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?


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

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.

Teachers’ Opposition To Common Core Increases

It takes a lot to oppose the Common Core State Standards when they are said to offer:

  • reform!
  • rigor!
  • high academic standards approved by states and consistent with other nations!
  • a guarantee to close the achievement gap!
  • college and career readiness!

What red-blooded American could say NO to this promise? You might think none.

But 60% of American teachers and 51% of the American public do say no. This opposition has increased in the past two years. In 2013, just 24% of American teachers were opposed to the Common Core, and 35% of American citizens were opposed.  The increase in opposition is remarkable, given the tremendous amount  of money that has been spent to promote the Common Core. The increase of 36% in teacher opposition is particularly noteworthy because teachers  have come to know Common Core the best.

In the past two years, teachers have become familiar with the Common Core standards and implemented them in their classrooms. After almost 30 years of working with urban and suburban teachers, beginning and veteran teachers, brilliant stars of teachers and struggling teachers, I know for sure the one thing that teachers have in common is that if something helps kids to learn and to achieve, teachers are for it.  Teachers will learn new skills, change their ways, look at things differently IF their students learn better and achieve more.  Common Core has not offered that incentive  to teachers.

Plus teachers and parents probably have found out that reform!, rigor!, national and international acclaim!, closing the achievement gap!, and college and career readiness! are empty words. They are focus group tested words, chosen to “sell” the Common Core.

The promise of reform is an empty one. For example, 500 professionals in the field of early childhood education, including the most respected experts in the country, have written a public statement, claiming that the Common Core Standards are harmful to young children and should not be taught.  Changes that cause harm are not reform.

The most highlighted “new” Common Core practice for the teaching of English, labeled one of the six major “shifts”  of Common Core is using text evidence as students read and as they write. The problem with labeling it a “shift” and heralding it as brand new is that it has been the fundamental practice in English classes since I was in school and has been the daily practice in the many hundreds of English classes I have observed since 1985. Introducing something as new and different when it is already accepted practice by everyone in the field is not reform.

In addition, at the 2015 annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, there were 642 presentations. Of those 642 presentations, only 19 of them were about implementing the Common Core, and even those were largely about how to circumvent or add better teaching to that mandated implementation. The remaining 623 presentations were about authentic teaching and learning that scholarly research and/or teaching experience show is best practice. Advocating something not respected by experts in the academic discipline is not reform; it is just a plan of action recommended by people without the requisite knowledge. It was employees of testing companies, individuals without knowledge of teaching and learning, who wrote the Common Core; no English educators and no early childhood professionals were involved in writing those standards. Because people who are not educators call what they put together an educational reform does not make it so.

The standards are not rigorous. The tests to assess the attainment of those standards are “gotcha” enterprises with plenty of students receiving low scores, but that is because the tests are designed to fail 60-70% of the students who take them. Anyone who has taught knows that it’s easy to create a test to fail most students. Those failures don’t mean that the test challenges the students to reason clearly, to raise pivotal questions, to collaborate in order to problem solve or create new thinking, or to communicate effectively orally or in writing. That would be rigor. But that would require a totally different pedagogy than the pedagogy the Common Core mandates.

The states never approved of what we now call the Common Core Standards; appointed state officials simply agreed to the abstract concept of standards. In 2009, states signed on to that concept before any standards were written in order to avoid financial sanctions from the federal government for not having the 100% proficiency specified by NCLB. No state officials ever reviewed the actual standards and decided they were good learning. Similarly, the Common Core Standards are not aligned with international standards. The writers of Common Core reviewed standards of other nations but did not match Common Core to them. For example, other nations have standards for the vital 21st century skill of collaboration, but Common Core does not.

No standards can close the achievement gap, especially when that gap is measured by scores on standardized tests. All standardized test scores are correlated with family income, not with how much or how little the standards are taught. For example, the school districts that adhere most assiduously to the teaching of the Common Core Standards are the impoverished, urban districts, and the schools in those districts have the lowest standardized test scores. Also, if standards could positively affect achievement, then all students who were taught them- those now proficient and those now failing- would improve, and the gap would remain the same.

Lastly, the Common Core Standards are untested for college and career readiness. No one has any idea if a high score on the tests aligned to the Common Core is a predictor of success in college or careers. It’s anybody’s guess. Even the Executive Director of SBAC has said that the Common Core aligned tests have a “huge validity problem” because they were never field-tested. It is unconscionable that we as a state mandate that all children and adolescents learn in prescribed ways that we don’t have any evidence are good for them. What we do know is that key skills for the future (questioning, collaboration, oral communication, and creativity) are not tested on the Common Core aligned tests so it is unlikely that the standards and the tests that measure them do make our students”college and career ready”.

Teachers, who are under pressure of job security to teach to the Common Core, often find it prudent to be compliant, yet they, in increasing numbers, are expressing their opposition to the Common Core. They seem to be looking closely at what reform, rigor, nationally agreed-upon standards, and international benchmarking, closing the achievement gap, and college and career readiness really mean. That critique is good news for the future of education. It is good news for the future of the country.

If those voices of opposition continue to increase, what will we do? What can move education forward in effective and healthy ways?  In 2009, maybe it seemed efficient to turn education over to non-educators who had money and political clout. But, as H.L. Mencken said:  ” For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, ………….    and wrong.

The right way to improve education is to ask educators to design standards and to make the decisions about how to teach students to learn. We will get it right.  We know when reform is needed and when it is not. We know what reform really looks like. We know what rigor is and how to motivate and engage our students in learning that is truly rigorous. We know how to address and minimize the achievement gap. We know how to prepare students for their future. Give us a chance and watch what happens.

Monkey Business: The Failing Of Connecticut’s Children

The Connecticut SBAC scores will be released by the State Department of Education any day now. The scores will be low. You will be told that the low scores are because the SBAC tests are RIGOROUS and our students don’t measure up.

Don’t believe it.

First of all, the test can’t possibly be rigorous because the Common Core Standards on which the tests are based are vapid. The Common Core English Standards do not teach students to be thoughtful readers, deep thinkers, or effective writers so the SBAC exams do not measure those competencies.

Secondly, we have no idea if what is tested has predictability for the students’ future success in the next grade or college because no one checked with teachers in higher grades or with college professors to see what competencies students will need. The Common Core English Standards were written by makers of standardized tests and are comprised of what can be measured by those tests, not comprised of what students need to learn.

Lastly, even though the Common Core has a low intellectual bar, most students will fail the tests because the passing grades have been artificially set. Last November, before any students had taken the 2015 SBAC tests, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, representing Governor Malloy, signed an agreement that the 2015 SBAC tests would fail 59% of high school juniors in English, 67% of high school juniors in math, 56-62% of third through eighth graders in English, and 61-68% of third through eighth graders in math.

When the majority of Connecticut children are soon told that they are failures, it is not because some absolute measure with objective criteria determined that but because a test was designed to fail them.

By other criteria, Connecticut students are highly successful. For example, since 1992, Connecticut, along with Massachusetts and New Jersey, has had the highest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in the country, and Connecticut ranks 5th in the whole world, outranked by only three countries and the state of Massachusetts, in reading scores of 15 year olds on the international PISA test. And we as a state have accomplished all of that with the highest achievement gap in the country and without excluding our lowest performing students from participating in those tests. as some other competitors do.   Somebody, mostly our kids, are doing something right. Yet most of them will be deemed failures next week.

There is something very wrong with this picture.

I have worked with hundreds of Connecticut English teachers and am confident that they all could design tests that would fail 2/3 of their students. But I don’t know one teacher who would do it. That’s because they are educators and not politicians using manufactured test results to advance political agendas.

Those English teachers and I know how to design rigorous exams. We know how to teach so that all students who do what we ask of them and put out good effort each day in class will demonstrate competency on rigorous assessments. We also know that some of those students will perform in truly exceptional ways on the assessments and know that an occasional student will accomplish even more than we imagined and thrill us beyond our wildest dreams. We teach students the skills and then see how far they go with them. We teach for success.

Last January, I reviewed a midterm English exam with high school students who had just taken it. They had their graded exams on their desks along with a description of the competencies the exam asked of them. Those competencies were:

  • Asking their own complex and multi-layered questions as thoughtful inquiry.
  • Engaging in active and critical reading of poetry, non-fiction, fiction, and films.
  • Thinking analytically as they independently interpreted challenging literary texts.
  • Thinking imaginatively as they made connections between a historical or fictional character and their own lives and creating a persona to write about that connection.
  • Engaging in narrative thinking as they told the story of their own learning.
  • Collaborating with others in order to strengthen their own interpretations and evaluations.
  • Writing essays which demonstrated their ability to revise and strengthen a piece over time as well as writing essays in a timed classroom setting.
  • Using correct grammar and usage.
  • Demonstrating focus, energy, and passion as they prepared for and participated in the two-hour exam.

Those students knew their exam was rigorous. Those students had been taught how to succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. Those students, therefore, did succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. After comparing their exams to the list of competencies, the students ascertained their strengths and determined what they needed to work on in the next semester. And, for sure, these students knew they were not failures.

Not so when the SBAC scores come out. Most students will consider themselves failures. Or, perhaps, the Connecticut State Department of Education will do what the state of Washington did and lower the passing grade to keep educators and parents quiet about the low test scores. Either way, the message of SBAC hurts kids. Either way, SBAC is not about teaching and learning. The truth is: The SBAC test is political monkey business.

It is our job as citizens and parents to tell students the truth about SBAC. It is our job as educators to keep teaching and assessing students in real and honest ways.

Otherwise, we adults are the failures.

Brain Surgery and the Common Core

What if the manual with step-by-step procedures for performing brain surgery that is mandated medical practice in all hospitals in the United States was not written by any brain surgeons? Instead,  all of the individuals writing the manual were employees of companies who made post-surgical supplies.

What if the manual was written in secret with no records of the meetings, and no doctor was allowed to know who was at the meetings and who wrote the manual?

What if there was no field-testing of the procedures to see if following them accomplished successful brain surgery?

What if the people who wrote the step-by-step procedures were people who would profit from their post-surgical materials being used?

What if those people knew nothing about brain surgery but only about how their post-surgical products were used?

What if the leader of the manual-writing group was not only not a brain surgeon but also was someone who had his own heartfelt feelings about how he thought brain surgery should go and was able to impose his own heartfelt, but uninformed, feelings on others so that the procedures for brain surgery were based just on his feelings?

What if regardless of how the surgeries turned out or how much the brain surgeons said the procedures were ineffective, there was no way that the step-by-step procedures could be changed, no way to revise or modify the procedures?

Wouldn’t you object?

I would.

For the same reasons, I object to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. They came to be in exactly the same way.

Not one elementary school reading or language arts teacher was involved in writing the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. . Not one middle or high school English teacher was involved. Not one college professor of literature, composition, or rhetoric was involved. The people who wrote the standards were employees of standardized testing companies.

The meetings were held in secret with no minutes kept. For a long time, they would not release the names of those who were writing the standards, but eventually pressure from journalists caused the release of the names.

There has been absolutely no field testing of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. There was no study conducted to see if meeting the standards in grades k-12 led to good grades in college and future employment. It is anybody’s guess if doing well and meeting the 42 K-12 Common Core English Language Arts Standards will make for success in college or lead to a job.

Since the writers of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards were standardized test makers, the standards consist only of what can be measured by standardized tests. That is a very limited definition of learning and falls way short of the competencies students need for their future.

And, needless to say, testing companies are the big winners in this misbegotten approach to education. They are making huge profits from the manufacture of the national standardized tests and from the publishing of test prep materials that schools are compelled to buy.

The person called the “chief architect” of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards is David Coleman who has zero teaching experience, however, has very strong feelings about how reading and writing should be taught. He successfully imposed those feelings on the group of writers.

David Coleman likes non-fiction better than literature so the amount of literature to be read in K-12 schools throughout the country is restricted. David Coleman likes an approach to teaching literature that was popular in the 1940’s and then discredited so that is the approach mandated by  the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. The approach called New Criticism has been discredited because it does not allow discussion of the historical or cultural context in which a text was written and prohibits individual reader interpretations of a text. David Coleman is famous for saying that students have to learn that “no one gives a **** what they think and feel” so all Common Core essays must be formal arguments devoid of personal connections and written in an anonymous, impersonal voice. Major research in the field of English since the 1970’s contradicts all of David Coleman’s heartfelt feelings, but those heartfelt feelings govern the Common Core English Language Arts Standards.

Finally, the group who wrote the Common Core English Language Arts Standards has disbanded. There is no agency or person who has authority over the content of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. There is no way to revise them. There is no way to see how they work with students and then make changes. The Common Core English Language Arts Standards are engraved in stone.

Let’s leave the brain surgery to the brain surgeons and the teaching of English language arts to the educators.

Reject the Common Core. Those standards will not teach students to be thoughtful readers, effective writers, or critical and deep thinkers.

The writers of the Common Core for English Language Arts simply didn’t know any better.

We educators, we teachers of English language arts, can definitely do better.