Monday, June 22, 2015

Response to New York Times' take on informational text: Part 1

When we saw the New York Times front-page article, “English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” this weekend, two thoughts struck us. (Well, three, if you include, “ohmygosh, it’s on the front page of the New York Times!”)

First, we were pleased to see acknowledgment of the great work that teachers all over the country are doing to incorporate informational text into their language arts classrooms in ways that enhance and invigorate their teaching of literature.

Second, we noted how the article reflects the reality that doing this well requires a significant amount of time, thought, and work on the part of the teacher. That daunting prospect is certainly part of the pushback that many teachers have understandably expressed toward the Common Core’s informational text mandate. And if teachers are not receiving the kind of support they need, they push back.

Without adequate support, moreover, the informational text mandate threatens to diminish the study of literature in language arts classrooms, both in terms of quantity and quality. Kimberly Skillen’s somewhat disheartening quote in the article illustrates this dilemma.

“'Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,’ said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: ‘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.’”

Angela Gunter, dean of liberal arts at Daviess County High School in Kentucky, echoes Skillen’s experience, noting that she assigned a shorter excerpt of Beowulf than she had in the past to make more time for reading nonfiction. As Gunter notes, her decision was motivated by the CC but also by the fact that her students “just were not that interested in `Beowulf.’”

It’s worth noting that there’s nothing sacred about literary texts. No one is necessarily a better person for having read every word of Beowulf; every production of Shakespeare edits and cuts words, lines, scenes.

What is perhaps sacred is developing our students’ reading comprehension skills with diverse complex texts, both informational and literary. It’s essential not just so that they can demonstrate those skills on standardized tests, but so that they can unlock all of the important themes and moral lessons we want them to wrestle with as part of their intellectual, emotional, and social development.

In our next response to this important discussion, we will return to the issue of time and support, however, to think through the ways in which the CCSS should and perhaps isn’t yet fulfilling its potential to reinvigorate the teaching of literature in a way that ensures the study of literature is not diminished but also helps students find ways to be interested in texts like Beowulf.

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