Why the Angst? Close-Reading the Common Core

Just read an interesting article entitled “Misreading New Reading Guidelines” that happens to quote some of my favorite people (Sheridan Blau and Nell Duke to name a couple). This article captures some of the nationwide angst surrounding the Common Core — and, as the title suggests, some of the challenges.

Indeed — this “misreading” is one of the major problems. Educators and administrators alike seem to be guilty of not actually having READ the Common Core — or at least not close-reading it. The Core asks for a balance in informational text & literature. By the time students hit high school, they will be reading a literal ton of informational text in various classes, including economy, history, science, and math. To be honest — and literal –if the Core is asking for 30% of high school time be devoted to literature, it means that those classes other than English will have to incorporate literature. English class doesn’t represent 30% of one’s day, after all.

As for the balance of literature and informational text now required in elementary grades, this is awesome news. Allow me to take a moment and actually celebrate. This next statement may make some reader angry — and admittedly, I’m not quote any research. However, many elementary teachers are female; stereotypically speaking, females prefer narratives; stereotypically speaking, I would suggest that non-fiction / informational texts are underrepresented in our lower grades, especially in the primary grades. What we know about our boy readers is that they often prefer non-fiction. (And we wonder why boys don’t like to read?) Anecdotal, granted, but many of my K-5 teachers have admitted to me this past semester (as I’ve been responsible for ensuring implementation of our new literacy adoption) that they’re using more non-fiction in their classes than they have in past years, and that — surprise, surprise — the students are deeply enjoying the pieces (and not just the boys) and excited about reading.

Another intriguing Common Core idea is to increase text complexity. The architects of the Core identified the gap between high school and college, then ratcheted that downward so that beginning in the 2nd grade, each grade shared a bit of extra rigor. They are also very careful to identify that quantitative scores are only 1/3 of the picture and should not be wholly relied upon. Qualitative scores and reader’s purpose & task are equally and deeply considered. Thus, we do not use Lexile scores to determine whether or not a book is appropriate for a grade level. We are examining the complexity of the text (sentence length and syntax, analogies and imagery, as well as content and themes), purposefully choosing the text for the class.

I am not saying the the Common Core are perfect, by any means, but I will say that I greatly prefer them to Idaho’s previous teach-in-isolation, let’s-check-this-off standards. I am celebrating the opportunity and the permission to deeply engage with text, to eschew the inch deep, mile wide approach, to push my students to reflect, to provide answers based on evidence from the text, to display critical thinking. It’s not that I didn’t do these things before — it’s that I now have permission to do so. In past years, I admit: I felt guilty for taking the time to go deep.