Thursday, January 10, 2013

Nonfiction and the Common Core Standards: Your Suggestions Wanted!

You may have heard that the new Common Core State Standards that are being phased in by the majority of states over the next couple years seem to recommend an increase in the reading of "informational text" (I say "seem to recommend" because I personally find the description of the Common Core State Standards on the official website nearly incomprehensible).  If this means reading more primary sources across disciplines (i.e. The Federalist Papers in History or Government class) and/or reading relevant secondary nonfiction across disciplines (such as The Botany of Desire in Biology class), I think it sounds great.  [Here's a moving description of the revolutionary impact of writing across the curriculum in a struggling high school; I think reading across the curriculum would also have a salutary effect].

But some educators are assuming the "informational text" reading will take place primarily in English classes or during what would be fiction-and-poetry-reading time; thus according to the Washington Post, they read the new standards as a "call for public schools to ramp up nonfiction so that by 12th grade students will be reading mostly 'informational text' instead of fictional literature" (italics mine).  Many English teachers are rightly alarmed that this interpretation of the new standards devalues literature (and the humanities more generally), depriving students of the wisdom they can gain from deep engagement with literary texts.  The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers devoted volume 5 of the publication Forum to critiquing the anti-humanities bias underpinning the Common Core State Standards and other education reform efforts.  This volume, "What is Education? A Response to the Council on Foreign Relations Report 'U.S. Education Reform and National Security,'" is described here and available for free download here.  I found it very compelling.

Sara Mosle points out in an op-ed in the New York Times that "informational text" can be part of the domain of the humanities, that "informational text" doesn't have to mean technical reports or train schedules, but that there is much wonderful literary nonfiction that students could read.  Indeed The National Endowment for the Humanities is crowdsourcing the creation of new summer nonfiction reading lists to supplement their popular summer fiction lists.  You can go to the NEH website to recommend good nonfiction titles for various reading levels. 

I've been surprised and pleased by how much my 8-year-old son N. enjoys nonfiction reading because I didn't discover its pleasures until adulthood when I was introduced to The New Yorker and other literary nonfiction prose.  My husband, who loves well-written nonfiction himself, has used it as a foundation of our son's education so far, reading aloud to him everything from autobiographies to science to history; he even recently checked out a book called The Best Writing on Mathematics to see if it contained anything that might be accessible to N.  For his own pleasure reading, N. is drawn to nonfiction even more than fiction, much as he loves the latter.  N.'s daily reading is most often Trains magazine, Classic Trains magazine, National Geographic, books about train history, and books about buildings.  And he loves to get what he calls "information books" from the library.  But I work to make sure he doesn't neglect fiction and poetry by reading both aloud to him daily and nudging him to make time for his own literary reading.  Since I've seen how much my son has enjoyed and learned from nonfiction, I hope that the Common Core State Standards will be interpreted by teachers and school administrators to widen students' exposure to good writing across fields of inquiry rather than to reduce their engagement with literature.  

4 comments:

Megan Neal said...

I've read most of the Common Core Standards, and from what I can understand it seems to be an attempt to introduce whole texts across the education spectrum, which can only be a good thing, to my mind. I didn't see anywhere that it advocated taking away literature or literary texts from English classes, contrary to the many alarmist articles I've read. I understand it to be an attempt to get teachers away from textbooks and into whole texts. BUT...and it's a big "but", I can see problems with its implementation, because it requires teachers to actually teach as opposed to relying on textbooks to do the job. To some this will be a relief and joy, to others...well.... The Standards seem to allow a lot of leeway. And then there's the matter of testing, with which the public education system seems so enamored. How do you make standard tests for what will be, as it's currently outlined, individual teacher textual choices? It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
But as far as the Standards themselves, I'm all for it. It's what our family does, homeschooling-wise, although ours is more 50/50 right now. (That's 50% nonfiction, 50% fiction.)
It seems to be very similar to the International Baccalaureate program that so many countries have adopted, not in set-up but in use of whole texts.

Fanny Harville said...

Megan, I agree that emphasis on "whole texts" instead of textbooks is excellent. If tests focus on analytical skills rather than content, that would make sense for the variety of individual teacher choices that are likely. It will be interesting indeed to see how this program is implemented and how it meshes with the standardized testing regime...

Adrienne Pilon ("A") said...

Since I teach 11th grade AP, I focus primarily on non-fiction, yet don't neglect fiction. The problem with the implementation of these standards is that it will impact the teachers and kids who are already getting squeezed out--those in low performing schools where administrators rush to "fix" things as quickly as possible. These new standards have already taken root in some negative ways: I have two cousins who teach in LA and they have had books REMOVED from their classrooms, and were told that the curriculum was "too literature-heavy". Non-fiction can be fantastic, but when standards are used to perpetuate a particular social order (no, I'm not being paranoid) then they must be challenged.

Fanny Harville said...

Adrienne, I totally agree with you that there is a social agenda implicit in the standards, as if fiction is a luxury only available for the privileged...