The Common Core Doesn’t Cut Literature – It Complements It

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. 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 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.”

  • Mary Meredith Drew

    I am a retired teacher with thirty years elementary and secondary classroom experience. I am appalled that my union is promoting CCSS. Teachers have been planning together for years, and CCSS is doing nothing new to facilitate this. In fact, the high stakes testing associated with the standards create such a burden for teachers and students that reading is becoming something children hate. My grandchildren are showing the strain, and children I teach while subbing are crying after tests and thinking about nothing else except passing their tests. All the joy we used to share while reading great literature is gone. There is no room for the amazing creativity teachers used to show and share in their own wonderful individual lesson planning. I am so disappointed in NEA, and cannot wait until the tide turns yet again and people realize what a disaster this untested and unresearched monolith is imposing on our children. From a BAT.

  • With each new PR blitz, I lose more faith and trust in the NEA.

    Let’s skip, for a moment, the retroactive rewrite of why the literature/non-fiction split is there. Let’s pretend that it’s not simply the result of David Coleman’s personal biases about reading and writing, solidly based on nothing except Coleman’s personal biases. In short, let’s pretend that you actually believe all that malarkey you just said about why CCSS mandates the 70/30 split and how student education will benefit from it.

    Even if I believed that– heck, even if ANYBODY believed that– how do you propose to make this work?

    Where in the school year (a year which is already dramatically shrinking to accommodate the vast testing regimen that CCSS was designed to support) will teachers be doing this? How can anybody who ever set foot in a school suggest that science teachers will just drop the reading and teaching of “Silent Spring” into the school year?

    Oh, and teachers could just collaborate. You know– in their copious free time.

    It’s bad enough that NEA has stopped supporting its own members. But this is the kind of silliness that I expect from people who have never set foot in a school. NEA’s main office does have access to some actual classroom teachers somewhere, right?

    And please stop dragging out folks like this: “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 just makes the rest of us look foolish. Really, Ms Michaud? Thirty years in school and you never out how to collaborate with your colleagues until CCSS came along? This sort of thing just reinforces the notion that teachers have been wandering in a useless stupor, waiting for something like CCSS to come along to show us how to do our jobs because we just didn’t know.

  • Jeffrey Davis

    Dear NEA,
    When did you decide to endorse CCSS? When did we members get to vote on whether to endorse it? I must have missed that.
    I know I am just a dues paying member of the Union, and not the president (of the U.S.), or whatever corporate interests have swayed you to this position of endorsement, but I don’t understand how a TEACHERS union could ever take this position. As a member, I’d like you to explain to me how you came to this position. How anyone with classroom experience could look at these standards and think they are good baffles me.
    I could understand saying “Hey, we need national standards”. That seems logical, there’s an argument that can be made that this would benefit our students. But these? I would hope that my union would only endorse national standards that were developed by actual teachers… meaning people who teach now… as in currently. I would hope that they would only endorse standards that were fulled field tested, reworked when flaws were found, rigorously tested again – and heck, as many times as it took to get them right – and THEN rolled out nation wide. CCSS does not meet this criteria, nor any rational criteria. So why are you shilling for them? I am sorely disappointed in this cheer leading for a system that is so clearly flawed. If the Union does not protect the teachers (and through us, our students) from garbage reforms like this – we might as well hand the keys over to the Koch brothers, Broad, ALEC and the rest and hope the like us enough to let us stay on at minimum wage.
    I expect more from you NEA. Much More.

  • Kim McCollum-Clark

    We’re not falling for the hype, NEA. As an English teacher educator who was subjected into a three-day conference on the PARCC assessments in 2011 (back when the dream was a computer-based SUMMATIVE TEST in ELA every NINE WEEKS from grades 3-11), I can tell you the idea has always been to “dethrone literature.” The Powers That Be might condone some poems (so short! so testable!) but the jig is up for longer forms of literary texts.

  • Michael Ringle

    The stress of the Common Core on ELA and math will break the unions even further. Right to Work is damaging us. Now, because you leave out most of the subjects that are taught in schools, teachers are going to be excluded even more. Under the common core, there is truly no room for anything but ELA and math teachers. Science? Glorified math teacher. Social Studies? Glorified ELA teacher. Music? Glorified math and ELA teacher.

    If you support this initiative that is divisive AND harmful to students. Then you don’t deserve my dues. I’m sure it will be tough to back out of them for this year, but next year I am strongly considering withdrawing my membership, since Michigan is a RTW state. You no longer represent my views. When you start to help students, come talk to me.

  • Patricia Harrington

    I am disappointed that the NEA is promoting CCSS. These standards have sucked the joy out of reading for our students. They now see reading only as something on which they will be tested. And as for coordinating with librarians, my district spends so much on tests and test prep materials, that we no longer have librarians in our school. The secretary checks out books if she is not busy doing something else. My kids need our school library, as the public library is far away, and has reduced hours. It’s bad enough that you no longer stand up for teachers, but now you don’t have the students’ best interests either.

  • Jim

    The reference to libraries and librarians is laughable. The cost of implementing CC has resulted in major cuts in funding. Music, Art, PE and Libraries are “extras” that are sacrificed in the name of costly reform. All necessary reading can be purchased with public dollars to obtain workbooks from private corporations. The same private corporations also receive public funds for testing. When your school is deemed to be failing cut some more programs and buy some more workbooks from the corporation that is required by law to ensure continued profit to its stakeholders. Wake up NEA, the propaganda isn’t working on your members.

  • NYSSteach13

    Why is NEA pushing CCS? I want you out of that nonsense and as a paying dues Member, I want you out of it now. This is nonsense…stop wasting my money on something based on a premise that I do my job poorly. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

  • Rosalva Meza

    I have just retired and have been a member since my first year of teaching. NEA Leadership you have lost your way. At all of the NEA rep assemblies we have always been proud of being the largest democratically elected body that deliberates and makes decisions together. I do not recall you ever asking us to vote BEFORE you signed us up for the CC. You did not. There was no voting at any level of the dues paying membership. With this vote and attempted whitewashing of the facts, such as saying the WE had a seat at the table when creating the CC, it is a lie. We were invited to review after the fact, review what is rightfully ours. You are like the kid who finally got invited to the popular girls party and are so giddy about it – that you said yes to whatever was put in front of you- and you gave away the store. It is not YOURS to give – I don’t see doctors or lawyers allowing engineers to write up their standards and code of ethics. You have lost the moral authority to speak for teachers and children, as far as I am concerned.

  • Linda Wendt

    NEA, you sold us out. I have paid dues for 34 years and for the first time, I’m seriously considering opting for my “Fair Share.” You have become as shameful as our federal and state governments.

  • Wendy Duke

    Can’t you see that the NEA has been bought by corporate interests bent on destroying teachers’ unions? Guess all that Bill and Melinda money is more important to the NEA than serving teachers.

  • Jillian

    Have you actually READ the lit standards in Common Core? They are very, very specific: by grade 10, no more than THIRTY PERCENT of what is read in an English classroom should be fiction. How does this not cut literature? Can you not do basic math?!

  • I am genuinely impressed at how hard NEA is working to justify the nearly $4 million they accepted from the Gates Foundation explicitly to promote the CCNS.

    Even more than I am impressed, though, I am genuinely depressed that NEA is doing this propaganda blitz at the expense of what’s best for students and its own dues-paying members.

    Please rethink your stance. Return the money if you must. Follow the link to my “Common Core Criticisms” wiki (by clicking on my name above) if you would like to see many strong arguments against CCNS.

  • You can spin this a million times from Tuesday, the fact remains, teachers can not make decisions related to what literature they explore and how they do so. Micromanaging learning will only lead us down a path of less innovation and creativity. I am cancelling my NEA membership, a union created to lobby for teachers, it now lobbies against our interests. Cha-ching!

  • Joe in Connecticut

    I, too, am disappointed in this piece and the stance of my national Union. The destructive chilling effect that this new set of standards will have on long form fiction cannot be denied. Think of the power that fiction has had for positive social change. The Jungle. 1984. Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

    Fiction is also a media through which anyone can speak in depth and with power to the wider world. Non fiction is dominated by corporate media outlets.

    Apart from shifting more control of social discourse to the powerful and away from artists and independent thinkers, a non fiction focus smooths the pathway for wider implementation of onerous and destructive high stakes testing.

    I call on the NEA to IMMEDIATELY DESIST IN ITS SUPPORT OF COMMON CORE unless it is revised to restore long form fiction. We will not be a party to the dumbing down and narrowing of our nations curriculum in the interests of the monied and the powerful.

  • R. Jones

    How can the NEA support curriculum that was created without input of teachers? CCSS are based on the faulty belief that the only purpose of education is preparation for work. Education is preparation for life (fulfilled or not) and lifelong learning. Literature is an important part of that education. CCSS limit the study of literature. Period.

  • Kate

    Shame on you, NEA. Shame on you for succumbing to corporate interests and promoting this farce. Shame on you for agreeing with the idea that teachers don’t really know what they are doing, and need to be held accountable by being made to teach standards written by people with no background in education. Shame on you for promoting a system that tests our kids in stressful, unfair ways, and hurts those who have disabilities or are ELLs. You have the power to organize a vocal, dedicated group of people who would fight tooth and nail to protect our children by doing what we know is best for them, and instead you are pushing us to drink the kool-aid and give in. I expected better.

  • Cathy

    Who determined the skills needed for career and college readiness? Apparently spelling isn’t one of them but writing argumentative essays is–maybe in law school, but I have a B.A. in English and a master’s degree plus 50 credits, and I have yet to write an argumentative essay. What the new standards are doing is erasing the knowledge base needed for learning and throwing cognitively inappropriate skills at students. We are destroying any chance for students to love learning. Haven’t they always read non-fiction in science and history classes? My union dues might be needed to pay for therapy if the NEA’s support of this continues.

  • imogene

    I just wish the NEA would stop trying to speak for me. I AM a member, but perhaps not for long if they keep pushing the CCSS down our throats to meet their political obligations. I, like many teachers, am not in favor of the CCSS and all they bring with them. The NEA should let teachers make up their own minds. Do the research and follow the money—-always.

  • Kristen

    I grew up with a mom that stood by the union, because not only did it look after teachers, it looked after the students. NEA supporting Common Core shows that this is no longer the case. NEA has sold out to big business and is letting the teachers,and especially the students, down. Shame on you!!!!

  • Paul durham

    Since when does NEA listen to members. they have our money so screw us.

  • Tom LeFevers

    Common core is so much better than NCLB. I feel I can teach again. CC states specifically that nonfiction should be covered in non English classes. You all should actually read the standards, not go off on what others tell you.

  • StandingProud

    Your money has a first name, it’s G A T E S.
    Your money has a second name, it’s G R A N T S.
    Oh you love to get more every day and if you ask us why we’ll say. . . .
    ‘Cause GATES AND NEA have a way with B O L O G N A.

  • Robert G

    That’s odd. We were told in our district sponsored professional development that non literary readings were going to be the focus of the Common Core. It is obvious that the “reforms” are driven by people that do not value literature. Face the facts, NEA! You dropped the ball.

  • Jim Mordecai

    NEA is righteously being bashed about by BAT teacher comments for broadcasting its Common Core fetish; and without a factual basis, endorsing the lifting up in K-12 curriculum of non-fiction to greater instructional prominence than non-fiction works. Arbitrary, is the Common Core standard raising fiction up. NEA should be defending its members against the arbitrary standards the states are trying to impose on classroom teachers, students, and parents.