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David Copperfield and the Common Core

A new blogging friend, Sharechair, blogged about a great Amazon offer of free audible books.  I rushed to Amazon and downloaded about ten of them.  The first one I listened to was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, narrated by Simon Vance.

Vance transports you to 1850s England in a time before cell phones, cars, planes, or any kind of easy communication that we have today.  The wonderful fiction becomes a window to the world in that time period through the characters. and the descriptions.  If you are studying this period of history, David Copperfield,in my opinion, becomes a primary source.

I hope that English teachers across America are hearing this.  With the coming of Common Core, literature, as such, is deemphasized, and informational text is taking the forefront.  This will affect the high school English Language Arts class more than any other because by high school students will be required do 70% of their daily reading in informational texts including primary sources.  For teachers who love to teach only literature, there is a low outcry.  For those of us who teach history, there won’t be too much change.  History students have to read.  Now it will count as part of the day – reading informational texts, but history (and science) teachers can’t do it all even if they give 100% of their time to reading.  English teachers will still need to spend about 50% of their time in informational text.

As I understand primary sources, they are the fountain of information that historians use to discover the past – to “do” history.  As a “document”, David Copperfield, is a primary source because it is not “about” the past, it IS the past.  Written in 1849-1850 in a series of articles, David Copperfield enables the reader to unravel the past.  The reader experiences the language of the time, the overly polite way that English people conversed tinged with dry humor and a touch of sarcasm.  Through the book the reader  can observe the life of the middle or working class, and understand how desperate life was before there were social safety nets.  They can learn about child labor, and why laws were written to protect the young.  They also learn about the limitations that women, particularly young women, endured, and how women learned to navigate the waters to provide form themselves and their children.  They can view a time before compulsory education.  The book traverses the world.  Several of the characters emigrate to Australia, then still a colony of England.  There they find freedom and financial success. Students should use their map and math skills to realize the magnitude of that move.

This is my argument for using this piece of literature as a primary source, an informational text, if you will.  In order to do this effectively, however, I would also argue that the English teacher needs to partner with the Social Studies teacher in order to teach students how to dig the historical nuggets from the “informational document” rather than merely concentrating on the wonderful story line.  Reading David Copperfield as an informational text has a different purpose, and must be read differently.  The students are now on a quest to discover what life was like in mid 19th century England – and the world.  They need to corroborate the information they glean from reading the period fiction with other non-fiction sources that authenticate the information they read in Dickens’ work.

When reading informational texts, students need to read closely.  They can do a quick read for enjoyment of literature. For a typical language arts class they might read this fiction more  closely to pick the characters apart.  They might look at the way Dickens used words to describe characters, setting, and make an emotional appeal, but rarely do they go beyond that to look at the kinds of employment the characters have.  They probably wouldn’t ask, “What does that employment allow them to do?”  A language arts lesson might point out the social conditions in passing, but the historian might research the various types of employment that were available to men and women of the time.  What were the educational requirements for the choices they had?  Which careers were the most profitable?  Why were the characters who were unsuccessful in England, successful in Australia?  This book is all about economics and geography.

Looking at the Historical Analysis Skills listed in the Framework and in the Common Core Implementation Toolkit that I wrote in conjunction with other history-social studies consultants in California will help the language arts teacher use classics like David Copperfield as a primary source document by asking the analytical historical questions to help students uncover the past.  Or better yet, English teachers could collaborate local history-social studies teacher to plan what literature might help their students understand the time and places they study.

My final argument is that taking literature out of the curriculum for students is not going to help students any more than taking history out of the curriculum.  Students need to learn how to think critically and analyze facts.  Using literature as a primary source is one way to keep both fields viable, and teach students to think for themselves.



20 replies »

  1. You definitely put a new twist on a subject that’s been written about for years. Stunning stuff, just great! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think, thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner also.


    • Wow! Thanks for the nice comment. I know as social studies teachers we don’t have enough time to get through all the content, and how helpful it would be for both content areas to collaborate.


      • San Marcos Unified, in CA, not TX:) A lot of district teachers read my for CC ideas, so the comments I add are often gently directing them to make use of their school libraries.


        • Great. If I can follow your I will. I am the President-Elect of California Council for the Social Studies. We are hosting a Common Core Conference within our regular conference this year for history and language arts teacher to attend together. It will be in Burlingame in March. If you have a chance to catch our website, and want to pass on the information, we’d be much obliged! Thanks again for reading my blog. Hope you’ll keep in touch. Have a great year!


  2. I can’t wait to share this with our ELA teachers. Dickens does make perfect sense for the Common Core! Students can research how (or if) his Household Words magazine influences readers’ political views, etc. I have class sets of A Tale of Two Cities in my middle school library, and have always wished teachers would use it when history classes study the French revolution.

    Thanks for getting my wheels spinning.


    • You are so welcome. I also recommend the audible version with Vance narrating. For students that have trouble with English, it would be helpful because they get the feel of the language. It’s like listening to old time radio!


  3. Marsha you are so right about students today, some, it appears that they are not prepared to take on today’s challenges. Our daughter-in-law had to go to the store and buy a certain calculator so that are granddaughter can do her math. What happened to reading ,writing and arithmetic.
    I am very grateful for nominating me for the Liebster award. I finely posted in on, to five other bloggers the other day. With your permission I’d like to email a couple of questions to you. Jim Thank You Again.


    • Hi Jim,
      Of course. Email me. Interesting to respond to your comment is that the kids are getting mostly math and English language arts. What they have cut back on are the arts, social studies, and science. What I like about the new Common Core Standards is that they remind people that you have to read and write and do math about SOMETHING – in a context, for a reason. Without the context students are not challenged. Thanks so much for your comment! Marsha Lee 🙂


      • When I was going to school, which wasn’t that long, that was before BC, Math, History English, Gym and a few other courses where mandatory. Fortunately I had good retention and remembered most of what I read. When I would take a test I could almost visualize where it was in the book and see it on the page. Not quite but I wish I could.


        • I think we all would love to have perfect retention. I remember, then I don’t, then I do. So now I blog. I am creating a record to enjoy when I can’t do the things I do, or remember the things I did. AND no one is testing me on them!!! YEAH! If they were, though, I’m confident that I’d pass. I’d know enough to bluff my way through the test about “things in my life.” Thanks always for reading and commenting. Your comments are always a welcome treat.


    • I didn’t follow along most of the time. I listened as I drove to my horrible motel, then I listened in the motel until 1:00. Then I read a little the next morning in Carls Jr. then I finished listening on the drive home. Wonderful!!!


  4. Well said! I wholeheartedly agree that “…they are the fountain of information that historians use to discover the past.”
    BTW, I downloaded the Tale of Two Cities, the audible version last week. 🙂 heard from Sharechair too. 🙂





Hi, I'm Marsha Ingrao, a retired educator and wife of a retired realtor. My all-consuming hobby is blogging and it has changed my life. My friends live all over the world. In November 2020, we sold everything and retired to the mile-high desert of Prescott, AZ. We live less than five miles from the Granite Dells, four lakes, and hundreds of trails with our dog, Kalev, and two cats, Moji and Nutter Butter. Vince's sister came with us and lives close by. Every day is a new adventure.

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