Tuesday, November 24, 2015

On Reading from the Four Corners

I recently read an article about David Coleman's ascension to president of College Board, which has been met with as much criticism as praise in education circles. This is largely due to Coleman's work as an education consultant but never as an actual educator. Coleman is widely known for his work on the Common Core State Standards and has been credited as the "architect" of Common Core. CCSS seems to be informed by very narrow and reductive theoretical perspectives about literature and its function in modern society. The issue is three-fold:
  1. Coleman believes that students do not read enough nonfiction.
  2. Coleman indicates that students need only understand what is "within the four corners" of the text.
  3. Numbers one and two above result in the devaluation of literary study and its reduction to nothing more than the practice of navigating a standardized test.
The assumption that students do not read enough nonfiction assumes that students are only reading in English Language Arts classes. Typical American high school students spend the majority of their school days in history, math, science, and elective classes. In a seven period day, usually only one is occupied by the English class. Even if reading only occurs in core classes, prose fiction and poetry still only account for 25% of what students should be reading. And English Language Arts teachers have long chosen quality nonfiction selections for study. My students read nonfiction by Mandela, King, Solzhenitsyn, Paine, Jefferson, Mather, and Edwards, just to name a few. These are studied in context with prose fiction and poetry.

Literature is civilization’s collection of stories about being human. Those stories did not spring forth from a vacuum. Culture, time, place, history, the human condition--these all inform literature. Shared reading of great literature connects people in powerful ways. Literature requires meaning be brought to it by the life experiences of the reader; thus, the same stories change over time for the reader. As we grow and experience life, our understanding of literature changes. Fiction is what initially makes people independent readers. It also teaches us that, while all fact is true, not all truth is fact.

The study of great literature cannot be contained within the "four corners" of text. It is inextricably connected to the culture, time, and conditions of its origin. One cannot read Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" without understanding the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. It is in providing that anchor for students that Dr. King's message becomes clear. What is the purpose and justification for civil disobedience on the order that Dr. King advocates if the Movement doesn't exist for students? And if that is never connected to the extensive literature and history of civil disobedience in America and the world, what further meaning does King's letter have? Through the study of literature individual struggles can be seen as shared human struggles.

"Reading within the four corners" reduces the reading of literature to mere decoding. It turns vibrant, meaningful, rich, shared experience into pedantic test-taking skill sets. It ignores the intelligence and experience of readers. Reading within the corners reduces the reader to a cog and literature to a widget--it's mechanistic and dehumanizing. It strips readers of their voices. Which, for Coleman, may be the point.

*Many thanks to @NicoleBryson for letting me run this by you prior to hitting post!

**This post was informed and inspired by the following sources: