“When I read great literature, great drama, speeches, or sermons, I feel that the human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language.” –James Earl Jones
School without To Kill a Mockingbird, without Romeo and Juliet, without The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, without The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Due to a misunderstanding by administrators of the Common Core State Standards, literature is being funneled out of many schools.
The Common Core State Standards in English, which the District of Columbia and 46 states have adopted, propose that public shools increase nonfiction reading so that by senior year students will be reading mostly informational text instead of fiction. But David Coleman, president of the College Board and leader of the effort to write the Standards, says that administrators have misunderstood the guidelines. The standards do require that nonfiction reading increase from kindergarten through grade 12, but that requirement refers to reading in all subjects, not just in English. English teachers do not have to ditch literature. Teachers of social studies, science, and math should require reading as well, leaving English teachers to continue assigning poetry and the classics, says Coleman. In fact, the standards still require the teaching of Shakespeare and classic American literature.
To meet the nonfiction requirements, math teachers could assign John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, science teachers Mark Fishetti’s Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control, and social studies teachers Frederick Douglas’s What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?. But math, science, and social studies teachers say they don’t have time to assign reading material because they have to teach their subject, the implication being that English teachers don’t have a subject to teach. English teachers across the country have complained that their principals are requiring them to make 70% of their reading assignments nonfiction, thus driving literature out of the classroom.
Teaching literature is essential because literature teaches students to read with insight, to think, to analyze, to feel, and to appreciate the beauty of language. Literature engages the imagination and instills a love of reading. Most importantly literature makes us human. Humans have always shared stories with one another; it’s what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Stories bring us together and foster empathy. When we imaginatively identify with a character’s plight, we realize that others can identify with us, and we with them. Literature makes us feel we are part of the greater whole. We are not alone.
Judith Barker and Bonnie James