In the Common Core era, English teachers are pairing literature with nonfiction, reports Kate Taylor in the New York Times. It can seem a bit . . . odd.
In Harrison, N.Y., 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield. In Springdale, Ark., ninth graders studying excerpts from “The Odyssey” also read sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a congressional resolution on its 60th anniversary, to connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans. After eighth graders in Naples, Fla., read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment.
At least half of what students read in elementary and middle school classes (not just English) should be nonfiction, according to Common Core. By 12th grade, students should spend 70 percent of their time reading nonfiction.
There’s less time to teach literature said Kimberly Skillen, administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”
The new standards call for everyone to read “seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance,” including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, as well as presidential addresses and Supreme Court opinions, notes the Times.
Literature classes may include “contemporary nonfiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan and units on argumentative writing and debate.” Romeo and Juliet may be paired with a magazine story on teenage suicide.
I can’t get over the attempt to equate Odysseus with GIs seeking job training or a degree. Perhaps his readjustment would have been easier if he’d had plans to study agriculture — and no gaggle of suitors to slaughter.
Teaching literature isn’t just about “teaching particular concepts and skills,” responds Valerie Strauss, who’s not a big Core fan.
How about teaching literature so students can learn to examine (not conform to) societal values, expand world views, understand their own and different cultures, appreciate the beauty of strong, eloquent language, develop emotional intelligence?
She also wonders about teaching parts of novels rather than encouraging students to read the whole thing.