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In the midst of all the news swirling about the fiscal cliff’s serious consequences, a colleague alerted me to a must-read Washington Post article on the prospect of nonfiction eclipsing fiction in the classroom. As I read the piece, “Common core sparks war over words,” I saw that the subject, like the dreaded fiscal cliff, portends serious consequences if not addressed effectively. While I confess to being a literature lover, the idea that removing works of fiction from any school curriculum would even be necessary to comply with new educational standards ought to alarm anyone who claims to care about young people’s futures.
There’s no question that nonfiction must have its rightful place in the classroom. But English teachers should not feel pressured to drop timeless, sweeping poetry and prose for something as discrete and esoteric as “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” one of the suggested pieces for high schoolers, according to Lyndsey Layton’s article.
Unfortunately, that is in danger of happening.
Through reading the article, I learned that part of the problem stems from confusion about the Common Core State Standards and how to comply with the guidelines. The Common Core – which will be in effect by 2014 in public schools in 46 states and DC – requires nonfiction to account for 50 percent of reading in elementary schools and 70 percent of assignments by 12th grade. In the piece, David Coleman, who had a lead role in drafting the standards, points out that studying nonfiction is to be spread out across subjects. In his view, social studies, science, and math teachers should begin to require more reading so English teachers can continue to focus on literature. However, it likely won’t work that way in practice. In part, it’s because many who teach social studies, science, and math are balking at teaching reading and writing, saying that’s the job of the English teacher, the article states.
But requiring other teachers to load up students with suggested nonfiction titles may not prepare them any better for life after the classroom. Unlike some of the proposed nonfiction works, fictional stories have a unique ability to strike a chord with people of various backgrounds. Through exploring universal themes such as man v. nature, individual v. society, love, morality, and other such topics, students learn about empathy and humanity – the threads that stitch us together. Discerning imagery and the human condition reveals storytelling’s power to make ideas and characters come alive. A concentrated study of literature can develop an ability to employ such vivid storytelling in college and beyond – and can lead to monetary benefit. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink describes in rich detail how storytelling has come to be a highly sought after skill in the 21st century.
Ideally, young people should be introduced to as much writing as possible and discuss it at length in the classroom for their personal and professional growth. And from my own experience, independent schools do this very well. I attended George School (Pennsylvania), where I expressed interest in and curiosity about a range of subjects, and read American and international authors in the International Baccalaureate program. I earned an IB diploma, and arrived at college well prepared to read and analyze literature and nonfiction texts.
After college, I was led to pursue journalism. A funny thing happened as I went about my daily work: I began noticing that current news events such as religious disputes, environmental controversies, and the like echoed the same themes I saw in literature. As an editor, I soon discovered that the articles that left an indelible impression were ones that framed issues in the universal themes I studied in high school. As I writer, I learned to draw on imagery and themes to make a point – and make it sing.
All students ought to have the opportunity to receive such a well-rounded education in their formative years. That means it’s imperative that educators and standard-setters figure out how to make the Common Core work so students can get just that.
Ari Pinkus is associate editor at NAIS. She will be blogging in this space on education, and invites your comments and suggestions for future blog topics.