The 11th Commandment from Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? Thou Shalt Read Informational Texts.
This edict from on high, from current College Board President and co-architect/promoter of the CCSS David Coleman, has had a seismic shift in curriculum at all grade levels. English/Language Arts Curriculum directors and teachers are jettisoning fiction from their lesson plans in the mistaken belief that they alone are responsible for addressing this new found commandment. For the uninitiated, informational texts in the CCSS replaces the genre previously known as non-fiction and includes many other genres including essays, speeches, and reports.
Columnist Joel Stein exposes the foolishness of this effort in his commentary “How I Replaced Shakespeare” in the 12/10/12 issue of Time Magazine when he discovered that his writing was being analyzed by students. (Note: Diane Ravitch, education activist has the full post on her blog) His response to students who were assigned his articles and who were parsing them for literary devices or thesis?
“Transfer high schools immediately! To one that teaches Shakespeare and Homer instead of the insightful commentary of a first-rate, unconventionally handsome modern wit! Also, don’t do drugs!”
Stein readily admits that students should have some exposure to different genres and explains that he learns how to write in different genres by looking at examples. Similarly English/Language Arts curriculum require students to write in various genres as well through models as well; for example, students are taught with models as to how to write in the genres of essay, business or friendly letter, book review, and poetry.
However, Stein refutes one of Coleman’s most quoted talking points. Coleman said, “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’” Stein’s response? “I agree with this, but only because no one has ever asked me for a market analysis.”
Stein points out that fiction provides the models that makes writers better. “No nonfiction writer can teach you how to use language like William Faulkner or James Joyce can,” he continues. Stein also mentions how the themes in fiction, and he mentions Shakespeare specifically, prepare students for real life choices. Othello, he notes, can help students make better choices about choices in working partnerships.
Instead, the shared blame for students not knowing how to write well or be able to read non-fiction lies with other disciplines such as history and science, a charge echoed by Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers who, along the National Governors Association, created the Common Core. Stein quotes Wilhoit saying, “History class assignments tend to be short textbook summaries, not primary sources.” Indeed the CCSS anticipated that reading across the disciplines is the most effective way to increase student understanding, so the CCSS made clear that a student’s diet of reading should be 70% informational texts and 30% fiction. Unfortunately, the explanation as to how this percentage would play out in the average student’s school day was relegated to two footnotes. On page 5 of the CCSS English Language Arts (down load) is the footnote that illuminates the 11th commandment of how Thou Shalt Read Informational Texts:
The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70
percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.
As with reading, the percentages in the table reflect the sum of student writing, not just writing in ELA settings.
When the CCSS were announced, the misreadings of this the English/Language Arts standards began immediately. The footnote was largely ignored. Instead, the movement to jam informational texts into English classes began. Literature was dumped in order to meet the set ratio in English classes alone rather than a move to increase the reading of informational texts in all other disciplines.Stein recounts how Wilhoit highlights the reaction of the small, vocal group who objected. “It (CCSS) upset people who love literature. That happens to be a lot of high school teachers,” Wilhoit said.
In How I Replaced Shakespeare, Stein adds his voice to the small vocal group who love literature. He is a former writer for the Los Angeles Times and now is a regular contributor to Time. He is a good writer who recognizes that all students would be far better served to read great literature (Shakespeare,Faulkner, Joyce) rather than his column of “informational texts.” The loss of literature at every grade level in an attempt to serve ratios-50% fiction/50% informational text in elementary and 30% fiction/70% in high school- is too great a price to be paid to meet the goals of the yet unproven Common Core.
Good to hear clarification that the 70/30 ratio will be “across the grade,” yet it still stings. I’m not sure about your school, but at mine, the history and religion and upper division language depts, for ex, also use fiction. I can imagine this 70/30 “across the grade” mandate will have certain depts arguing over texts. At the least, depts will have to pool their titles to determine compliance, right?