Teaching Your Favorite Novels in the Light of Common Core

By now you’ve either read or heard about the December 7 Common Core article in the UK’s Telegraph, announcing that schools in the US were replacing J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with insulation manuals and plant inventories. While most of the article is a superficial and misleading take on the Common Core State Standards and their implementation in the classroom, the fear that some of our beloved classics will be left by the wayside is a valid one for many educators.

The good news is that the gems we’ve been teaching don’t need to go away—we just need to rethink the way we work with them. Here are some ideas for using Catcher and Mockingbird in light of the new standards.

catcherThe Catcher in the Rye: Growing Up in an Imperfect World

Teach this classic in a thematic unit about the issues young people struggle with as they face adulthood. Incorporate a selection of these nonfiction titles:

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America  by Helen Thorpe. 9781416538936. 2011. Gr 10-Adult.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. 9781439156964. 2009. Gr 11-Adult.

Leaving Glorytown: One Boy’s Struggle under Castro by Eduardo Calcines. 9780374343941. 2009. Gr 7-10.

Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the Cultural Revolution by Li Moying. 9780374399221. 2008. Gr 7-12.

Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate by Mark Oppenheimer. 9781439128640. 2010. Gr 10-Adult.

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen. 9780307955630. 2012. Gr 10-Adult.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. 9781400067558. Gr 10-Adult.

How Does It Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi. 9780143115410. 2010. Gr 10-Adult.

Infuse the unit with media literacy activities, using pictures, online poetry websites, and TED Talks:

National Child Labor Committee Photo Collection at the Library of Congress

“Nikki Rosa” by Nikki Giovanni at  the Poetry Foundation

“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes at the Poetry Foundation

“Being Young and Making an Impact” by Natalie Warne at TED.com

Finally, include a variety of writing activities related to the theme. Pair the novel with a nonfiction title and ask students to compare and contrast the two, using evidence from each text. Have them compare Holden Caulfield to one of the key figures in the nonfiction book. Have students write about their own experiences or about their views on current affairs that make growing up today a challenge for young people. Ask students to respond to one another’s writing. Have conversations, create videos, and start a blog about the topic on edublogs.org. By shifting from a novel unit to a thematic unit that involves nonfiction, media literacy, and writing activities such as these, you will be addressing many Common Core standards as well as creating an enriched student learning experience.

killTo Kill a Mockingbird: What is Just, Moral, and Ethical?

Teach this classic in a thematic unit on justice and injustice. Include other novels that tackle this theme:

All the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers. 9780061960871. 2012. Gr 9-12.

Guantanamo Boy by Neil Gaiman. 9780807530771. 2011. Gr 10-12.

Guardian by Julius Lester. 9780061558900. 2008. Gr 7-12.

Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis. 9781741753776. 2010. Gr 9-12.

Trafficked by Kim Purcell. 9780670012800. 2012. Gr 9-12.

Incorporate nonfiction such as the following:

Five Thousand Years of Slavery by Margorie Gann. 9780887769146. 2011. Gr 7-10.

Fourteen and Sentenced to Death: The Story of Steven Truscott by Bill Swan. 9781459400757. 2012. Gr 6-12.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel. 9780374180652. 2009. Gr 11-Adult.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. 9780312626686. 2001. Gr 10-Adult.

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin. 9780805079500. 2008. Gr 10-12.

Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People by Judy Pasternak. 9781416594826. 2010. Gr 10-Adult.

Address media literacy and add more layers of meaning by using online photos, TED Talks, poetry, and video.

Using Photographs to Teach Social Justice at Teaching Tolerance, a Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

“We Need to Talk about Injustice” by Bryan Stevenson on TED.com

“Lament for the Feet” by H. L. Hix at the Poetry Foundation

“Marrying the Hangman” by Margaret Atwood at the Poetry Foundation

“I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. on YouTube

Throughout the unit, have students hone writing and speaking skills. You may want them to plan a trial and write a judge’s verdict and an appeal. Speaking and writing activities that involve textual evidence, that inform, explain, or argue, or that involve extensive research all support the Common Core.

Aligning your curriculum to the Common Core standards doesn’t have to mean throwing out your favorite literature. Instead it creates an opportunity to teach those novels within the context of a meaningful set of essential questions and explorations and a multi-strand approach to learning and literacy.