Common Core: It’s not happening without the librarian
Marc Aronson is a passionate and thoughtful advocate for the role of nonfiction in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). He recently founded “The Uncommon Corps” as a resource to share information and expertise about nonfiction in the English Language Arts and Content Literacy standards. A prolific author of award-winning nonfiction for young people, his most recent book is Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies (Candlewick, 2012). Dr. Aronson is a full-time faculty member in the MLIS Program at Rutgers University, where he also offers online instruction.
JC: What is the role of librarians in the Language Arts Common Core?
MA: I often say that the third “C” in Common Core is “Collaboration.” I believe that the Common Core cannot work if librarians are not central to it and if teachers and administrators are not working with librarians. I really think that librarians need to view this as a great chance, but perhaps, their last great chance. If we look back just a few years ago to the initiative bringing SMART boards into schools, this was an opportunity for the media specialist to be the hub of the school. But it didn’t happen because librarians didn’t embrace the technology and teachers didn’t seek out training. It became a separate track and did nothing for libraries.
JC: Why the focus on nonfiction?
MA: The reason that nonfiction is so important is because the grid that has been accepted by CCSS is that up to 50% of reading in elementary schools, 55% in middle schools and 70% in high schools should be nonfiction. This is a complete change. Going back to what I just said about collaboration, how can schools even know what the reading range is across an age level unless everyone is talking? This can only happen when we gather together to share curricula, tasks, information. The hub of this process needs to be the librarian.
JC: Can you say more about nonfiction in elementary schools?
MA: As you may know, there was a study in 2000 about the amount of time spent on nonfiction reading in elementary school classrooms. It was 3.6 minutes a day on average, and in poorer districts, it was 2.7 minutes. We have a situation where schools have only been spending 3.6 minutes on nonfiction, and now it’s supposed to be 50%? This is not happening, and it’s especially not happening without the librarian.
Every librarian knows some subset of kids who love nonfiction. Why do librarians buy The Guinness Book of World Records every year? Because we can’t keep it on the shelves. We know that there are kids who like weird and wacky facts, knights, warfare, whatever it is. We can define a whole hi-low section of nonfiction talking about interest and engagement, not reading and content. In addition, we might also be talking about an elementary school teacher who doesn’t like nonfiction, doesn’t know why anyone reads it, doesn’t know what she is supposed to get out of it and is required to make it 50% of what she’s teaching. Potentially, this is great for the librarian because she can educate the teacher and the teacher can come to rely on the librarian.
JC: I sense a qualifier here.
MA: I started out in kids’ books in the 1980s at Harper where [legendary marketing director] Bill Morris trained me. He would always talk about how the teacher would come into the library and say, “Hey, I’m teaching the way westward this year. What’s the latest and greatest? What’s gotten a starred review? What’s a Notable?” Well, that whole world doesn’t exist anymore. It might happen here and there, but mostly that contact is broken. But Common Core says it must exist. The opportunity is for the librarian to be aware of what is very good in nonfiction broadly and also specifically, as it relates to the Common Core. Then, she can coordinate with the teacher, the curriculum developer, and administrator and say, “Here’s how we’re going to do Common Core.”
JC: I can picture some skeptical librarians shaking their heads.
MA: There are a few challenges. One, this requires the librarian to be assertive. Waiting around for the teacher to show up is a terrible idea. Second, this requires her to deal with frustration. The teacher says, “I’m too busy,” “I don’t care,” “Hand me a list,” “I’ll use Appendix B.” The librarian has to not accept that and push for more.
The other huge problem is that most really good nonfiction is published only in hard cover, making it meaningless for a teacher who needs multiple copies. What’s the librarian going to do? Is she going to use inter-library loan? Is she going to find books that are available? Is she going to use databases with articles and other source materials that the school subscribes to? Even if the librarian knows that a book won the Sibert or is an Orbis Pictus title, if it’s only available in hardcover, it’s often useless to the teacher.
JC: So, what can librarians do?
MA: I’ve been doing a lot of professional development workshops for librarians to develop strategies. What I keep coming back to is Common Core says that from fifth grade on (although it has been woven in earlier) inherently all nonfiction has a point of view. That is NOT the same as saying, “It’s all relative,” “All opinions are equal,” “The earth is flat,” “Aliens might have built the Empire State Building.” The fact that nonfiction has a point of view doesn’t mean that all points of view are the same. But if we say that all nonfiction comes from an author having an angle, an approach, a dog in the fight, what a librarian can do is juxtapose different books that take different approaches to the same subject.
JC: Can you elaborate?
MA: When kids come to the library, have a display at the front with five different Amelia Earhart books that have different facts; different beginning, middle, ends; different tones. It’s the same person but with different approaches. In the past, we did nonfiction by subject. A kid would say, “I have to write a report on Jackie Robinson. Where can I find a book about him?” It was as if every book on Jackie Robinson was the same. Common Core is saying that different books on Jackie Robinson have different angles and we need to think about them together. Why does one book emphasize Jackie Robinson’s childhood? Another, his military experience? Why does one focus on his friendship with Pee Wee Reese? Why does another talk broadly about attitudes towards race at the time? They all are points of view. Even when the librarian just displays these books together, it serves the Common Core. We can also take a similar approach with the teacher that says, “Hey, my class is doing a unit on Lewis and Clark.” Hand the teacher a Sacagawea book, a book on the geography of the journey, a book on York, Clark’s black slave. This is broadly where I think librarians can go with the Common Core.
JC: Does this emphasis on point of view also relate to work of the “The Uncommon Corps?”
MA: “The Uncommon Corps” has gotten an Institute of Museum and Library Service grant to develop taxonomy for what nonfiction books do, not what they’re about. For instance, what are the different narrative strategies? What are the different narrative stances? What are the different voices? What are the different approaches? When you look at it from a librarian’s perspective, even if you haven’t read all the books, you’ll be able to see how to juxtapose them in interesting ways. The reason I’m talking about point of view in Common Core is for the students’ own speaking and writing because if we recognize that we can use evidence and narration in different ways, then we have a variety of approaches for our own research and expression.
JC: I remember reading the Common Core the first time and thinking, “Librarians really need to know the literature.”
MA: There are two things to keep in mind. One, the librarian has read more nonfiction than the teacher. Second, librarians know how to know. They know about Orbis Pictus, they know about Horn Book stars, they know about the Sibert Award. They can at least cull from these resources, which may be imperfect, but which people have vetted. In contrast, teachers are often starting from zero.
JC: Do you have suggestions for activities in the library and classroom?
MA: One thing I’m recommending in professional workshops is that students do nonfiction author studies. Maybe a kid loves Russell Freedman -- he’s the only nonfiction author the kid reads. Have the kid do an author study on what makes something a Russell Freedman book. It’s as true as what makes something a Tomie DePaola book or a Katherine Paterson book. Freedman has an approach, he has a voice, he has a way of seeing things.
JC: Anything else?
MA: Another activity that comes to mind is having classes read entire nonfiction books together. In this way, they’re not just reading a book for curricular content but for broader engagement. For example, Ronald J. Drez’s Remember D-Day (National Geographic, 2004) is a fascinating book about diverse aspects of World War II. Jim Murphy’s An American Plague (Clarion, 2003) is an absorbing study of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Through books like these, students learn what nonfiction does, just as they learn about novels from reading books like Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
JC: Do you have any concerns about the Common Core?
MA: What I really admire about the Common Core is that the authors have done intense heavy lifting -- but there have been a few stumbles. I’m really pushing back hard on Appendix B, which is a list of trade books compiled in 2009 for supporting the Common Core, but which doesn’t explain why they were selected. The other problems are: a) the list is frozen in 2009, and b) people are using it as a buying guide. Librarians need to recognize that we know better than this -- we just don’t buy a list of books -- we need to understand what makes a book good for the Common Core. So, another thing “The Uncommon Corps” is doing is starting a nonfiction list that will explain why a title was selected, based on experience. We will share this information to build a much better list.
JC: There’s also been a lot of talk about “inquiry” related to Common Core.
MA: I love this emphasis on inquiry or using books to answer questions and solve problems. I highly recommend a two-part article my “Uncommon Corps” colleague Myra Zarnowski wrote about what she calls “the literature of inquiry.” Because here’s the key shift with Common Core: when we read a text, we’re not asking ourselves, “How do I feel about this?” We’re asking ourselves, “What does it say?” “What’s its evidence?” “Where does the conclusion come from?” Not “Can I relate to it?” It’s not that we can’t do that with fiction; of course, we can. But in nonfiction, an author has the opportunity to say, “The pyramids were built by aliens.” Why does he claim that? What’s his evidence? Where’s the counter-evidence that says they were built by Egyptians? It’s this kind of mental approach revolving around building an argument that the Common Core is trying to develop.
JC: I know that my local school district started working on the Common Core over the summer but I’m not sure what is going on elsewhere.
MA: Everything will be in the implementation. In New York State, which has very good assessment based on Common Core standards, people have been really preparing. There are all sorts of resources, including workshops, publications, and network teams. But, other states haven’t done anything. As a result, I think we’re going to see the most erratic implementation of Common Core. Although even in California, which is really far behind, I met librarians in Anaheim during the American Library Association Annual Conference who had done some really good preparation for special needs in Common Core. I think we’re going to see that when people take on a specialized issue like special needs or the ELL in Common Core, we’ll all start learning from them. As John Kendall says in his great, concise introduction, Understanding Common Core State Standards (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2011), with 46 states doing it, we all have to start sharing.
JC: Is there anything you would like to add?
MA: I think what the Common Core is saying is that we have been making school easier and easier while life has been getting harder and harder. It doesn’t work. We want schools that train you for what comes after school, whether it’s a vocation, the military or college. What I see as the best part for the embattled school librarian, or the public librarian where the school has no certified librarian, is that your knowledge is needed, it’s important, and in fact, the Common Core cannot succeed without it.