Wednesday, October 28, 2020
US flag

Read court opinions with Tom Sawyer in lit


The requirement in the Common Core English language arts standards that students be able to read and understand informational text has led to some interesting lesson plans in literature classes where the standards have been adopted, the New York Times reports.

Under Common Core standards, the study of fiction like John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas might be supplemented by historical documents, like a memo from Switzerland to the US secretary of state. (Voxitatis)

What many literature teachers are doing, the paper reports, is having students read many of the same books they read under the old standards and incorporating informational texts like court opinions, research articles, or even newspaper op-ed pieces into the discussion. Sometimes kids have a great time debating laws or historical evidence while studying a work of fiction.

But sometimes it backfires. One eighth grader, an avid reader, told the Times that she appreciated how nonfiction could provide a historical context for a novel, but sometimes she got tired of the informational texts: “We do so much nonfiction. I just want to read my book,” she was quoted as saying.

Teachers at one school, though, Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, felt 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.”

The nonfiction seems more relevant to kids’ lives, according to Eli Scherer, a special-education teacher. As a result, struggling readers were “more engaged by nonfiction,” he said.

Other examples of lesson units around works of fiction include:

  • Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with readings about teen suicide
  • Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with an op-ed about teen unemployment
  • J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye with articles about bipolar disorder in adolescents

Unfortunately, the Common Core doesn’t really make any suggestions as to which informational texts should be paired with which works of literature. This has often left teachers to find informational texts that might not be the best fit for the novel or might not come from reputable sources.

It has also led to a reduction in the amount of fiction students read, because time has to be allowed for reading the informational texts and incorporating that material into class discussions. Sometimes, that’s a good thing, since what 12th grader really wants to read any more Beowulf than he has to, right? But sometimes it’s not so good.

“If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘Kill the love of reading,'” the Times quoted Kim Yaris, a literacy consultant, as saying.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


  1. I found Valerie Strauss’s blog post in the Washington Post about this NYT article eye-opening. She suggests what students get when they study literature in this way is a set of “skills,” like reading comprehension, persuasive writing, and so on, which aren’t bad things to have, I think. But to appreciate the true value of literature in our lives, students really have to read the whole novel, not just excerpts of it from which they draw discrete skills.

    She writes:

    Literature is a mirror that reflects a society’s values, behaviors, history and culture. Teachers with any hope of capturing students’ attention and getting them engaged in reading Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Faulkner have to think beyond skills and concepts. Patrick Welsh, who was an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., for 43 years and a prolific writer, explained in a chapter called “The Role of Values in Teaching Literature in the High School,” in a 1985 book titled Challenges to the Humanities:

    For high school English teachers, the discussion and examination of the value issues inherent in literature is a major element in engaging students. Once students see how the values in the novels, plays, and poems they read relate to their values, once they see that the world of literature is really their own world, that literature is a source of insight—even wisdom&mash;into the human predicament, they are on their way to “owning” their English classes …

    Those English teachers who are not willing to make the effort to show students how the great issues in literature are related to issues in their own lives will perhaps do just as well to limit their attention to “communication skills”-to grammar and composition-and to hope that their students will discover the wonder and power of literature when they are out of school. Better that than to lead students to believe that great literature is so esoteric, so far from their experience, that only a few precious souls can own it.

    One thing Ms Strauss doesn’t mention in her excellent article is that one of the biggest reasons students are turning to nonfiction and excerpts-only reading of fiction is that standardized tests are going in that direction. During the time allotted for standardized tests, students can’t appreciate whole novels. Also, companies like Pearson, who design standardized tests, probably can’t get copyright clearance for the entire thing.

    As a result, instruction in our classrooms, driven these days by result-oriented, quick-fix testing regimes, is just playing along. It’s a shame, too, because one of the biggest benefits I got out of lit classes in high school was the ability to sit and philosophize about a novel with peers and a good teacher (who loved literature), even though my career was headed in a STEM direction. I think that time spent talking about things that didn’t really have any right answers or answers that could be measured on a standardized test was some of the most valuable time in my career as a student.

Comments are closed.

Recent Posts

Volleyball teams continue to dig for a cure

Girls' volleyball teams, whether in clubs or in high schools, have a common cause in October: doing what they can to cure breast cancer.

IL announces Teacher of the Year

Boston Public added to all-remote list

Some Chicago-area schools re-close

History teacher in France beheaded

What makes SARS-CoV-2 so unique? Mutations.