Posts Tagged informational text

Common Core Badly Disrespects Literature

Published by — If educators are not cultivators of the culture, who’s left?


Last week I had kind words for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Building intelligence through building knowledge is a far better approach to educating kids than the current obsession with covering vast amounts of content.  In last week’s column, CCSS expert Kate Gerson fleshed out some of the Standards’ strengths.

That said, however, the huge landscape of CCSS resembles the complexity of a human personality — fundamentally good, but not without fault.  We can appreciate the sinner while rejecting the sins.  The CCSS have been criticized for many flaws, which in most cases is due, I think, to misunderstanding what the Standards actually say.

But there is no misunderstanding their aggressive devaluing of the role of literature in teaching English.  Dr. Sandra Stotsky is probably the most vocal critic, here discussing the reduction of reading literature to no more than 50% in English classes.

Many others have also cried foul on this issue, and rightly so.  Great literature — poetry, drama, philosophy and seminal religious texts like the Bible — have been the foundation for educating the “learned” since time immemorial.  If the goal is to help students feel comfortable analyzing and understanding complexity, what better way than cultural classics?  But no longer.

In literature’s place — and doesn’t this say it all? — goes “informational text.”

Can’t the academics hear themselves?  I’m reminded of Richard Mitchell’s lament The Graves of Academe, a laugh-out-loud meditation on the deadly language academics often use that kills communication.  We know what non-fiction is, and we know great writers, journalists and biographers can tell a factual narrative as a riveting story.  My kids loved reading The Hot Zone in science class, and in Physics, QED was so impressive to them, Richard Feynman became a much-quoted hero.  But according to the CCSS these books could be read in English class and held in higher esteem than mere stories such as, say, King Lear.

And what, pray, seems to be the problem?  Of course, kids don’t like classical literature unless they’ve gotten enough background to appreciate it.  But shouldn’t education prepare them to see through the eyes of the culture that created Tom Sawyer, for example?  Understanding other times and cultures trains students’ empathy, among other things, even if we don’t identify with or approve of the non-modern values.  Private schools certainly guide students through a wealth of great literature, but they can teach what they like and don’t battle political correctness.  If public education is about training the workforce, who needs Jane Austen?

I think that what’s at issue is that “informational texts” confine themselves to scientifically verifiable truths that are intrinsically a-cultural.  Like philosophy and religion, fiction by its nature has no hard information about the objective world.  It is culture-bound.  Historical fiction may use historical facts to set the stage, but is not responsible for being correct in every detail.  But that reduces its value for the CCSS.  Facts must anchor what students should know and be able to do.

To me the scientifically verifiable truth is essential, to be sure, but the truth of fiction is often deeper.

Prior to “the media,” human entertainment was sitting around at night after a long, hard day and talking, telling stories, gossiping.  Sometimes stories took on a life of their own, growing from favorite anecdotes about people we actually know, to honored tales about one’s ancestors, to the Olympian scale of gods, goddesses, and God.  These stories were the transport mechanism of great wisdom that the elders of a culture related and preserved from their generation to another.  The stories evolved and changed, along with the culture itself.  Embedded in such stories were lessons critical to that culture’s values.  Lear and Oedipus both allow their giant egos — Aristotle called it “hubris” — to blind them to a truth they were unwilling to face.  I have seen little hard data emanating from research on ego blinded to truth, but that doesn’t make the lesson less valuable.

As a Rhode Island resident, I wish our students got a firm grounding in The Emperor’s New Clothes so they could be far more discerning of their leader’s so-called facts.

But no one dares claim the authority to say what ancient wisdom should be received by contemporary students.  Instead, the CCSS displaces the remnants of Western Civilization, adjusted as it has been in recent years with the riches of James Baldwin, among others, to make way for inarguable facts.

Charles Dickens lamented this very issue in his aptly-named novel about education: Hard Times.  Louisa, the schoolmaster’s daughter, nearly comes to ruin having no instruction in the truth of fiction, specifically the nature of love.  Instead, her father taught “Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

We’ve been down this road.  If educators are not cultivators of the culture, who’s left?


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Common Core Snubs Literature, Loves ‘Informational Text’

Published by — Ah, the restorative powers of great art.

by Julia Steiny

Ah, the restorative powers of great art.

Too bad classical art is so hard to enjoy without understanding the historical context and culture of the time.  It’s difficult just to imagine people who knew nothing of TV and cell phones.

Trinity Repertory Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear was a stunner.  The old king howled his wrath when his truly devoted daughter refused to fawn over him in public, as his ego demanded.  In a drenching, on-stage rainstorm storm, distraught characters reacted passionately, with famous lines of poetry, to what we could all see in front of us.  Blood spurted from Gloucester’s eyes during the on-stage blinding.  And when the king realized what he’d done, his grief was massive.  Three jaw-dropping hours flew by.

But Lear is a tough play for an advertising-saturated audience hundreds of years away from the original production.  It was written for people with patience, people who pictured scenes in their heads as they listened, instead of seeing each cinematic detail.

Now, instant gratification dulls our taste for a long view.  Entertainment is king, and courses in Art Appreciation have gone the way of Home Economics.  Ever fewer people –  well, I can only speak for Americans — can appreciate how thrilling great classical art can be.

The beauty of the classics is not so much in the eyes of the beholder as in the eyes of the educated.

Which is one of the reasons that the new national curriculum standards, called the Common Core, are so upsetting.

The Core’s English Language Arts standards shift much of the focus from literature to non-fiction, or what they call, “informational text.”  The very phrase makes my skin crawl.  And yet, the Core’s defenders are correct when they argue that far too few students know how to extract facts out of history and science books — never mind the contracts and fine print they’ll encounter as adults.

The Core’s publicists emphasize that the attention given to informational text is only a starting point, a base from which educators can build.  Their goal, in their words, is “to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.”  Presumably, once kids have mastered mining facts, their teachers can then build up students’ backgrounds so they can enjoy the rich language of Charles Dickens or George Eliot.  Not that teachers assign much of that sort of work any more.

The new Common Core will lead to a huge battery of new tests — a controversy in its own right, but for another day.  The tests will be online, which will be a relief to educators who want results right away.  The faster the results, the faster teachers can adjust their lessons to improve the next round of results.  Students will read and analyze several documents to write extended answers. or mini-essays.  But computer-scored tests make it all the more important to get the facts, grammar and punctuation right, according to a computer’s understanding.  Currently forty-five states have signed on to the project.

Curiously, among them is Massachusetts.  Pundits and researchers ask why on earth that that state would bother with the Common Core when its own standards are by all accounts far superior, very successful and steeped in literature.

Many of us think that teaching great literature well — not drearily — will produce the intellectual curiosity and broad background that will also, oh by the way, improve the over-valued test scores.

As it happens, I was a professor of theater arts in a prior life.  So at Lear the other night, while settling into our seats, my companion asked me to give her the “Cliff Notes” on the play.  Okay.  Both the main plot, about Lear, and the sub-plot, about his friend the Earl of Gloucester, are stories about parents who misjudge their children.

A fun trick with Shakespeare and his contemporaries is to peel back the characters’ names to find allegorical clues to the theme and structure of the play.  When I taught college, I loved telling students that Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril, was named after a venereal disease.  Regan is just an echo of her sister.  And at the center of the play is the ideal heart, Cordelia — coeur is French for heart, and “delia” is a favorite Shakespearean anagram for “ideal.”

Then I’d ask my female students:  When you walk past a construction site, what do the male workers do?  They’d answer that they whistle, hoot, and make rude noises.  But inevitably, the student trying to figure out where the teacher lady was going would exclaim “leer.”  Bingo.  They leer.

Ah, so the play is about sight — insight, clear versus rain-pelted vision, blindness.  Excruciatingly, Lear finally sees that he’s rejected the true love of his adoring daughter.

Just because we reviewed a bit of cultural background, both my friend and I clearly heard every word of the dialogue that exalted the virtues of clear sightedness.  Especially seeing love clearly.  That life lesson can not be rendered into informational text.

This new focus on non-fiction is about improving the quality of workers for the economy.

But I’m betting that our money-skewed vision is blinding us to what it means to be truly educated, with a culturally big and historically rich background.

So beware the Common Core.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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