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July 30, 2014

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The New Standards Dovetail Elegantly with Inquiry, and We Know Inquiry | On Common Core

This is the worst time to be a school librarian and the best time to be one. Our profession is under daily threat of extinction, yet the implementation of the Common Core Standards affords incredible opportunity to make the strongest case for the importance of librarians and libraries in schools. Together we must commit to gaining a deep understanding of these new standards and determine to be at the fore of the Common Core conversations taking place in our buildings. We are uniquely suited for this because the Common Core Standards dovetail elegantly with inquiry, and we know inquiry.

The seamless alignment of the Common Core with inquiry standards, skills, and indicators allows us to make the case at the center of our work as librarians. Namely: true learning is about internalizing a process for learning that transfers across all content areas, and inquiry is the process at the center of all true and meaningful learning.

Translation required

The only trick is that the language of the Common Core is still largely foreign and threatens to remain so. Comprehension of a foreign language is never improved by hearing it spoken more loudly, nor is it increased by others’ facility with it. When content area teachers bring their language to the table as well, the scene is ripe for the exchange of loud babble.

Our opportunity lies in figuring out how to translate both languages simultaneously for the various constituents we serve. To do this, we must become masters of the language of the Common Core. If we stop at accepting the crosswalks (connections between past and new standards) and then claim we are doing the Common Core, we will miss out on the opportunity to incorporate our understanding of inquiry for others. The commonality that will help us begin the task of translation lies in a deep understanding of the inquiry process, its overlap with Common Core, and how they both apply across a variety of content.

Building a cabinet requires one to learn the process for doing so—namely, the steps and discrete skills involved. Without wood, nails, glue, and stain, however, the cabinet cannot be built. Think of the actual building of the cabinet as the process and the materials used to build it as the content. One needs both the process and the materials. Librarians know this about learning. This is why we balk at assignments that require students to gather material without requiring them to do anything significant with it. “Copy and paste” assignments ask students to simply move the content from one place (in a resource) to another (a “report”). This does not a cabinet make.

On the other hand, when we are afforded the luxury to do so, librarians teach the transferable process of inquiry using whatever content/materials our colleagues ask us to use. It is only in this meaningful wedding of content and process that our students internalize the transferability of learning as a process. That is to say, if we teach the process for building a cabinet with oak, our students can transfer that process to building cabinets with any number of materials.

At the center of learning

To date, the only Common Core Standards that have been released are reading and writing standards steeped in process, and we are all about process. Content, we are being told, will come in time. In the interim, this can serve us well, but only up to a point. It is one thing for us to see our work all over the Common Core, but it is another to get others to see it, and yet another to position ourselves as instructional leaders in the implementation of the standards.

It will not be sufficient for us to guide colleagues in seeing the connections between inquiry and the Common Core. We will have to provide concrete ways to teach the skills embedded in the inquiry process, because at the end of the day, the conversation will have to revolve around how actual lessons will be taught.

With this change will come a wonderful reshaping of our work. If inquiry is everywhere in learning, then our work is everywhere and the work we do is no longer considered the indefinitely postponable “library skills curriculum.”

Nonetheless, it looks like this “opportunity” is all about colossal amounts of work. Joy will come with deeper understanding, greater fluency with the Common Core language, and in knowing that our work is perceived as urgent and critical, and that school libraries and librarians are indispensable.


Author Information
Olga Nesi, a former school librarian, is a library coordinator for the New York City School Library System, NYC Department of Education’s Office of Library Services.

Also see: Rebecca T. Miller’s Editorial, “‘I Can Help You With That’: Providing solutions puts librarians at the center of Common Core”

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