Tackling the Fiction/Nonfiction Balance in the Common Core (Again)

By Catherine Gewertz — February 01, 2013 4 min read
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“You don’t get it.”

“No, you don’t get it.”

That’s what it can sound like—kind of—when you try to write about the fiction/nonfiction controversy swirling around the Common Core State Standards.

Of course, most of the discussants in this controversy don’t come right out and say that publicly. They use polite versions of the “misunderstand” and “misinterpret” variety. But the point is the same: Each side thinks the other just doesn’t get it. And it’s not hard to see that this is a formula for trouble as people try to put the standards into practice in English/language arts classrooms across the country.

I have been writing about this dispute for a while now; for a refresher, see my stories here and here, and my blog posts here, here, and here. My latest story on this fiction/nonfiction disputejust went up on our website.

The story tries to untangle the game of telephone that can ensue when you put a document out there in a big, big country and tens of thousands of people start interpreting it. The people who wrote the standards feel they are very clear about the central role literature should play in ELA classrooms. District and state people who are putting out guidance and doing training on the ELA standards seem to be carrying that perspective forward: Top-quality literature remains central, and much of the burden of nonfiction reading will fall to teachers of other subjects. (In some places, even a scrap of guidance is hard to come by. But that’s a whole other story.)

Teachers on the receiving end of state and district guidance, however, are coming away with a variety of interpretations. A few feel they have had no choice but to dump cherished sections of literature from their classrooms to make way for more nonfiction. Others say they haven’t had to change a thing, because they’ve always used essays, memoirs, speeches, and such to enrich their teaching of great works of fiction and poetry. From others, I’m hearing that the common core is a welcome rebalancing of something that had been out of balance: If you hadn’t been teaching a shred of nonfiction with your fiction, they say, then it’s about time you did.

In this swirl, I kept hearing people talk right past one another. For instance, I traced the line from a few teachers to their schools, districts, and states, asking what messages were being conveyed about cutting back on literature.

Some of those higher-ups responded by saying that teachers who were cutting out swaths of the literary canon were probably “misunderstanding” the guidance they’d been given. But at the same time, they acknowledged that all teachers need to be incorporating nonfiction into their teaching. They said that much of the burden of nonfiction texts would be carried by teachers of science, social studies, and other subjects. But I certainly didn’t hear much about intensive training being offered for teachers of all these subjects to transform their practice. Or any written guidance on that distribution of effort.

In the absence of real interdisciplinary teamwork to achieve a balance of literature and nonfiction, it’s not surprising that some ELA teachers feel they are the sole focus of the expectation to rebalance these two. And if they see themselves that way, it’s not hard to imagine that they feel they have two choices: displace some of the literature they’ve been using with works of nonfiction, or make room for everything by demanding far more reading from students.

This far-more-reading view is one that is gaining some ground. It’s been advanced recently, and forcefully, by common-core advocates like former NCTE President Carol Jago, both in an essay in The Washington Post and in a story I wrote. Among teachers, it wouldn’t be hard to assemble legions who would be overjoyed if students read more. But many of those same people will tell you that this is hardly an easy thing to accomplish. And even if it were easy, you don’t hear many state and district folks articulating this to teachers: Hey, guys, a key part of the solution here is to assign lots more reading.

People seem to be talking past one another, too, about the function and intention of the various reading lists in the common standards. (See page 32 and page 58 of the ELA standards, as well as Appendix B.) Common-core authors have said repeatedly, including in Appendix B’s introduction, that the lists are intended only to illustrate the range and complexity of what students should read.

But as the more jaded among us might have imagined upfront, many people are interpreting the lists as required reading in classrooms. Test-aware skeptics know all too well, also, that lists of suggested readings can morph into lists of required reading if the tests—which no one has seen yet—draw on those readings.

Many seem to have missed the point, too, that the longer lists of “exemplar” texts in Appendix B cut across all subject areas. At the middle and high school levels, the reading lists are broken down into disciplines: stories, drama, and poetry for ELA classrooms; informational texts for ELA classrooms; informational texts for history/social studies classes; and informational texts for math, science, and technical subjects. The Federal Reserve newsletter, then, should not displace F. Scott Fitzgerald in ELA classrooms, since it is intended to help social studies students wrestle with complex informational text in that subject, common-core authors contend. And yet we’ve seen heated rhetoric flying around that conjures visions of J.D. Salinger tossed into the trashcan so students can devour FedViews.

All the participants in this debate have expressed frustration with those who “don’t get it.” How much of the “not getting it” is due to weak communication and how much is due to flaws in the documents in question remains to be seen. But one would think that in either case, the resulting questions could well scatter some gravel across the road to implementation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.