Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Teaching Nonfiction and Opportunities for Civics and History Instruction

While the standards movement doesn’t address history and civics directly, teachers are finding that a great deal of the focus on nonfiction creates abundant opportunities for teaching civics and history.  This thoughtful essay by Peter Levin digs into both the positives and negatives that history teachers can encounter when confronted with standards that focus heavily on nonfiction.          

Since the Common Core is about math and English, not other subjects, I and many colleagues have written a voluntary framework for states to revise their social studies standards, the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework. But some thoughtful and well-informed people believe that the Common Core itself provides sufficient impetus for strengthening the social studies. I have heard that argument made by the social studies coordinator of a very large urban school system, the lobbyist for the main teacher’s union in a major state, and others. They point to valuable provisions in the Common Core’s English/language arts standards.  For example:

  • The Common Core includes standards for speaking and listening that encourage deliberation, which is a fundamental democratic skill. “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1b Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.”
  • The Common Core is not a curriculum, and it does not prescribe content, but it frequently uses classic civics texts as illustrative examples. “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).”
  • Again, although the Common Core generally avoids mentioning specific texts and assignments, it gives explicit attention to “seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses)” and to “seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.”
  • It has been typical to teach reading through fiction alone at the primary grades, but the Common Core requires experience with nonfiction texts all the way from k-12. By high school, it explicitly requires reading civics texts. “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.9 Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’), including how they address related themes and concepts.”  
One of the often overlooked elements of the CCSS that's implicit in the creation of the standards is the cross-curricular nature of the CCSS movement. While the Reading:Informational Texts standards talk about an increased focus on nonfiction, it's not just in the English Classroom that we're reading. It's in science, math, and social studies. Just because your students will be doing some reading in these other classes doesn't mean that there's not a lot of value to reading historical documents, science articles, and other informational texts in the language arts classroom. That's why Reading: Informational Texts has science and social studies texts examined from a language arts perspective. Now if we can only get science teachers to use the same writing rubrics as our English teachers do.


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