The Common Core Doesn’t Cut Literature – It Complements It
By Cindy Long
When it comes to fiction versus nonfiction, the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts isn’t “an either or thing,” says Marfè Ferguson Delano, a nonfiction children’s book writer whose books often connect her young readers to novels on the subjects she writes about. “They’re both page turners.”
Delano was speaking before a group of educators at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion called “Fun with Nonfiction and the Common Core.” Joining the children’s author on the panel were Peter Michaud, a sixth- grade teacher from New Berlin, Wisc., Margaret Reed Millar, a Common Core expert from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and Melissa Jacobs-Israel, a former school librarian who is now coordinator of library services for the New York City Department of Public Education.
The panelists agreed that the new standards will not push literature aside. In fact, the standards require that students continue reading classics, such as works from the American literature canon, Shakespeare, mythology, and stories of the world. By mixing in nonfiction, the standards will bring balance and spark. Consider Capote’s literary nonfiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. The compelling crime drama rivals any fictionalized tale of multiple murder, and shows students how information sources like first-person interviews and narratives, newspaper clippings, and crime reports can be woven together to make a compelling story.
The standards will also help students read, write, and research across the curriculum—not just in English class. Science, history and social studies teachers will also be responsible for increasing reading and writing skills. For example, students reading The Eleventh Plague in English, a novel about a teenager’s life in a post-apocalyptic world, might also read Silent Spring in science. In history, they could read about early settlers’ impact on the environment in Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. All of the educators would then collaborate on the lessons. Text pairing isn’t new, but shared responsibility for ensuring that students build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective through critical examination of different texts is. That shared responsibility and built in collaboration is a key element of the new standards.
“I’ve been a teacher for 30 years and used to mainly plan my lessons by myself, but the CCSS enables us to collaborate with each other, with the librarian, and with literary specialists,” says sixth-grade teacher Michaud. “It’s a challenge, but it’s making us come together.”
It’s time to finally come together for students, says Margaret Reed Miller of CCSSO. For too long, too many students have made it through the education system without the necessary skills for college and careers, winding up jobless or in remediation, she says. Now that college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, the standards help all students meet the same expectations of what they should be able do and what they should know.
But the standards aren’t just about ensuring students build knowledge and skills. The new balance of literature and nonfiction is intended to spark curiosity, to inspire students to ask more questions, and to motivate them to dig deeply into topics they find interesting – all of which are traits of critical thinkers and lifelong learners.
“One of our roles as librarians is to collaborate with teachers to provide access to materials that engage and excite—materials that make topics come to life for students,” says Melissa Jacobs-Israel. “We want them to stay in the library, to ask more questions and to give them options for what they can read or examine to answer those questions.”
Nonfiction, or “informational texts” as they’re known in the standards, is not a genre, she says. It’s an array of materials including Pulitzer-prize winning magazine articles, news stories past and present, photographic essays, maps, charts, research and case studies, autobiographies, biographies, oral histories, films, and the universe of multimedia materials. It’s a wide open field that will give students the space they need to follow their curiosity.
“I’m a nonfiction writer who loves fiction,” says Marfè Ferguson-Delano. “Fiction gives readers an emotional doorway into a topic that inspires curiosity and leads to nonfiction, and sometimes it works the other way around. Sparking curiosity and a love of reading all begins with a good story.”