Friday, September 20, 2013

The UnCommon Core

I intend to give a clear comparison of a modern Common Core aligned textbook with a textbook used forty years ago. I was unable to find a simple table of contents for a new Common Core literature text online for middle or high school. The Common Core standards themselves are easy to find. Remember than the Common Core is a set of benchmarks, or a scope and sequence standard, delineating what skills a student must master at a certain grade level. Textbooks have had these standards in place for decades; they're nothing new. And if you read the Common Core standards, after a few minutes your eyes will cross slightly from all the educationese language. Then you'd ask yourself what exactly was wrong with things like, "Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text," or "Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact." I've written such unhelpful documents myself. They are produced en masse by educators to pacify the accreditation agencies. If you were a new teacher, hurled into a classroom in which you were clueless how to teach, it might be helpful. Maybe. But you really shouldn't be in the classroom in the first place if that were true.

When Adam taught 9th grade literature once, he used the standards laid out in the front of a newish textbook published by Holt, to show the students how their literature selections were chosen in order to meet the standards. "See how they've inserted this little chunk of Homer's Odyssey about the dog?" he'd ask. Then he'd turn to the standards in the front of the back-breakingly-heavy textbook and show them the box where he could check off that yes, he'd taught them literature that included an animal. I kid you not. This wasn't a public school. This was a Christian school, using secular textbooks.

Not that I'm against standards - oh no! I want education to be challenging and thorough. How can we know that we've covered it all, if we don't have a check list? But here's my question: What are we teaching? Are we teaching literature, or are we teaching a laundry list of skills?

That's an important question. I'll be honest with you; I'm not interested in checking off a set of skills my students have mastered after studying Homer's Odyssey. I'm interested in teaching them the Odyssey itself.

Our educational system clearly does not agree with me. I know this because they are systematically (and rapidly) removing the literature, and inserting other things. New textbooks have a sprinkling of classics and traditionally acknowledged masterpieces. But if we're not teaching the literature -- if we're only teaching a skill set -- then does it really matter which texts we use?
The old 1973 Harcourt literature text for 9th graders
This explains why literature texts are organized so differently now. I have a 1973 Harcourt/Brace/Jovanovich Adventures in Reading textbook for 9th graders. We used these lovely textbooks at a Christian school in Iowa. I've hoarded them since because they're wonderful, useful, and mostly untainted by modern thinking. The units in this text are divided thus: Short Story, Poetry (with a deeper focus on five poets: Sandburg, Kipling, Burns, Millay, Tennyson), Essays and Sketches, Biography, Drama, Shakespeare (poetry and a slightly-abridged Romeo and Juliet, probably without offending scenes), all of Homer's Odyssey, and an abridged Great Expectations. The focus is always on the literature, and on great literature. The study questions and written assignments lead the students into deeper understanding of the themes, but it's the repeated, thorough exposure to excellent writing that teaches them to identify exceptional style, to enjoy and evaluate strong plot, to identify with powerful characters. In the back of the book is a brief 4-page "language program" chart clarifying what each piece does:  "a character sketch," or "short personal essay," or "description of a place." Notice the intent is not to show how each piece should develop some skill in the student.

Is that distinction clear? Because I think it's important.

My piano student was here recently and pulled our her new Common Core literature textbook. She's in 7th grade. I glanced at the table of contents. Then I quickly typed the list of authors from the first five units. The units are: Fiction, Fiction, Non-fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry. And here's another significant change over forty years -- the amount and nature of the non-fiction included in literature textbooks. We've always had non-fiction, things like Washington's "Farewell Address," or the letters of Robert E. Lee, Lincoln's Inaugural Addresses or "The Declaration of Independence." More recently we've added M.L. King's "Dream" Speech, and rightly so -- these are seminal events, crucial documents to our nation's identity.  I don't think of Washington, Lincoln, or King as literary giants, but they were well-versed and -spoken men. In my old textbooks, the non-fiction includes essays by literary greats like Priestley, Twain, Irving, Addison, and Bacon. Great enough that I don't have to give their first names. Some of the biography portions were penned by Thurber and Steinbeck. All this in that 40 year old text.

And the modern textbooks? What kind of non-fiction do they include? Cell phone manuals, instructional manuals, sports reports, news articles, op-ed pieces, and in my piano student's textbook, an essay on global warming by Al Gore. (That one might have been a bit presumptuous to include.) The pieces are all in a jumble -- no attempt at chronology. Robert Frost is in the non-fiction unit. Lewis Carroll is in poetry. Millay is under fiction, not poetry. A NASA press release is also included in the fiction chapter. Why? When I look in my newish Holt textbook for 10th graders, I find an entire unit on reading "Consumer and Workplace Documents." This is not right in a literature class! I never taught that chapter when I taught 5 years ago. I never alluded to it. When we changed subtly from teaching literature to teaching language arts, we did something rather deadly. We took the first step toward jettisoning the literature because we'd decided literature wasn't really what we were teaching.
Holt American literature text I used 5 years ago
In some ways the Common Core literature text is just the expected next step from the huge useless tomes we've been using for the past ten years or so. The big departure from real literature anthologies for 7th-12th grades happened decades ago. I'll continue teaching literature. And when I do use an anthology, I pick and choose pieces from it, wanting to give students only the best, Five Michelin Stars for their reading palate. My piano student's book includes pieces by Louis L'Amour, Arthur Ashe, Bill Cosby, sports announcers and modern journalists ... slapped right next to some letters by Queen Elizabeth I! I think perhaps the chaos of it all is what offends my sensibilities the most.

Still, it is an UnCommon Core. This is not the way literature was taught for centuries. Literature was books, excellent books that had stood the test of generations of evaluation by great thinkers, and still lived to speak to the newest readers. These writers have been stripped from textbooks. From the first five units of my piano student's book, I'll list for you the writers I'd identify as worthy of being in a literature text: O. Henry, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Thurber, Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll, Longfellow, Langston Hughes, Basho, e.e. cummings, and Whitman. That's it. You should know that the selections are very short for each writer, just a taste. That may look like a nice list, but it's not enough for a year's literary study. 61 other writers are in the table of contents, but I don't know why they're there. Even Michael Pollan made it -- a modern slow-food guru! Just because you've published a book on a hot cultural trend does not qualify you for literary glory!

Almost all the writers in this new Common Core text are 20th Century writers. Thus, "old thinking" and traditional ways are excluded. In the textbook's 2nd unit, "Fiction," of the 13 authors, only 4 are white. Only one is a white male. However, in 2010, whites made up 72.4% of the population. I'm thrilled that more black, hispanic, and Asian people are writing. I wish them success. I do not think their ethnic background should give them automatic entry into literary history. But from the sheer numbers of black, hispanic, and Asian writers included, and the exclusion of most people white and just about anybody dead, I'm left with the conclusion that the new Common Core has another agenda:  to push out some thinking and foster other thinking. Most of the ethnic writers (I looked them up online and read about them) specialize in racial issues and write about ethnic topics. I'm happy to embrace ethnic writers who deserve to be lionized in literary anthologies because of their talents. (I can think of quite a few who have, and whose writing I love.) I'd prefer writers who would broaden their minds enough to write about more than just their racial experiences. And I'm really sorry to have to end this post on such a sour note. I'm not being unkind. I'm really just noting a significant shift in the contents of your child's literature textbook.

Content has been removed. Content has been added. Most authors are current and untested. And the teaching objectives have changed. This is only in the field of literature. If you dislike these changes, I suggest homeschooling if you can, or find an excellent Classical school for your child.

(Another article by World on the Common Core)


  1. Yes, Mary Kathryn. Yes yes yes.

    An excellent survey and analysis.


  2. You make a lot of great points. So, so true. Thank you for this insightful post.

  3. I don't mind my new textbook's approach and I don't find the Common Core offensive. Education is often in flux, but I think the intent is for the good of all learners. There are so many wonderful pieces to read, past, present, and yet to come. I believe kids are blessed when their teachers and parents expose them to classical literature and I also believe that not all teachers inspire readers when they teach great works.
    We just read a beautiful story by Jane Yolen called "The Greyling". The students were mesmerized. I have a new book by Jim Burke that helps decode the standards and I feel good about the challenge.

  4. Very interesting! I know that there is uproar about the Common Core, but haven't heard much about why. I think that part of the problem is that schools and homes are locked in a viscous cycle. Schools used to focus on academics (plus morals) and left everything else to the home. As increasingly-broken homes failed to teach certain things, people worried about society, and schools tried to pick up the slack. As a result, some parents skipped even more life-teaching (that's what school is for, right?), and so the schools had to pick up more slack...

    Now, everything that a student needs for success in life "must" be taught in schools because many parents don't/can't teach those things. Students need to know how to handle written documents like cell phone manuals, so they show up in Language Arts. Once schools are places where you learn Life Skills, there isn't much time for frills like Literature.

  5. Lots of truth, Anna. And I think that's why parents are pulling their kids out of the public system -- a system where literature study is now a "frill." I'm sure it varies from school to school, teacher to teacher. But that's one of my gripes about the CC -- the entire goal is to ensure there is NO difference from school to school, teacher to teacher. Bleh - no thanks!


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