let’s stop worrying and love the common core

You’ll live to be read another day, sweet Catcher in the Rye. Beautiful illustration by naomi yamada.

Dear sweet baby Jane.

So if you want a rage stroke, read the articles I’ve listed below. If you want to just read an accurate description of how the fiction/nonfiction actually breaks down in the Common Core, just read this one.

I think the way everyone (yes, LITERALLY* EVERYONE EVER) was misquoting the 70% figure and assiduously babycrying about Recommended Levels of Insulation being an exemplary text (which it IS, for INFORMATIONAL TEXTS, not LITERATURE) really shows us that our ability to read different types of text SUCKS.

Listen. I think the common core probably has flaws, but I don’t care, because it has at least one major strength: knocking lexile off its perch as the definitive way we give kids books to read.

See, a major component of CC is text complexity. This concept forces us (us referring to teachers, parents, and librarians, mostly) to consider a whole text when we’re deciding when to read it and who to read it with. (I love this mostly because it reminds me a lot of the whole child approach to teaching). Lexile is only one piece of the puzzle. It must be used in conjunction with theme, levels of meaning, structure, prior knowledge demands, etc, to decide where a piece of writing would best be used. (I’d never be able to explain it better than Jackie Owens did in this presentation, so if you want to see how to evaluate a text, check that out, bookmark it, print it out and laminate it–it’s an excellent tool to use.)

The idea is that we want to empower kids to be stronger, more well-rounded readers. We want them to be exposed to a wealth and breadth of reading materials so that they can discover their talents and passions. You know that some kid is going to geek out intensely on that insulation text (well maybe not, but don’t we all know kids who pore over game manuals who could easily and happily make the leap to, say, car repair texts? or mortgage applications?), and who are we to deny that kid that opportunity?

Being able to adjust one’s reading style to the text at hand is an important skill, and one that we’re sorely lacking. You don’t read a verse novel the same way you read your tax form, and if we don’t teach kids that, we’re setting them up for failure. Maybe if more kids knew that it was okay to skim the boring parts of a novel (hello, flensing in Moby Dick and architecture in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) they’d be more able to stick with a difficult novel and get out of it what they could. Further, if we read more informational and technical texts, maybe we’d have been better able to avoid some of the effects of the financial crisis because it wouldn’t have been so damn difficult to read and understand loan documents and mortgage applications.

So teachers, don’t worry, you can keep teaching The Catcher in Rye (shudder) until they pry Holden Caulfield’s literary corpse out of your cold dead hands. But you can also spend a little time reading biographies of some of the famous people mentioned in the text (such as Gary Grant, or the Lunts, perhaps, although I can see many a middle schooler having a field day with that name), or looking at articles of the period from the Saturday Evening Post. CC isn’t about taking anything away, it’s about adding supporting materials to deepen and enrich the experience of reading.

It’s also a great opportunity to insist that literacy isn’t solely the responsibility of the LA teachers and librarians any more. Read a novel in math class (Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth both lend themselves wonderfully to big, beautiful, crazy making math discussions), or read Silent Spring in biology class. I read Silent Spring in biology class when I was in high school, and it’s pretty much the only damn thing I really remember, frankly. For kids who aren’t technically minded, having stories to hang these concepts on is a wonderful scaffolding and support technique. And for kids who love to crunch numbers and muck about with beakers, being exposed to the lyricism of Rachel Carson’s prose or the sheer goofiness of Milo’s adventures will remind them of the human element inherent in every discipline, no matter how far removed it may seem.

SO FRET NOT FRIENDS. The world of literature for children has expanded, not contracted; there is a bounty out there, with something for everyone. Rejoice.

AND DING DONG LEXILE’S DEAD. Or, at least, not so very powerful.

Now I want a ding dong. Or actually, a zinger.

*Chris Trager style

How To Do it Right

Two Common Core Blunders To Avoid–and How to Do It

The Role of Fiction in the High School English Language Arts Classroom

How to measure text complexity

Common Core and Nonfiction, Again

Rage Stroke Articles

Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark The End Of Literature, English Teachers Say

English Class: Hold the Literature?

Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curriculum


12 responses to “let’s stop worrying and love the common core”

  1. I’d love it if lexiles really did die and yay for nonfiction! but I was having a long conversation with an ex-teacher today and based on what I’ve seen in the school district…I’m afraid it won’t happen. This year they extended Reading Counts through middle school and high school, so it’s just getting more powerful. I don’t see Scholastic letting go of such a lucrative money maker.


  2. If anyone or anything manages to shove Catcher in the Rye out of the curriculum, I will do a little dance of joy. PUSH HARDER.


  3. Julie,
    THANK YOU! I’ll be bookmarking this post and sharing it whenever I can! I am glad we’ve got the structure of the common core. I think people are reading into what they want – if they are positive people, they’ll see all the chances for great learning. If they like to complain, they’ll focus on the negatives. I, for one, am looking forward to facilitating my students’ reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (for the second year now). Such great narrative, nonfiction writing. They struggle, and I let them, and we ALL learn. Keep letting us know what you think!


  4. fantastic. funny. so true.


    1. Thanks! I aim to please. 🙂


  5. I do agree with your points, as this is what the Common Core is SUPPOSED to accomplish, but I’m wondering how much control teachers feel they have of their own curricula. I could definitely imagine a teacher, having spent a long time laboring over a perfect lesson plan that includes all you suggest, and upon turning it in receiving it back with the remark, “no, you know, NONFICTION. I see you haven’t taught Recommended Levels of Insulation yet this year.” The problem with suggestions is that they’re often taken as mandates by principals, district admin, or state chancellors who don’t have the time or, sometimes, the perspective of a classroom teacher to implement how the CC should be. It’s a focus on being afraid to do the wrong thing, so they make teachers do everything as technically correct as possible. The teachers who wrote these rage-worthy articles are definitely speculating worst-case scenarios, but I’m not sure it’s because they themselves misread the Common Core.
    And yes, I agree with Jennifer. Lexiles are making a comeback, because that’s another technical, quantifiable, easy-to-graph-and-show-the-school-board-pretty-colors way of implementing CC.

    Gah, sorry I’m such a downer. Can I get one of those Ding Dongs?


    1. ding songs for errybody!

      I think this is an instance where librarians can really support teachers. They have so much to do, and while many LA arts teachers are already great at keeping an eye on great new books, there’s just so much out there that librarians can really be of assistance when it comes to new books, backlist they might have missed, and finding connections between fiction and non fiction. Plus, we can be their allies when it comes to defending choices to principals, administrations, and boards. Sometimes hearing it from someone else lends an argument a bit more heft, and I’m happy to play that role.

      I think this year we’ve learned that impassioned groups are hard to ignore. If teachers and librarians unite to show that lexile alone does more harm than good, we can certainly change perceptions and approaches. I’m making it a mission to have 2013 be the year of putting lexile in its proper place–as one small tool, nothing more.

      Librarians, in any workshop or conference presentation you present or attend, if it’s appropriate, talk about lexile. Talk about the harm that it can and has done to our kids. Further, I’d love to see more public librarians presenting at education conferences, talking about how public libraries can support education efforts.

      Who’s with me?


      1. I’m with you in spirit. In practice…I got in big trouble trying to discuss Lexiles with a certain person in our district who is high up in the administration and did NOT appreciate my thoughts on Lexiles. I’d like to see lexiles go away, or be diminished, but I’d also like to keep my job.


  6. Jennifer, I completely understand that! Which is why in this instance, taking the discussion to a bigger stage first would actually be a wiser choice. Oftentimes being able to point at other institutions who are changing their practice has more impact than a knowledgable individual (unfortunately). If, on a larger scale, we can push back and put lexile into context, it will make the argument easier for individual schools and teachers. Does that make sense?


    1. That’s a very good point – I can totally get behind that!


  7. Thanks for this post, Julie. As someone who has to deal with lexile levels consistently, I am continually frustrated by the one-dimensional nature of their standards of measurement. I am still learning about CCSS and this post highlighted some extremely informative and interesting points. I think the system presents some great opportunities both for the current educational system and for the ongoing collaboration between teachers and librarians. I am not totally familiar with the whole-child educational philosophy, but something about your post made me think of the reading maps I am working on.They are whole collection readers advisory tools, and I think they are a good representation of how to incorporate supplemental nonfiction into a literary discussion.
    They aren’t live yet, but will eventually be incorporated into the library website. If used in the spirit in which they are intended, I think the new standards provide the opportunity to take ELA lesson plans in a really interesting direction.


  8. […] How people reading the CCSS need help with THEIR reading comprehension. One of those articles I mentioned about how adults can’t read. […]


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