.

I read most of these as a kid, though not for school.

Via Instapundit, who writes: “When I was in junior high in the 1970s, I often read the old textbooks from the 1950s, which seemed to be written at a higher level than the ones we were using. When the Insta-Daughter was the same age, she looked at old textbooks from the 1970s, which seemed to be written at a higher level than the ones her classes were using. . . . “

Is this a good Core lesson?

NPR highlights a “good Common Core lesson” designed for the first day of ninth-grade English.

Students review the day’s standards: citing textual evidence and determining meaning of words in context, and how they contribute to tone.

Then they read a short story, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves. It’s a magical realist coming-of-age tale.

It meets the Core’s call for complexity and contemporaneity (written in 2007), says Kate Gerson, a former teacher and EngageNY research fellow. It also is in the “canon” because author Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist. And she’s young and female, checking the diversity box.

The teacher reads a short excerpt aloud. Then students read to themselves, drawing boxes around unfamiliar words and writing definitions on Post-It notes.

Teachers are told to “get out of the students’ way” and let them struggle through on their own. Eventually students will pair up to “tease out the meaning” of words such as “lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, (Gershon) said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

Students finish the day with a “quick write.” They “use evidence from the text to relate the story’s epigraph to its first paragraph.”

Commenter Ajax in Charlotte is unimpressed. “Introducing the state standards and then having kids read silently, circle unfamiliar vocab words, and complete one short answer question is not exactly the most world-shattering, paradigm-shifting lesson plan I have ever seen.”

Doesn’t it sound boring?

“Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work, writes Diana Senechal. It assumes that “if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work.”

Thinking should be the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure.

. . . Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

The lesson also misrepresents teaching, writes Senechal. In the Common Core caricature, “the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read.”

For many years, teachers have been told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

I started ninth-grade English in 1966.  It was a Level 1 class, so everyone read the assignments at home, figured out the new words and came to class ready to discuss the ideas. Our teachers rarely lectured for more than a few minutes, as I recall. (It has been awhile.)  They asked questions and guided class discussions. We did all our writing at home too.

Trigger warning contest

“Trigger warnings” on syllabi — this book may be upsetting — are the latest campus fad, the New York Times reports.

Students want to be forewarned that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice deals with anti-Semitism or that Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway addresses a combat veteran’s suicide. Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby includes “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” a Rutgers student writes.

The National Association of Scholars has announced a Trigger Warning ContestWhat should readers be warned about before reading, say, Hamlet, The Republic, Anne of Green Gables, or The Wind in the Willows? Or the classic of your choice.

Readers can submit entries on Twitter, including NAS’s handle and the hashtag #triggerwarningfail.


The Iliad: warning – disturbing scene for those suffering sports injuries. #triggerwarningfail @NASorg

Oedipus Rex: warning – prejudicial treatment of alternative family structures. #triggerwarningfail @NASorg

Gulliver’s Travels: warning – size-ist. #triggerwarningfail @NASorg

The top three trigger warnings will be announced on Friday. Each submitter in the top three will receive a copy of NAS president Peter Wood’s book,  A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (warning: not recommended for the apiphobic).

Why teach poetry

Teaching poetry is important, yet often neglected, writes teacher Andrew Simmons in The Atlantic.

. . . poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

“Poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing” by teaching “precise, economical diction,” Simmons writes.

However, discussing a poem can turn into an “in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning,” Simmons concedes.  Teachers are encouraged to teach a “process of demystification” rather than “curating a powerful experience through literature.”

In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” (Billy Collins) writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

Teachers should teach “writing, grammar, and analytical strategies” — and help students  “see that literature should be mystifying,” concludes Simmons. Poetry, which resists easy interpretations, is perfect for this. 

When core-aligned kids get to college …

Common Core standards are supposed to improve college readiness, but they’ll leave students even less prepared for college than they are now, writes Peter Wood on Minding the Campus.

The Common Core emphasizes how to glean information from “informational texts,”  he writes. This includes “picture books, novels, poems, YouTube videos, works of history, and speeches by notables such as Abraham Lincoln.”

The trouble is that if you see the written word as mainly a device for conveying information, you miss many other things that writing can do. It stirs emotions; it points to truths beyond itself; alternatively, it conveys lies; it may possess beauty or it may be ugly; it can cause us to ask questions that the text itself does not ask; it possesses implications; it belongs to and participates in a larger context; it taps into secret memories; it rallies us to public causes.

The Common Core “slights” literature, cutting “students off from the foundation of a liberal education.”

Students who know how to read “informational texts,” and to read every piece of writing as though it is an “informational text,” are ill-prepared for Plato’s Republic or Shakespeare’s King Lear. Indeed, they are ill-prepared for Goodnight Moon.

To a great extent, colleges have abandoned their core curricula, Wood writes.

Students these days are lulled with the illusion that they can become “critical thinkers” by studying whatever catches their interest, rather than what their colleges have deemed the most important works. That whole do-it-yourself approach puts a premium on the capacity of college students to read with their eyes wide open and to get to places well beyond the “information” that a “text” lays out.

“Colleges will have to adapt to what the Common Core teaches — and what it fails to teach,” Wood believes. “It teaches a mechanical way of reading that is poorly suited to literature, philosophy, history, and the rest of the liberal arts.  It also fails to teach the math students need to begin a college-level curriculum in the sciences.”