Thursday, November 13, 2014

Comment on High School ELA standards regarding nonfiction for Commissioner's Review Panel

My second comment regarding the Maine Learning Results / Common Core State Standards deals with the loss of focus on literature in high school English Language Arts classrooms.  My five years experience teaching ninth and tenth grade ELA as well as my Master's in Literacy Education are the foundation for my concerns in this area. 
1) Of the highest concern for me is the discussion of changing the percentages of fiction vs nonfiction found in the introduction of the ELA standards.  This material directly states that the standards were adjusted to match the NAEP test.  STANDARDIZED ASSESSMENTS SHOULD NEVER DICTATE STANDARDS OR CURRICULUM.  Standards and curriculum should be crafted by local educators and scholars with input from other members of the community including legislature, business, and parents.  Even for a test as highly regarded as the NAEP, it is extremely bad form to teach to the test in such a manner. 
2) Non-fiction instruction should be shared by all content area teachers, each one specializing in the non-fiction of their content.  The literacy standards for grades 6-12 are separated into ELA and History/Social Studies/Science/Technology.  The document states that this split "reflects the unique, time honored place of ELA teachers in developing students' literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well."  I have a Bachelors in English and a Master's in Literacy Education.  I can teach my students general skills for dealing with non-fiction.  However, it is the Science teacher who should be teaching students how to read published studies, and the History teacher teaching students how to read primary source documents, and the Art and Music teachers teaching students how to read art reivews.  I do not have training in these fields.  I do not often use these types of texts in my education, career, or daily life.  The experts on these texts should be the ones teaching students how to read them most effectively.  It would be ludicrous to suggest that sonnets become the Math teacher's curriculum or drama the Biology teacher's curriculum, so why is it alright to thrust this content on the ELA teacher who has her own content and is not an expert on these texts?  Furthermore, secondary level ELA teachers require degrees in English, not Literacy.  A high school level ELA teacher can teach from her experience as an excellent reader, but does not necessarily have a single course on teaching reading because that traditionally that has not been ELA content at the secondary level.  A Literacy Specialist is best suited to teach all content area teachers how to teach students to read their specific content texts rather than claiming the ELA teacher should be an expert on reading when her license never required that training. 
3) As mentioned above, the ELA classroom has its own specific content, just as Biology, US Hisotry, and Geometry do.  Pushing more non-fiction lessens the focus on literature content, which is the ELA teacher's sole responsibility to teach.  No other teacher is going to cover the areas the ELA teacher must skip in order to spend more and more class time on non-fiction.  I've spoken with high school ELA teaches who no longer read novels, poetry, or drama with their classes because of the non-fiction requirements.  While their students are reading literature independently, there are few opportunities for the class to discuss literature together.  Texts explored together are reduced to short texts that can be easily managed in a class period and easily focused on specific standards.  The "time-honored" practice of reading a canonical work and experiencing it with ones peers is disappearing. 
4) Too much focus on nonfiction in the ELA classroom marginalizes literature in favor of career training, including all the non-testable outcomes related to this content.  Literature teaches much more than what can be tested, or even what can be assessed in any manner with a standard.  Literature gives a generation a common cultural base.  Think of what we lose if suddenly a generation does not know Jay Gatsby, Hester Prynne, Romeo and Juliet, Holden Caufield, Jane Eyre, Huck Finn?  Reading and discussing literature invites students to analyize their history, their community, and themselves all the while teaching them the collective lessons of humanity.  That is not simply found in short nonfiction passages seeking to teach author's purpose and supporting details.  While direct insruction with nonfiction might make for higher test scores and might make stronger workers, is that all education is for?  Is public education simply a factory churning out global workers for the 21st century?  Or is education more than that?  In my mind, it is clear that education serves the full student, and while career readiness is a large part of that, so is curiosity, civic duty, wonder, beauty, passion, morals. 
5) A focus on non-fiction does nothing to make learning more student centered.  If anything, students have less choice in the texts they read and how they read them.  Students are no longer encouraged to fall into that magical space between a novel's page and then emerge to excited to share that with their peers.  When every reading assignment becomes a nonfiction text read using new criticism lens and a close reading approach, we ignore not only other effective teaching methods and content, but also allow students no choices in how to engage with a text. 
I ask you to keep ELA classrooms at the secondary level focused on the traditional ELA content of literature and writing.  If standards are necessary to direct the reading of nonfiction for History, Social Studies, Science, and Technology, then I suggest that a committee of teachers of those subjects drafts standards for those content areas to review and adopt to direct their instruction and curriculum. 

I would further like to add that no standardized assessment, especially the upcoming Smarter Balanced exam, will ever successfully assess how reading literature and discussing it with peers affects students. SBAC would prefer a narrowing of standards that only look at the correct answers that can be found directly in text. That is not how literature is meant to be experienced. Literary critics have debated over classics for decades because of the very nature of literature and what it means to individuals. And no test will ever measure what the right book can do for the right student at the right time. 

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