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A disturbing quote about teaching literature in Common Core era


How disturbing is the following quote, from this New York Times story titled “English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions?”

The story talks about how English class has changed in the Common Core era because the standards call for students to read much more non-fiction than they did before. How much? The Common Core standards call for nonfiction works to represent half of reading assignments in elementary school and a full 70 percent by grade 12 — though this is meant to be across the curriculum and not just in English class. As a result, some schools and districts have revamped English class as well as all others, sparking dissent from educators who think literature is now getting short shrift.

The Times story includes this quote:

“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”

Eliminating some literature in and of itself may not be a problem, if, for example, a teacher decided to drop some short works to spend more time delving into a long novel. But is teaching literature really all about teaching particular concepts and skills?

Concepts are general notions, abstract ideas; a skill is a particular ability. Isn’t there more? How about teaching literature so students can learn to examine (not conform to) societal values, expand world views, understand their own and different cultures, appreciate the beauty of strong, eloquent language, develop emotional intelligence?

Literature is a mirror that reflects a society’s values, behaviors, history and culture. Teachers with any hope of capturing students’ attention and getting them engaged in reading Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Faulkner have to think beyond skills and concepts. Patrick Welsh, who was an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., for 43 years and a prolific writer, explained in a chapter called “The Role of Values in Teaching Literature in the High School,” in a 1985 book titled “Challenges to the Humanities“:

For high school English teachers, the discussion and examination of the value issues inherent in literature is a major element in engaging students. Once students see how the values in the novels, plays, and poems they read relate to their values, once they see that the world of literature is really their own world, that literature is a source of in-
sight-even wisdom-into the human predicament, they are on their way to “owning” their English classes …
Those English teachers who are not willing to make the effort to show students how the great issues in literature are related to issues in their own lives will perhaps do just as well to limit their attention to “communication skills”-to grammar and composition-and to hope that their students will discover the wonder and power of literature when they are out of school. Better that than to lead students to believe that great literature is so esoteric, so far from their experience, that only a few precious souls can own it.

The part of the quote that says, “So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across,” elicits different opinions among educators. Some find value in teaching only part of a novel, as Pamela M. Price-Anisman wrote in this article for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute:

Teachers should not be afraid to teach part of a novel. Advanced students may, in fact, read the whole work anyway. With more hesitant basic or college-level students, isolated chapters offer the appeal of the short story while delving into as little as one carefully developed moment.

Other educators say students can’t possibly understand an author’s intent without reading the entire thing. Ariel Sacks, an English teacher in New York City and author of “Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach,” wrote this in a piece for Education Week in 2012:

Literary fiction is an art that seeks to create an immersive experience for the reader, but we often don’t approach it that way with our students. We parcel out books in pieces and ask students to analyze them along the way without the ability to understand a work in its entirety. This is sort of like asking students to interpret a corner of a painting. Without the entire context, it lacks meaning and can become frustrating.
Imagine walking into a movie theater and finding that the movie is switched off every few minutes. Someone in the front of the room asks questions designed to see if you understand what you are seeing and demands that you analyze the clip in front of the other moviegoers. Only then does he move to the next clip. It takes 12 hours to get through the entire feature-length film. If this were the norm, would you ever go to the movies?….
When I was studying to be a teacher at Bank Street College in New York City nine years ago, my advisor and children’s literature instructor, Madeleine Ray, planted a different concept in my mind: Let students read novels in their entirety. Then let them talk about what they find interesting in the book, facilitating the group’s exploration of the text. She convinced me to do away with prescribed comprehension and discussion questions and let the students lead the way.

What a concept.