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.

Put Education In The Hands of Educators

Right now, we in the United States have put education in the hands of people who have no understanding about how children and adolescents learn and what children and adolescents need to know and be able to do in order to have productive, fulfilling futures. We have put education in the hands of people who have either unlimited money, inordinate political power for a democracy, or uncontrolled arrogance. Or all three.

If we, instead, put education in the hands of educators, then we will have solutions and innovations that actually make a positive difference. Here is an example of an educator setting worthy goals for student achievement and putting students in the position to be successful. Please watch this video in which a principal talks about the learning that matters.

If you cannot see this video, please click here. 


Rigor Or Not

Bulletin: The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts are NOT rigorous!

How can that be? Everyone says they are.

The truth is that what is called rigor depends on who has the power to say what rigor is.

David Coleman, the chief author of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts who, however, has never taught English, has that power. He says that a chief reason that the Common Core has rigor is that narrative writing is cast aside in high school and not tested at all on Common Core–aligned tests for high school. He makes fun of narrative thinking and writing by saying that in the work environment no one is going to say to you, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but, before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

David Coleman’s and, therefore, the Common Core’s, definition of narrative is that it is a story, either true or fictional, written to entertain. And entertainment is not consistent with being “college and career ready”. All of the emphasis, therefore, in the Common Core high school English curriculum is on writing arguments in which a thesis is supported with evidence and developed by linear, deductive reasoning. Arguments do not explore multiple ways to look at a question or explain the story of how the writer came to think about a topic or develop an idea.

The Common Core specifies that arguments must be written in an anonymous, impersonal voice devoid of any personal story. David Coleman repeatedly has said that high school students must realize before they get to college or the workplace that: “ No one gives a **** what you think and feel”.

The National Council of Teachers of English has a much broader definition of narrative. The theme of the NCTE annual conference in November 2014 was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing”. There were 642 presentations at the conference, and only 19 of them were about implementing the Common Core with its limited definition of narrative.

Presentations at the NCTE Conference were about narrative as a way of fostering student engagement and motivation, narrative as a way to understand other people’s cultures or environments, narrative as a way to create student voice, narrative as a spur to innovative thinking, narrative as a way to learn any academic discipline, narrative as a form of persuasion, narrative as a way to create personal meaning and new knowledge, narrative as an impetus for social change, narrative as a way to inspire creativity, narrative as the beginning of inquiry, narrative as an expression of imagination, narrative as a reflection on one’s own process of learning, and narrative as the basis of collaboration among those with multiple perspectives.

It is no wonder that NCTE did not endorse the Common Core. The Common Core’s treatment of narrative does not come close to the concept of narrative expressed in hundreds of presentations at the NCTE conference. Those presentations explained narrative as a way of thinking and a way of knowing. Now that is real rigor!

Not only is narrative as a way of thinking and a way of knowing rigorous for high school students, it is precisely the skill needed for our future as a democracy and an economy. In his recent book, Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner of Harvard University points out that our future as a nation depends on our capacity to teach students to have the curiosity and imagination to be innovators. Fostering curiosity and imagination begins with students knowing their own stories and being able to tell them, engaging with a diversity of perspectives offered by the stories of others, seeing the stories implicit in theories and concepts, and envisioning new stories and new possibilities. We can teach students to be innovators, but we can’t do it without narrative thinking.

Human beings are hard-wired for stories. It is how our brains work. We think in stories. We are moved by stories. We create new ideas through stories. We need to unleash that brainpower in our students so that they live empowered lives and contribute to their society in meaningful ways.

Let’s begin here in Connecticut demanding real rigor for our students and not allowing them to settle for the limited education offered by the Common Core.