Sunday, June 21, 2015


Last Friday, Kate Taylor took to the pages of the New York Times to provide a sort of update on what's going on in English classrooms in the "Common Core era." So how are things going? According to Taylor, pretty swell, thanks.

Taylor focuses on the shiny new injection of "informational" reading into the English classroom, leading with the pairing of fiction and non-fiction works, like Catcher in the Rye and articles about bi-polar disorder, the Odyssey and the GI Bill, Tom Sawyer and an op-ed about teenaged unemployment.

The piece is a monument to reportorial Swiss-cheesery, and while I recognize that reporters do not have infinite space available to them, Taylor has skipped over some fairly significant parts of the story.

Here are some things that Taylor does not know.

Taylor does not know that Common Core is in the weeds

She takes a half-sentence to note that schools choose their own readings, so I'm guessing Taylor's heard that not everybody feels the CCSS love. But she fails to teach the controversy here.

She also fails to note that Common Core increasingly means whatever the local authorities want it to mean, or nothing at all. The Common Core of the actual standards is not the same as the Core in the Big Standardized Test, nor is it the same as whatever teaching materials your district has bought-- and all of that is before we get to your local administrator, who may have her own idea of what edited version of CCSS to enforce. The term "Common Core" now means so many different things that it is essentially meaningless.

Taylor does not know where the informational text requirement came from.

Taylor notes that "the new standards stipulate" that a certain percentage (50 for elementary, 70 for high school) of a student's daily reading diet should be informational. And that's as deep as she digs.

But why is the informational requirement in the Common Core in the first place? There's only one reason-- because David Coleman thought it would be a good idea. All these years later, and not one shred of evidence, one scrap of research, not a solitary other nation that has used such a requirement to good results--- there isn't anything at all to back up the inclusion of the informational reading requirement in the standards except that David Coleman thought it would be a good idea. Coleman, I will remind you, is not a teacher, not an educator, not a person with one iota of expertise in teaching and is, in fact, proud of his lack of qualifications. In fact, Coleman has shared with us his thoughts about how to teach literature, and they are -- not good. If Coleman were student teaching in my classroom, I would be sending him back to the drawing board (or letting him try his ideas out so that we could have a post-crash-and-burn "How could we do better" session).

Coleman has pulled off one of the greatest cons ever. If a random guy walked in off the street into your district office and said, "Hey, I want to rewrite some big chunks of your curriculum just because," he would be justly ignored. But Coleman has managed to walk in off the street and force every American school district pay attention to him.

Taylor does not know what we've given up to meet the new requirements

Taylor uses a quote to both pay lip service to and also to dismiss concerns about curricular cuts.

“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”

So, you see, we really only use literature in the classroom as a sort of bucket to carry in little nuggets of concept and skill. The literature doesn't really have any intrinsic value of its own. Why read the whole novel when we only really care about (aka test) a couple of paragraphs on page 142? If we were hoping to pick up some metaphor-reading skills along the way, why not just read a page of metaphor examples?

This is an attitude of such staggering ignorance and numbskullery that I hardly know how to address it. This is like saying, "Why bother with getting to know someone and dating and talking to each other and listening to each other and spending months just doing things together and sharing hopes and dreams and finally deciding to commit your lives to each other and planning a life together and then after all that finally sleeping together-- why do all that when you could just hire a fifty-dollar hooker and skid straight to the sex?" It so completely misses the point, and if neither Taylor nor Skillen can see how it misses the point, I'm not even sure where to begin.

Literature creates a complex web of relationships, relationships between the reader and the author, between the various parts of the text, between the writing techniques and the meaning.

You don't get the literature without reading the whole thing. The "we'll just read the critical part of the work" school of teaching belongs right up there with a "Just the last five minutes" film festival. Heck, as long as you see the sled go into the furnace or the death star blow up or Kevin Spacey lose the limp, you don't really need the rest of the film for anything, right?

Taylor does not know that English teachers have heard of non-fiction

Taylor makes sure to point out that sometimes, non-fiction is interesting to students. Why, thanks, ma'm! I have also heard that students enjoy the rap music and often eat more than one type of food. Also, water is wet. Taylor also doesn't know that some literature is non-fiction; like most writers on this topic, she mentions the Gettysburg Address as a new non-fiction focus, even though the speech (along with "I Will Fight No More Forever") is in every major 11th grade literature anthology in the US.

But Taylor goes with the notion, anecdotally supported by one administrator, that the English teaching world is loaded with teachers who only and always teach fiction, even though there was this one time that an administrator totally saw a class fully engaged in discussion about a real life issue.

I don't know. Maybe New York is just another world. But I find it hard to believe that Taylor could not have walked up any hall and found an English teacher who has always taught non-fiction material in her class. So if non-fiction is not news to us, then what's the big deal? Hold that thought for a few subheadings.

Taylor does not know why we teach literature in the first place

Hint: it's not just so that literature can be a bucket in which to carry other skills to the student.

The purposes of teaching literature is a topic that deserves not just its own post, but its own blog. But let me just skim the surface of the surface.

Literature lets students experience people and places and feelings and ideas that they do not encounter in their own world, and it lets them encounter things exactly like what they experience in their own, and it lets them experience both in ways that open the experience up to new understanding and expression. Literature opens up new worlds to students, and it opens up familiar worlds as well. It builds depth of understanding and depth of expression. It gives them practice and exercise in developing, holding, connecting many ideas. Reading literature is part of the process of growing and advancing and becoming more fully human.

Taylor slips in the notion that some literature is just hard and probably pointless; she recounts the story of one teacher who was happy to cut Beowulf back to an excerpt because, you know, who really wants to teach that piece of ancient junk?

But the selection of particular works is tricky, because the "right" work is found at the intersection of teacher, students, and the work itself. A literary teacher is the students' guide to that world. The best guides to a place are not the ones who either don't know it or who just plain hate it; the best guides are the people who know and love the territory. You could not pay me enough to teach Paradise Lost to high school students, but I have a colleague who does it every year with huge success. Meanwhile, I'm about the only teacher I know who likes to teach Heart of Darkness. Most on point, I teach Hamlet every year, and I teach it differently every year, partly because of me and partly because of whatever group of students I'm teaching.

Pet peeve: "making" works relevant. Either you can see how it connects to the world and your students or you can't-- there's no point in trying to force or fake it. But of course all of that also applies to non-fiction as well. Here's a delightful quote from a newly-minted assistant principal:

Ms. Thomas said she believed many students were more interested in talking about real-world issues like genetic testing than about how a character changed over the course of a novel.

Yes, because how people change and grow and develop is certainly a fake, not-real-world issue that teenagers could never relate to. Gah! The notion that fiction is somehow "fake" and unrelated to the "real" world is just so-- dumb! Literature is one more engage with what is real and true about the world, and anybody who doesn't get that is welcome to come watch my students argue endlessly about Edna Pontillier (The Awakening) and the proper role of women in the world.

Taylor does not know what the real problem with Common Core reading is

If administrators keep their heads and don't let Common Core scare them, the losses under Core reading are minimal. But if administrators start to worry about test scores, things get ugly.

Perdido Street School lays out some of the losses in New York school district that lose their heads and jump into the EngageNY pool. That's similar to what happens in places where administrators take seriously all the baloney about Close Reading 2.0, which is a thing that calls itself close reading and which is really just test prep.

For schools that decide to let the Big Standardized Test drive the curriculum bus, the path is clear-- the significant change is not read more non-fiction, but to do all reading in little chunks. The Common Core can pay lip service to reading whole works and developing an understanding of themes and ideas that are developed through an entire work, but that will never, ever be on the test.

So, as Taylor's article hints but never flat out admits, we don't cut Romeo and Juliet entirely, but we only read a few key portions. Tom Sawyer? We'll just read that fence-painting scene, thanks. We'll read literary slices and filets. We'll get our non-fiction fill with short articles. But we will never, ever again, read an entire book from front to back.

And we will always read our short selections to suit someone else's purpose. Personal responses are not the point; the point is to find the answers to the (probably multiple choice) questions in the packet, questions modeled on the BS Test so that students are better prepared for that experience. Do not stop to develop any sort of personal relationship with the reading; figure out what the questions want from you, and go look for that.

Common Core ELA supports the notion that reading, in fact all human relationships, are simple transactions in which the only real question is "What can I get from this and how can I get it?" It is dehumanizing for both teachers and students.

Outside of missing all of that, Taylor did a super job with the article. It's fluffy and to the untrained eye hardly looks like more Common Core PR at all.


  1. "She also fails to note that Common Core increasingly means whatever the local authorities want it to mean, or nothing at all."

    When my youngest sister was in kindergarten, she always brough home art work which featured a blotch of red in the middle. Finally, my mother asked her what the red thing was. My sister: "It's a gongee." "But what's a gongee?" "It's whatever you want it to be!" Just like the CCSS.

  2. Literature, and fiction in general, can help students to develop empathy and "see other people as fully human".

  3. I want to cry. Heaven forbid kids read a whole novel and actually FEEL something.

  4. Are ELA classes the only ones where students read? It seems to me that the main thrust of the percentages is to encourage students to read in non-literature classes as well as literature classes.

  5. Is it just me, or does this "read only a few paragraphs, you'll get everything you needed anyway" nonsense sound strikingly like the slide towards "digests of digests" in Fahrenheit 451?

  6. Actually, I think there are two very, very intentional reasons why Coleman changed the focus in the ELA standards to be weighted so much more toward informational text:

    First of all, the original plan was to get everyone on the same page (so to speak)--taking the SAME TEST and maybe even using the same curricula--for example, those "free" (highly-scripted) "Modules" on EngageNY (that my tax dollars have paid for) which can be downloaded royalty-free by any cash-strapped district in the country... (And BTW, now we have John King, "Mr. EngageNY", himself, as the head of ED...)

    In order to get all states to adopt these new, DIFFERENT standards, they had to make them different enough from what states were using in order to justify switching and to dupe the public into believing this was something really new that we "desperately" needed.

    The other reason is that "informational text" is much easier to GRADE BY MACHINE. (And BTW, "informational text" does not equal "non-fiction"--we are not really trying to include much in the way of persuasive writing, for example--opinion pieces are not as easy to robo-grade as straight informational text.) According to actual studies, "The machines scored particularly well on two data sets which included shorter, SOURCE-BASED essays." [emphasis mine] (See here: (And remember Coleman's insistence that students only look at the actual documents and not rely on any background information?...)

    Don't forget who paid for the Common Cor(porat)e Standards (with his ideas that technology is the answer to all questions)... Listen, again, to what Gates, himself, actually said to the Council of State Legislatures in July 2009 as the standards were being developed and States were being pressured to adopt them: (It's only 1.5 minutes, but it says a lot...)