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Holinger: Reading fiction an important part of education

Published: Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

If you’re irked that Mill Creek Elementary School parent Colin McGroarty disrupted the school because of what he believed to be an anomalous Pledge of Allegiance, learning about the government’s Common Core State Standards will have your rant making his sound puritanical.

Ostensibly, the Common Core State Standards program ensures that public school curriculums cover appropriate material (no psychic dinosaur theories) germane to each grade level, K-12. Hell-O? Department heads and academic deans already do that.

Aside from redundancy, the methods under the Common Core State Standards program exceed their stated purpose. Educators, cajoled to conform to CCSS-recommended curriculums and texts, also are coerced to present material measurable by statewide exams, which are expected to be ready by 2014.

This may work for math, but English courses constantly debate content relevancy and the one-size-fits-all directive impeding teachers’ talents and discouraging creative projects and creative writing.

Moreover, the CCSS close reading strategy shuns children’s opinions, experiences or connections with a text. Rebecca Hanna, a St. Charles elementary school teacher, laments this “slavish fidelity to text, no relating of background knowledge so dear to little kids.”

Most appalling, CCSS prescribes literature like medicine. The script ordered for high school junior and senior curriculums – a reported 30 percent fiction – reeks of malpractice, as short stories and novels involve readers the way few factual texts can. Retired Glenbard West English teacher and Genevan Ellen Ljung writes, “What better way to explore the challenge of standing up for what’s right than discussing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?”

And introducing such heavy amounts of informational reading – as the plan does – could create issues. Jamie Highfill, a 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, told the Washington Post that “ ... there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature ... . I’m seeing more behavior problems in my classroom than I’ve ever seen.’ ”

Time columnist Joel Stein, hearing CCSS promotes “FedViews,” which is published by the Federal Reserve of San Fancisco, argues: “School isn’t merely training for work; it’s training to communicate throughout our lives ... . No nonfiction writer can teach you how to use language like William Faulkner or James Joyce can.”

Who’s behind CCSS? Atlantic contributor Susan Ohanian fingers corporations, citing commentator Glen Ford, in that the goal of corporate education reform is to turn teaching into a service industry. Indeed, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund Common Core and much of the PR campaign, Ohanian writes.

Not everyone collaborates. Sir Ken Robinson proposes in “The Element” that, “The key ... is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn ... .”

In “A Whole New Mind,” Daniel Pink emphasizes that “artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards ... . We are moving from ... a society built on the logical, linear computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to ... a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place.”

“1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” prophecy imagination’s demise. Today’s students, however, won’t know these cautionary tales; they’re too insulated by reading about insulation.

Become informed. Leaving a word out of the Pledge of Allegiance is one thing, but leaving a student’s feelings out of learning is another.

• Rick Holinger has taught high school English and lived in the Fox Valley for nearly 35 years. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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