Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Defense of English

On Sunday, both the Times and the Washington Post published opinion pieces about the emphasis on "non-fiction" in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. Jay Mathews's piece in the Post was titled "Fiction vs. Non-Fiction Smackdown."

I have been teaching secondary school for two and a half years now, and I think it's time for me to say something about this. In the departments I've served in, there has been a growing divide between what we call "reading" and "English." 

"Reading" is what is taught in elementary and middle school. "English" is what is taught in secondary school. Except now everyone wants high school English teachers to teach "reading," not English.

Here is what I have learned: "Reading" and "English" are not as different as everyone thinks.

The standards movement has made a big push to improve "reading" scores by issuing standards that describe "reading" skills. Since NCLB, two sets of standards have ruled public schools in Illinois: first, the ACT College Readiness Standards, and now, the Common Core State Standards.

The ACT standards include little in the way of content standards for language arts or social sciences. They don't, for example, recommend any historical content or knowledge of literature or literary history. Now, given what happened when some people attempted to create national standards for the teaching of history, this is understandable--no one in K-12 textbook making or standardized testing seems to want to touch "the culture wars" with a ten-foot pole. But it's sort of left English high and dry.

This is a defense of English Language Arts. English should be a class that combines the teaching of reading, writing, and speaking: reading great works of art, in a variety of genres and helping students develop their tastes in print culture by reading for pleasure; writing all different styles, including narrative and expository writing; learning to speak and present in the 21st century.

The Common Core standards are a huge step up from the ACT standards when it comes to finding a better balance between the modes of language arts. Where ACT has two-ish strands--"English" (grammar and expository writing), "Reading" (reading comprehension in 4 different genres), and an optional Writing test (a persuasive essay), Common Core has four: Reading, Language (grammar), Writing, and Speaking and Listening. The standards are simple, economical, and much less repetitive than the ACT standards.

But the emphasis on "non-fiction," which is how everyone is interpreting what the standards call "informational" text, is extremely problematic. When you look more closely at the standards and what they recommend as "informational," it's more comforting, since they include things like The Federalist Papers and Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." 

But all this hysteria about non-fiction tells a different story. You can tell it's hysteria just by looking at the publications in the booths at all the ELA conferences. To find a title, you can do a little magnetic poetry exercise: 1) choose a publisher; 2) choose a strong verb like "cracking" or "unpacking"; 3) add the words "common core" and "English language arts" 4) add a sticker that promises to help teachers learn how to teach non-fiction STAT.

I, like most English teachers, trained as an English teacher. That means that I majored in English Language and Literature as an undergraduate, and I also got a PhD in English Language and Literature. I went to private school for high school, so most of my English teachers were also English majors. Since I started working in CPS, I have discovered a whole other world of English unknown to many English people, the world of English Language Arts Education. These two worlds have different lineages: the routines and values of English Language and Literature stem from medieval and renaissance traditions of humanist thought and training by reading "great" works of literature (h/t to my dear friend and renaissance scholar Elizabeth Hutcheon for teaching me about this.) The routines and values of English Education (also known as reading) stem from universal public education and literacy initiatives that came out of the Enlightenment, followed by the Progressive movement, the birth of the discipline of sociology, and John Dewey. The keystone professional association of English Language and Literature is the Modern Language Association. The keystone professional association of English Language Arts is the National Council of Teachers of English. (I'm a member of both.)

To sum up (from a disciplinary perspective): English is Humanities, and English Education is Sociology. If you look at the committees that wrote and vetted the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, you find many English Education academics, many, many representatives from test-making companies, and only one person from a university English department. (I noted this several months ago and promised more--here it is!)

So now we're stuck implementing new standards, too quickly, without being given much time to talk about them or study them first. (Nothing new under the sun in education, it seems.) And the big education publishing houses, like vultures, are circling with their "quick guides" giving us lessons for teaching students how to read bus time tables and recipes. And language arts teachers are expected to do all of this teaching.

But, unlike the standards would have us believe, English teachers actually teach something besides reading skills. They teach content: their content is LITERATURE AND CULTURE. Let's stop putting it all on English teachers. Maybe students need to learn to read scientific articles in science, timetables in math, history in...history. Maybe, as my friend Julie Price always says, everyone needs to be a reading teacher, not just English teachers.

English teachers teach literature because literature is important. The literary does not exclude nonfictional prose, but we would be hard pressed to call the directions for my new electric teakettle literary, or an example of the art of language.

We want students to be able to read and write. But maybe instead of changing what they read, we should change how they read. Most of the authors and publications mentioned in the New York Times piece, notably Malcolm Gladwell and the entire staff of The New Yorker, are inaccessible to most of the students I teach--they're too complex. Non-fiction doesn't have to be gorgeous and eloquent by mid-century New York Intellectual standards to be literary. Non-fiction can be used to teach literary and rhetorical devices like figurative language, narrative point of view, and plot, but fiction is a lot better way to introduce these ideas. We are mistaking non-fiction for "rigor," my least favorite word in education, when literature, especially fiction, especially poetry, IS RIGOROUS. If you want to really challenge 12th graders, instead of giving them 75% "non-fiction," have them read Pynchon or Joyce. Rigor is making kids think, not giving them something to do that will frustrate them.

Kelly Gallagher, an outstanding English teacher in Anaheim and the author of a million books, gets this right.* What we need is balance. My friends who teach college complain that students don't know how to write about anything but themselves. The solution is not to swing the pendulum the other way. There is no quick solution to getting Americans to read better. There are only small, day-to-day strategies. Non-fiction is not the next silver bullet, unless the target of that bullet is the love of reading, which, ironically, English teachers are very good at killing in kids.

The CCSS makes the claim that adult humans read a lot more "informational" text than "literary" text in their daily lives. Maybe that's because we've stopped teaching them to read for fun. In spite of our efforts, fiction sales are at an all-time high. Let's teach literature again: fiction, poetry, expository prose, persuasive prose, satire, parody--all of it. We live in an age of irony, and we're wont teach our students how to understand irony if we only teach them Newsweek articles. Let's bring literature back.

*I have a small beef with Gallagher about what he calls "literary" and what he calls "young adult" literature, but that's for another day.