Common Core eases literary classics to the sidelines

Common Core eases literary classics to the sidelines

(Wash.) In some schools where Common Core rules the curriculum, only parts of Joseph Heller’s classic tale of a struggle and disillusionment is likely read, with the themes of “Catch-22” taught in tandem with other, more modern stories and visual aids.

Mostly gone are the days of reading the classics cover-to-cover, analyzing descriptive techniques, characters and themes through the use of one text, with the hope that students are keeping up with the additional chapters at home.

“It is true that the days for ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Great Expectations’ might be numbered, but the question that teachers have to ask themselves is ‘What is the purpose of reading this text?’" said Mark Gardner, a high school English teacher in Clarke County, Washington.

“While it may seem like sacrilege, there are many goals that can be achieved by digging deeply into a series of well-curated selections of a text rather than all of it, and then relying on teacher lecture, lessons or even Sparknotes to fill in the gaps,” Gardner said in an interview.

Many of the changes taking place in English classrooms can be attributed to adoption of the Common Core, which calls for students to read more non-fiction in order to better prepare them for the type of informational materials they will encounter in college or the workplace.

In many cases, teachers now supplement novels with other texts, such as news articles or historical documents, or visual aids including maps or documentaries.

As an AP English and composition teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, Ambereen Khan-Baker has included political cartoons and shorter, more complex texts while cutting out longer novels. Using multiple texts instead of focusing on one book has allowed her to teach diverse opinions.

“We still teach Shakespeare but there is less of an emphasis on that,” Khan-Baker said in an interview. “It’s about looking at the students; what are their needs, where are they right now and how can we address that?”

Modern works are added to the discussion more often as well, according to Gardner, who said that the recent wave of dystopian young adult literature can be compared and connected to materials long considered staples in the classroom, including George Orwell’s novels “Animal Farm” and “1984,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” or short stories such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

Instead of dropping some books and acquiring new ones, a process Gardner calls slow and expensive, many teachers have opted to simply change how they approach the material while including different books, stories or poetry written by more contemporary authors.

In his 11th grade classes, Paul Hankins, an AP English and composition teacher in Sellersburg, Indiana, pairs classics including Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” or “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, with modern young adult titles – Silas House’s “Eli The Good” and Gae Polisner’s “The Pull of Gravity” – in order to help students understand the themes more fully.

“I think the ability to know what these books are about and match them with those that are speaking directly to what kids are experiencing right now is important, but you don’t want to lose your canon pieces either,” Hankins said in an interview. “I haven’t brought in ‘Divergent’ (by Veronica Roth) at the expense of ‘Fahrenheit 451for example; they come in at the same time.”

Certain classics, such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” could benefit from being paired with more modern works, according to Hankins. Although considered timeless by many, younger readers may be too far removed from the small town mentality of Scout and Atticus Finch, and could gain more from the novel by viewing it through the lens of something more timely.

Making such changes could be a positive thing if it provides students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of literature and the skills that can be applied to reading non-fiction, according to Gardner, who said that is a key reason the classics are taught in the first place.

“I don't want my students to only be able to read the books I assign, I want them to have practice with the skills so they can read and appreciate anything they choose to read,” Gardner said. “We don't read books in school so we can write papers or do projects about that book; rather, we read books in school so we can more deeply understand all of the texts – books, blogs or advertisements – that we will face beyond school.”