Recently, Apple came out with this commercial for their iPad Air product, which features an audio clip from the movie Dead Poet’s Society along with clips of people using their ipads in various creative endeavors:
I realized as I watched this commercial that Apple understands something very important that the policy-makers in public education are missing–that most people tend to find beauty, purpose, and meaning far more compelling than information and facts. Apple is using this understanding to sell a product, and so far this commercial has had over 1.2 million views on YouTube. While I don’t know whether or not it’s actually improved sales, it certainly has captured the public’s attention.
There is a lot about the Common Core Standards (CCSS) on the internet, and my purpose in this post isn’t to give a definitive explanation of them or to make an argument for or against them. There are some elements of the CCSS that I think could bring about some positive changes (“could” being the operative word since the implementation of these standards is one giant, national experiment) in terms of increasing the rigor of public education and encouraging teachers to regularly reflect on their teaching practices and to measure/monitor whether or not their students are actually learning and mastering skills. But there is a great deal about these standards, their adoption, and the way they’re being implemented that concerns me deeply, the main aspect being that the CCSS seem to view students primarily as future workers and consumers who need, above all else, to be able to make arguments, support their ideas with logic and evidence, and be highly skilled and conversant in reading and writing informational text. Some might point out that there are still a number of literature-based standards. The Common Core website even states that literature should amount to 30% of the content a high school student reads in the course of his/her day. The other 70% is expected to be informational text, which makes sense since English is typically only one class in five or six, and informational texts are a natural fit in subjects like history, science, and art.
However, many districts are misinterpreting this and emphasizing informational texts and writing over literature in English classes as well. Roughly half of the English CC standards are, in fact, based on informational text (which seems to contradict that whole 30% thing), but part of this overall imbalance may also be due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of sample Common Core ELA assessments available to the public primarily use informational texts. My own school districts’ two CC benchmarks for 10th grade English involve writing an argument based on 14 pages of informational text and an informational writing task. None of the literature standards are addressed, and no literature appears on any of the district assessments. Implicit though it may be, this sends a very clear message: literature should take a back seat. Creativity is at best a luxury, at worst irrelevant.
I realize we are living in an information age, and I am not naïve enough to think that teaching students how to analyze and write informational text isn’t important. I also have no problem with teaching students how to make evidence-based, logical arguments (many of us could benefit from a little more logic). But if we truly want students to be lifelong learners, if we truly want students to be people who can contribute something significant to the world, we need to recognize that they are not just future workers and information processors; they are human beings. They are complex beings living in a complex world that involves far more than simply information and facts and argument. Imagine if Shakespeare had been fed a steady diet of informational text and made to focus on informational writing instead of studying and imitating the tragedies, comedies, and poetry of the ancient Greeks. Shakespeare was able to write what he wrote because he was incredibly gifted, but he also wrote what he wrote because he was inspired. And while you might be able to measure a certain amount of skills and knowledge with standardized assessments and by analyzing data, there is no systematized way to measure the most important element to motivating deep and lifelong learning: delight.
Ask anyone who their favorite teacher is, or what their favorite subject is, and I’d be willing to bet some serious cash that there is a high level of enjoyment and delight involved. The same thing is true for any adult who still loves learning, who still is curious about the world–they do so and they are so because learning delights them. Because it is deeply satisfying, enriching, and inspiring. Informational text can certainly be interesting. There have been a number of articles I’ve read with my students that have sparked their thinking and that they’ve enjoyed reading and writing about. But none of them are impacted by the articles anywhere as deeply as they are by the literature we read. When they come back to visit me in later years, they don’t talk about the articles–they talk about the literature. They talk about their favorite characters, their favorite authors, their favorite works. There is no test that can measure the deep pride and satisfaction of students who announce to me that To Kill a Mockingbird is the first novel they’ve read all the way through, or the ignited desire evidenced when they ask me if I know any other “books like that” they can read.
Data doesn’t reveal the epiphanies they have or the empathy they develop when they experience life through someone else’s eyes, when they are outraged by the injustices those characters suffer or are moved by the courage or love they see modeled. It doesn’t measure the growth that occurs when they persevere through a text that slowly builds to revelation. I believe our students need revelation. I believe they need beauty. I believe we educators have a responsibility to cultivate their humanity and their souls as well as their skills. We have a responsibility to equip them to live good lives, which means preparing them not only for the workplace, but also cultivating their curiosity, their empathy, their self-awareness, their creativity, and their passion for life. Idealistic? Perhaps. Grandiose? Probably. But I think we should be aiming for ideals and grandiosity when it comes to educating young people, not just “proficient” test scores.
In true Common Core fashion, I ought to provide some evidence for this argument. As a believer in stories, however, I subscribe to the notion that anecdotal evidence is good evidence. So is poetry. I start every week in my sophomore English classes by reading them a poem. Most of the time, I just read it and they listen and then we move on to the next activity without discussing or analyzing the poem. I do this because I want them to learn that sometimes you can just receive something and appreciate it even if you don’t fully understand it. I am cultivating their open-mindedness and attentiveness. I also do it because I want them to encounter something beautiful at school at least once a week. I’m sure there are students who grit their teeth and simply endure it, but many of them love listening to the poems. Even my hyper sophomore boys, who think it’s hilarious to hide each other’s backpacks or try to twist each other’s nipples, will quiet and listen intently while I read. They spontaneously clap or snap their fingers when I finish. And on the rare occasions I forget, they raise their hands and ask, “Aren’t you going to read us a poem?”
We also, from time to time, do dictation with the poems, where they’ll write down stanzas or chunks I read aloud, and then we analyze them together. Why do you think the poet uses that word? Why do you think she put a comma there? What’s the effect of that repetition? What I’ve noticed in the years since I started doing this is that students who don’t participate in any other activities will raise their hand and participate in our poetry discussions. Their heads come up. They engage. Recently, as a way to teach figurative language and other poetic devices, I had my students write an imitation of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript.” Typically, about 50-60% of students will complete and turn in homework assignments (this is actually typical for most of the school). But about 90% of my students completed this poem. A number of my students are inclusion students–those with a “special education” designation, who often perform quite poorly on tests. Here is what three of those students, all of whom are labeled as either “below basic” or “far below basic” on standardized tests, wrote. These are my argument that literature and beauty and poetry matter:
And some time make the time to skate
In the park
In your free time.
Feel the cool breeze while you are zooming through the air
And your feet vibrating from the wheels.
Looking at the green grass
Hear the sound of the wheels rolling on the ground.
Useless to think you’ll be perfect at it.
You are neither here nor there,
A cloud full of worries that stops you from doing what you love.
And some time make the time
To go out for a run
Cruising through the countryside
When the light is mostly bright
Feeling the cool breeze rub against your skin
Hearing your heart beat through
The sound of silence
Seeing nothing but true green trees
Smelling the hint of spring.
Useless to think you’ll stop
And breathe it all in.
You are neither here nor there,
A flash within the blink of an eye.
And some time make the time to walk
At the beach on the sand during summertime.
Feel the breeze on your face
Breathe in the ocean’s fresh air
Hear the roar of the ocean and feel the warmth
Of the beautiful sunset on your face.
Useless to think you won’t fall in love with this sight.
You are neither here nor there,
You are a hummingbird flying everywhere
But not knowing where to land.