In what must be the Common Core controversy flavor of the month, the most recent criticism of the Standards addresses the split of nonfiction to fiction texts at the secondary level. Alarmist articles decrying the replacement of classic literature, such as The Catcher in the Rye, with instruction manuals are far off base from the language and intent of the Standards, which is, simply: read better texts.
While we all spin our wheels weeding through cycle after cycle of misinformation, we waste valuable time that could be so much better spent on reaching the heart of the Standards and raising our expectations of students. We need to focus our efforts on the real work of improving our students’ reading skills by looking critically at the texts we are using in classrooms across the country. There are incredible conversations happening among language arts department teachers in response to the Common Core, and we need to support, encourage, and cultivate these efforts rather than seeking out and throwing curveballs at them with exaggerations and misinterpretations.
It was through a recent conversation with middle school language arts teachers that I realized the Common Core Standards do not deter English teachers away from classic pieces of literature; instead, they drive us back to those classic texts that may have been strewn by the wayside in favor of seemingly more engaging, albeit less challenging, contemporary texts. The Standards in no way encourage teachers of language arts to forego classic texts for informational ones as implied by recent criticism, but they do encourage us to move from selecting texts based on student interest alone to selecting texts, both classic and contemporary, that will appropriately challenge students and build strong reading skills.
We get to the heart of the Standards when we think critically about our text selections. Secondary teachers in my district began the process of critically analyzing our reading selections by starting with a thorough inventory of the texts we currently use, have stored away in bookrooms, or that are preserved on lists as protected for certain grade levels. Using these lengthy compilations, teachers researched the Lexile levels, one of several calculations that can be used to figure out the difficulty of a text, of each text on the list. Those texts that met the minimum Lexile suggestion of 925 for grades six through eight were safe; we decided to keep them within the grade band. Those that did not were up for discussion.
While many of the classics such as Animal Farm (1170L) and Red Badge of Courage (900L) that clearly meet the Lexile expectations for the grade band, did appear on our lists, they were overwhelmed by a number of contemporary novels such as Edward Bloor’s Tangerine (680L), Neil Shusterman’s Unwind (740L), Scott Westerfield’s Uglies (770L), and Roland Smith’s Sasquatch (680L) that did not. There were several texts, both contemporary and classic, whose low readability levels surprised the teachers—a surprise we would not have uncovered had it not been for having these conversations. While these texts may be great and engaging books, their inability to meet those suggested Lexile levels made us think much more critically about our choices. A book like Unwind will keep a student up late at night reading, but does the text itself have the depth or complexity reflective of those texts on the exemplar lists for these grade levels? Is there a more challenging contemporary or classic text that better meets the Lexile suggestions? In teaching easier texts is our focus on encouraging a love of reading or teaching students how to read? Can we do both with more difficult texts? And the quintessential question of text complexity: Are these texts at these Lexile levels the best choices for challenging students, improving their reading skills, and preparing them to be successful readers throughout their lives?
It was through these conversations that these middle school teachers began making tough decisions about which books should stay and which should go. Maybe there are better, more challenging, but equally engaging books for students than those we are currently using that do not meet the grade band suggestions. Maybe we should expect a higher level of reading out of our students.
Work such as this is happening in schools across the country in response to the Standards; when was the last time we were given the opportunity or framework to think about text selections through this critical lens? These thought-provoking conversations held by classroom teachers nationwide would not have happened without the shifts encouraged by the Common Core. Our efforts are much better spent in encouraging these critical discussions than in driving teachers astray with alarmist untruths.