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July 22, 2014

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All Aboard!: Implementing Common Core offers school librarians an opportunity to take the lead.

By Rebecca Hill, 3/30/2012

OK, so school librarians weren’t invited to the party. When members of the National Educational Association, the National Council for Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and the American Federation of Teachers met in 2010 to draft new benchmarks for language arts and literacy for our nation’s K–12 schools—the Common Core Curriculum State Standards (www.corestandards.org)—there weren’t any media specialists at the table. Even though school librarians have been longtime champions of information literacy, reading, and critical thinking—all prime pieces of Common Core—we weren’t asked for our input. And two years later, things still aren’t looking up for many of us.

 All Aboard!: Implementing Common Core offers school librarians an opportunity to take the lead.As a growing number of states and large school systems, including those in New York City, Boston, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, grapple with plans to implement the ambitious new standards, school librarians still aren’t consistently invited to pull up a chair. So, we’ve gotta ask ourselves…. If literacy, critical thinking, and the inquiry process are school librarians’ forte and are key components of Common Core, what do we have to do to convince folks that we bring exactly what they need?

The Common Core standards, as you’ve probably heard, were spearheaded by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers to establish a clear set of expectations for elementary and high school students nationwide. Their aim? To make sure that kids graduate high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and, ultimately, to contribute to an increasingly competitive global workforce.

It’s a worthy goal. At the moment, the majority of America’s incoming college freshman—51 percent—read at a remedial level. Studies have also found that our students start out in the early grades as good readers, but by the time they reach college, they lack the skills that are essential for deeper reading. Clearly, our kids need help.

Common Core may have national aspirations, but it’s up to individual states, schools, and educators to put the standards into action. So far, 44 states, plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, have jumped onboard. And although the guidelines (which aren’t tied to No Child Left Behind) designate specific goals, schools and teachers are free to determine the best path to their pursuit.

Where librarians fit in

If the thought of adopting Common Core’s standards sounds overwhelming or foreign to what most media specialists offer, take a deep breath. The good news is, school librarians already teach many of the skills that Common Core emphasizes. In fact, there’s a striking similarity between the new standards and the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) recent Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. “The Common Core standards are ELA standards with our 21st-century skills tacked on,” explains Marcia Mardis, an assistant professor at the Florida State University School of Library & Information Studies, referring to the connection between Common Core’s English language arts standards and AASL’s guidelines.

She should know. Mardis was part of a team that set out to link the two sets of standards. The result is AASL’s “Crosswalk of the Common Core Standards and the Standards for the 21st-Century Learner”—better known as the Crosswalk. The Crosswalk matches Common Core’s standards with AASL’s benchmarks. This simple harmonizing, for instance, takes a typical AASL buzz phrase such as “inquiry-based process” and links it to the corresponding Common Core standards, which divide the process into 21 discrete elements—everything from students explaining their own ideas to formulating research projects to “using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect.” So while Common Core’s language differs from AASL’s, it’s essentially pointing to a process or set of skills that most school librarians are intimately familiar with.

Though school librarians weren’t at the Common Core drafting table, Mardis, who chaired the Crosswalk’s English language and math task forces, says that media specialists need to turn lemons into lemonade—and she’s not alone (see “How to Get Started” on opposite page). With Common Cores’ emphasis on reading across the entire curriculum, including areas such as math, science, and social studies, many librarians believe that it’s the perfect time to step up their involvement as text and inquiry specialists, using the information literacy and critical thinking skills that they’ve advocated all along. This means, though, that if you’re not already on a literacy or curriculum-mapping committee or involved in your school’s instructional design, it’s crucial to become a participant. Why? Because with the implementation of Common Core, advanced literacy instruction will go beyond simply providing resources and being a search specialist or helping kids distinguish between informational and opinion texts, says Meghann Walk, the library director of New York City’s Bard High School Early College. Instead, educators will be required to focus on helping young readers actively engage with informational texts—the sort of stuff that students will encounter in college and in their future careers.

The big shift

With the new guidelines scheduled to go into effect in 2014 or later, informational texts will soon take center stage. Fourth graders will be expected to read the same amount of fiction, or “literary” texts, as informational texts. And by the time those young learners reach eighth grade, they’ll be expected to read 45 percent literary and 55 percent informational texts. In their senior year of high school, the scale will dramatically shift to a relatively modest 30 percent literary texts and a hefty 70 percent nonfiction texts.

That increased emphasis on informational texts is bound to give school librarians a leg up on their teaching colleagues. “The advent of Common Core presents school librarians with both a great opportunity and a great challenge,” says kids’ book editor and Michael L. Printz Award–winning author Marc Aronson, who has explored the new standards’ implications on his SLJ blog, “Nonfiction Matters.” “The emphasis on nonfiction from elementary school on puts them front and center, since few current homeroom teachers know nonfiction in their grades as read-alouds, as pleasure reads, or as opportunities to compare different narrative approaches.”

The key point about informational texts, stresses Aronson, is that under Common Core “from fifth grade on, students will be introduced to a point of view as an inherent aspect of nonfiction, and will be trained as readers, researchers, writers, and speakers to compare and contrast sources, assemble evidence, and make contentions of their own.” Students will also have to juxtapose all of those sources, adds Aronson, even those with conflicting ideas.

When it comes to selecting the complex informational texts favored by Common Core, Barbara Stripling is all about options. Kids shouldn’t have to get all their information from a single snippet of text—they need “access to multiple perspectives,” insists Stripling, a professor at Syracuse University School of Information Studies and an American Library Association presidential candidate. Plus, says Stripling, today’s texts need to be more than just developmentally appropriate books. They need to be a collection of information that’s systematically and thematically organized so they create a more contextual picture for students.

As Mary Ann Hebert, the school library system director for New York’s Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES, puts it, “Gone is the day when the librarian will settle for boring, poorly written ‘fact’ books. Students have the world at their fingertips and will not settle for ‘just the facts.’”

In addition to a healthy diet of top-notch texts, students also need to have ample contextual information to understand what they’ve read. That means that librarians need to provide students with vital contextual information so they get the background, overview, and multiple perspectives they need to interpret what they’re reading, says Stripling.

In order to provide that support, school librarians may first have to do a little spring cleaning, says Aronson, weeding out bland books with limited points of view, which just won’t cut it under Common Core. If that’s the case, says Aronson, media specialists need to hunt for databases and other online resources to supplement their collections. They also need to create “a wish list for new resources.” The next step? “Show the administration why those resources are needed,” says Aronson, “and finally, keep track of their usage to show just how well the money was spent.”

School librarians definitely can’t afford to take a wait-and see approach with their offerings. We “need to be proactive to create better nonfiction collections,” says Susan M. Bartle, the school library system director of New York’s Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES. “How do we do this? First, you weed the collection—extensively. Next, you talk to your administration and teachers about what they need and where are the gaps in the collection. If you don’t have money, use interlibrary loan. Start fund-raising for nonfiction.” To rustle up some much-needed bucks, Bartle has successfully resorted to everything from hosting bake sales for nonfiction books to cold calling local companies to fund an author visit.

Becoming a reading teacher

Still, it’s one thing for librarians to introduce students and staff to quality nonfiction texts (a task well within their comfort zones) but another to bridge the gap between inquiry and reading comprehension—an underlying objective of Common Core. But making that leap, says Judi Moreillon, an assistant professor at Texas Woman’s University’s School of Library & Information Studies and the author of Collaborative Strategies for Teaching Reading Comprehension (ALA Editions, 2009), isn’t as difficult as one might imagine.

Historically, Moreillon says, instructors thought that if an emerging reader was able to decode the squiggles on a page, understanding would naturally follow—consequently, decoding skills were stressed more than comprehension skills. While cracking the code is still a critical aspect of reading fluency, teaching true reading comprehension involves helping kids make connections to the text, identify ideas through asking questions, and create meaning or summarize what they’ve read—all things intimately connected to the school library’s role and vitally important under Common Core. That’s why Moreillon thinks that it’s a natural fit for school librarians to teach reading comprehension—and there’s new research that supports her assertion.

A recent study by education researchers Keith Curry Lance and Linda Hofschire found that kids in public schools that have a full-time “endorsed” librarian do significantly better on standardized reading tests than their peers in schools that have lost or never had a librarian. After reviewing the test scores of Colorado students in grades three through 10 in 2005 and 2011, the researchers concluded that “[t]here is a positive and statistically significant relationship between advanced reading levels and endorsed librarian staffing trends.” And in schools with a full-time media specialist, students’ scores spiked 45 percent on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, compared to just 29 percent for their counterparts in institutions that didn’t have a librarian (http://tinyurl.com/7gh8trq).

As kids increasingly use technology in the classroom, media specialists also have to turn their attention to online reading comprehension—and that’s an entirely different animal from its paperbound predecessor and one that many classroom teachers aren’t familiar with. One of the leading researchers in this area is Julie Coiro, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island’s School of Education. Coiro argues that online reading—which includes navigating search engines, using interactive media, and evaluating connected texts—requires us to expand our traditional understanding of the reading process and to “envision new constructs of reading comprehension that introduce students to strategies for interacting with these new literacies.” Media specialists can start by asking students a series of questions to determine if they truly understand the purpose of a particular website or they can walk kids through a site, evaluating it together, recommends Coiro.

Leading with your strengths

School librarians also have another longtime ace up their sleeves—a special relationship with students as readers, says Marilyn Joyce, a librarian at Maine’s Brewer High. On any given day, it’s not uncommon for Joyce to see the same students several times. Considering the number of conversations, the minutes spent lending a helping hand, and the teaching that occurs during those interactions, Joyce amasses more information than a CIA operative—and that data can contribute to her school’s literacy curriculum development and help teachers across the curriculum pinpoint reading comprehension issues that may exist collectively or individually among students.

How can media specialists bring that big-picture perspective and their considerable amount of expertise to Common Core? For starters, don’t be afraid to make the first move, advises Bartle. “Take that step forward, look for educators to collaborate with. Don’t sit back and wait for someone to come to you. You must get out of the library and push into the classroom to help teachers see that you have the resources they need.”

While you’re at it, don’t forget to toot your own horn: school librarians have plenty to bring to the party. “You need to show your school instructional teams that you have the expertise and resources that are needed to implement the Common Core,” says Bartle. “If you find yourself in the wrong group working on Common Core, speak up—tell the curriculum people that the library has the resources that are needed to implement the Common Core.”

After all, as Aronson pointed out on his blog, the shift to Common Core “will only work if teachers turn to librarians, if librarians assert their knowledge of books, young readers, and nonfiction.” When all is said and done, the new standards need school librarians just as much as we need them.


Author Information
Freelance writer Rebecca Hill (bh8811@gmail.com) lives outside of Indianapolis, IN, and often writes about libraries and learning. Her last feature for SLJ, “Turning the Page” (October 2010), examined the state of digital textbooks in schools.

How to Get Started

 All Aboard!: Implementing Common Core offers school librarians an opportunity to take the lead.Five things you need to know about Common Core’s new standards…

Literacy is the new ELA/social studies/science. While these subjects will continue to have their own content-specific instructional objectives, Common Core’s overarching goal is literacy. Social studies and science content will be taught via regular texts, not textbooks. So make sure your library has high-quality resources that teachers and kids need.

Literary nonfiction. Although we’re all still trying to figure out what exactly the term “literary nonfiction” means, for your library it means you’ll need to buy more world-class informational texts. Think Gail Gibbons’s animal books or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel—extremely well-written titles that are packed with valuable information.

The textbook is dead . While some textbooks may wander your school halls like zombies for the next couple of years, make no mistake… the textbook as we know it is dead. Common Core calls for shorter, well-crafted texts that kids can consider more deeply. The focus is on primary (or maybe secondary) sources, not the predigested tertiary writing found in many of today’s textbooks.

Close reading of shorter texts. Your databases will become teachers’ new best friends once they discover that periodicals are a great source of superb shorter texts that students can dive into. Stretch your collection to include resources like The Civil War Times and other niche publications.

This shall not pass—or at least it had better not. Common Core is a great boon for school libraries, especially since they’re a school’s number-one source for the primary-source informational texts that kids need. Add to that our focus on literacy, critical thinking, and information skills, and there’s the potential for a school library renaissance. Don’t waste this opportunity!

Five things you can do to get started with Common Core…

Become the local expert. Each school that has a certified teacher librarian can also have a curriculum and pedagogical expert. Embrace that role. Push to attend every training session and be there to provide resources and support.

Rethink your collection. While school libraries will continue to be a source for narrative books for students, your collection development energies need to be spent on building up literary nonfiction resources—so focus on the authors and publications that do a great job.

Highlight what you have . We already have loads of resources that are perfect for Common Core. Check the appendixes, pull the books, highlight the databases, and showcase what’s readily available!

Ask for help . Your library will be the new textbook, so ask if you can tap into your school’s textbook funds. Can that money be used to help you purchase new resources to support Common Core in the classroom?

Work together . With all of these new nonfiction needs, it makes sense to also use this as a chance to go digital. K–12 publishers have wonderful nonfiction content available for unlimited, simultaneous use. But don’t buy it yourself; work at the district or consortium level for better leverage and resource sharing.


Author Information
Christoper Harris is coordinator of New York’s Genesee Valley school library system and an SLJ technology columnist.
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