My Turn: Fiction, nonfiction – the bigger challenge is getting 21st-century students to love reading, period.

Last modified: 10/9/2013 12:48:57 AM
The Common Core State Standards, as many people know by now, are a state-led effort to set clear educational guidelines for all children, kindergarten through 12th grade. A set of expectations for both English/language arts and mathematics has been created for each grade level in an effort to ensure that schools across the state (and nation) are guiding children in the same direction, at the same time, toward the same reasonable educational goals.

In English/language arts, there has been some recent, interesting buzz about the Common Core placing more emphasis on nonfiction reading. Some of this buzz has been fairly positive. Some, however, has echoed concern over this perceived shift. What will become of the classics, some wonder. Will students lose the opportunity to read classic and contemporary fiction, which can often spark imagination, creativity, insight and inspiration?

As an English teacher of almost 20 years, I have had many people vocalize such concern. My response to them is always two-fold.

First, I share with them that, contrary to what the implementation of the Common Core seems to imply, many districts across the state and nation have already been focusing much of their classroom efforts on reading, comprehending and synthesizing nonfiction texts. As a result, the Common Core will not, actually, result in much of a change as to what is taught in the English/language arts classroom. In fact, implementation of the Common Core is a reassuring acknowledgement that many teachers have been on the right track by placing emphasis on these types of texts for quite some time.

The second part of my response is a less pedagogical one. It usually involves a conversation about reading in general. Because you see, I have great concerns about this generation of students rising through the educational system. These are children who are less inclined to look in a book for an answer, and instead tend to “Google it” or “Wiki it.” In an effort to make reading a part of their daily culture, teachers instruct these children they “must read for 15 minutes a day,” or read a certain number of chapters each night. This often leads to a battle of wills and wits in many households, and as a result, reading quickly becomes a punishment as opposed to a pastime. These are children who have come to find moving images and sound effects on a screen far more preferable to the moving images and sound effects created in their heads as they read through a story from a book held in their hands.

I see Common Core as a step in the right direction, for certain. But the problem it is addressing is not one that can be solved simply by enacting a set of standards around which a teacher must design a class. I tell those who ask that I think this is a battle that needs to be fought on many united fronts.

So I find myself encouraging trips to the library. At any age, there is something thrilling about taking a book home with you, for free, on any subject you would like. I reflect fondly on bedtime stories. I tell them that I try very hard with my children (and with my 4-year-old, sometimes it is very hard), to stick a book in their hands when they need a distraction or some downtime, and keep my iPod, laptop, or iPhone tucked carefully away. I find myself encouraging parents to occasionally turn off household computers and encourage students to look in a book for answers. It may be surprising to discover how much satisfaction they display when the answer is actually found by them, as opposed to for them.

Reading is fundamental. When I was young I frequently heard that phrase but did not know what it meant. I can recall, however, thinking it had to be something to do with having fun, since that little word was nestled inside the bigger one.

Common Core has given educators reasonable goals to ensure students get solid instruction in reading at every age level. But one of my greatest struggles as both a mom and a teacher is to reignite the belief that reading is fun – that there is challenge, enjoyment, insight and satisfaction found in the written word. That it is not a punishment, but a privilege to be able to read. And, more important, that reading a book – fiction or nonfiction – is a gateway to endless possibilities that will never need to be recharged.

(Joy Dustin teaches at Bow High School.)


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