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How I Replaced Shakespeare - Joel Stein of Time Magazine on Common Core State Standards

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How I Replaced Shakespeare

By Joel Stein Monday, Dec. 10, 2012

I was not worried about the American education system until after I started writing a column, because that's when I found out there are English teachers who assign my column as reading material. I regularly get e-mails from students asking about my use of anastrophe, metonymy, thesis statements and other things I've never heard of. To which I respond, "Transfer high schools immediately! To one that teaches Shakespeare and Homer instead of the insightful commentary of a first-rate, unconventionally handsome modern wit! Also, don't do drugs!"

I can expect to be sending more of these e-mails thanks to the Common Core State Standards, with which public schools are encouraged to comply by 2014. The new curriculum standards dramatically shift about half the nation's high school English reading lists toward an emphasis on nonfiction. In a speech last year, David Coleman, the new president of the College Board, who was one of the chief creators of the Common Core, worried about students' focusing on opinion over analysis in their writing. "As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don't give a s--- about what you feel or what you think," he said. "It is rare in a working environment that someone says, 'Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'" I agree with this, but only because no one has ever asked me for a market analysis.

Coleman's idea is that by reading clear, tightly structured nonfiction, kids will learn how to write clear, tightly structured nonfiction, hopefully without hitting Reply All. And indeed, the first time I write in a new format--travel essay, screenplay, apology e-mail--I read a bunch of examples. But when I want my writing to improve, I read something that forces me to think about words differently: a novel, a poem, a George W. Bush speech. Sure, some nonfiction is beautifully written, and none of Jack London's novels are, but no nonfiction writer can teach you how to use language like William Faulkner or James Joyce can. Fiction also teaches you how to tell a story, which is how we express and remember nearly everything. If you can't tell a story, you will never, ever get people to wire you the funds you need to pay the fees to get your Nigerian inheritance out of the bank.

When I asked Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers--which, along with the National Governors Association, created the Common Core--he told me that CEOs and university professors championed the shift to nonfiction. Only a small, vocal group objected. "It upset people who love literature. That happens to be a lot of high school teachers," Wilhoit said. But students aren't reading nonfiction on their own, he added, and their history-class assignments tend to be short textbook summaries, not primary sources. "It's not a good trend, " he said. "I guess it's a by-product of the media world we live in." Students are clearly not getting examples of how to make a persuasive argument by, for instance, avoiding insulting the media world that is interviewing them


But if you ask me, that's a failing of history classes, not English. Among the nonfiction the Common Core curriculum suggests are FedViews by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco. I've never read FedViews, but I know that unlike my late-night high school sessions helping other kids parse "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," no amount of discussing FedViews is going to get you to second base.

School isn't merely training for work; it's training to communicate throughout our lives. If we didn't all experience Hamlet's soliloquy, we'd have to explain soul-tortured indecisiveness by saying things like "Dude, you are like Ben Bernanke in early 2012 weighing inflation vs. growth in Quantitative Easing 3." Teaching language through nonfiction is like teaching history by playing Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" or teaching science by giving someone an unmarked test tube full of sludge and having him figure out if the white powder he distilled is salt or sugar by making Steven Baumgarten taste it, which is how I learned science and how Steven Baumgarten learned to be more careful about picking people to work with. Something he could have learned by reading Othello


But if our nation is going to make this horrible mistake, I'd like to get something out of it, like selling c opies of my book. So I asked Wilhoit if he would consider including my writing in the curriculum, to which he said, "It would be interesting to take your article on a specific subject and compare and contrast it to another author writing about the same subject. That would be ideal. We will use it. I promise you." Now I just have to find another writer who has written a compelling account of my childhood.

A by-product of the media world?!

Man, I weep for kids that are deprived of education.

 Why do people read "increase in non-fiction reading" as "abandon literature"?   To me it simply says "read more, and better things, across the disciplines.  Read more in history, in science, in business and in math."  Where does it say that literature teachers should stop reading and discussing literature with students??

Monica, I agree with you. It's not an either/or. It should be both.

 It says it in the breakdown of time spent on texts per day.  By grade 12, the suggested balance is 70% informational text and 30% literary texts.  So, it isn't "abandon literature," but it sure sounds like "less literature."

It sounds like less literature because it IS less literature.

Which is unfortunate because we can deal with informational text for the rest of our lives, but when in our lives after school do we have such an opportunity to explore literature? There's rarely enough time in a busy person's life.

Responded to this column here:

The loss of literature at every grade level in an attempt to serve ratios-50% fiction/50% informational text in elementary and 30% fiction/70% in high school- is too great a price to be paid to meet the goals of the yet unproven Common Core. 

People, 70-30 refers to the student's entire coursework.  They are not in ELA classes 100% of the time.  A modest increase in relevant nonfiction to ELA classes to supplement and enhance the literature isn't too much to ask.  It sounds like this is exactly the what needs to happen.  There is a paradigm shift in courses-other-than-English that there needs to be more literacy building with their content.  All teachers will be literacy teachers.  It is unenlightened and uninformed to believe the CCS means the removal of fiction from ELA.

He's right; students need to learn fiction. Depriving students of fiction wouldn't be helpful at all, its literature and teaches different styles of writing. Really great column, I love Stein's work.

And yet, Mr. Hinze, if you follow what school districts are actually doing, many of them are either removing most literature even from English classes, or teaching literature as if it is non-fiction, that is, made up of bits of "facts" - the author's biographies, rhetorical devices that can be tested using multiple choice exams, etc.  The lesson plan books for English classes are frighteningly simplistic and lacking in any sense that writing is learned through sustained apprenticeship with excellent teachers who shape their classes to work with the students they have.  It is all very "cookie cutter."  And literature at its best defies that model of thinking, if one can call regurgitating facts "thinking."

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