In the early 1960’s, as the United States was becoming the leading economy in the world, the International Paper Company posted an ad in every edition of The Reader’s Digest which said: “Send me a man who reads”. It always had an accompanying text which indicated that the one who reads is the one who thinks, is the one who is productive, and is the one becomes the successful leader of the company.
I am sure that the reading referred to was not the short test prep informational articles or excerpts of full-length texts as now are read in U.S. schools.
No longer is that slogan relevant. Not only is it both women and men that we expect to be in positions of leadership, but also now reading literature is no longer a priority in our Common Core culture.
Peter Greene, a veteran teacher and education blogger at Curmudgucation, wrote the following piece, The Core vs. Content, about the substantial reduction in the reading of literature due to the Common Core. He points out well the travesty it is that the U.S. is the only nation in the world to restrict the amount of literature to be read in schools. In addition to all the sad results that he mentions, U.S. students will also not learn to question and to think in ways that only the opportunity to interpret literature offers them. Poor them. Poor us as a nation.
Since the Core first popped its tiny head out of its crinkly shell, advocates have insisted that CCSS ELA standards, demand rich content. Meanwhile, I have become increasingly convinced that the demands for rich content and the assertions that rich content must be part of Core implementation rise up precisely because the Core actually has a giant gaping hole where rich content should be.
In other words, rich content Core-o-philes are like guys looking at an automobile with no wheels saying, “Well, obviously the makers of this car intend for us to put on wheels.” It’s not that the wheels are in evidence; it’s that their absence is an obvious fatal flaw. Or to put it another way, surely the emperor must mean for us to buy him some clothes.
But the longer the Core sticks around out in the field, the more obvious it becomes that the Core is anti-content– particularly once you throw in the Core-based standards-measuring Big Standardized Tests.
Consider this article, written by someone whose intent is to show us how the Core is perfectly swell, even as it explains that part of the swellness is how it “eases literary classics to the sidelines.”
Consider some of these quotes:
“It is true that the days for ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Great Expectations’ might be numbered, but the question that teachers have to ask themselves is ‘What is the purpose of reading this text?’” said Mark Gardner, a high school English teacher in Clarke County, Washington.
“While it may seem like sacrilege, there are many goals that can be achieved by digging deeply into a series of well-curated selections of a text rather than all of it, and then relying on teacher lecture, lessons or even Sparknotes to fill in the gaps,” Gardner said in an interview.
As an AP English and composition teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, Ambereen Khan-Baker has included political cartoons and shorter, more complex texts while cutting out longer novels. Using multiple texts instead of focusing on one book has allowed her to teach diverse opinions.
The article is presenting, uncritically and with a light tone of “you old fossils need to understand the new, cool way of doing things,” the idea of trimming the classics down to a chapter or two. I’ve encountered this more than a few times– cover a couple of key chapters in depth and fill in the rest with a summary or even, I swear, sparknotes.
Making such changes could be a positive thing if it provides students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of literature and the skills that can be applied to reading non-fiction, according to Gardner, who said that is a key reason the classics are taught in the first place.
This is what the Core promotes and requires– reading as a conduit for transmitting certain skills to students, and because it’s teamed with the BS Tests, the skills do not include wrestling with full-length texts in any sort of depth. And apparently we can’t think of any reason that classics are classic and need to be taught. Because it’s easier to work on relevant themes and skills by folding in current YA hits.
Look, there’s a whole worthwhile (and generally unending) conversation to be had among language-teaching professionals about the canon and what should be in the canon and what makes a classic classic and why we teach anything that was written before our students were born and how we should teach it. But the Core’s contribution to that conversation is to say, “Screw content. Just teach them the skills they need for the test.”
When I write lesson plans and plug in the standards, it makes absolutely no difference what actual content I’m teaching– the standards are completely divorced from content and I can recycle the same standards-aligned plan over and over again, just plugging in some piece, any piece, of reading.
And in turns of getting great “student achievement” results (aka high test scores) I could spend the whole year having students read nothing but newspaper extracts and single pages ripped from any current fiction. If I totally lost my mind and any sense of why I actually became an English teacher, I could crank out students with great BS Tests scores who knew absolutely nothing about the literature, history and culture of their own country (or any other).
The article closes with another quote from Gardner: “We don’t read books in school so we can write papers or do projects about that book; rather, we read books in school so we can more deeply understand all of the texts – books, blogs or advertisements – that we will face beyond school.”
I think Gardner is half right– we don’t read books in school just to do projects or papers. But if we only read in school so that we can practice skills we’ll need to read things later in life, what will we be reading those works later in life for? If there are no riches to be found in Great Expectations orHamlet or The Crucible or Song of Solomon or To Kill a Mockingbird, why read them just to get some practice with reading skills? If they have nothing to say to any of us about understanding what it means to be fully human and more fully ourselves, if they have nothing to tell us about the human experience as it has unspooled throughout human history, if they have nothing to say about the power of language to communicate across the gaps that separate us, if they have nothing to say about culture, if they have nothing to say about the rich heritage of the English language, if they have nothing to say about understanding the universal and the specific in human life, about how to grow beyond our own immediate experience– if they are, in fact, nothing more than fodder for test prep, then what the hell are we doing?
The article sets out to address the effect of the Core on the classics, but it only addresses the question of how much the standards push in non-fiction and many, multiple short texts. What the article does not address is how the Core assaults the very notion of why we bother to teach reading or writing or literature in the first place. Instead, like so many Core-ophiles, it assumes that such an assault is appropriate. Rich content fans are correct to believe that the empty head and empty heart at the center of the Core screams out to be filled with real study of real literature, but they are missing the fact that the Core itself thinks that vast emptiness is a good thing, a feature instead of a bug.