18 March 2012

Informational Texts and the Common Core

& the importance of literature to humanity

As you may have read in previous Learning to Muse posts, I enjoy nonfiction texts, both the reading and writing of such texts.  Reading other blogs, online community boards, and articles, I continue to find a mix of emotions about the teaching of informational texts as required in the Common Core State Standards.   Some people are freaking out because they feel it’s a new mandate that will keep them away from the literature they love; others are making learning what’s best for students and are working with the mandates rather than being used by them.

Four years ago when my then eight-year-old was struggling to read well, I had a heart wrenching conversation with his classroom teacher.  Love her heart—she was in her final year before retirement, and she pounded her small hand on her chest saying “I want him to feel literature here in his heart.”    I shared with her my background as a high school English teacher, lover of literature, and my husband’s work on a PhD in American literature.     A love of literature is not lacking in our home, that’s for sure.  In fact, I concur with a quote read in the March 17, 2012 online issue of The New York Times.

“Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings.”

Does this mean we give up nonfiction completely because literature makes us better people?  Not necessarily.  Though I agree with the opinion that literature makes us better people, I believe a balance of nonfiction and literature is what’s best for our students.  You can read more about a few of my suggestions for pairing texts here.

Long before the Common Core I was teaching informational texts, and usually that involved pairing not only non-print text with literature but also informational texts with literature.  We paired poems by Joy Harjo, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder and haiku by Issa (translated by Robert Hass) with current event articles about the earth found in the local newspaper or various magazines.  One time we even explored Earth Day editions of magazine covers to learn more about audience, purpose, argument, and information. We looked at covers of TIMENewsweekVanity Fair, ElleOutsideRolling StoneThe Atlantic MonthlyBusiness Week Sports Illustrated , and Backpacker.  

A few of the questions examined in our study of informational text paired with poetry included:
  • Who would read each magazine and for what purpose?
  • How is the earth portrayed in each of these different magazines to meet the needs of the varying audiences?
  • What type of information would we find in each magazine? What information can we learn?
  • How is argument conveyed in the cover images?
  • How is argument presented in poems? 
  • How is the earth presented in poems?
Through Shared Inquiry discussions and student led presentations we enjoyed informational texts and literature together.  Since student interest was an important part of my classroom approach, I invited students to bring articles for us to read in class.  This invitation served dual purposes—it allowed students to take ownership of texts they wanted to read, and it also required them to be aware of happenings within our community, our nation, and our world.

We want students to be productive citizens in a changing world. By allowing them to read the types of texts demanded in the Common Core, we are preparing them for the increasingly complex texts demanded of them in life after high school.

P.S.  Fortunately both of my sons made it past second grade and into the hands of a fantastic third grade literacy teacher who believes in the power of matching texts to readers, and they are both enjoying life as the sons of English teachers (even if they do prefer math).