Common-Core Authors Say ‘Literature Is Not Being Left By the Wayside’

By Catherine Gewertz — December 12, 2012 4 min read
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Alarm bells have been ringing pretty loudly in some quarters about the effect the Common Core State Standards will have on literature in the classroom. Now the two lead authors of the English/language arts standards are firing back a response, saying that such beliefs are “mistaken” because the standards value literature and give it a central place in students’ learning.

In an essay for the Huffington Post, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel try to counterbalance the criticism that’s been spreading at quite a clip in recent weeks.

They note that the standards’ expectation of more nonfiction reading—reaching 70 percent of what students read by the time they reach high school—runs across the disciplines, so English/language arts teachers are still free to teach the fiction and literature that’s been central to their work.

“Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom,” Coleman and Pimentel write.

Responding to criticism that the cross-disciplinary nature of the nonfiction requirement is buried in a tiny footnote on Page 5 of the standards, Pimentel and Coleman write that it is also spelled out clearly in the body of the document itself, also on Page 5, where they discuss the distinction between informational text and literature.

“The standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature—that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA,” they write in the essay. They supply the passage in question: "... the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, [and] a great deal of informational reading in grades 6-12 must take place in other classes... .”

“There’s simply no mistaking the intention of these passages: ELA classrooms are not being taken over by informational text; literature is not being left by the wayside,” Coleman and Pimentel write. They point to specific pages in the standards that list titles and a range of text types including subgenres of fiction to make their argument that students will “not be required to study technical documents such as maps and executive orders in the ELA classroom,” but “high-quality works crafted for a broad audience.”

(Pimentel and Coleman leave out of the HuffPo essay, however, a sentence that comes just before that passage, and it’s one that could offer ammunition to their critics as well as their supporters: “The standards demand that a significant amount of reading of informational texts take place in and outside of the ELA classroom.”)

Only a couple of days earlier, the Huffington Post ran a piece that emphasized the “fear” that literature will be squeezed out of the classroom. (It drew largely on stories from EdWeek and The Washington Post.) The HuffPo headline said that the new standards “Mark the End of Literature, English Teachers Say.” One teacher quoted in the story told the Post that she had excised some short stories and six weeks of poetry from her curriculum in response to the standards’ demand that students read more nonfiction.

Sandra Stotsky, who helped write Massachusetts’ highly regarded standards and believes the common ones are weak in several ways, helped connect that teacher with the Post for its story. She writes in an essay for the conservative Heritage Foundation that the standards will have a “devastating impact” on literature instruction.

This view has made the journey across the pond, too. The Telegraph in Great Britain ran a story this week reporting that “American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in U.S. classrooms.” The headline grabbed attention with the claim that The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird would be dropped from the U.S. school curriculum. It quotes the same Fayetteville teacher who was quoted in the Post—the one who dropped poetry from her class.

As we reported here a few days ago, there are several strains of debate about the respective roles of fiction and nonfiction in common-standards-based instruction. Some of them seem to be based on misunderstanding of the standards, and some on faulty implementation. Doubtless there are educators who are not engaging in “close reading” when it comes to the standards themselves. But even among those who are giving them a careful read, there are varied interpretations. You’ve got to imagine, too, that in this big country of ours, there is guidance that isn’t reaching its intended target. Where, for instance, did the Arkansas teacher get the message that she could cut weeks of poetry from her curriculum? Is this what her school, district, or state would want as an interpretation of the standards?

How educators move ahead with the standards will be critical in the months to come, as support rides heavily on the tangible shape they take at students’ desks.

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