The Common Core suggests many changes to instructional practice, but we can’t look at fiction and non-fiction as separate ingredients that need to be consumed in isolation. Instead we need to experiment with various blends to find strategies that will work.

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Maybe you’ve tuned into a concern some have raised about Common Core texts – do the new standards require English teachers to give up teaching fiction to make way for nonfiction? My friend and colleague Jessica Cuthbertson recently raised an important clarification – that there’s no need to focus on “either/or.”

The Common Core does suggest many changes to instructional practice, but I would argue that we can’t look at fiction and non-fiction as separate ingredients that need to be consumed in isolation. Instead we need to experiment with various blends to find strategies that will work.

Here’s the recipe for how this can look in practice.

Constant collaboration

I teach in a 10th grade core that blends world history and world literature. Every day, I team-teach a two period block class with a social studies teacher to a group of 55 students. This is our first year teaching this class and it has been challenging, but also incredibly rewarding.

I have the benefit of constant collaboration as my teaching partner and I work together to plan and implement daily activities and assessments.We watch each other teach, push each other to implement best practices and work together to select texts.

In addition to this, we are a part of a larger collaborative team made up of other teachers who teach the same course. All of us work together to monitor timing and classroom activities.

We have a common goal laid out by the standards, which has helped to focus our conversations. Our collaboration has led to incredibly rich instruction for the 10th grade students at our school.

Beginning with the end in mind

As we set out to define the content of the class, we quickly learned that the new standards are not a curriculum. Instead, they are a set of skills for which students will need to demonstrate proficiency. We have to decide what content we will use to help students master those skills.

Teaching in an integrated environment helps to address the fiction vs. non-fiction question in a seamless way. To teach the great ideas of world history, we bring in poetry, narrative, philosophy, primary sources, artwork, music, commentary, etc.

We always start with our formal and informal assessments in mind and choose a wide variety of texts to help students to master the skills necessary to meet the standards.

Gathering tools for success

Right before winter break, the English unit was focused on persuasive writing and speaking. We needed students to analyze text for rhetorical strategy, utilize rhetorical strategies in writing and speaking and recognize effective persuasive techniques.

Meanwhile, the social studies unit centered on the theme of revolutions of the 18th and 19th century.

To address both topics, students read and analyzed fiction and non-fiction that addressed a specific theme – revolution. There was no or in this unit.

My English counterparts and I decided we could integrate with our social studies partners by studying a handful of persuasive texts written by Enlightenment philosophers as well as speeches and documents written by revolutionary thinkers and speakers of the time. We also had our students read A Tale of Two Cities and excerpts from Les Miserables as texts meant to persuade audiences to believe certain things about the French Revolution.

Students read every text with rhetoric in mind. They analyzed each text’s audience, purpose and specific rhetorical techniques. They were, in essence, creating a toolbox for their own rhetorical techniques through these model texts.

Bringing it all together with meaningful assessment

The final assessment was a research-driven, persuasive speech. Students had to apply what they had learned from the model texts and techniques, crafting their own revolutionary speeches. They were awesome! The students delivered speeches on the need for revolution in the American diet, drug laws, gender equality and technological developments. Some students even spoke about the need for revolution in the educational system – a revolution that has already begun.

This year has been a period of growth and learning for me as a teacher. I am working hard to shift away from thinking about units based on texts to units based on skills. I am working hard to find engaging and meaningful non-fiction texts to pair with the fiction that I love to teach. I am constantly re-directing myself towards classroom instruction built around skills. And I am hungry for collaborative opportunities to help me continue my growth.

I’m no longer dwelling on the possible pitfalls of the Common Core – I’m living in the possibilities.

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