A post about the Common Core standards “No One Opposes Reading Non-Fiction”) was followed by a lively discussion among readers. Among many excellent comments, this one stood out. Written by Robert D. Shepherd, it raises important issues about how publishers will interpret the standards. And even more important, why do we want to read?
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, many educators around the country implemented Phase Elective Programs. Students would take mini-courses, six or nine weeks long, on specific topics like American Transcendentalism or The French Revolution and read a bunch of related materials–fiction, poetry, plays, and nonfiction–on those topics. These programs came under heavy fire from conservatives because many of the topics dealt with popular culture or left-wing politics (e.g., Superheroes, The Literature of Protest, The Haves and the Have Nots). What was wonderful about Phase Elective Programs, however, was that the curriculum was designed based on the areas of study rather than based on lists of skills to be learned, types of texts to be covered, etc. Such curricula put the topic of study first, recognizing that the reason for reading is to learn about, to understand more about, something interesting and important. To their credit, the creators of the Common Core State Standards have called for reading of connected texts across the school year and across multiple grades. However, that call comes in footnotes, appendices, and white papers issued after the fact, such as the Publisher’s Guidance.
Think of the plight of the editor sitting down to design a new 8th-grade literature textbook based on the new standards. Now, what he or she is supposed to do is a) make sure that the text covers this long list of skills given in the standards and b) make sure that the balance of types of texts is exactly what was called for. Decisions about what texts to include and in what order will be made by this editor not on the basis of which texts are the strongest contributions to some topic of study or interest but, rather, on the basis of which can be used to teach the skills listed in the standards and which will meet the genre quotas for the grade level. Already, we are seeing lots of new textbook programs based on the new standards. And these programs are taking a predictable form. To meet the call for connected texts, these programs organize selections (50% literature, 50% informative texts) into units dealing with what are erroneously called “themes” (e.g., “Challenges,” “Weather”). These “themes” tend to be VERY vague and broad, so the texts in a given unit do not really build a body of knowledge or understanding about a subject of study. They are “connected” texts in only the most superficial senses. A text is chosen for a particular spot in a particular unit not because it is intrinsically interesting or valuable, not because it is the best texts for building knowledge or understanding of some area of interest, but because a) it has an appropriate “readability” according to some mathematical formula (such as an appropriate Lexile level); b) activities can be constructed, based on that text, to “cover” the next few skills in the list of standards (the standards call, here, for treatment of hyperbole and allusion to Greek myth, so we need a text that contains those); c) it contributes to the required “balance” of literary and informative texts (gee, we already have three literary texts; we need three informative texts now); and d) it is vaguely related to the unit’s vague “theme.” With all these criteria determining their choices of texts, it’s little wonder why so many textbook publishers opt for creating written-to-order texts (and paying small change to freelancers to cook those up).
All these criteria lead to an egregious outcome: the whole point of reading is ignored. The reason why anyone bothers to read to begin with gets lost. We read because we become interested in something and want to know about or understand it, or we read simply because we want to be entertained. In the former case, we become interested in, say, vegan cooking or rock climbing or Mayans or space travel or the Holocaust, and we search out the best, most informative, works on the topic and read those. In the latter, we read particular works because we, as individuals, have a taste for science fiction or mysteries or popular science or pop sci self help, and we choose to crack the most interesting titles in those areas that we come across. We do NOT choose our reading because we need to work on our “identifying metaphors” skills. That skills learning happens incidentally because we are readers, and we are readers because we want to know or want to be entertained.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. People MEAN WELL when they put out these standards and other criteria for text selection, but taken together, the criteria undermine the whole purpose of the enterprise of instruction in “reading” and “literature,” which is to create readers.