Reading & Literacy

Interpretations Differ on Common Core’s Nonfiction Rule

By Catherine Gewertz — January 29, 2013 10 min read
Kathy Powers discusses the book Assassin with her 5th graders at Carl Stuart Middle School in Conway, Ark. She uses the historical novel along with the nonfiction book Chasing Lincoln's Killer and a Walt Whitman poem in a unit about the president's assassination.

As the common core is brought to life in classrooms this year, some English/language arts teachers are finding themselves caught in a swirl of debate about whether the new standards require them to cut back on prized pieces of the literary canon to make room for nonfiction.

A recent spate of news reports has ignited a new wave of anxiety about the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on “informational text.” Prominent coverage has been given by mainstream news organizations to a handful of teachers’ complaints that they have had to drop cherished works of literature from their curricula. “Common Core Sparks War of Words,” proclaimed a front-page headline in The Washington Post. “Catcher in the Rye Dropped From US School Curriculum,” said one in London’s Telegraph.

Frustrated with what they consider distortions, the common core’s staunchest advocates have tried to correct the record, arguing that great works of fiction are a bulwark of the standards. In some states and districts, little or no guidance is being offered on the issue for teachers, leaving them to grapple with achieving the right balance of fiction and nonfiction on their own. Even where guidance is offered, teachers are carrying away varying messages, resulting in some cases in bitter disagreements over who is misinterpreting the standards.

The resulting landscape is pockmarked with debates about how much the standards require English/language arts teachers to change the literature they’ve long taught, whether that change is positive or negative, and how teachers across the curriculum should be sharing the new expectations.

Arkansas offers a microcosm of the debate. On the front lines, two veteran English/language arts teachers have come away with very different interpretations and judgments.

Group Consensus

Jamie Highfill, who teaches 8th grade at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, found no room this year for her cherished nine-week unit on poetry. Ditto for her unit on comedy and parody. The district’s new curriculum called for her to spend most of the last quarter teaching portions of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, along with other articles he has written, for a unit on “causing positive epidemics.”

The units before that—on constructing one’s identity and on how individuals choose to treat others—included newspaper articles, a poem by Emily Dickinson, a short story by Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain"s “Advice to Youth” speech, the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Stolen Valor Act, the 2006 federal law specifying punishment for misrepresentations of military service.

Ms. Highfill, an 11-year veteran and the Arkansas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts’ middle school teacher of the year in 2011, said she now weaves pieces of her old poetry unit into the new curriculum whenever they are relevant.

But she is dogged by concerns that students have lost something important, and that much of what displaced it, like the Gladwell book, is not a good match developmentally for her 8th graders.

“These are very abstract concepts for them,” she said. "[What they read] needs to be challenging, but it also needs to be reachable. I wasn’t scaffolding it so they could understand it; I found myself dragging them through it because it was so difficult for them.”

Jamie Highfill leads her class of 8th graders in a discussion of the books Animal Farm and The Cat That Walked by Himself at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Ark. To incorporate more nonfiction into her classes, the English teacher cut units on poetry and on comedy and parody.

At the Fayetteville district office, Sandra Taylor, the English/language arts director, noted that the new curriculum was written with the district’s teachers and laid out only what central, or “anchor,” texts should be used, encompassing poetry, novels, short fiction, and works of nonfiction.

“We still teach ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ We still teach To Kill a Mockingbird,” she said.

In choosing supplemental texts for those units, she said, there is “plenty of leeway” in the new curriculum for teachers to use literary works they consider important.

“When you have teachers who have been used to teaching their own things, now having to come together in a group, the group consensus is what decides it, and not everyone gets their way,” Ms. Taylor said. “You might have two anchor texts you’re looking at; seven people want one, and two want the other.”

Instructional facilitators in each building of the 9,100-student district are trying to convey the message of shared anchor texts and flexibility through supplemental texts, she said, but “we do have some misinterpretations from teacher to teacher.”

Confusion Expected

At the state department of education in Little Rock, officials have sought to clarify the question of the fiction-nonfiction balance with school- and district-based training and written guidance.

The guiding documents describe the standards’ balance of nonfiction to fiction—50 percent “informational text” across the elementary school curriculum, rising to 70 percent at the high school level. In the English/language arts classroom, the guidance says, informational texts can emphasize literary nonfiction such as essays, speeches, memoirs, and biographies.

Dana Breitweiser, who oversees the department’s English/language arts program, said the department has “not gotten a lot of calls on this issue.”

“I don’t know if most of the schools understand, or just think they understand and don’t ask questions,” she said. But she also recognizes that educators are still in the throes of absorbing a lot of new information.

“Any time you start a new initiative, and there are big paradigm shifts, there are going to be misunderstandings and misconceptions in the beginning,” Ms. Breitweiser said. “We know it takes time to get everyone on board.”

English teachers should not have to displace large numbers of literary works, she said, since teachers of other subjects should be carrying a good deal of the informational-text responsibility. Ideally, she said, teachers are working in cross-disciplinary teams to decide how to balance those shared responsibilities in a solid curriculum.

“I would ask why you are cutting those chunks of literature if you’ve got a rich curriculum,” Ms. Breitweiser said. “Students should be reading from all types of text. It involves all the teachers a student encounters during the school day.”

Ms. Highfill resents the notion that teachers are misconstruing the standards if they feel they must drop large swaths of literature from their lessons.

“I’m offended by that,” she said. “It feels like a blame game. If it were that clear, why is there such a disconnect on a nationwide basis?”

She said the new curriculum is so packed that she felt she was “hitting my kids so fast with stuff they didn’t have time to absorb.”

And Ms. Highfill has not found the guidance on shared, cross-curricular responsibility to be translating into classroom reality. In her district, she said, “there still seems to be more of a focus on English teachers’ using nonfiction in classrooms than the other content areas stepping up to the plate.”

Instruction Strengthened

About 150 miles southeast of Fayetteville, at Carl Stuart Middle School in Conway, Ark., 5th and 6th grade English/language arts teacher Kathy Powers has had a very different experience implementing the common standards.

She has traded away some of the texts she most loved teaching—her “sacred cows,” like Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, and a poetry unit capped by an evening “poetry slam"—to accommodate a blend of fiction and nonfiction in a new district curriculum.

But she says that she has retained many texts she and her students love, such as C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and that the fiction-nonfiction blend has been overwhelmingly positive.

The 20-year veteran, who was Arkansas’ 2011 teacher of the year, said she has found that sprinkling many of the poems from her old poetry unit into her nonfiction instruction has strengthened her teaching of both genres.

For instance, she uses Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” in a unit about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, alongside Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, a work of nonfiction by James L. Swanson, and Assassin, a historical novel by Anna Myers.

“In the past, I would teach fiction and explore more narrative writing, and leave it to the social studies teachers to teach nonfiction, but doing both makes my instruction stronger,” said Ms. Powers. “It’s a stretch for me, but it’s more beneficial for my students.”

When she and her fellow teachers first began reorganizing who would teach which works of fiction and nonfiction, “I did hear, ‘How am I ever going to do this?’ from colleagues,” Ms. Powers said. “But once we put the units together, they saw how it could work. It will just take some time to own these new units and make them compatible with your teaching style.”

Accountability Concerns

Some of what has stoked controversy about the standards’ emphasis on nonfiction is the document’s Appendix B list of “exemplar” texts.

High-school-level suggestions, for instance, include FedViews, the newsletter of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” by the General Services Administration.

But common-core architects say such titles are meant for classes other than English, and seeing them as texts that displace works like The Catcher in the Rye takes titles out of context and ignores the messages of the standards document as a whole.

In an essay published online Dec. 11 in the Huffington Post, Susan Pimentel and David Coleman, the lead authors of the ELA standards, lamented the “mistaken belief” that more informational text means that literature and fiction “should take a back seat” in the high school English/language arts classroom.

They noted that Page 57 of the standards lists text types that are envisioned as being at the heart of such classrooms, from novels and one-act plays to lyrical poetry, essays, opinion pieces, and biographies. They pointed out that Page 58 offers a selection of book titles, including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, that makes high-quality fiction’s role in the ELA classroom “unambiguous.”

In an email to Education Week, Ms. Pimentel said that teachers and local administrators are the ones who must decide how to share responsibility for the increased emphasis on nonfiction. “If a lot of good, close reading of high-quality, challenging texts is going on in science and history classes,” she said, “then English/language arts teachers need to carry less of that responsibility.”

The common-core authors “recommend that ELA teachers be part of the change,” she said, but that is up to each school or district to decide, and she noted that the standards do call for English/language arts teachers to teach some informational text.

Still, “we expect that in most ELA classrooms, literature is likely to account for the great majority of reading,” Ms. Pimentel said.

William Maniotis, an English teacher at Merrimack High School in Merrimack, N.H., has his doubts that it will work out that way.

When he reads the common standards, he doesn’t conclude that he must drop a lot of fiction from his classroom, he said, but upcoming assessments for the common standards, due to roll out in 2014-15, could exert a powerful influence on that. It is English/language arts teachers who will be held accountable for the results, which will drive what happens in their classrooms week to week, he said.

“When the new tests come out, and the focus is more on nonfiction, and the test scores go down, who are they going to look to to fix that? The English teachers,” said Mr. Maniotis, who has taught for 17 years.

“That’s the dilemma we face,” he said. “Even though we use predominantly literature in our classrooms, we are going to have to cope with the nonfictional piece to an inordinate extent.”

Recovering the Prince

Getting the right fiction-nonfiction balance in the long term can mean short-term sacrifices.

Jim Burke, who teaches English at Burlingame High School in San Mateo, Calif., said he couldn’t find room to teach “Hamlet” last semester, as he was focusing intently on a nonfiction-heavy unit aimed at the research and synthesis skills in the standards.

He thought his students benefited immensely from the unit, writing challenging eight- to 10-page papers that bolstered their college preparedness, he said. And he even managed to work in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha.

But still, it pained him that Shakespeare’s classic went by the wayside. Next year, he will know better how to trim the unit so that he can include “Hamlet,” he said.

“You have to be willing to accept a certain amount of mess in this process of redevelopment, reimagining the curriculum,” said Mr. Burke, who also runs a popular online discussion forum for English teachers. “A class is a working draft. You inevitably have some stuff on the floor.”

The spring semester, an inquiry into the relationship of fear to power, will include 1984 by George Orwell, Julia Álvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, and Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Teachers Differ Over Meeting Nonfiction Rule

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