It was the kind of news high school literature teachers probably needed to take sitting down.
Was it real? Were the coming nationally developed standards for language arts really dictating that 70 percent of what they read be nonfiction and only 30 percent fiction?
American literature teacher Suzanne Forman re-enacted her first thoughts with the colorful restraint of someone practiced in working with children.
“Holy moly!” the Winnetonka High School teacher said. “Golly gosh!”
The austere faces of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson looked down from a wall poster like ghostly librarians over the personal book collection filling her classroom’s shelves.
The majority were literary fiction. Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451.” Paul Bowles, “The Sheltering Sky.” Robin Cook, “Toxin.” Charlotte Brontë, “Jane Eyre.” John Updike, “Rabbit, Run.”
“We’re literature teachers,” she said. “It’s our passion. We love that fiction.”
She understands the rationale behind the creation of the Common Core State Standards, adopted by 45 states, including Missouri and Kansas. The group behind the initiative describes it as “a state-led effort to establish a shared set of clear educational standards for English language arts and mathematics that states can voluntarily adopt.”
First, nowhere in the new standards does anyone say the amount of fiction needs to be reduced. The standards say 70 percent of what high school students read overall should be “informational.”
Second, the push for more informational texts is a schoolwide responsibility. Math, science, social studies, art, music and physical education teachers are expected to work together with language arts teachers to expand the amount of nonfiction reading — and writing — in school.
“A lot of teachers were freaking out at first,” Forman said. But, “I took a breath. They’re not asking me to reduce my fiction. I need more informational text to make it relevant.”
The intent of the standards is clear, said Rich Long, the director of government relations for the International Reading Association.
Schools need to graduate students who are ready for college and careers.
“We can’t assume in reading really good classic literature that students will know the explicit skills they need to read and write nonfiction,” Long said.
Getting there won’t be easy.
Forman and her students know it as well as anybody, because the North Kansas City School District, including Winnetonka High, is already implementing the standards.
Thursday, keeping in step with the new order, was a nonfiction writing day. Their assignment: argumentative essays.
Ask 16-year-old Rylee Bayless what literary work has thrilled her most, and she names “Number the Stars,” Lois Lowry’s story of a courageous 10-year-old Danish girl during the Holocaust.
The reading assignment that she and her classmates completed to help them write their own essays made less of an impact. It was something about the predatory impact of large businesses on small businesses.
“I had to read it twice,” Rylee said.
It was confusing, said 16-year-old Marcus McDonald. “I had to go back and forth on it.”
Still, they concede they see value in what they’re doing.
Classmate Yenni Alvarez, 17, is already tasting the real world for which the new standards are supposed to be preparing them. She is taking college courses part-time at the Northland Career Center during her senior year at Winnetonka.
While she relishes the chances to read fiction like her favorites, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Homer’s “Odyssey,” she knows that her current college work is harder, “reading (works by) philosophers.”
“This is preparing us for college,” Yenni said.
An associate professor of urban teacher education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, sj Miller, cautions his teaching students to not let the pendulum swing too far.
He sees the new standards potentially at odds with recent wisdom that reading is a more free-ranging exercise in interpretation, unique to each reader each time a text is read.
The drive toward nonfiction could lead to prescribed interpretation that is more easily measured on state tests.
Taken too far, Miller said, schools could be “teaching a blind obedience studying text like a scientist studies a plant.”
Long fiction works also hang on as one of a teacher’s last weapons in combating the digital age’s assault on student attention spans.
“Kids learn on Google now,” said John Ritchie, the president of the Kansas Association of Teachers of English. Their writing most often is limited to 140 characters at a time on Twitter. Reading texts that fit on smartphone screens.
But F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” suspends all that, Ritchie said.
“My students love Gatsby,” he said.
Literary works like that help teach “persistence and perseverance — which has always been a struggle,” he said. “They get to see that intrinsic reward and see it through.”
“We know this is not just another education fad,” he said. “We’re ready to accept it but I think there is still some denial over how much it is going to change for us.”
That’s why backers of the new standards are calling for patience and calm.
The standards aren’t meant to be rigid, said Bob Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C. They’re meant to guide schools and teachers and establish common expectations across the nation.
Teachers can still choose the literature they teach, and they will have time to make the transition.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be policing this,” Rothman said.
New tests, aligned to the new standards, are being developed. Pilot tests will arrive in some school districts in 2014, with most coming fully aboard in 2015, and that’s when schools will begin seeing how well they’re making the change, Rothman said.
“This is a very big change,” Long said. “If the body politic wants all of this reform to be completed in one election cycle we’re all going to be disappointed.
“We’re trying to target world-class. Don’t do this as if it’s the little leagues.”
So Whitman and Dickinson watch and wait.
Forman’s class will make time for the poets. But for now, her literature students were at work with pencils and laptops, shaping their arguments.