Saturday, December 6, 2014

What the Common Core means for teaching literature

A fascinating article in the Watertown Daily Times this week addressed the subject nearest to our hearts right now: the emerging balance between literature and informational text. Reporter Katherine Clark Ross included the voices of a range of English teachers and educational leaders, all pondering what the inclusion of informational text will mean for the literature once central to the language arts classroom. Ross opens with the lead: “Students are reading fewer full-length books with the Common Core curriculum.”

Will students stop reading the classics? Is To Kill a Mockingbird going to be lost to this generation of students?

Not exactly.

The article goes on to discuss how teachers are incorporating informational text and doing so in ways that enhance the teaching of literature. For example, Beaver River High School English teacher Emily Z. Mayer uses Gatsby as the center for “a variety of lessons that focus on the culture of the 1920s.” Sonya G. Esposito, of Sackets Harbor, uses newspaper articles about genocide to contextualize a fictional work about the Holocaust.

We are excited to see these teachers using informational text in ways that meet the new standards while also enriching their teaching of literature. In particular, informational texts can be used to provide relevant, necessary background knowledge so that students can better appreciate the context and issues in a text, as Mayer does with Gatsby and the 20s. Or, informational texts can be used to help student see the larger context of a text, as in Esposito’s work connecting the Holocaust to other genocides. In both cases, students are learning more and learning more broadly, which then allows them to delve more deeply and probably with more engagement into the literary text.

And that, after all, is every English teacher’s goal and no small feat. Gatsby, lest we forget, is not necessarily immediately relevant and interesting to American teenagers today, Leonardo DiCaprio notwithstanding.

So, as Ross concludes, the results of the Common Core are some trepidation but also, excitingly, “more time conducting research” and “more discussion” as students are “seeing things from different perspectives.”

Ross ends her article with the sentiments of Carthage Central High School teacher Jennifer K. Hanno. Literature will retain its place in the curriculum “if teachers make sure they examine the reading closely.”

Indeed, this is the welcome opportunity of the Common Core, and it’s one worth pondering. Teachers are being asked to become scholar-teachers. We will be responsible for finding readable, high-quality texts that offer either relevant cultural context for a literary work or timely, engaging contemporary connections with a literary work. And we will be transforming these informational texts into exciting lessons.

This idea of the CCSS returning intellectual autonomy and responsibility to teachers is echoed in remarks by Brien Karlin, a U.S. history teacher, broadcast in a series on the Common Core on National Public Public Radio’s Morning Edition. In discussing his lesson on gerrymanding, Karlin notes that “the Core standards [have] given him new ideas about how to teach without telling him what to do.” The lesson is something Karlin created himself; “it doesn't come from a textbook or a curriculum guide or the district office.”

Sure, the Common Core and all the associated testing mean lots of work for teachers, but the challenge of creating, innovative, exciting lessons that will engage our students and make them think: that’s why many of us became teachers. This work may be hard, but it’s thrilling. It moves us away from all the negative talk about teachers and returns us to the realm of teachers as resourceful researchers and thinkers. Thinking about ourselves in this way is, we think, incredibly affirming for most of us.

So, on we go, inventing new and exciting ways to get our students to research, think, read, and write about the texts we care about. Congratulations to all those teachers out there who have embraced the opportunity of informational text in the ways Ross describes in her article.

For those intrigued but nervous about how to begin, please consult our resources for some ideas and assistance. We can all do this, and when we do it well, our students will be more deeply engaging the literary texts, like Mockingbird, that we love and learning more as they do so.

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