My classroom once hid a tale of two cities, largely driven by state testing. When I started teaching 16 years ago, the curriculum that I selected for my honors and intermediate students included a rich selection of fiction and, admittedly, a narrower range of nonfiction. Years of mandates and testing eroded that foundation, until my intermediate and honors students wound up on entirely different reading paths.
My honors students toiled at preparing for the Advanced Placement literature test, leading to a curriculum of mostly fiction and poetry. My students didn’t come to me with a love of literature, so I often dragged them there with dramatic readings, exaggerated playacting, role-playing, and a level of hyperactivity generally considered unattractive in a woman in her 40s.
My nonhonors classes tipped the scale at the other end of the spectrum. No, we didn’t gorge on nonfiction. In fact, we read very few complete works, either of fiction or nonfiction. We focused mostly on simple grammar and memorizing literary terms.
It was awful.
My students will probably tell you that it wasn’t that bad. I worked myself to the bone to help them enjoy the lessons; however, much of the joy of my early years of teaching eventually vanished under the weight of district-mandated standards that, honestly, did not matter in the real world. (I have never had a student lose a scholarship, fail to get a job, or get demoted over his or her inability to distinguish personification from metaphor in the line “He saw love by the fire... .”)
I have heard many critics lament that the common core is taking fiction out of the classroom. My curriculum is living proof that this is not true."
Enter the Common Core State Standards. How have they changed my classroom over the last two years?
I now have balance. Is it perfect? Nope. The first year of any new curriculum is always messy and amusingly disastrous from time to time. Today, however, I feel like my students have joined the real world. They are engaged and making connections across genres that I never thought would be possible.
Before reading All Quiet on the Western Front, my honors-level sophomores read three pieces on morality and ethics, written by Pema Chödrön, Thomas Jefferson, and Machiavelli—all of whom propose certain ethical standards to live by. As we then read All Quiet, the moral dilemmas came into sharp focus as students considered how Erich Maria Remarque created his own ethical code. Thus, students developed a deeper understanding of a complex issue that then allowed them to better understand the fiction that they were reading.
And instead of the usual drilling of isolated skills, my intermediate students looked at how words engender power. They read Taliban propaganda and then the Declaration of Independence. We looked at how people use that power, both legitimately and illegitimately. As we looked at the rhetoric, we started discussing how these authors used language. That is the exciting part of studying literature.
Since I switched my curriculum to one tied to the common core, my students have and continue to learn that words matter. When one of my intermediate students announced that Jefferson was a bit of “a badass for flipping off a king” with “an in-your-face kind of” writing style like the Declaration of Independence, I admonished him for swearing, but I did an internal jig of delight because that is a student who understands this English language that I adore. We are now reading Frankenstein, “Death of a Salesman,” and The Color of Water. And with each new title, students see how these works of fiction are relevant, thanks, in large part, to the nonfiction texts on psychology and ethics they read in tandem. This has allowed them to explore the real world, including, for the first time, through their own research.
I have heard many critics lament that the common core is taking fiction out of the classroom. My curriculum is living proof that this is not true.
From where I’m standing, the core has supplemented the fiction in my honors class with high-quality nonfiction, which, in turn, helps my students understand the world and the fiction they are reading that reflects the world.
In fact, in my intermediate class, fiction is moving back into the room, pushing out drill-and-kill exercises that may have taught students to memorize, but did little to make them better readers, writers, or consumers of the English language.
And that is what we all are: consumers. Every time we turn on a television or a radio, every time we sit in front of a computer or open a book, we become consumers of the English language. We feast on words every day: fiction and nonfiction, accurate and misleading. The job of teachers is to guide students to be shrewd consumers of all types of language.
Today, I think I’m closer to reaching that goal.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as A Happy Tale From a Common-Core Classroom