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What Is Literary Nonfiction? What Is Literary Nonfiction?

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What Is Literary Nonfiction?

...And Other Confusions About Common Core

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Classroom project in New York City. Photo by Joe Corrigan/Getty

I have become fascinated with the swirling questions about the new reading standards under the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I hear things like this: Will students really have to read Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," which features incest and rape? Why are students supposed to read "literary nonfiction," and how does that differ from "informational texts"? What happened to plain old literature?

Here are my best stabs at answers to these questions. But before I go there, let's make one thing clear. They are beside the point. The goal of Common Core's reading standards is to move kids beyond just deciphering sentences toward analytically interacting with a text, be it "MacBeth," a biography of Steve Jobs, or J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. The Common Core is also big on nonfiction because most college kids have to read more journal articles and research reports than novels and poems.

 

OK, on with the answers:

* There is no required reading. "The Bluest Eye" is on a list of examples of fiction at the reading level of an 11th grader. So is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

* "Literary nonfiction" is often interchanged with "informational text," but the former term generally refers to seminal founding documents like the U.S. Constitution or Thomas Paine's "Common Sense." "Informational text" refers to general nonfiction. For example, Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone" is on the list of "exemplars" of science and math informational texts.

 

* Literature still matters. The Common Core standards call for students to understand critical content from classic myths and stories, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare, as well as nonfiction.

No matter what you think of Common Core, it's hard to disagree with the premise that kids should learn to critically analyze different kinds of texts. Educators can debate how best to do that 'till the cows come home, but it doesn't change the basic problem that active reading is an advanced skill that cannot be achieved without initial proficiency in the English language. With an increasingly diverse student population, those basics aren't always assured. Success only comes if all the teachers, especially the ones in the early grades, are really on top of their game.

Children "should be responding to these texts with additional evidence. They should be acting as their own reference librarian," said University of Michigan education professor Susan Neuman, who helped develop the Common Core standards and was a member of President Bush's Education Department.

Those are lofty goals, but here's the precursor, according to Neuman. "All those things require a great deal of early effort to ensure that these later efforts are really there."

 

That's the key to Common Core, but it's also why people are so confused. The Common Core creators charted out a multi-level path to college-level reading in place of a basic, grade-level competency standard. There's nothing wrong with either standard, except that they aren't comparable. It's like replacing "Pac-Man" with "Ninja Gaiden."

What is the value, if any, of the nonfiction emphasis on Common Core? Is there a danger that literature will be overlooked? Why have the exemplar reading lists caused distress among some school districts and parent associations? Have the Common Core creators and supporters effectively communicated what they are trying to do? Is it possible to layer higher-level reading standards on top of an education system that sometimes can't meet the basics? What are the most effective ways to teach analytical reading? And seriously, what is a good definition of literary nonfiction?

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