Archives For ELA Common Core

Spoiler alertEnter the spoiler alert. Because the number of ways people hear about stories is increasing, spoiler alerts for books and films are offered as a “heads-up”, a means to prevent plot details from becoming public.  Knowing the end of a story might mean that the strategy of “predicting” a story has been compromised, however, there are genres of stories that absolutely count on predictability, for example, Nancy Drew will always solve a mystery with her best friend, Bess and George, while on TV, predictability has a time limit; the shipwrecked crew will never leave Gilligan’s Island (30 mins) and House will solve a medical mystery (60 mins).

Predictability means to state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge, and students are taught at an early age that making predictions can help them to determine what will happen in a story.

I noticed how predictions are important even if the end has already been decided when my six-year-old niece was watching the Disney film Running Brave. This was her favorite film, and she watched the VHS tape every afternoon. On one such afternoon, I noticed she was drifting asleep, so I made a move to turn off the video.

“Wait,” she cried out, “I think….I think he’s going to win again.”

From her perspective, the outcome of the race was still in doubt. The cinematic elements, the tight editing of shots , and a triumphant soundtrack created suspense where the viewer might doubt the inevitable. Krista had seen the movie hundreds of times, but she still was “testing” her prediction.

I admit that I have felt the same way watching Miracle, holding my breath for the final seconds wondering if the US ice hockey team would still win the Olympic medal. Krista’s experience is also mirrored in the classes where students often choose books based on a movie that they have seen.

In the independent reading allowed in our curriculum, the 9th graders can choose contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and many of the titles have movies in circulation, for example:

Some students purposefully choose these books because they know the endings, and in knowing how the book ends allows the reader to pay more attention to the craft of the author in bringing all the plot points together in a conclusion. Take for example, the Harry Potter series. Most readers predicted with certainty that Harry Potter would finally face his nemesis, Voldemort. The how and when, however, were still very much in the air, and J.K.Rowling’s crafting of the series’s magical settings and character development kept readers in a willing suspension of disbelief for the length of seven volumes. The final conclusion was satisfying to her fans who knew all along that Harry would prevail, after all, Good’s triumph over Evil is a predictable plot. Readers and filmgoers were not disappointed in following the story of a boy with the scar on his forehead because in each volume and subsequent film release, they correctly predicted that “I think…I think he will win again.”

So when I teach a whole class novel, I know there are some students who already know the ending. They may have reached the conclusion before others, or been informed by older students who notoriously share their opinions and critical information with younger students. In this case, my role is to impress on students that knowing the outcome will not destroy a well-told story, and to focus their attention on the other elements. This was the case with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“I heard this is a sad book,” one student said when I assigned the first chapter, “One guy kills another guy.”
Other students looked up for my confirmation.
“Yes, this is a sad book, but the reason for the sadness is really about caring. We will grow to care for these characters.”
“I already don’t care if I already know what happens,” was his reply.
Four weeks later, this student refused to watch the final scene in the film version.
“I know what happens, and I cannot watch,” he said sadly as he walked out into the hall.

The same sentiments are expressed at the beginning of our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Guess what? They die,” said a student as I passed out the books.
“Yes, they die,” I kept passing out the copies.
“So why are reading this?” another asked.
“Because this is a great story,” I responded, “and the story’s ending will mean more after we finish because we will have read how Shakespeare writes about these ‘star-cross’d lovers’.”
“But we already know how it ends!” they whined.

Now that we are in Act III, no one cares that they know the end, instead, they are recognizing how Shakespeare creates the tragedy. They notice the “hints”: Juliet seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb”, Friar Lawrence’s herbs of “Violent delights”, and “Love devouring death”.

This discovery of an author’s details makes students more appreciative of the craft in writing as they still try to predict. They notice Shakespeare’s allusions: “Such a wagoner/As Phaeton would whip you to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately” (3.2.2-4), because we had studied the Phaeton myth earlier in the year.

“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” I heard one say, “Romeo’s gonna crash and burn like Phaeton.”

That kind of analysis is exactly what the English Language Arts Common Core would like to see in a close reading of a text. How interesting that students who already know “what happens” may be better at picking up on an author’s craft that a close reading generates.

Spoiler alerts do warn those readers or viewers who want to be surprised, but knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the reading or viewing experience. Want to experiment? Here are 50 plot spoilers for 50 novels. I predict that each novel will not disappoint, even if you already know the ending.

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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.

 David Coleman, incoming president of the College Board is staring out from the front cover of the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic . Actually, he is not staring. I think he is smirking…a Cheshire Cat smirk.

He has every reason to smirk. Coleman one of the architects of the Common Core State Standards has emerged as one of the more influential education policymakers to change what will be taught in classrooms and how this content will be taught without ever having spent time in the classroom himself.

Yes, Coleman has never taught in a public school classroom, although he was very successful as a student. He was educated in the Manhattan public school system, the son of highly educated parents, his father, a psychiatrist, and his mother, president of Bennington College. His privileged liberal arts credentials are immersive and include Yale, a Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford, and Cambridge.

His perspective on education has been informed by the business side of education which included pro-bono work at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He developed and sold the assessment company Grow Network; co-founded and sold Student Achievement Partner; and most recently, accepted a position as president of The College Board.

Coleman has materialized, like Lewis Carroll’s enigmatic Cheshire Cat, as the cool outsider who surveys education as a Wonderland ruled by nonsense. He has promoted an agenda of close reading and an increase in non-fiction, to a ratio of 70% of all required reading by grade 12, from his perch high above the daily dust-ups of the average classroom.

Now, after developing the CCSS, replete with new batteries of state tests, he has moved on to the pinnacle of high stakes testing, the SAT. His arrival comes amid renewed concerns from studies about the SAT that demonstrate the unfairness of the test for minorities, females, and students living in poverty.

While I can embrace many of the standards in the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS),  I remain unconvinced by Coleman’s sweeping claims that “close reading” lessons  of several days focused on a complex and difficult text is critical to improving understanding. I have practiced close reading, but not with the singular and tortuous focus Coleman advocates. There is little research as to how this approach will improve reading skills for all students. For 21 years, I have been a “boots on the ground” promoter of reading to a population of students who are reading less and less of the assigned materials, so I speak from experience when I state that Coleman’s emphasis on close reading can have an adverse effect on an already poor reader.

Furthermore, Coleman negates the effectiveness of the past 35 years of having students engage with a text using Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory. His blunt charge “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think” is simply not true. I cannot imagine any author who would not want to know what a reader thought. Writing is supposed to inspire; writing is an invitation to a dialogue. Furthermore, how will not listening to what students thought engage them in writing at all?

The question is how did Coleman get to place his large footprint on education, and why did teachers let him move into this position? Were teachers so preoccupied with teaching that they failed to see how the dynamics of education were moving from engaging leaders from public school institutions to accepting leadership from more commercial enterprises?

Dennis Van Roekel alluded to the rise of Coleman and others like him when he delivered an address to the National Education Association 91st Representative Assembly this past July:

Are we willing to assert our leadership, and take RESPONSIBILITY for our professions?
The demands of our work are changing as our students change, and the world around us is changing too – ever so fast.I say it is time for us to lead the next generation of professionals – in educating the next generation of students!

I’m so tired of OTHERS defining the solutions… without even asking those who do the work every day of their professional life.
I want to take advantage of this opportunity for US to lead – and I’m not waiting to be asked, nor am I asking anyone’s permission.

Because if we are not ready to lead, I know there are many others ready, willing, and waiting to do it for us. Or maybe I should say, do it “to” us.

Van Roekel’s quote echoes the question rhetorically posed by noted educator Lucy Caulkins at her presentation of the 82nd reunion at Columbia Teacher’s College, “Where is the proof, David Coleman, that your strategy works?”

Coleman’s ascent to the top of American education policy has been steady. He made contributions to the CCSS which will result in nationwide metrics for grades K-12. Add this testing to his new control of the SAT, and his influence on American education and the tests that measure learning will continue through the college level, all without his having the informative experience of teaching in a classroom. That any one individual without any teaching experience could have had this impact on the daily workings of the classroom is a commentary on the current state of madness that public education now finds itself.

At one point in in her Adventures in Wonderland, Alice comes across the Cheshire Cat in the hope of finding her way out:

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

Carroll’s Cheshire Cat character is a tease, an enigmatic riddler who offers judgments and cryptic clues but no  solution to the frustrated Alice. Coleman is education’s Cheshire Cat, offering positions in education but with no evidence to prove his solutions will work.

Curiouser and curiouser. David Coleman has become one of the most influential educational policymakers in our public school systems, but at this time, we have little else but his smirk.

Smartblogs recently ran a post by Bill Ferriter titled “Reading Nonfiction is not Optional ” where he argued that there is too much fiction in a student’s reading diet. “The sad truth,” he wrote, “is that fiction still dominates the literacy lives of young readers. Whether they are wrapped up in fantastic exploits written by guys like Rick Riordan or churning through the latest release in the hottest new vampire series, today’s kids rarely make room for nonfiction in their book bags.”

Sad truth? Why is this a “sad truth”? What is wrong with reading fiction? Fiction, like its counterpart non-fiction, offers our student readers valuable life lessons. For example, in an online article in September 7, 2011 Reading Fiction ‘Improves Empathy’, Study Finds, Professor Keith Oatly at the University of Toronto who studies the psychology of fiction reports that:

“I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world. The subject matter of fiction is constantly about why she did this, or if that’s the case what should he do now, and so on. With fiction we enter into a world in which this way of thinking predominates. …. In fiction, also, we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have.”

Annie Murphy Paul noted the same study in her article in The New York TimesYour Brain on Fiction (3/17/12) writing that, “Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” Apparently, our brains cannot differentiate between the fictional experience and the real life experience, “in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” Furthermore, the simulation of social experience in fiction through a character’s point of view  helps prepare our brains for real-life social interactions.

In other words, while the genre of non-fiction may be the recording of real life, the genre of fiction is critical in preparing readers for real life.

In his post, Ferriter also quoted young adult (YA) writer Walter Dean Myers:

“We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct…We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war. We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life. If you had a sick patient, you would not try to entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”

Ferriter’s paraphrase of Myers’s statement, the title of his post, “Reading Nonfiction is not Optional,” strikes the wrong tone. Myers, a writer of both YA fiction and non-fiction, did not specify as to the genre he endorsed for student reading. Myers was advocating reading, period. Both fiction and non-fiction are critical to our students’ growth and development, not one genre at the expense of another.

Independent reading means a student can choose to read non-fiction OR fiction

Yes, the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (ELA CCSS) call for an increase in non-fiction. The authors of the ELA CCSS created a little chart on page 5 of the ELA CCSS that notes that students should be reading 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction by grade 12. But this is not the ratio for reading in an English Language Arts classroom. That is the ratio for a whole school curriculum.

I am particularly sensitive to the increasing number of attacks on fiction and the need to reducing fiction from the English classroom. Ferriter’s post makes a similar argument and could be associated with the myth that “English teachers will be asked to teach non-fiction”. This myth is directly repudiated in the ELA CCSS document:

“Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.”

In other words, reading must be offered in every discipline, students must read across the curriculum.While Ferriter’s Reading Nonfiction is Not Optional makes the important point that all teachers are responsible for modeling reading, he oversteps when he says, “If you want students to love nonfiction — and you should considering the important role that nonfiction plays in learning — you really do need to stop spending all of your sustained silent reading time figuring out what’s going to happen next to Origami Yoda.” Good SSR programs allow for independent choice in any genre by students. What Ferriter could have suggested that the expansion of SSR to other disciplines would increase reading of non-fiction while having the additional benefit of satisfying the ELA CCSS.

Of course, I often hear arguments from teachers in other disciplines moaning, “What do I drop out of my course to include reading?” which could be interpreted as the reason why the authors of the ELA CCSS felt the need to develop reading and writing standards for History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas. These disciplines need to step up the reading in their classrooms.

But who said reading non-fiction was an option? I can assure Ferriter that English/Language Arts teachers are dedicated to improving student reading. They are not hung up on genre, but when they teach fiction, English/Language Arts teachers are teaching their subject matter. The adoption of the ELA CCSS means that all disciplines must offer for opportunities to share their subject matter. To re-frame Ferriter’s argument to align with the new standards, reading non-fiction in every classroom is not an option, and reading non-fiction in an English/Language Arts classroom can be a choice. After all, that growing body of research shows that fiction is just as important as non-fiction for our students, including what happens in Origami Yoda.

English teachers, defend literature in the classroom!

I teach English, and I am feeling a little defensive lately. In the past week, I have had two separate “literature-threatening” incidents.

The first came from a reader to an opinion piece I wrote that was featured in Education Weekly, 21st Century Students Need Books, Not Textbooks. The responder was repeating the myth that English classrooms need to abandon teaching literature in favor of teaching math and science texts:

“You need to look at the Common Core ELA [English Language Arts] standards and realize you now have a responsibility to teach reading and writing for STEM subjects. That is why this discussion is so wrong. Start reading math and science textbooks and start teaching what your students need, not what you love. I learned early on: the most boring subject is the world is another person’s hobby. Your hobby is reading “literature.” Your students need to learn to read and write STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] topics, and those are found in textbooks. PERIOD!!”-Ebasco

This kind of response comes from the mistaken interpretation that the 70% of informational texts suggested by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) need to be taught in English class; even the CCSS devotes a clarification to this on page 5 of their document in a footnote. Instead, reading is to be a critical part of all disciplines, generally 70% informational texts in all subjects and 30% fiction in English classrooms. However, English teachers can assign informational texts just as history/social studies can assign historical fiction; the genre assignment is fluid. An entire section of the ELA CCSS titled “Reading in History/Social Studies, Science, Math and the Technical Areas” is a guide devoted to improving the reading and writing standards in all disciplines. The push for reading informational texts is certainly a result of STEM, but literature is not being jettisoned out of the curriculum because it is a “hobby”.

Indeed, the benefits of reading literature is rooted in the second of the “literature threatening” incidents, in a WNYC Schoolbook blog post a piece titled Never Mind Algebra, Is Literature Necessary?  In this post, Tim Clifford made a compelling case regarding the stripping of literature from English classrooms in favor of Common Core, and again, the roots of this anti-literature movement are found in mistaken interpretations of the CCSS.

Clifford began his post with a multiple choice quiz based on the following quote:

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root everything else out.”

Clifford posed the question “Who said the above?” and then offered three responses:

a. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and educational gadfly
b. Michelle Rhee, staunch proponent of standardized testing
c. David Coleman, author of the Common Core standards

Then he offered the real answer,
d. Thomas Gradgrind, a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in the 1854 novel Hard Times.

The quote expressed the publicized sentiment of standardized testing advocates David Coleman, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee. (I had chosen David Coleman as my answer). In discussing the correct answer, Gradgrind, Clifford explained that Dickens’s character was an attempt to skewer those utilitarian values in the mid 19th Century. Like today, there was a push for informational facts and statistics at the expense of creativity and imagination in public education.

Dickens’s novel Hard Times expressed his belief that an over-emphasis on facts over creativity promoted contempt between mill owners and workers.  Gradgrind’s name, like other Dickens creations, immediately expresses to the reader that he is an altogether unpleasant man, espousing that all one needs is “facts and statistics.” His daughter Louisa’s breakdown towards the conclusion of the novel brings him to the realization that fiction, poetry and other pursuits are not “destructive nonsense.”   Oh, if only Gates, Rhee, and Coleman were characters that could be similarly convinced.

In his post, Clifford described how his 6th grade curriculum has been altered to fit the ELA CCSS. He bemoaned the earlier loss of vocabulary and grammar in context and the most recent loss of creative writing which, “has been chopped clean away, to be replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.” He continues:

“Even reading has not been left unscathed. Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.”

Clifford wrote about a successful novel writing project that, “engaged students on many levels and taught them story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition.” Unfortunately the project, “was jettisoned last year because of the national shift to the Common Core. It was replaced with an eight-page (for sixth graders!) research project.” He sadly noted, “The results were predictably dull and uninspired, but Gradgrind certainly would have approved. The papers were filled with facts but devoid of imagination.” In Clifford’s scenario, a successful unit of reading and writing was eliminated to favor lesson plans that do not have the evidence to prove success.

Where is the evidence that eliminating writing literature in favor of writing research papers will serve a mission statement of educating  “productive problem solvers and decision makers” who are “personally fulfilled, interdependent, socially responsible adults” ? Why are so many interpretations of the ELA CCSS rigidly eliminating what does work in favor of what might work? More to the point, why is there even a 70% vs. 30% split in reading genres, and why do stakeholders keep missing the point that the increase in informational texts must come by increasing reading in other content areas?

The positive impact of reading literature was discussed in the NYTimes article by Annie Paul Murray, “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction”. Reading fiction, “is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” To summarize, the data using neuroscience proves that reading fiction is good for you.

I teach literature, and my students make connections to the real word (Macbeth to Afghan Warlords; Frankenstein to the science of cloning) in my class everyday. Literature helps my students make sense of the world; they do not need to suffer under a despot, but they can experience a corrupt political system in Orwell’s  Animal Farm. They do not need to crash on a deserted island to understand how quickly very civilized young people can tun into savages when they read William Golding’s  Lord of the Flies. They can contemplate how precious is the relationship between a father and son who cling to decency and humanity without having to survive an apocalyptic nightmare  from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  They  can better understand the historical context of Jim Crow laws from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and in Kathryn Stockett’s more recent novel The Help.

And they can also learn about the utilitarian movement in England during the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle class, the frightening system of government-run workhouses, and the dangers of child labor in another Dicken’s novel,  Oliver Twist. Dickens’s literature demonstrates the power of fiction as a means of providing background information. Read a textbook of facts and statistics explaining the Industrial Revolution, and then read Oliver Twist. Which version will you vividly remember?

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.

GOAL -School districts want to report their students to read great literature.
GOAL-School districts want to report good reading test scores.

Unfortunately, these two goals are currently incompatible; great literature’s complexity can be challenging to read, and schools can ill afford to have students get low test scores on reading because of great literature’s complexity.

Concerns about the removal of great literature from classrooms have been raised before, but NY public school English teacher Claire Needall Hollander passionately argues how intellectually damaging this practice has become in state testing. Her  op-ed piece in 4/21/12  NYTimes Teach the Books, Touch the Heart decries the elimination of great literature in the classroom in order to incorporate practice materials to prepare students to take the standardized tests. Hollander described her role as a reading enrichment teacher as an opportunity to provide great literature as academic equity for her students. She described several of her students as  the sons and daughters of immigrants or incarcerated parents; she noted some students lived in crowded, violent, or abusive homes. Great literature, she believed, was “cultural capital” that could help her students compete against more affluent peers. However, when the lackluster data from standardized reading tests came in, she felt pressured to abandon great literature and curtailed her efforts for the majority of these students in order to teach materials prescribed for the state test.  While the reading selections on the state tests did have some syntactical complexity, she eventually decided that these reading materials lacked the literary qualities that make literature great. Texts that are “symbolic, allusive or ambiguous are more or less absent from testing materials.” Hollander writes, “It is ironic, then, that English Language exams are designed for ‘cultural neutrality.'”

In one sense, great literature is already culturally neutral. The themes or characters in a great piece of literature are not limited to one decade or one millennium. The elements that make a work of literature great can transcend culture and context, can speak to a universal audience, can be read by any tradition and still connect to a reader. Ms. Hollander’s concerns about cultural neutrality are akin to concerns about cultural acceptability. Creators of standardized tests are particularly sensitive in selecting texts that are cultural acceptable because great literature  intentionally confronts morality, questions society’s rules, or challenges tradition. Great literature gives voice to the outsider, and authors of great literature are often on the margins of society or write to unsettle the status quo. For these reasons, selections from great literature may not be considered culturally acceptable.

I have some experience on what goes onto a standardized state test as I had a seat one year as a member of the text selection committee for the reading and writing sections of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT)  given to grade 10 students. Much time was spent reviewing materials for inclusion on a future Response to Literature exam. Out of a number of mediocre short stories, the only selection given to educators that could meet some standards of great literature was a chapter from Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, a young adult novel that is usually read in Grade 5.  That selection was eliminated not only because of the low reading level (5.1; Lexile 670) but because the manner in which Lowry portrayed the terrifying rounding up of Jews. One committee member actually wondered aloud if Lowry could be persuaded to “reword the chapter” to address the concern. Fortunately, that debate ended with the decision that the chapter was not “acceptable” for the committee.

One problem in great literature is difficult vocabulary; for example, the simple conversations between the Man and the Boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (RL 4) are interspersed with diction describing the apocalyptic setting:  “rachitic “, “miasma”, “escarpment”, “crozzled”.  Another problem is vocabulary  considered vulgar or profane that has eliminated a number of literary pieces from standardized testing and even from school libraries. According to the American Library Association (ALA) website which  lists challenges to classic literature that Hollander might teach: To Kill a Mockingbird- “contains  racial slurs”;  Of Mice and Men – “takes God’s name in vain 15 times and uses Jesus’s name lightly.” Finally,  great literature almost always contains themes that can be considered dangerous  or offensive to someone in society:  The Color Purple is “sexually graphic and violent”;  1984 is “pro-communist”; and Catcher in the Rye– is infamously “blasphemous and undermines morality.”

Engineering English language tests in order to make them culturally neutral or culturally acceptable encourages intellectual dishonesty. Take the reading section on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT)  where every 10th grader is required to read a short story and evaluate the quality of the story, “How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?” in a one page essay. I have spent over 10 years preparing students for this  question on the Response to Literature standardized test, and I know how students struggle with this question. Many students do not read challenging texts outside of the classroom, limiting their experience to develop critical evaluation skills. However, the more distressing problem is that year after year, the quality of the story on the CAPT pales in comparison to the classic short stories a student could encounter in even the most limited literature anthology. Classic short stories available in the public domain by Saki, Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, to name a few, are considered too difficult for independent reading by 3rd quarter 10th grade students. Copy-write requirements or an author’s unwillingness to truncate a story to comply with a maximum word requirement or to make textual changes to make the subject palatable to a text selection committee, prevents other literary materials from being used.   As a result, more recent selections have come from Teen Ink (stories written by teens) and Boy’s Life magazine, both publications not known for superior literary content. While some stories may meet a sentence complexity standard and have been vetted for acceptable content, most lack the literary depth that should generate thoughtful critical responses to a prompt that asks about “good literature.”

To further complicate the choice a student makes in a response, released materials from previous exams used to prepare students how to respond to “How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?” include student responses, and all of the exemplars, good and bad, argue that the story was “good”.  The  lack of reader experience coupled with the year to year see-saw quality of the text on the exam places  students in the uncomfortable position of defending a merely average quality story as good literature; therefore, the prompt promotes intellectual dishonesty.

Perhaps the problem of including good literature on a standardized test may be addressed with the adoption of the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards where text complexity is standard #10: “By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9–10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

In other words, the use of good literature on a CCSS English Language Arts exam might be substantively different than the texts used on the Response to Literature section of the CAPT. This could make the response about the quality of text more authentic since a complex literary text can be analyzed as “good literature.” How this more complex literary text will be used in testing, however, remains to be seen since history demonstrates that cultural opposition to a story will often trump quality.

Comprehending and evaluating a text are desirable skills, and measuring those skills will still be difficult.  Multiple choice questions are quickly corrected, but they are limited to measuring reading comprehension, and a student essay response to a complex text will require considerably more time to write and correct. Anticipating this, Hollander calls for an assessment that is more reflective of student learning:

 “Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.”

The CCSS should consider Hollander’s proposal as states develop assessments.  All stakeholders should also recognize that using anything less then quality literature to measure a student reading comprehension and evaluation skill on an English/Language Arts exam is intellectually dishonest.

The English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wants students to read in every discipline from elementary school through grade 12. The standards demand an increase in the reading of informational texts, the genre formally known as non-fiction. So where is the passage that concludes that English/Language Arts teachers will continue to teach fiction and literary non-fiction while other disciplines increase reading in informational texts? Where is the passage that dispels the notion that English/Language Arts teachers are not required to meet the 70%  required reading of informational texts in their classrooms?  Where is the passage that clarifies where students will read more informational texts across the curriculum by senior year?

Well, the passage is a footnote on page 5:

Footnote: 1 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.

Why is an explanation of this magnitude only a footnote? By definition, a footnote is:
1. A note placed at the bottom of a page of a book or manuscript that comments on or cites a reference for a designated part of the text;
2. Something related to but of lesser importance than a larger work or occurrence.

This  footnote on page 5 of the CCSS functions to clarify that English/Language Arts teachers are not responsible for the increase in reading informational texts. Is this footnote, according to the definition,  “Something related to but of lesser importance than a larger work or occurrence”?  Why is this statement not given more importance in an English/Language Arts document? Why is this statement not written in bold? Why is this statement not a separate bullet point in Key Designs Considerations? Why is this statement relegated to be a footnote?

The specific ratio of how much reading students should do in in fiction and informational texts can be found in a chart in the ELA CCSS  taken from the 2009 reading framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This chart sets up the progression from an even split between fiction and informational texts in grade 4 to the 30% fiction and 70% informational text ratio expected by grade 12.

Chart with 30% fiction, 70% informational Text ratio

The chart is on the Key Designs Considerations page and addresses the demands to include informational texts because “a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.”

Really?  If the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched? Why “if”? The only way the ratio for 70% informational texts will meet the NAEP assessment framework is “WHEN” there is an increase of informational texts in classes other than English. Additonally, it is highly unlikely that English teachers will teach a reduced percentage of  fiction or literary non-fiction as students move from elementary (Grade 4) to middle (Grade 8) to high school (Grade 12), and there is nothing in the standards that specifies the ratio of fiction to other texts in an English classroom.

So, heads up History/Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas teachers, the CCSS English/Language Arts Framework is looking at you!

While English/Language Arts teachers are developing curriculum to align with the CCSS, how many of the History/Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas teachers are informed and cooperating in the incorporation of informational texts?  Are teachers in History/Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas developing additional reading to their specific curriculum? Hopefully they are, but my sense is that these resources will take time to develop and integrate.

Already, I have heard the argument from teachers in disciplines other than English/Language Arts moaning, “what do I drop out of my course to include reading?” -which could be read as the reason why the authors of the ELA CCSS felt the need to develop reading and writing standards for History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas teachers. A sidebar column in the document explains the need for other disciplines to increase reading:

“Reading is critical to building knowledge in history/social studies as well as in science and technical subjects. College and career ready reading in these fields requires an appreciation of the norms and conventions of each discipline, such as the kinds of evidence used in history and science; an understanding of domain-specific words and phrases; an attention to precise details; and the capacity to evaluate intricate arguments, synthesize complex information, and follow detailed descriptions of events and concepts…Students must be able to read complex informational texts in these fields with independence and confidence because the vast majority of reading in college and workforce training programs will be sophisticated nonfiction (60).”

The last sentence of this section should be in bold: “It is important to note that these Reading standards are meant to complement the specific content demands of the disciplines, not replace them.” 

While the teachers of History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas are on notice to include more informational texts, these standards still fall under the English Language Arts Framework which begs the question, who will be responsible for enforcing these standards? Will the testing of a student’s comprehension of informational texts be assigned to a discipline other than English/Language Arts? Will overall reading scores reflect on an entire school, as it should, or will reading scores reflect on the English/Language Arts departments since the CCSS frameworks are designed under the heading English Language Arts frameworks?

Of course, many English teachers, fearing the removal of fiction and literary non-fiction (essays, memoir, etc), raised their concerns about the demand for informational texts. Responding to these concerns (among others), the  CCSS developed a page on their website titled Myths vs. Facts.
Here, the CCSS attempts to clear the confusion as to what reading will be done in English/Language Arts:

Myth: English teachers will be asked to teach science and social studies reading materials.

Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.

Unfortunately, the CCSS’s use of footnotes and charts to define the percentages in the increases in informational text reading leaves questions as to which exactly how each discipline will be held responsible.  The CCSS makes the assumption that other disciplines will  incorporate more reading under a English/Language Arts framework. The CCSS states that the English/Language Arts classrooms will not be required to replace their fiction and literary non-fiction with informational texts, but infers that there will be a mechanism “to ensure that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.” The method of measuring the increase and the results of this increase is yet to be determined.  The process of how reading will be incorporated across the curriculum needs more than an assumption and an inference. For English/Language Arts teachers there is a footnote is where the “devil is in the details”, but only if all other stakeholders in this shift to a Common Core curriculum read that footnote.