Academic journal article English Journal

The Common Core of Literacy and Literature

Academic journal article English Journal

The Common Core of Literacy and Literature

Article excerpt

Rigor. Engagement. Reading between the four corners of the page. Literary non- fiction. Informational text. Textual evi- dence. Reading like a detective. Writing like an investigative reporter.

According to the Common Core State Stan- dards (CCSS) and the concomitant academic dis- course, to ensure that our students are literate in the 21st century, all teachers must grapple with the ideas inherent in the words and phrases cited above. With the new standards comes a whole new set of responsibilities, assessments, and accountability measures. However, I welcome the new Common Core State Standards for one simple reason: finally, the standards gods have realized that every teacher is, to some degree, responsible for literacy instruc- tion. This emphasis on literacy as a shared respon- sibility will now allow me to define literacy to suit my role, my discipline, and to willingly take own- ership of the aspects of literacy that truly belong to a teacher of literature.

Literacy is the ability to decode text and to produce text to make meaning. Literacy is both a science and a skill. It is the mechanics of read- ing and writing. It provides the structures and patterns-t he engineering-t hat enable literature to exist. Literacy is the foundation for all word- based communication.

Literature, on the other hand, is the art of reading and writing. It is cerebral and visceral- explicit and implicit. It thrives on ambiguity and nuance. It requires the reader and the writer to have profound insight into the human condition and to be able to comprehend and/or convey those ideas with skill and imagination. Literature-both the production and the interpretation of it-r equires the writer and the reader to have excellent literacy skills to access and/or produce text that, as Ray Bradbury wrote, has "pores" (80). Although lit- eracy is the basis for literature, a society that pro- motes only transactional, foundational literacy at the expense of the literacy skills literature demands would be shallow and dispassionate-one that pro- motes paint-by-number illustrations at the expense of a Sistine Chapel. Although today the text in ques- tion and the medium used may take many forms, 21st-century literacy is a set of complex skills that students need to master to fully understand sophis- ticated literary texts. After all, if the student does not have the prerequisite skills to read the text or respond to the prompt we assign, then the distinc- tion between literacy and literature is moot.

This point has been made dramatically clear to me during the past four years that have encompassed my second career. When I retired in 2007 after teaching secondary English for more than 38 years, I vowed to never return to the classroom. However, when Car Talk started to become the highlight of my week, I knew it was time to go back to what I loved-teaching English language arts.

As a result, when an opportunity to work as a part-time Title I reading specialist in a local char- ter school came my way, I took it. Although I had made it clear from the beginning that I had ma- jored in the teaching of English, not reading, the leadership at this progressive school, North Central Charter Essential School, decided to take a chance on me. Therefore, for the past three years, I have been immersed in issues related to literacy instruction. This year, however, I am back where I started my career-teaching several sections of ninth-grade American literature. Now, however, my teaching has a new twist. I am attempting to remember what I always knew. I am not teaching literature. First, my job is to teach students to understand literature. Second, my task is to teach them how to access, comprehend, and create literature by establishing a benchmark for their reading and writing skills and then ensuring that those skills expand.

Indeed, my experience working as a Title I reading specialist now informs my teaching in several specific ways worth sharing. …

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