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Common Core Wars: The English Teachers Strike Back

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With the new Common Core State Standards now being recognized by forty-six states and three territories, there is a gradual awareness among non-educators that this is something big. Students and parents have been hearing about it for a while now. Schools have held meetings, and there are numerous resources online for people to find out what they need to know. My recent Google search gave me 10,100,000 links within three seconds, so there is plenty from which to choose if you need to know more.

The funny thing is that everyone has gotten so excited about the CCSS that they have lost sight of an underlying truth: no one has reinvented the wheel here. The best practices that teachers have been doing since the one-room schoolhouse are the same as always. The notion of reading, writing, and arithmetic may seem antiquated, but that is what the new standards are all about. This is just a new way to do an old thing, maybe not better, but with an awareness that was perhaps was not there before.

As it has been most of my adult life, my concern has to do with writing. The CCSS set the goal of teaching “skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” There is no more important skill students can have than to become proficient writers, with assiduous attention to things that matter like punctuation, grammar, and spelling. I do think that the standards lead students to the well, but getting them to drink is another story.

Let us look back a bit at how we all become writers. We do not sit and listen to our parents speaking as babies, and then as little kids decide to pick up a pencil and write. The in between step is that our parents “read” to us. Reading is the most essential part of the writing equation, and it is necessary and compelling for kids to be hearing books and seeing us read from them when they are in their infancy.

I recall sitting with my son and giving him a bottle with one hand while reading a book with the other. He did not just sit there and stare into space as he sucked down that milk; he had his first reading experiences. I also made sure that even when he sat on the floor playing with his toys that he could look up at me and see me reading books, magazines, and newspapers. I wanted him to know that I valued reading, that it had an important place in my life, and I wanted it to matter in his life as well.

Now there is a bit of a battle brewing because of CCSS, which indicates that more non-fiction material should be read than fiction in schools. Columnist Jay Mathews wrote about this recently in The Washington Post and described the academic battle, with lines clearly drawn by English teachers and professors who feel this is going to be a loss of a sacred right to teach the classic texts we have all been taught before.

There are a few problems inherent in this discussion. The CCSS is supposed to set-up standards that are “robust and relevant to the real world.” In that scenario, it is obvious that non-fiction would seem to be a more reasonable way to go. Students can study documents, read journals, historical texts, and essays that elucidate a selected topic. They are then expected to use what they have read to analyze, to find answers, to discuss them, and eventually write in meaningful ways.

All this is wonderful and essential. We writing instructors have been doing this for a long, long time and usually had students write research papers in which they cited sources. There is nothing wrong with any of this, yet there is a salient truth about non-fiction: students do not like it as much as fiction. All the standards in the world are not going to get students to enjoy Studs Terkel’s Working more than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The same can be said for the teachers, who for the most part want to teach more fiction than non-fiction. This is not because they don’t want to be good teachers, but rather because (as Mathews notes) they love what they were taught in school and want to teach it too. This is the reason many teachers become educators in the first place.

Of course, my concern about writing is intimately connected to all this. Young writers emulate the works that they read and love. I can remember saying, “I want to write a story just like Poe!” after reading “The Cask of Amontillado.” I then sat down and wrote a story about something very similar. How many students have done the same thing? We read Hemingway and then we want to write like him. There are even contests constructed around this kind of thing, including a Bad Hemingway Contest. Imitation here is not just done in a vacuum; rather, it is building skills as they learn to pace a narrative, use colorful language and metaphors, craft plots, and build conflict.

One of the things I like about this is that it gets students writing. I think the CCSS are meant to inspire this too, and its proponents want meaningful writing to be done in all subject areas. I am all for that, but one can argue that students get enough non-fiction in other courses like the sciences, sociology, social studies, and so on. Why not let literature still be taught by English teachers, professionals who are experts in their field as much as other teachers are in theirs?

It is an interesting debate and will not be resolved anytime soon. One thing I do know is that students will write in response to things that they care about; they will struggle writing about things they do not. Non-fiction can be written as beautifully as fiction (I am thinking of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes as a prime example of this), but we have a category for this known as “literary non-fiction.” Certainly, a distinction can and should be made.

Yes, in the real world students will probably never have to sit down and write a short story (unless they want to do it). They will have to write letters, respond to inquiries, and write essays for college aplications and later on for some job applications. The importance of non-fiction writing, and knowing how to do it, is an essential life skill. This can and should be taught, but my thinking is that new classes ought to be formed exclusively for this, rather than take away the literature component or making it less than 50 percent of the curriculum.

Years ago I remember teaching my first English composition class. I was given a reader (of all non-fiction essays) and a grammar book. In fifteen weeks during that semester I was to teach various essays (narrative, process, cause and effect, etc.) and also get them to understand proper usage. In my first attempt at a diagnostic quiz, I asked students to identify the parts of speech in a paragraph. Not one student in that class knew what a part of speech was, much less how to find a noun, verb, or adjective in a sentence. Why was that? Because these college freshmen were never taught that in high school.

Now I think we are trying to make up ground, and the CCSS are something that deserve praise for the essence of the standards is to teach our children and teach them well. No one can find fault with that; however, it is not only what you teach but how well you teach it. Most English teachers are letting it be known that literature is something that they teach well and wish to continue that pattern of success.

On the CCSS website we are told that the standards are “a key building block” in the process of education. Teachers are meant to take this and, just as a child does with Legos, construct something wonderful. We must note that a teacher will only build the best lessons if he/she has the vision to do so, just as the child builds that castle, fortress, or house with the blocks. In this case most teachers of English feel that they want to teach great lessons, but they do not wish to lose the literature, which is something like sacred texts to pass on to the students in their charge.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the months ahead. CCSS, like any other new venture, must be tinkered with along the way. Just one thing I will note is that I see a good deal of people (including students) reading on their electronic devices, and if I ask what they are reading, I would say more than two thirds of them will respond with some type of work of fiction. This is by no means a scientific survey, but I think it highlights the desire of people to read what they enjoy, and most people enjoy fiction more than non-fiction.

In my opinion, I am happy to see students reading because when people read, they end up writing too, and writing is one of the most important skills of all. I think we need to teach reading and teach it well if we are ever going to teach writing well, so the battle between non-fiction and fiction may end up just being a good thing if it creates a dialogue and gets us to better place, perhaps one where students will not only be able to identify the parts of speech but also know how to use them properly in wonderfully constructed sentences.

Photo Credit: map – sadlier.com; nook – news.cnet.org

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.