Archives For CCSS fiction vs informational texts

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What SHOULD be a tenet of the Common Core State Standards.

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.

Mary Poppins to the rescue:
Photo from A Guide to the London 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies

The London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony was broadcast at 9pm on 27 July 2012 (EST). As a platoon of  Mary Poppins clones decended clutching their iconic umbrellas to vanquish the Lord Voldemort mid-ceremony, I was suddenly struck by an idea. How would the Common Core English Language Arts Standards view this production? The extravanganza developed by world-class directors Danny BoyleBradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey and their teams was an eclectic mix of information  and fiction that “celebrated contributions the UK has made to the world through innovation and revolution.”

What grade, however, would the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) give London’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies? To make this assessment, a set of criteria needs to be established.  Informational texts are factual and real. Add a touch of whimsy or artistic interpretation and informational texts blur into that fuzzy blend of the literary genre of fiction. Lyrics in music are often considered poetry, so music also falls in the realm of fiction, and for the purposes of this assessment, so will an artistic dance that expresses a story.

Recommended ratios of informational texts to fiction by grade level.

The CCSS suggest a decreasing ratio of fiction  to an increasing ratio of informational texts  for students in grade 4, grade 8, and grade 12. (see chart) This does not mean that English/Language Arts classes must drop literary fiction, but that other disciplines (History/Social Studies, Math, Science, Health, etc) should include more informational texts in their instruction in order to achieve the suggested ratios. The London 2012 Opening Ceremony was a blend of information and fiction (literally!).

Did London’s “Isles of Wonder” Opening Ceremony meet the recommended ratios of fiction to informational text according to Common Core State Standards?

A quick tally of the highlights as they appeared as either  fiction or informational text:
  • James Bond at Buckingham Palace escorting Queen and Corgis-fiction
  •  Skydiving Queen Elizabeth II-fiction
  • Thames River origin marker, Thames waders, Thames rowers, Thames boat traffic, Thames on a Google map -informational text
  • A flyby of Mr. Rat and Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows arguing in a boat on the Thames-fiction
  • The Pink Floyd Tribute pig  seen floating above the Battersea Power Station-fiction
  • London landmarks Big Ben and London Bridge-informational text
  • Big Ben’s hour and minute hand rapidly spinning and time traveling in London’s Tube- fiction
  • Posters of past Olympics contrasted with posters advertising 2012 Games-informational texts
  • Fluffy White Clouds held with string on a set of an English meadow –fiction
  • Tribute to the Agrarian Society featuring a very busy sheepdog with livestock -informational text
  • Tribute to the Industrial Revolution with Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the man who was responsible for England’s Industrial Revolution-informational text
  • Kenneth Branagh as Kenneth Branagh reading Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempestfiction
  • Forging of Tolkien’s “One Ring to rule them all” leading to the Forging of the Olympic Rings-fiction
  • Song by Scotland singer Emeli Sandé  and  dance British choreographer Akram Khan: fiction; their performance pre-empted by a silly interview by Ryan Seacrest of Michael Phelps-informational text
  • Tribute to National Health Service replete with backlit hospital beds filled with bouncy children, and dancing nurses and orderlies-informational text
  • Arrival of villainous characters from children’s literature (Including The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang, The Queen of Hearts Alice in Wonderland, and an inflated Voldemort from Harry Potter) chased away by PT Traver’s famous nanny, and all replaced by one giant sleeping baby-fiction
  • Rowan Atkinson’s,  (Mr. Bean), imagination running amuck in Chariots of Fire –fiction
  • A “Tube” made of tubes to highlight a contemporary romance: boy meets girl via cell phone-fiction
  • Musical hits from the 60′s, 70′s, 80′s, 90′s with unnecessary extended rap performance-fiction
  • Clothing from  the 60′s, 70′s, 80′s, 90′s (with the exception of the fictional Sgt. Pepper Costumes and Freddie Mercury Bobbleheads)  informational text
  • The big reveal of the creator of Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee also known as “TimBL”, computer scientist, MIT professor and the inventor of the World Wide Web -informational text
  • Soccer great David Beckham arriving in a speedboat to hand the torch to Steve Redgrave, a five-time Olympic champion in rowing-informational text
  • The Olympic Cauldron, formed of 205 copper petals (one for each country) ignited by seven young torchbearers nominated by Britain’s past and present Olympic and sporting greats-informational text
  • Paul McCartney’s appearance for a British pound -informational text;  Lyrics of “Hey, Jude” sung by all athletes and audience –fiction
  • Pyrotechnics exploding from every conceivable platform in and around the stadium-informational text

My quick tally of 25 selected moments of the opening games comes to a total of 15 fictional texts (55% ) compared to 13 informational texts (48%)-(including two “blended information and fiction”). These percentages indicate that the production was too heavy in fiction. However, perhaps this high number of fictional texts is not really a surprise as Danny Boyle was hired specifically for his talents with stories (Slumdog Millionaire). According to a CNN report, Bill Morris, director of Ceremonies for the London Games said, “His ability as a storyteller, as a creator of spectacle, his background in both theater and film and the passion he has for this city and this project — they all just screamed at us. It wasn’t a difficult choice.”

Ultimately, London’s Opening Ceremony would not meet the suggested ratio of genres for the Common Core State Standards. According to my criteria and chosen highlights, the elements of the Opening Ceremony would not meet the suggested ratio of 50%  fictional texts to 50% informational texts in Grade 4, and certainly would not meet the ratio of fiction (30%) to informational texts (70%)  for students by grade 12.

There is one more informational fact that could be added to tilt the ratio.  The cost of the opening ceremonies was  27 million British pounds. That cold economic fact could be assessed against the joy of watching the Danny Boyle’s frenetic and spectacular celebration of Great Britain, both real and imagined. However, even this ratio would still not satisfy the recommendations for reading genres. When judging Olympic Opening Ceremonies, the Common Core is not the gold medal standard.