In Chris Kirchner’s freshman English classes at Coral Reef Senior High School, novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby have been squeezed off the syllabus to make room for nonfiction texts including The Glass Castle and How to Re-Imagine the World.
For the first time, students will read only excerpts of classics like The Odyssey and The House on Mango Street instead of the entire book. And Kirchner will assign less independent reading at home, but will require students to write more essays, and push them to make connections across multiple texts.
“I’m trying to go big with the change and see what works,” says Kirchner, who has taught English in Miami-Dade schools for more than 30 years.
The “change” Kirchner refers to is the introduction of the Common Core: the education standards adopted by Florida along with 44 other states and the District of Columbia. The standards do not constitute a curriculum, but they lay out general education principles and skills students should master at different grade levels.
Despite shaky political support from Florida Gov. Rick Scott over some aspects of Common Core — particularly still unresolved testing issues — all Florida public school educators are supposed to start adapting their teaching to the new standards this school year. Students will be tested on them for the first time in 2015.
For high school English teachers like Kirchner, Common Core is prompting consequential and contentious changes in what students read and how the books are taught: The new standards call for a focus on depth over breadth, more challenging readings, and increased emphasis on nonfiction.
Students will be expected to make written arguments using specific evidence from reading assignments, often pulling together examples from multiple texts. No longer should teachers ask students to write solely based on their personal experience or opinion — arguing for or against school uniforms, for instance.
“It’s encouraged me to give up some practices I had a great allegiance to,” says Kirchner, “specifically, the teaching of whole novels.”
Several high school English teachers interviewed about the changes say they agree with the standards in theory, particularly the emphasis on critical thinking and close reading.
But they worry about the impact on low-income students who are more likely to read below grade level and struggle with the fundamentals of literary analysis (much less making connections across multiple and challenging texts).
“We have great students, intelligent students. It’s just that they are not where they should be,” says Alexandria Martin, an English teacher at Miami Carol City Senior High School, where 80 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. “Students will eventually rise to the occasion, but it will take some growing pains first.”
Caught between the old and new
One afternoon a month into the school year, Kirchner asked her freshman students what type of reading would be most valued in high school.
With some prodding, Kirchner got the answer she was looking for: Close reading.
Kirchner held her pointer finger and thumb in a circle around her eye like a monocle and buried her face in a book to illustrate the practice. She then asked her students to practice some close reading on their own, analyzing short passages from books including Elie Wiesel’s “Night” for diction, context, main idea, and literary motif.