Common Core Depends on the Classics

Are you fretting over your state’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards?

If so, I don’t blame you. I’ve been watching some roll-outs that have left my head spinning (and hurting). In my 22 years of teaching English and writing curriculum I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this.

Luckily, I have some help for you.

First things first:

  • I’ve heard high school English teachers react with shock and horror that 3/4 of what they’ll have to teach is nonfiction.
    Teachers should be shocked—because this is not true. The CCSS recommends that Âľ of a student’s entire school day include nonfiction reading (preferably primary texts). That means the students will need to be reading in science, math, history, second language—all the classes that have been off the hook for reading in the past—they get to join English teachers in all the fun, now. It’s actually a great opportunity for those disciplines. It took me until college to really understand that I read Shakespeare one way, poetry another, modern plays another, history texts another, primary source docs another, science texts yet another… and that the skill sets required to parse all of those different texts should be different. Sure wish I’d had my other-than-English-teachers show me the ropes while I was in high school!
    This also means that English teachers are going to have to assign lots of fiction and poetry to fill in that last 1/4 of the students’ reading time. Yay for us!
  • I’ve seen some districts calling the CCSS a “curriculum.”
    It isn’t. It isn’t meant to be. The CCSS is a set of standards. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years I’ve seen and worked with plenty of state “standards” that aren’t standards at all. Goals. Guidelines. Curricula, sure. But not standards.
    The CCSS actually are standards. And they’re vertically integrated which means that even if your school doesn’t play nice with grades above and below where you teach or the school above or below the one you teach at (and if not, why not?!), you’ll all be working from the same set of “this is what I can expect incoming kids to be able to do” and “this is what I need to make sure my kids can do by the end of the year.” Can you imagine how awesome that would be?! To know what kids are supposed to come in knowing and able to do in September. Heaven!
  • I’ve heard people claim (accuse?) that the Appendices are book lists.
    The Appendices are exemplars—sample texts to give teachers an idea of what the CCSS’s vision is. If you’ve never seen what happens when a good teacher gets a rich, challenging, and interesting text in front of kids, you may want to listen to this story. It’s exactly what I saw in my classrooms over the years.
    So. The upshot–Appendix A—just sample texts. You can teach other stuff, but it should hit the same level of complexity (and no, difficulty levels don’t depend on Lexile alone. You can use free online tools to get an objective view of how difficult a text is then put that together with your knowledge from years of teaching and observing and you’ll have a definable, defensible text). Take a look here at the Content and Quality section for more.

Now that all of that is out of the way… if I’m honest with myself (and I try to be, but, you know… reality) I have to concede that often over my years teaching, the curriculum I taught was solely based on what books were available and in the book room.

Now that is a ridiculous curriculum.

But it’s also reality. There’s not much you can do to teach a book if you don’t, say, actually have the book.

But what book should you have?

Why the Common Core is dependant on the classics:

The kind of reading and thinking that is expected—at every level—in the broad scope of the CCSS is not something that can be achieved by reading scaled readers and adapted texts. With very rare exceptions (I’m looking at you, Pendulum Press Moby Dick—Shapiro/Niño, from my 5th grade class) adaptations cannot give students the rich language, literary devices, and subtext that we’re asking students to deliver in their writing. If they never read it, how can we expect them to write it?

Or think it.

Our abilty to understand metaphor and irony are crucial (and very clearly lacking in a lot of public speech these days) and a strong foundation in logical fallacies, rhetoric, and reasoning are the things that will both make life richer for our students and protect them from predators who act on their own principle that “if you’re too stupid to know I’m cheating you, then you deserve to be cheated.”

I’m working on curriculum right now that is attempted to teach metaphor, irony, figurative language, and foreshadowing in a leveled reader that is devoid of all four. Plot? Sure. I’ve got that coming out my ears. Setting? Well, we know the naem of the place, but have no image of the place from the text. Characters? If two-dimensional cutouts count, then yes. If it’s characterisation you’re looking for, then not so much. Certainly no examples of direct or indirect characterization.


Where do you go to get your kids the good stuff?

You go to the classics (both new and old). Things that are rich, that give the kids something to discuss and argue about. And it doesn’t mean giving Catcher in the Rye to 5th graders (ugh!) or 1984 to 7th graders. There are worthy books at every level and primary texts all over the place. So while we may have easy access (especially to the public domain books on the internet) what we often do not have at all is the time needed for US to learn the books.

Learning a book well enough so that you can teach it is a whole other level of learning. And it’s hard. And time consuming. And not something you can do overnight when you program for the new school year has been changed.

I also remember that—more than once—I arrived the day before classes all chipper and prepared only to find out that my program or my class book list had been changed on me. The day before school started!  (Which I understand, programming being the nightmare that it always is.) Back then I had no resources to draw on—the internet was limited to Compuserve and AOL and there wasn’t much in the way of audiobooks uploaded for our use (like Librivox today).

Well, now you have some real help in the form of our Audiobooks-with-Benefits.

CraftLit—the only audiobooks with benefits producer availabile now—is nearly in its 9th year and is currently on its 18th complete novel—all classics, many taught in high school and college—which means you have a choice:

  • You can listen in a hurry to get what you need to stay ahead of the kdis while you teach them a book that you’re unfamiliar with.
  • You can assign the audio to the kids so you get to do the fun stuff in class, the in-depth discussing, the writing, the analyzing, the look-at-my-kids-show-off-how-smart-they are stuff.
  • You can do both.

CraftLit is a free podcast that teachers, students, and families can listen to online or on an mp3 player. The show is hosted by Heather Ordover, a multi-crafty-former-high-school-English-teacher-and-university-professor who “teaches” classic literature chapter by chapter on this free podcast.

Listening is as simple as using an app (iPhone/Android/Windows 8), listening via iTunes, Learn out Loud, Stitcher Radio, or your fave podcast aggregator, catching up on previous books here in our Library, or at our Libsyn site where you can also catch our Premium audio as it’s are released via the app or online. Previous premium audiobooks are also in our Shoppe now.