While at work today, I had to look up the Common Core State Standards. For those that don’t know (I wouldn’t, if I didn’t have the job I do), they are pretty much what they sound like—common education standards designed to be used across the states (see the specific standards here). According to the website, the standards
define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.
They are supposed to be a framework that teachers work within—flexible, and all that. But if you’re like me, you wonder if a national guidance standard doesn’t soon become, well, a requirement. It was this feeling that resulted in my complete and total dismay after seeing the list of exemplar English Language Arts texts (PDF).
I jumped immediately to page 101 in the PDF since I figured I’d be most familiar with the high school texts. And I was right, in a way. I’ve heard of almost everything on the list, because it’s all so predictable. Almost nothing published within the past 30 years, and I think I only counted 2 novels from the past 20 (The Book Thief and The Namesake). I asked one of my coworkers about it (she taught language arts not too many years gone) and she said it’s an example of the pendulum swinging the other way, that in the past fifteen or twenty years (I made that number up; she only said recently, but included the time of my high school education in “recent”) the push had been toward modern literature and that this had created a sort of backlash. People kept wondering why students (why their children) weren’t being exposed to the “classics.”
Now, I don’t know about my readers, but this surprised me. I can’t recall reading a single modern work during my K-12 education. The only thing I can really think of is when I read Homecoming (1981) in sixth grade, which would have been about 15 years after it was published. Other than that, it was classics all the way. Catch-22, Brave New World, 1984, Shakespeare, Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Doll’s House, The Awakening, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Antigone, etc. As for poetry and short stories, I don’t think we read anything written after World War II, with most of the work pre-1900s. When I got to graduate school, I was shocked that so many of my peers were so familiar with modern writers, though that seems silly to me now.
My coworker tells me my school might have been an exception.
While advancing through my pre-college education, I had mostly good things to say about it. I enjoyed reading the classics, because I thought that was what book lovers were supposed to do (never mind that even I could tell that most of my enjoyment for these works was feigned, with a few exceptions, of course). When I got the AP English reading list, I set a goal to read through the whole of it (I never did get very far). But now I wonder why we don’t have a more balanced curriculum for our students, why we aren’t exposing them to writers with whom they can still interact: send letters to, have a book signed, eagerly await a new release. Surely there is value to be found in older work as well, but to ignore an entire generation of readers seems to me like we are failing our students, depriving them of the stories set in a world they can recognize, written in language they don’t have to translate. These are books their friends might pick up, their parents. Why should school literature feel like a genre of its own?by
I also grew up reading the classics in school–Irving, Hawthorne, Hemingway…
I remember how exhilarating it was when I read a post-modern short story for the first time–when I was 23 years old. I immediately set about trying to write my own and decided to enroll into an MFA program. If that’s not a case of modern lit inspiring a student, I don’t know what is. It seems like the school system is really missing a chunk of education by only including classics.
I went to a small (grad class of ~60) private, religious school. I had one fairly hip literature teacher and one very young lit teacher fresh out of college. Even still, I think the most recently published book I read may well have been picked off a list – Wiseblood, published in 1952.
I’m certainly no educator or an expert on education, but I think that a majority of works should be recent. They are relatable to the students, and there should be no dearth of fine books published in the previous couple decades of any reference point. Add a few classics for historical perspective. Good books are good books, regardless of when they were published.
I don’t know whether to say I’m glad that I’m not the only one that had this problem in my education or if I should be extra depressed. Probably a bit of both. On the one hand, to know I’m not crazy in thinking this is a problem is nice, but on the other, it sucks that it is real.
I think the balance I would like to see varies based on grade level and the reading level of the class. In younger grades, I think students should largely be selecting their own books, with some requirement that they read at least one book from a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres (as well as some poetry). Truth be told, I’d never considered as a possibility before reading the blog The Book Whisperer (she’s a middle school language arts teacher that has some awesome approaching toward reading, and getting her kids to love reading), but the more I hear about teachers doing this, the more I like it. Then kids can pick books to their interests and grade levels.
In later grades, however, I really can see the benefit of doing whole-class books, though I’d still like to see some instances built in where students have choice. And how this relates with modern literature…well, I think in those later years especially, if I were the teacher, I’d shoot for a balance of somewhere around half and half. There are some great books that were published pre-1970, but I think that if children haven’t first developed a passion for reading (so that they are inclined to read more, they’re reading skills improve, and they’re reading to tackle difficult and sometimes even arcane texts), it’s next to impossible to get them to care about books written fifty or one hundred years ago.