Literature, Informational Texts, and the Common Core

An Open Letter to Rock Quarry Middle School Language Arts Teachers:

Dear Jaguars,

I’ve been hearing a long of concern from educators (not any of you) who are afraid that Common Core spells the (eventual) death of literature, its instruction in public schools, and more far-reaching implications. This chatter has prompted me to write this post. Just so you know, this is as much about learning out loud for me as it is about communicating with you.

First, I deeply admire your (voluntary and independent) decision to begin teaching to CCSS this year even though Alabama is not officially adopting the LA standards until next year. It occurs to me that the struggles your math colleagues are enduring this year probably had something to do with it. Math teachers who are reading this let me say here that you are my heroes – you did not have even a fraction of the preparation through PD that you needed and deserved. Ultimately that lack was my responsibililty. I am sorry. You make the toothpicks you were handed look like pneumatic jackhammers. Back to ELA – again, I like the idea of taking a running start at Common Core. In my experience, the local, bottom-up nature of your work this year will stand you in excellent stead moving forward.

Let me address the literature vs informational text tension that many seem to be feeling. Before that, though, let me back up and underscore a point I have made before. No piece of literature is so inherently life-changing that just reading it is magical. I’m referencing a practice I have seen with at least SOME teachers in every state and school in which I have worked (3 and 7+ respectively): too many English teachers (and systems, through their curriculum documents) seem to think that “covering” certain pieces of literature is more important than carefully selecting texts that will serve as excellent tools for learning. When I was teaching Language Arts myself, I thought that our slavish addiction to muddling through Uncle Bill’s plays didn’t always make sense – especially when I was trying to use them to teach tricky literary concepts to struggling readers. Too often I have seen teachers faced with this dilemma allow their classes to devolve into meaningless “finish the ‘study guide'” exercises. Having cited this extreme example, let me be clear: literature and the love of reading DOES have inherent value and we SHOULD find ways to make those outcomes a part of our instructional objectives.

As a result of my reflection on this issue, I have been convinced for some time that students need explicit instruction in reading non-fiction (“informational”) texts. I think it’s possible to make the case that many students will struggle to survive adulthood without this skill set; they need these skills in life/work situations more than they need to know lit skills. Again, I’m not denying the value of literature – 90% of the books I own are fiction and I would much rather read one of Orson Scott Card’s book than any non-fiction text. I do think we love our fiction so much, though that we spend most of time enjoying those texts and rarely get to informational texts.

So, back to the question: will Common Core force more informational texts into ELA classrooms … and literature out? Here’s my take: I hope we do find a way to teach informational texts well more consistently. However, there’s no reason for literature to be deemphasized. Here are just a few ideas about how to pull off this balance.

1. Use texts as tools. If you select a piece of literature because it is chock-full of irony, perhaps nothing bad will happen if you don’t also plan an activity or discussion about all the personification in it as well.
2. Use fiction and non-fiction texts together. This can work at least two ways – you can plan thematic units (teach different standards around texts with a common theme) or you can teach the same standard in both fiction and non-fiction texts. Either way, it seems to me that this makes both planning and learning smoother.
3. Speak up. Some of you are on the system curriculum committee. All of you are highly knowledgable professionals participating in our local curriculum work. Your voice matters. Be thoughtful about this process and act as a true Professional Learning Community.
4. Remember that Bryant-Denny stadium wasn’t built in a day. Even if you accept Common Core as exactly what your students need, your execution need not be perfect immediately. Reflection and growth count a lot more than a great dog and pony show in my book.
5. Remember why you are teaching. Never fall into the trap of thinking that we come to work to check boxes … or to take tests. I refuse to let it be about that, and so should you.

I look forward to much more discussion on this in the coming months.

Andrew Maxey

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