In Harrison, N.Y., 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield. In Springdale, Ark., ninth graders studying excerpts from “The Odyssey” also read sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a congressional resolution on its 60th anniversary, to connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans. After eighth graders in Naples, Fla., read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment.
In the Common Core era, English class looks a little different.
The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, mandated many changes to traditional teaching, but one of the most basic was a call for students to read more nonfiction. The rationale is that most of what students will be expected to read in college and at work will be informational, rather than literary, and that American students have not been well prepared to read those texts.
At first, many English teachers and other defenders of literature feared that schools would respond by cutting the classics. That has happened, to some extent. But most districts have managed to preserve much of the classroom canon while adding news articles, textbook passages, documentaries, maps and other material that students read or watch alongside the literature, sometimes in strained pairings.
“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”
The new standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what students read during the day should be nonfiction, and by 12th grade, the share should be 70 percent. Many educators say the shift was necessary, particularly in elementary school, where students encountered relatively little nonfiction. The change is seen as particularly helpful to boys, who lag behind girls in reading and tend to be more interested in nonfiction.
Schools generally choose their own reading materials. For nonfiction, however, the Common Core standards specify that students should read certain “seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance,” including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” as well as presidential addresses and Supreme Court opinions. Many high schools have added these to American literature classes.
They have also added contemporary nonfiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan and units on argumentative writing and debate. And along with “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, students might be assigned readings about Shakespeare’s life or a contemporary magazine article about teenage suicide.
At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.
The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.
Eli Scherer, a special-education teacher, said he found that struggling readers were often more engaged by nonfiction because it seemed more relevant to them.
But Karma Lisslo, an eighth grader and an avid reader, said that while she appreciated that nonfiction could provide historical context for a novel, she got tired sometimes of the short informational texts she was assigned.
“We do so much nonfiction,” Karma said. “I just want to read my book.”
Kim Yaris, a literacy consultant, said her son had a similar reaction last year, when his fifth-grade class in Dix Hills, N.Y., began the year by doing a painstakingly close reading of sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (For those who have not been in the fifth grade recently, the declaration was drafted in the aftermath of World War II and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.)
On the ninth day, she said, her son got into the car after school and started to sob.
Ms. Yaris said she thought the lesson, which is part of a curriculum suggested by New York State and used widely around the country, was not a good interpretation of the Common Core. “If you look at the standards and what they say,” she said, “nowhere in there does it say, ‘Kill the love of reading.’ ”
Susan Pimentel, who led the team that wrote the language arts standards, said she thought that reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was valuable, in part because it contained a lot of academic vocabulary, which she said was critical to students’ reading comprehension skills.
Reading the G.I. Bill along with “The Odyssey,” however, gave her pause.
“It does sound curious to me,” she said, while adding that she would want to see the unit itself. “There is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting.”
If some of the nonfiction texts that districts choose seem overly technical and abstruse, other choices — like opinion pieces on whether cellphones should be allowed in schools or an article about injuries from cheerleading— seem based on a set of low expectations about what students will be interested in, said Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University.
Without guidance from the Common Core standards themselves, he noted, the definition of informational texts “very easily slides into blog posts — it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things.”
Some teachers have resisted the changes. At Midwood High School in Brooklyn this year, the new assistant principal for English, Suzane Thomas, made the English teachers use the Common Core lesson plans offered by New York State, and some were not happy.
“There are several teachers who accused me of destroying the English department,” Ms. Thomas said. Previously, she said, teachers had been able to choose which books they wanted to teach, and many of them taught only literature. (She also noted that some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.)
Ms. Thomas said she believed many students were more interested in talking about real-world issues like genetic testing than about how a character changed over the course of a novel.
“I was in a class once and the bell rang, and the kids wouldn’t leave, because they were having a strong debate about whether privacy was more important than security,” she said.
Some teachers, too, said they did not mind cutting back on some canonical works of literature to replace them with contemporary nonfiction that engaged students more.
Angela Gunter, the dean of liberal arts at Daviess County High School in Owensboro, Ky., said she assigned a “Beowulf” excerpt to her 12th graders that was shorter than the one she used to assign, to make time for them to read a nonfiction book of their choosing later in the year.
She said the decision was driven partly by the Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction and partly by her recognition that students just were not that interested in “Beowulf.”
“If we had to get rid of some fiction,” Ms. Gunter said, “that was one that I was willing to part with.”