Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Common Core Done Properly Weakens Ability To Read Literature

I just finished The Sherlockian, an enjoyable novel that combines historical fiction with a contemporary detective story. The historical fiction features Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stores, and Bram Stoker the author of Dracula.

The fictionalized Doyle and Stoker have the following  exchange.
"My stories,"said Arthur. "The science of deduction. The reasoning detective. The solution delivered partly in a satisfying denouement. They're all horseshit."
Bram smiled. "I know," he said. "That's why we need them."
Arthur considered this. "I've moved on," he offered after a long pause. "I've been working on realism. History."
"Realism," Bram repeated. "Realism, I think, is fleeting. It's the romance that will live forever."
Earlier, the character Stoker had taken the long view:
Because in a hundred years, no one will care about me. Or you. Or Oscar [Wilde]. We stopped caring about Oscar years ago and we were his bloody friends. No, what they'll remember are the stories. They'll remember Holmes. And Watson. And Dorian Gray."
To test Stoker's theory, let's do a little quiz. Does anyone remember Philander C. Knox or Robert C. Vessey? They were kind of big deals in 1913. The former was the American Secretary of State and the latter South Dakota's governor in 1913. On the other hand, early everyone knows about Pollyanna, the character brought to life in 1913.

I could pass off the novel's dialogue as an author's Romantic musing about famous authors and characters, but this Robert B. Shepherd post on Diane Ravitch's blog sums up why reading the "horseshit" is important and why the Common Core will harm the reading of literature:
Amusingly, the new Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] are totally schizoid on this issue of abstraction and generalization in education and social engineering. On the one hand, the supporting materials around those standards [sic] call for a great RETURN TO THE TEXT—for having our students read substantive works with higher Lexile levels and having them do close reading of those texts. The supporting materials around the new standards also call for subordinating skills and strategies instruction, for making these incidental to emphasis on the text. Well and good. But the standards themselves are more of the same. They are lists of abstract, general skills and strategies, and they encourage the continuation of a kind of schooling that focuses on form rather than on content (knowledge of the world and knowledge of procedures). And so the new [sic] standards [sic] are, sadly, more of the same. However, lists of abstractions have appeal to those who think that they can confidently implement their social engineering based upon their own abstract principles like “you get what you measure,” so it’s not surprising that the social engineers would LOVE the new CCSS in ELA.
We need to return to reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—to focusing on this poem, this essay, this novel, and what it communicates, and we need to retreat from having our students read to practice their inferencing skills or their identifying the main idea or context clues skills. We read because we are interested in Hedda Gabler or Madame Bovery and the plights they are in, not because we wish to hone our understanding of the structure of the novel IN GENERAL. That will come, but it can come ONLY as a result of first READING the novels. In our rush to make ELA education scientific, in our emphasis on abstract form over content, we’ve forgotten why we read. We don’t read to hone our inferencing skills. We don’t read because we are fascinated by where, in this essay, the author has placed the main idea. Our purpose in reading is not to find out how the author organized her story in order to create suspense. We read because we are interested in what the text has to say, and the metacognitive abstraction about the text is incidental. It grows out of and relates to what this particular text does and takes meaning from that. The Common Core State Standards in ELA is just another set of blithering, poorly thought out abstractions. And starting from there, instead of starting with the text and its content, is a mistake.
Beware the social engineer and his or her abstractions.”
In short, the Common Core, when implemented properly, reduces Sherlock Holmes to the status of Philander C. Knox. Shepherd concludes,
“One could implement the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts perfectly and have students entirely miss what reading literature is about. They would not come away from their literature classes with the understanding that when they read a literary work well, they enter into an imaginative world and have an experience there, in all its concreteness and specificity, and it is then THAT experience that has significance, that matters, that has “meaning.”
You can’t skip the experience and go directly to the meaning, and that’s what students are encouraged to do if their lessons concentrate on abstract, formal notions from some list of standards rather than upon reading as experiencing. Now, when I say that reading literature is experiencing, I do not mean that all readings are therefore equally good. Literature makes use of conventions and inventions designed to give people particular imaginative experiences that will be common to readers, with, of course, some variation, experiences that will mean something, not mean anything at all that the reader takes away from it. Literature counts on the fact that when people have an experience like this, they will take away common learnings. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, a person tells a story because there is something that he or she wishes to communicate. The Vietnam vets used to say, “You wouldn’t know because you weren’t there, man.” Well, reading literature well is about going THERE. It’s about having that experience, carefully arranged so that you will come from it with certain learnings, often with wisdom.
Find THAT in the Common Core State Standards for literature.
Good luck.” 
I've written  before about the Core's misplaced emphasis on non-fiction. Shepherd's analysis points out something that may be more important. The Core will not only decrease the amount of fiction students read. It will also weaken their ability to read, understand, and learn from the fiction they are assigned.


M Larson said...

I keep going round and round with a fellow teacher on this. She has signed on whole-heartedly onto the Common Core and is on the Smart Balance group establishing the tests. Her argument is that the non-fiction requirements must be placed on the other departments. Social studies, tech, and math must require more reading outside of the text book. If that could happen, I am fine because I can still teach Huck Finn, The Minister's Black Veil, and The Crucible.

Kal Lis said...

In an ideal world, your naive colleague may well be correct. We aren't living there.

Obviously, I haven't talked to every English teacher in the state, but I have yet to hear of history and science teachers brought into meetings to discuss reading standards. I can't imagine a principal walking down the hallway to tell the ball coaches that they have to meet the reading standards.

The practical effect of these standards English teachers will lose fiction; science and math will continue as they have, and social studies will have more class time to watch the PBS Civil War documentary or do a project about the difference between the real Spartans and those in 300.

I wish I were wrong, but I've been doing this a long time and I have yet to see that pattern broken.