Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Saturday, June 20, 2015

NY Times Doesn't Get That Full Literary Works Aren't Read In English Class Anymore

There's a pro-Common Core article in the NY Times today that makes the claim that Common Core has forced English teachers to teach something other than fiction and literature in English class and by golly, it's good.

The piece sets up a straw man argument that teachers only taught literature in English class before - and often badly at that, but Common Core forces them to teach lots of much more informative non-fictional texts in concert with literature:

Some teachers have resisted the changes. At Midwood High School in Brooklyn this year, the new assistant principal for English, Suzane Thomas, made the English teachers use the Common Core lesson plans offered by New York State, and some were not happy.

“There are several teachers who accused me of destroying the English department,” Ms. Thomas said. Previously, she said, teachers had been able to choose which books they wanted to teach, and many of them taught only literature. (She also noted that some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.)

Ms. Thomas said she believed many students were more interested in talking about real-world issues like genetic testing than about how a character changed over the course of a novel.

“I was in a class once and the bell rang, and the kids wouldn’t leave, because they were having a strong debate about whether privacy was more important than security,” she said.

That's right - before Common Core, teachers never paired non-fiction texts with the literature their classes were reading, they just taught the same books over and over again whether the students had already read them or not.

The Times reporter notes that because students are reading much more non-fiction in English class, some fiction has been cut, but she glosses over the real problem here -  that some students are going to come through the Common Core Era having read little or no full-length literary works at all.

Many schools are closely following the EngageNY ELA curriculum to get students ready for the ELA Common Core state test next year.

EngageNY does not value reading whole works of fiction at all - it picks and chooses parts of larger works, couples these excerpts with poetry, literary non-fiction or informational non-fiction, then focuses on close reading, annotation and evidence-based discussion and writing lessons that take the life out of the literature.

Back in 2013, I posted about an EngageNY module for 9th graders that spent 17 class days on one short story, Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

Here is how students "engaged" with the text:

The first day, they're excited to start a new lesson and read a story that seems to be about werewolves.

By the third day, they're bored by reading and discussing the same story for three days straight and starting to get antsy.

By the sixth day, they're outwardly hostile to the lessons and the teacher for teaching the lessons.

By the ninth day, they're totally disengaged from class and talk openly about how much they hate English.

By the twelve day, they no longer give a shit about anything - not the class, not the story, not the teacher, not the "assessment" (i.e., "test" for those of you who aren't fluent in reformy geekspeak) that is coming up on Day Seventeen.

By the seventeenth day, students complete the "assessment" with little regard to how they do on it because they stopped caring about the entire process somewhere between the end of Day Four and the beginning of Day Five.

Talk about taking the life out of the art - EngageNY certainly does that.

But what's worse, students who've been taught straight up from the EngageNY curriculum haven't read a full work of literature in high school.

Here was how one high school ELA teacher described the EngageNY curriculum and its approach to full works:

As a 9th grade ELA teacher following the Engage NY Curriculum, I have seen first hand how destructive it really is. For three weeks we have been close reading one story! For the first time, my 9th grade students are completely disengaged. How many times can you annotate the same passage?

I also believe now that these units are actually lowering the rigor of my class. We are now into the second marking period and have read one story and written zero essays. At this point last year my 9th grade class had written two essays, read 5 short stories, and were halfway through their first novel, and we were having fun doing it.

The end of the opening unit has students reading (only key scenes) from Romeo and Juliet and then showing the Baz Lerhman film to supplement. How is reading 5 scenes from Romeo and Juliet, rather than the whole play, more rigorous?

That same teacher has told me he has taught that same cohort of students in 10th grade and will be following them into 11th grade.

Students have been taught one EngageNY module each semester for a total of four EngageNY modules.

They have read a full work of literature only because the teachers revolted and pointed out that if they kept following the EngageNY modules, students wouldn't be reading a full work of literature ever in high school English class.

They would have read about 20% of Romeo and Juliet, but that's not reading the full work.

They would have read part of The Joy Luck Club, but that's not reading the full work.

They would have read most of Macbeth, but not quite all, as EngageNY jumps around a bit to focus on skills-based learning like close reading and argumentative writing on different parts of the play.

Reading a whole work of literature to nourish the soul, engage the spirit, encourage thought and reflection, jar some memory of shared experienced or, God forbid, take an opinion upon that isn't "rigorously" based in a close reading of the text - that's not part of high school English class anymore.

If it's not skills-based with an eye toward work-based skills, it pretty much isn't taught.

That's because the New York State ELA Common Core test contains lots of reading, 24 difficult multiple choice questions based upon those readings, an argumentative essay based upon four difficult (often arcane) informational texts, and one literary non-fiction reading that requires students to find a "central idea" in the text and show how it's developed through some literary device.

With teachers now having their careers tied to the scores from these tests, schools slated for state takeover if the test scores are bad, and students needing a 75 or higher in order to attend a four year CUNY school, it behooves to focus only on the skills that are tested and leave everything else out.

Reading full works of literature for pleasure and wonder?

Gone from the curriculum - at least if it's the NY State EngageNY curriculum. 

Students writing personal responses to the literature they've read so that they can make some connections between themselves and the characters?

Gone from the curriculum - at least if it's the NY State EngageNY curriculum. 

Students writing their own creative works to express themselves?

Gone from the curriculum - at least if it's the NY State EngageNY curriculum.

As an ELA teacher, I have no problem teaching non-fiction texts, either on their own or in concert with literature.

I do resent when a reporter for the NY Times writes a piece that is so full of pro-Common Core propaganda and PR bits that it sounds as if ELA Common Core architect David Coleman wrote it.

This Times piece makes it sound like the reason why some children and parents are finding Common Core English Language Arts dreary and soul-sucking is because schools and teachers aren't finding the right kinds of non-fiction to pair with literature to give students a broad experience with reading and writing.

The truth is, because the Common Core test in NY State assesses a certain kind of learning - close reading, mostly nonfiction reading, and argumentative writing (the argumentative essay on the CCSS test is worth a lot more than the literary analysis essay) - and because there are so many high stakes attached to the tests for students, teachers and schools, much of the wonder, excitement and allure of English class of old has been replaced by dreary, rote skills-based learning.

As an ELA teacher, I'm not opposed to teaching skills-based learning, indeed, I actually enjoy this and think it's a very important part of education, but it's also nice to have the freedom to teach a full work of literature that helps students to develop socially, emotionally and creatively too.

In the Era of the Common Core and the high stakes Common Core tests, that cannot be done anymore

Would have been nice if the NY Times reporter could have gotten into the story that we're going to have a whole generation of children come of age who haven't read much - or any - full length literature.

It will be interesting to see what the consequences of that will be in the decades to come.


  1. And, of course, fiction never covers "real world" issues because it's totally fabricated nonsense based on nothing whatsoever. Thank goodness we have NY Times writers ready and willing to share their brilliant insights with us.

  2. My daughter just finished middle school. She read two books in three years and has not done any narrative writing. They weren't even good books, and they spent five months reading each one. Where is the rigor in that?

  3. My high school son read a total of one novel (The Great Gatsby) at the end of his junior year, and no novels his sophomore year. No poetry either. His English classes were mostly informational text and argumentative writing. He has a very high reading level and loves to read, but he was so bored in English that his grade plummeted.

  4. Not only that, but listen to THIS ridiculousness. At my husband's school (he's an English teacher), ALL kids - that's grades 9-12 read "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" and it took them OVER 2 MONTHS to read because they went over and over and reread every little word. Every kid in the school was reading it. Eye glazed over. Good students were forced to read passages over and over and dissect every line. They finally just said to hell with it. That's the way to encourage a love of learning!

  5. Just think if every teacher wrote a letter to the editor of his or her local newspaper and told exactly what was going on in his or her class with Common Core. People would be amazed.

    1. Just imagine if newspapers published such letters!

  6. Good informational texts, not merely textbooks, ought to be part of the science and social studies curricula. There is no sound reason to pressure English teachers to sacrifice great literature or book-length works unless there is some underlying philosophy that academic disciplines are not so important in the era of common core. If common core means that all disciplines have a responsibility to teach these close reading skills from rich discipline-based texts then students would easily be reading more nonfiction than fiction. Why has the testing regime been crafted to place inordinate emphasis on a minority of secondary teachers who teach English?

  7. I think the goal is to replace teachers. Short, pithy passages are conducive to online learning. Full length novels are not.

    Also, it would seem "close reading" encourages mindless acceptance of propaganda. For instance, if the New York Times tells you some BS, and you've never been encouraged to evaluate text as it relates to your lived experience, then you would be very pliable to said BS from the NYT.

    "Close reading" is not critical thinking. It is the opposite.

  8. I am using the scripts of the Engage NY common core modules because I have been directly ordered to do so. They are low-quality, poorly written and full of editing errors.Massive amounts of photocopying are required. Hardly any technology is used. All six pages of worksheets in one lesson were numbered "p. 11." Sometimes the heading had the wrong book title on it. The second half of each unit has the same homework every night ("Read two chapters and take notes"), and it isn't referred to in the next day's class. My students rebelled and I am miserable. I used to believe that what I was doing made a difference. Now I believe that what I am doing is educationally unsound and morally wrong.

  9. The goal is to be able to put any warm body who "wants to make a difference" in front of the kids to read from a script (and not a very good one at that). G-d help the students of the NYC public school system.

    1. The goal is to get rid of union teachers with benefits. The programs are meant to keep you working till 9 o'clock at night, planning. And once you make some headway, your grade is changed, your room is changed, and then a new program will be brought in and you'll have to throw out all the work you did.

  10. Again it speaks to the point that Common Core is intends to create unstimulated drones who will comply with the arbitrary displays of power inflicted on them by their corporate employers. No imagination, curiosity, critical thinking and definitely no backtalk. This thing is beyond evil. If I could punch Coleman's smug teeth in I would.