The New English War: Marching to the Sound of the Canon

The New English War: Marching to the Sound of the CanonAs districts begin to implement the Common Core State Standards, the debate over how to incorporate more non-fiction, informational text, literary non-fiction, or texts from the content areas into the curriculum has sparked more heat than light.  On both sides of the debate, the tendency is to create a paper tiger argument for the other side and then proceed to slay the tiger.  Rather than rehash the debate or create my own tiger, let me modestly propose a way forward.

Let’s state the challenge as Sandra Stotsky explained it to EdWeek, as cited in their article, Pressure Mounts in Some States Against Common Core.

Sandra Stotsky, a professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, told lawmakers the common core “makes it impossible for English teachers to construct a coherent literature curriculum.”

Ms. Stotsky, who helped develop highly regarded state content standards in Massachusetts, an adopter of the common core, has also testified against the new standards before state officials in Colorado and South Carolina.

Before the current debate, Stotsky made the same claim about pre-CCSS high school English curricula in Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey (Stotsky, 2010).  She found that there is no consistent approach to the assigning of texts in high school and, further, that texts do not increase in rigor across these three grades:

The most frequently mentioned titles on these lists (often denigrated as the “classics” or the “canon”) are assigned in only a small percentage of courses. These low frequencies suggest how little is left of a progressively challenging literature curriculum that is centered on the civic and literary heritage of English‐speaking people.

Stotsky, in both her critiques, is motivated by a strong bias toward a literature program steeped in canonical texts.

I believe that a “coherent” and “progressively challenging” literature curriculum can be constructed in a common core environment.  Further, I believe it is the district’s decision how much to focus on “the civic and literary heritage of English-speaking people.”  Here is what I would do:

– Determine an agreed upon concept of text complexity including both quantitative and qualitative factors.

– Assess the texts that you have been teaching and plan to teach. (I believe you will find the texts do not neatly fit into a linear model of complexity but are complex in a variety of ways.)

– Compare to benchmark texts suggested in the Common Core State Standards and to quantitative guidelines as to the level at which any text is best placed.  (There is likely a range of grades for any text.)

– Starting at grade 6 build each grade’s texts intentionally so that each grade is more challenging than the one before.  (There will necessarily be overlaps.)

– Make sure that in any one grade the texts are complex in a variety of ways.

– Consider student plans as they reach the upper levels of high school and offer courses tailored to variety of needs (AP Literature and AP Language and Composition can serve as two models)

– Build into your curriculum intentional practices to help students become independent readers of complex texts.

The bullets above are a common sense approach.  If districts take this sort of intentional approach across the secondary curriculum, they will more likely graduate students ready for the reading demands of career and college, students who will be able to demonstrate that readiness on summative assessments.  Again, what the CCSS initiative offers is an opportunity for districts to rethink current practice, rethink current values, and create a more thoughtful curriculum for students.


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