Moving Forward By Going Back To A Basic: Reading Literature

The fate of the nation may well rest on what two high school English teachers from Glastonbury High School, Steven Nicastro and Timothy Sanderson, point out in their op-ed piece in The Hartford Courant (December 20,2015), which is printed below.

The say, and all of us in the field of English know, that the Common Core has greatly reduced the amount and quality of literature read in our classrooms from kindergarten through grade 12. That reduction diminishes the lives of our children and adolescents as they have limited ideas and questions in their heads about the human experience, fewer challenges to their imaginations, and fewer examples of the power of language. That reduction in the teaching of quality literature even undermines the very intent of the Common Core: to build a competent workforce.

The Common Core is supposed to make us more internationally competitive, but how can it?

With the Common Core, the United States is the only nation in the world to set limits on the teaching of literature and to privilege the teaching of informational texts. Students are taught to read informational texts to understand the writer’s point of view and to gain the information that the writer presents. Reading literature, however, provides a much different challenge to readers. There isn’t just one set of facts to be gained from a poem, short story, play, or novel. There are possibilities to be explored and various interpretations to be created and supported. What the author intended is of no consequence; rather the individual meaning that the reader creates from the evidence the text offers is what matters. Reading literature fosters inquiry, requires speculation, demands interpretation, and honors creativity- all skills necessary for thoughtful careers, including in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

I have seen, as an English teacher and as a supervisor of English teachers, how reading literature enriches the lives of students and enables them to be deeper, stronger, more whole individuals than they would be without reading literature, without discussing in class a wide range of questions and perspectives about that literature, and without writing about the ideas offered by that literature. Witnessing students’ personal and intellectual growth from reading literature is what inspires me more than knowing that reading literature will help to produce their increased competitiveness in the global marketplace. But even for that goal, our children and adolescents need to be taught how to read literature.  

How to make that happen in Connecticut?

Easy. 

Rescind the Common Core and go back to the Connecticut State Standards. The Connecticut State Standards require that we teach all students in kindergarten through seniors in high school the two different ways of reading: reading for information and reading in response to literature. The Connecticut State Standards acknowledge that reading literature teaches students a valuable and unique way of thinking.  The Connecticut State Standards require that we truly educate Connecticut’s children and adolescents. We must reinstate those standards. Now.

 But first, read on……….

 

Classic Books Disappearing From Schoolrooms

STEVEN NICASTRO and TIMOTHY SANDERSON
Emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math squeezing out literature classics

“Give me my students, give me my books and close the door on your way out.”

A colleague used that pithy mantra whenever a new trend in education emerged. This was not a refusal to embrace new initiatives; it was a statement about our priorities as English language arts teachers — students, books and a place to bring them together.

With those three essential ingredients, our teaching and our students would be successful. Now, however, one of those fundamental ingredients is disappearing: books.

You read that right. Books are disappearing from our classrooms. Books — the be-all and end-all of teaching kids to be better readers, writers, thinkers and human beings — are going the way of the dinosaur. It’s an alarming trend we can’t ignore.

Many schools are eliminating the classics of literature, the backbone of any self-respecting English language arts class, in favor of “choice” books such as pulp fiction that offers comparatively little challenge.

Anyone with affection for reading and the study of literature has to wonder how this could happen, why school officials would allow it to happen and why there isn’t more outrage.

In part, the cause of this terrifying trend is the Common Core State Standards emphasis on short articles and excerpts of nonfiction, particularly historical and scientific documents, which are easily assessed on a standardized test. The Common Core website indicates that “fulfilling the standards requires a 50-50 balance between informational and literary reading.”

This translates to fewer works of great literature, more nonfiction.

Of course, we can’t separate the curriculum changes wrought by Common Core from the forces driving those changes: the realization that the U.S. lags behind other countries in education and the resultant emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). According to the Common Core website, “It’s no secret that most of the best jobs out there that today’s students can hope to find are in the STEM fields.”

You don’t need to be an English teacher to read the writing on the wall: The increased focus on STEM minimizes the humanities, placing ever-decreasing importance on liberal arts and resulting in a nation of job-ready graduates with a limited view of what it means to be a human being.

Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post that the dismissal of a liberal arts education comes from a misunderstanding, particularly about America’s international rankings on math and science tests. “Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math,” Zakaria wrote. “And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.”

Even the staunchest proponents of STEM-centered education would have to concede that minimizing language arts is at best premature, at worst, unnecessary.

Sadly, students who once embraced the classics, including Shakespeare, now flinch when given lengthy novels and dramas — books that might get in the way of math and science homework. As literature slowly disappears, our more than capable students become reluctant to read, analyze, discuss and connect with complex books. They miss the value of immersing themselves in books, of reflection, particularly on others’ ideas, and of the sustained focus needed to work through difficult material.

No one contends that STEM subjects aren’t important. We often remind students that if they don’t learn algebra, they will never learn to think in certain abstract ways. Beyond their ability to stimulate cognitive function — a worthy goal — STEM skills are essential in today’s global economy.

But books, the soul of humanity, are essential, too.

The solution is a matter of balance: Offer high-caliber STEM courses and preserve literature in our language arts classrooms while using nonfiction to supplement the themes of such literature. For the ability to read literature effectively can produce smart scientists, trustworthy techies, ethical engineers and mindful mathematicians, individuals who understand the power and the responsibility they hold and the effects their innovations will have on humanity.

To school administrators, school board members and state legislators, we offer this slightly altered version of our colleague’s stance: Give us our books, give us our students and come visit our classrooms to see what happens when you bring them together.

Steven Nicastro and Timothy Sanderson teach English language arts at Glastonbury High School.

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