Dr. Tim Shanahan, director of the University of Illinois’ center for literacy and chair of the department of curriculum and instruction, knows the secret for teachers to successfully put into practice Common Core ELA standards. Buy better books. He pens in his blog, Shanahan on Literacy: “I can’t imagine schools reaching the common core without making changes to their texts (how big those changes will need to be will depend on what is in place now, of course).”
As a K-4 ELA teacher in a Title One public school, I attest to the great need of thinking differently and more critically about text acquisition. Simply covering a topic with a non-fiction leveled reader, or reading a story because there is already a set of multiple copies in the closet down the hall, does not create a palate for a Common Core lesson. The writers of the standards did NOT place an illustrious set of text exemplars in Appendix B simply to pump up text levels. Rather, they are there so teachers like me are reminded how wonderfully complex a text can be at all grade levels and how much more fulfilling these engaging texts are for students.
Elegantly written and illustrated texts allow teachers to pose deeper, richer questions that engage students and stir deep thinking over the “big” issues. When the text is not written in a way that is sculpted for literary value in addition to gushing with content, little, if any, meaningful learning occurs. Nor can you require “close reading” when students learned all there was to learn in the text during their first read.
This week in fourth grade, I was working with myths and the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil). Cynthia Rylant’s use of language in her retelling of “Pandora’s Box” (The Beautiful Stories of Life: Six Greek Myths), brought me to tears. Her words wrapped our minds around “hope,” gave my students a glimpse of a universal theme, and hurtled them into thoughtful analysis.
…And with that one small act, Pandora changed the fate of mankind. For what she caught and returned to the box was Hope….
But Pandora reached out and she captured it and did not let it go. Because she did so, and placed it back inside the box, hope is alive today. It lives in darkness.
And in darkness man finds it.
It takes money from a budget somewhere to purchase this lovely book and some may point me, instead, to an online version. But read through this shallow, and cartoonish, description the students would have read about hope if they had read just what was readily available online:
“Hello, Pandora,” said the bug, hovering just out of reach. “My name is Hope.” With a nod of thanks for being set free, Hope flew out into the world, a world that now held Envy, Crime, Hate, and Disease – and Hope.
The difference in text is earth-shattering. And, the level of text-dependent questions I could pose for Rylant’s magnificent book attain a level of understanding and provoke an examination of text that could never occur when using that leveled reader from the well-stocked classroom book closet.
So, yes, Dr. Shanahan. You’ve unlocked the secret. Schools cannot reach the “common core without making changes to their texts.”