Core Knowledge or Balanced Literacy, who's to say?

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

Core Knowledge or Balanced Literacy, who’s to say?

I have been hearing rumbles of the “great comeback of nonfiction in today’s schools” for well over a year now. Is it just a crazy fad like Laverne and Shirley or “washing your hands,” or is it the real deal? Surely, I jest on all fronts. Nonfiction text has always been on the rise. What’s funny is that it was never down to begin with!

On Sunday, the NY Times reported that a recent study found that “second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools.”

What is the Core Knowledge program?

Here is a well written piece of it by the Core Knowledge Foundation’s curriculum page: Explicit identification of what children should learn at each grade level ensures a coherent approach to building knowledge across all grade levels.

That is pretty unapologetic and stringent. It sounds as if they are recommending that our students become drones! However, this next part redeems it.

Every child should learn the fundamentals of science, basic principles of government, important events in world history, essential elements of mathematics, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music from around the world, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation.

I think that just about covers the gamut of nonfiction, don’t you? How teachers deliver the information and what that precise content is is what seems to be at the center of this. The Core Knowledge program strays from the popular guided reading techniques and seems to include very little in the way of teaching reading through fiction or fairy tales.

From NYT:

Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts.

Disagree? I don’t think they are going as far as to say that we should be reading our babies and young children The Wall Street Journal every evening in order to instill a better early vocabulary and context for the world (although I’m pretty sure a nighttime rendition of WSJ might knock the wee ones out cold, bonus!). However, there is definitely a hint of the ludicrous suggestion, albeit never quite as bold.

Nonfiction texts have a place in American education today, absolutely. It is widely agreed that teen boys will prefer to read a harrowing story of a mountain climber’s survival or the true story of an Iraqi war veteran over such blather as Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby. That’s all well and good. We should be pushing them toward the texts they love while using our other hand to nudge them toward the classics. We still need imagination in our lives and in our future. I’m on both sides of this. Ooh, how diplomatic.

Is it naive to think there can be one instructional reading program for all and all for one instructional reading program? Well, if that were the case then someone would have a monopoly on our youth’s minds. That in itself is dangerous enough to give me the willies. But here’s a thing about great nonfiction: it is great because it reads easy, like a book. It is captivating and it can move the reader to think differently or even act differently. That is an incredible power that should never be overlooked when discussing the issue. No matter what the text consists of, if it touches someone, it’s gold.

Charles Dickens in our past, present, and future

In my line of work, it is good to know birth dates of literary celebrities and superstars.

William Shakespeare — April 23, 1564.
Edgar Allan Poe — January 19, 1809.
Charles Dickens — Today, son!

In the big scheme of things, what is 200 years? It is nothing. A blip. A speck. An infinitesimal amount of time. But look at how far we have progressed as a society since Dickens’s birth! It is astounding! I’ve been re-reading A Tale of Two Cities this month and it makes my head spin to think of the sheer ruthlessness and lack of respect for human life that was alive and well back then. Granted, the French Revolution predates our birthday boy a bit, but not by much. Put that aside and just look at our conditions and technologies today compared to then. How have we come so far so fast? And where will we be going in the next 200? These sorts of questions boggle my mind from time to time—obviously not because of Dickens, but today is his day and when I think of him writing there at his desk with parchment and quill as I look down at my laptop’s screen shining his visage up at me from Google Images… I can’t help but gasp and take pause at the immense progress of it all.

Gasp

Pause

When Poe turned 200 just three years ago, I spearheaded an unprecedented, digital extravaganza in celebration of his life and work. It was a huge undertaking that took well over a year to bring to completion. When it was released on the master of macabre’s bicentennial, I felt such an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction that little of my professional works to date have come close to matching it. Many other literary projects and tributes have come and gone since then, but the Poe Toast was surely special. … Fast forward to today.

Dear Mr. Dickens,

I do humbly apologize sir, for not giving you the same treatment I have with other literary giants of the past. There is little excuse for my oversight. I could sit here and rattle off a list of grievances I, myself have concerning budgetary needs but, in the end, I am truly the one to blame. I’m afraid sir that my particular station’s ennui has gotten the best of me. If I could go back in time a year, I would certainly damn the circumstances and produce, for you, a hullabaloo worthy of your fame. Today’s birthday extravaganza would be so great that you would feel it in your very bones in whatever celestial palace your bones may current reside. In summation, I am guilty, sir. You deserve more than a paltry blog post. You deserve more than a mention in a magazine. Perhaps, someday, I will be so lucky to make some big explosion of your words and share your work with others in a special way. But it won’t be today. And for that, I am humbled.

At any rate, sir. Happy birthday to you. Put all humbugs aside for hurrahs! May I be one of the first to welcome you into the third century of your greatness.

Cheers,
LW (for now)