by Ann Camacho, author of Bookmarked
Every year at the beginning of my American Literature class, I tell my students that “Books are the blueprints to living, the roadmaps of our lives,” and I mean it with all my heart. The Common Core State Standards approach the modern classroom with this same ideology as their motivating foundation. When expert veteran teacher and coauthor of the Common Core Carol Jago notes in an article in the Washington Post what English classes “should look like in the Common Core era,” she clarifies that literature will not be taken out of the English classes. Instead, she explains, “The National Assessment for Educational Progress does not measure performance in English class. It measures performance in reading, reading across the disciplines and throughout the school day.”
Jago is among the leading voices for the benefits of the Common Core’s stipulation to bring nonfiction reading into the curriculum. The Common Core does not suggest taking literature, poetry, and other fiction out of the picture, but in fact requires other content areas of academic learning to embrace nonfiction literature as a means to stretching the accountability of student reading across all classrooms.
The Common Core standards support a reading curriculum for all academic coursework, because clearly, it can no longer be placed on just the English classes alone; if our students are to leave high school truly prepared to be capable learners and employees in the 21st century workplace, they must read more. Period. All educators must be committed to strengthening our students’ reading faculties. According to the 2010 Kaiser Family Media study, research reports that “young people ages 8–18 consume on average 7½ hours of entertainment media per day: playing video games, watching television, and social networking,” and it has become painfully obvious that this consumption must begin to include reading as a part of their daily activities.
Yet, a bigger issue still lies heavy with the educator and the activities in the classroom. We must look at the central issue of student engagement vs. student compliance. We must be willing to retrain teachers who have spent the last 12 years teaching to a test. We must all be willing to do what Jago suggests and move away from “force-feeding students but rather encouraging them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer.”
Jago addresses English teachers about the specific need to “make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day,” and there are so many ways this can be done. Instead of just assigning chapters of The Grapes of Wrath, I help my students internalize the struggles of the farmers as they migrated across the country over 70 years ago through an experiential research project. I ask them, as they begin to read, to give up all common luxuries, such as technology, hot showers, processed food, and even their backpacks. I give them points for wearing the same clothes every day for a week and sleeping on the floor in their homes, and promise them all A’s if they follow these instructions. Then, like the migrant farmers who were assured jobs if they moved to California and gave up everything they owned—only to find out there were no jobs—I give them all Fs. They are outraged and frustrated, but I tell them, “Just keep reading. The answers are in the book.” Through their critical reading, they find the guidance and inspiration they need to “unite and rebel” against my unfair assessment of their work, and I watch them stand together to experience Steinbeck’s modern version of the Oversoul, the united spirit of humanity overriding man’s tendency toward self-serving behavior.
Yes, it’s unconventional. Yes, it is a lot of extra work on my part, and theirs, as well as garnering the support of my administration, all in order to guide them in their reading, understanding, personal growth, and engagement with Steinbeck’s great novel. I guarantee you, though, not a year has gone by since I started teaching The Grapes of Wrath this way, that my students don’t come out of this unit with a richer, more connected manner of critically thinking about the text than they would have if I had just assigned a reading log.
Creative, authentic, and engaged teaching and learning is what the Common Core asks of us all in this next phase of education. Bridging our curriculum and our students’ world, through the skill of critical and reflective reading, is a long-needed change in our system. I am grateful to Jago and others who, through their dedication to creating a new standard of curriculum and assessment, have demanded a better way of learning for all of our students. Good-bye, NCLB. You will not be missed.
How do you make literature vibrant in your classroom? How are you addressing literature in the era of the Common Core State Standards?
Ann Camacho has been an English teacher for more than 20 years. She currently teaches American literature at North High School in Riverside, California. Her students (and the student body as a whole) are very diverse, and many are in the school’s International Baccalaureate program and/or AP classes. Ann also participates in the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) college preparation program for students who have college aspirations but are falling short of their potential or who don’t believe college is within reach.
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