It’s hard reading about the lockstep curriculum set out by Common Core with its emphasis on “informational readings,” and seeing all the hoops students and teachers have to jump through to meet its standards. Quite frankly, it makes me sad.

“Why sad?” you might wonder. Frustrated, maybe, or for that matter, mad. But sad?  Usually when the topic is education reform frustrated and mad come easily to me. But this is different. I’m a romantic (as I think many English teachers are) and I see literature—poetry, drama, fiction—and its power to change people’s lives as the heart of an English teacher’s job.

But the designers of Common Core don’t see it that way. They assert that students have been raised on an easy-read curriculum and because of this they are unable to analyze complex reports, studies and government documents. The administration’s solution is to have informational texts make up 50 percent of elementary school readings and 70 percent of 12th grade readings by 2014. Unfortunately, the burden of this solution will fall mostly on English teachers, leaving them little time to teach real literature.  Instead they will somehow have to figure out ways to get kids interested in such texts as “Fed Views” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) or “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental Energy, and Transportation Management” published by the General Services Administration.

So yes, it makes me sad to see the education of the heart —the real core of any worthwhile English curriculum—gutted for the sake of global competition, and to see teachers once again take the hit for “dummied down” education.

But I feel saddest for the kids who must struggle their way through this type of literal—not literary—education, especially those kids for whom school is already a difficult and alienating place.

I’ve worked with those students in both alternative high schools and a county prison, young men and women who have already had the heart taken out of their lives by poverty, racism, abandonment and neglect. They have very little interest in school because the traditional school setting has had very little interest in them. And now this latest roadblock makes success even harder to attain: a reading curriculum that has less to do with real life, their real life, and more to do with corporate America.

As an English teacher it’s never easy to get disaffected kids to pick up a book and read. I was constantly justifying my choices, answering the question every literature teacher (and author) is confronted with in one way or another, “What’s this got to do with me?”  But once we got past those hurdles and students gave a particular reading a chance, I have seen books—novels, plays, poetry, biography, memoir—save at-risk kids’ lives, if only for the time that they are reading them.

I’m pretty certain that one of the Federalist Papers, a Common Core selection, wouldn’t have kept fifteen-year-old Warren out of trouble on the cell block and coming to my jailhouse classroom. But Manchild in the Promised Land did. As Warren put it, “I’ve never ever read a whole book before,” but once he got his hands on Claude Brown’s memoir that changed. Slowly, he got lost in a book that not only reflected Warren’s own troubled life but also did something else—showed him a young man much like himself deciding that life on the streets was no life at all. That book helped keep Warren out of trouble and coming to school long after he’d read the last page.

The way poetry did for ‘Nor. A seventeen-year-old single mom who worked the 3-11 shift at Sears, ‘Nor never missed a day of school because of the poets she read in class like Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Rilke, Luis Rodriguez, and her favorite, the enigmatic Emily Dickinson. She didn’t always understand what she read but those words helped her survive life in the projects where too often words had nothing to do with poetry.

And it’s hard to imagine that George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language would have had Tanya, a real cut-up with a long suspension record from her home school, jumping off the school bus and running towards me yelling, “Mr. C., Mr. C, I finished 1984! I can’t believe what they did to Winston!”

Given the way this country is going, haunted by one tragedy after another, maybe it’s time to re-examine what we want our true Common Core to be. Maybe it’s time to worry more about the heart of America, and about all America’s children and less about the bankrolls of corporate America. Let’s design a reading curriculum that keeps kids connected to their schools, to their communities and to their best selves.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post


  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Don’t underestimate the power of literature to save lives not “only for the time that they are reading them” but for much longer than we often realize after the kids leave our classrooms. I remember the really bad teachers and the really great ones who made a difference. The rest are just a blur.

    Jean Valjean taught me about sacrifice and Atticus Finch taught me about integrity. Samwise Gamgee taught me about loyalty to one’s friends. It was writing that gave me a voice when I thought it had been lost.

    I read somewhere that we are doing to kids is nothing less than educational malpractice. Thank you for putting your voice out there for those who haven’t yet found theirs.

    • David Chura says:

      Ah, yes. The people on the page–mere fabrications of imagination and words–who we meet and love and admire and want to be. It makes me sad to think of what students today are being deprived of. The worst part of this “educational malpractice” is that we teachers are being forced to deliver this “malpractice” without being the engine of that bad practice. But I know that there are many teachers out there subverting the reading curriculum by “slipping” kids books they will love and remember. One thinks of Winston in 1984 and the Thought Police. Will they get those education rebels?

  2. Angela Grant says:

    Reblogged this on Failure to Listen and commented:
    “How Common Core Reading Curriculum Hurts At-Risk Students” is yet another perspective on the ills of the Common Core.

  3. andreabittle says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I agree that finding the right book can make such a difference in a child’s life. Being able to identify with a main character’s struggles or a poet’s voice can be very powerful. Humor can help lighten a heavy heart. We know this as teachers and hopefully can still use the power of words to influence our student’s lives, common core or not.

    • David Chura says:

      In my teaching at the county jail, working with young teens, I loved watching some kid getting immersed in a world society shut them out of by virtue of poverty and racism. I had one young man who loved reading “big books” and so he lost himself in The Count of Monte Cristo and even Moby Dick. Teachers can’t–and won’t–give up on introducing students to great books and their characters even if it gets to be like the old Soviet Union where manuscripts were passed from reader to reader. Thanks for your hope-filledl comment.

  4. Lynda says:

    This is excellent, and the word needs to get out! May I reblog this?

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