By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
A news release sent to media outlets in January touted a story appearing in The Blaze regarding "a continuing battle raging over the Common Core" educational standards adopted by 46 states, including Illinois.
The release said the Common Core's new English language arts standards were "outraging many literature teachers by requiring them to focus less on creative literature and more on nonfiction ‘informational texts.' So instead of teaching Huckleberry Finn, they must spend more time on ‘The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,' or ‘Invasive Plant Inventory.'?"
Likewise, a story in The Washington Post fretted about how "English teachers worry that they will have to replace the dog-eared novels they love with historical documents and nonfiction texts."
Many educators in Quincy, however, say such worries about the Common Core's language arts standards are being overblown.
If anything, local educators say they will be teaching more classic literature instead of less. And despite some published accounts to the contrary, no one at the national level is dictating what literary texts schools in Quincy will have to teach.
"I think there's a fundamental misconception here," said Jody Steinke, assistant principal at Quincy High School.
He said the Common Core standards are "not a curriculum. It's a set of skills that kids need at each grade level. It doesn't say, ‘sophomores have to read Huck Finn and juniors have to read something else.' It still leaves it open for local choice. It's the required skills that are nonnegotiable here."
Steinke and other local educators acknowledge the new standards gradually put more emphasis on nonfiction materials as a student advances in grade levels. For example, nonfiction texts will have to constitute 50 percent of the reading assignments of fourth-graders, 70 percent for 12th graders.
However, Steinke noted those percentages apply to a student's entire day, which typically includes instruction in history, science, social studies and other subjects that routinely involve nonfiction reading materials.
"So I don't think it really fundamentally shifts what we're doing in English classes because the best place for that 30 percent in literature to land is in the English class," he said.
Steinke said there's no doubt some changes will be made in high school English classes to conform with the new Common Core requirements, but he doesn't see this as onerous.
Even with added emphasis on nonfiction, "English classes are still going to be reading literature, they're still going to be reading novels," he said.
"I see a change, but I see us going more toward some of the more complex texts and classics because, frankly, we've gone away from that in the past 10 years and this is a way of nudging us back."
Marilyn Smith, project manager for a Quincy Federation of Teachers campaign to educate the public about the Common Core state standards being adopted in the Quincy School District, believes the new language arts requirements will strengthen the study of classic literature -- not detract from it.
"Everything that I'm hearing is saying we're not getting rid of the rich literature. That is still there. We know that's good stuff, and we know we want to continue to do that," she said. "All they're saying is we need to also make sure we're emphasizing nonfiction" across all subject areas.
Smith said the rationale in emphasizing more nonfiction is that it helps students develop their critical-thinking skills because they might have to work harder to read, comprehend and evaluate informational texts -- a skill they will need in college and adult life.
"You don't want them to get into a high school science class and be struggling with a science concept because they can't read the nonfiction text," she said.
Smith said local schools "are not taking away the literature," but they will be approaching things a little differently.
At the elementary school level, Smith said, the Quincy School District for the past few years has been gradually putting more nonfiction books into the hands of students as a way to help develop their critical-thinking skills as the students are learning to read.
"At elementary school, you're learning to read. Once you get to junior high and high school age, you're reading to learn," she said. So the new standards are intended to help students become better readers and writers by honing their skills using more informational texts.
Freedom to choose
Two Quincy High School English teachers, Brenda Stalder and Kate Schumacher, said the new Common Core standards will not require any wholesale changes in the literary choices used at QHS.
"The main thing that we're going to be doing differently is making the assessments and the instruction more challenging as far as critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills," Stalder said. "So the literature that students read is going to be elevated to a higher level."
Stalder, who teaches 11th and 12th grade English classes, said QHS will continue to provide "a mix of classic and contemporary literature in all of our classes." But even if more nonfictional texts are used in the school's English curriculum, she has no problem with that because "there are a lot of really high-quality reads out there that are nonfiction work."
Schumacher, who teaches American literature and advanced placement literature, agrees the added emphasis on nonfiction across all subject areas doesn't mean English teachers will have to give up teaching some of their favorite classics simply to squeeze in more informational texts. "There's no way that's going to overwhelm what we're doing in the classroom," she said.
Schumacher said teachers will continue to have freedom to choose what books they use in English classes. Even though the Common Core standards offer some lists of recommended books, teachers are not obligated to pick from those lists.
"We'll still have the freedom to choose texts. It just has to be of the same difficulty level," she said.
A positive step
Quincy Notre Dame High School also will be adhering to the Common Core standards being adopted statewide. Principal Mark McDowell said he doesn't have any qualms about the requirement that 70 percent of all reading assignments involve informational texts because most history, science and social studies classes rely heavily on nonfiction.
He doesn't foresee much impact on the school's English classes.
"I don't see anything that suggests by any means that classic literature or those types of things are no longer an important part of the curriculum," McDowell said.
"The overall goal is not to give up on one for the sake of the other. It's to just make sure that the nonfiction piece has perhaps a larger focus than it has in the past," he said. "I think what we're finding in language arts is that, for the most part, these things already match up very well (at QND). But that's not to say things won't and shouldn't be tweaked."
McDowell said he's glad to see schools across the nation opening their arms to the Common Core standards. He believes it's a positive step for education.
"Rather than being about specific topics, it's about specific skill sets that kids need to be productive members of society outside the school walls," he said.
"If you're in a third grade classroom in Quincy, Ill., and your family is relocated to Seattle, Wash., the idea would be wherever you are in third grade, there's a commonality in terms of what you're exposed to. It may not be the exact same text, it may not be the exact same novel or poetry, but the bottom line is you're exposed to, and held accountable for, the same skill set."