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July 30, 2014

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A Sticker Won’t Do the Job: We need appealing nonfiction that will engage students and build rigor | On Common Core

It is natural for librarians to compile lists, curate resources, and gather texts to fit Common Core. It is also habitual for a reader and educator to seek out these booklists and line them up with ideas, interests, and reading levels. However, in a Common Core setting, these traditional curatorial and consumption behaviors need to be reinvented.

My introduction to the Common Core State Standards was via the now notorious Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks. Back in 2011, I was asked to develop a spreadsheet of the resources included in Appendix B, locate Lexile levels for each, determine copyright dates, verify current print status (most were out of print), and confirm and list ISBN numbers and other bibliographic data. Although seemingly futile, the experience helped me dive into the Common Core with both confidence and concerns.

I worried that publishers were climbing into their attics and warehouses blowing off inches of dust from out-of-print copyright dates and seeing dollar signs. I feared that publishers and jobbers were going to disregard the introductory statement in Appendix B, which clearly states these titles should be considered as samples of what should be offered to students and not a complete reading list. I didn’t want administrators, teachers, and librarians to be sold a bill of goods.

Let me back up: Appendix B and the Common Core resources are arranged in grade bands comprised of dated titles that have few noticeable curricular connections. It is unclear if the writers of the Common Core considered the engagement levels of young adults, contemporary issues, reviews, or other professional selection tools. There are no annotations, summaries, subject headings, keywords, or tags. What are the instructional purposes? Was a librarian consulted? Even as merely models, as stated, the list seemed so narrow that I feared what this might mean for the average classroom and school library.

Out of curiosity, I reached out to vendors and publishers to find out what they were doing to address the Common Core. Strategies were varied. Some were taking time to understand the standards themselves and identifying titles in existing catalogs that may or may not be relevant to the needs of the K–12 market. Some were adding Lexiles. Some were assembling catalog after catalog adorned with shiny gold stickers stating “Aligned to Common Core.” Some were resurrecting out-of-print titles. Some were resurrecting out-of-print titles and ornamenting them with shiny gold stickers. Some were bringing in third-party consultants to help align existing catalogs and forthcoming titles with the Common Core. And some were ignoring the Common Core completely, hoping this too shall pass.

Educators are looking at the guidance coming out of the publishing world and find it confusing and potentially misleading. We are all still in the preliminary stages of unpacking the new standards and grasping the intricacy of text complexity and aligning titles with instructional tasks. I worry that we are vulnerable to the reductive solutions some vendors are bringing to the market.

The instructional shifts taking place in classrooms across the country are monumental and will ripple across the publishing world. Educators need to build students’ stamina for reading nonfiction. Librarians must learn how to create Common Core units and assessments, identify complex texts for instructional purposes, build strategic collections that meet the increased rigor of student assignments and projects, and help them develop the skill sets necessary for reading and digesting informational text.

The past decade in children’s publishing has focused primarily on fiction. Now we need publishers to deliver high quality, appealing nonfiction that can engage students and build rigor. And professional reviewers need to adapt to this change by examining more nonfiction and providing insight into how the title may align to instructional tasks.

To get there, we need publishers to talk to school librarians and other educators to learn what is actually needed as the Common Core standards are being unpacked collaboratively. We don’t need shiny gold stickers telling us that books are Common Core compliant.


Melissa Jacobs-Israel (Mjacobs7@schools.nyc.gov) is Coordinator, NYC School Library System, NYC Department of Education, Office of Library Services.

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