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Common Core Uncommon Sense

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Some readers of the Common Core Standards see the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) distribution of literary and informational passages on page five and go into an immediate tailspin. Twelfth graders read 70 percent nonfiction? The horror!

Let me dispel a common misreading of this chart. The NAEP measures reading across all disciplines, not only in English. The message the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) intended to send to schools is that in order to be prepared for college and the workplace, students need to read informational text as well as literature. NAGB was not recommending that 70 percent of what students read in English should be nonfiction, but that 70 percent of what students read over the course of the school day should more closely resemble the kinds of texts that high school graduates will be assigned in college and for other post-secondary pursuits.  Developers of the Common Core concurred.

The Common Core Standards will affect curriculum, particularly in terms of the inclusion—from kindergarten through twelfth grade—of more nonfiction. Before jumping to the conclusion that any addition of nonfiction must mean the subtraction of fiction, picture a classroom where students read twice or three times as much as they do now. Before assuming that I have lost my mind here, check out Jeff Wilheim and Michael Smith’s Reading Don't Fix No Chevys": Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Many students who take little pleasure in poetry will read with interst books like Ishmael Beah’s Long Way Gone, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and Mary Roach’s Stiff. Nonfiction can invigorate classroom discourse.

Reading nonfiction can also complement the reading of literature. Let’s say you are coming to the end of a unit on Romeo and Juliet. What if you had students read the excerpt from Amy Chau's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and asked students to write about their position on parental involvement in teenagers’ lives? You might invite students to peruse the thousands of online comments that poured in following the article’s first appearance and craft their argument using or refuting other readers’ points of view as well as evidence from the play.

I can almost hear you thinking, “But what about the tests that must, as the night the day, follow? Won’t they, more than anything else, determine classroom practice?” The Common Core assessments under construction include items that ask students to read a collection of texts and write an analysis of an issue based on the readings. Sounds a lot like the AP Language synthesis question, doesn’t it? Imagine if students were engaged in this kind of reading, writing, and thinking from early elementary school on. Imagine a unit—only you don’t need to imagine it because the readings are laid out for you by Robert Atwan in the most recent edition of America Now—on how social networking is transforming behavior:

  • Garry Trudeau, “Hi, Dad,” Doonesbury
  • Mary Katharine Ham, We Shall Overshare
  • Brent Baughman, Growing Older in the Digital Age: An Exercise in Egotism
  • Elizabeth Stone, Grief in the Age of Facebook

Instead of bewailing the coming of the Common Core, I’m excited about its potential to make close reading and textual analysis commonly held skills. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but that’s a brave new world I look forward to.