The Common Core standards call for a major shift in reading in schools, from mostly fiction to mostly nonfiction.
Many English teachers are up in arms. What about literature? they ask. What’s going to happen to the power of stories?
David Coleman, the architect of the English Language Arts standards, emphasizes that English teachers do not need to bear the brunt of the change. If non-English teachers assign more reading, then everything will work out.
When I first heard Mr. Coleman make this assertion, I felt comforted (even though I find him smug). After all, I like nonfiction, too. I do Kelly Gallagher‘s Article of the Week. I like to supplement an anchor novel with various nonfiction texts to build background knowledge and to enhance student interest.
So do many other teachers. In fact, The New York Times just launched an effort that uses newspaper articles to drive instruction toward the Common Core standards. As a huge fan of the paper, I’d love to get on board.
But then I came across a problem. What the Common Core calls “informational texts” is not the same as what I call “nonfiction.”
If you take a look at the the Common Core’s text exemplars — in other words, suggested texts — you’ll notice that American historical texts are highly prized. There is nothing wrong with these documents. No one would take offense to the “Gettysburg Address” or “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” especially in a study of rhetoric.
But I’m worried that English teachers will feel compelled to teach Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King rather than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
And if “informational texts” have to be old, what happens to all the excellent articles found in Time and The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker and The New York Times? What happens to Malcolm Gladwell and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nancy Gibbs? Do they belong in independent reading, read only by a minuscule percentage of students?
It’s clear that Common Core is going to shake up the place of reading in schools. And that’s great. I welcome the debate. But I hope that educators will be able to have an honest conversation about how to promote different kinds of reading across the curriculum. And I hope that we can take this opportunity to re-think the role of reading in our students’ lives. If we do things right, maybe we can bring back reading’s joy.