School librarians and the Common Core (CC) have been my focus all year, and especially this fall. Sue Bartle and I have been holding one workshop after another with teachers and librarians, spreading our CC gospel and hearing their issues and concerns. The great thing about being out in the field is that I learn as much as I teach—and one spectacular example of that recently took place in Buffalo, NY.
Buffalo is a city whose school system faces real challenges, including a high school graduation rate that it says hovers around 50 percent—a figure some see as artificially inflated, since the city has several nationally-ranked public high schools where everyone graduates and goes on to a good college. Remove those schools and the citywide graduation rate would dip closer to 20 percent. In that environment, exacerbated by tight budgets and the Damoclean sword of ever-evolving high-stakes assessments of educators, school librarians face some daunting challenges. And yet, it was right there, while speaking with some of the liveliest, most engaged and creative librarians I’ve ever met, that I learned a value lesson about the CC and school librarians that speaks to everyone in this profession.
Michael Cambria, the supervisor of libraries and director of the Buffalo School Library System, was in the room as Sue and I kept going over what the CC’s ELA standards ask of students, and thus of teachers and librarians: developing skills in critical reading, reading as an active process of questioning evidence, looking for sources, comparing and contrasting texts, and identifying and juxtaposing points of view. Mike essentially said, Look, teachers are under their own guns to cover content. Even though the CC standards emphasize depth over breadth and close reading over broad coverage, the reality for many teachers now is still dealing with enough content that may be on end-of-the-year exams to help their students jump through those hoops. That means it’s the librarian, and indeed only the librarian, who can teach students about the process that Dr. Carol Kulthau and my colleagues at the Rutgers Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries calls “guided inquiry.”
The library must become the place where students encounter, experience, and try out all of those critical reading skills that CC requires. For example, when a teacher is doing a unit on the rainforest, the old model was for the helpful librarian to clean out her Dewey 570 shelves, put the books on a cart, and wait for students to grab copies to write their reports. Nice, helpful, fine. But an aide could just have easily done that, and there’s an administrator somewhere who’s eager to arrive at precisely the same conclusion.
Instead, let’s say the librarian had made a display that showed how various books treat the rainforest differently, how one title uses this sort of argument and another that, how this book cites sources and that one doesn’t, how this recent article gives a logger’s take on the rainforest and that one presents a native person’s (or an ecology activist’s), then the librarian is suddenly invaluable and irreplaceable. She’s opened students’ eyes by using the materials she has on her shelves, in her databases, and at her downloading fingertips. The teacher may need students to answer, identify, and define questions; but the librarian models precisely the inquiry skills that CC emphasizes. And now the librarian can make the perfect case to make to her administrator: I’m doing what CC demands; I’m doing what most teachers aren’t able to do.
Sue adds this, from her insider’s perspective: “Another issue faced in Buffalo and many school libraries around the country is the fact that you are asked to cover more than one library every week. You only get to see these kids once every six days or twice a month in many cases. So what do you do? You do the same thing we just talked about, but on a much smaller scale. And you repeat it for a longer period of time. Running from one library to the other and you get there five minutes before the class arrives. Grab four books about any animal, say, penguins or whales. Present the four books to the group: flip through and show them the index, the table of contents, the glossary, the dedication, the source notes, the bibliography, the timeline, and so on. Talk to your students; ask them which book they liked best (every child sees things differently and has an opinion) and have them share their insights. Then, turn the kids loose in the library on a treasure hunt to find a book or books to take out and explore with those textual elements in mind. As you check out each child’s book in the hurried last 10 minutes of class—quickly as they line up to go—ask each child to share with their neighbor what they found in their book. It’ll reinforce your lesson as the children take ownership of their books and the experience will help build their critical reading skills. Remember, continue to repeat and repeat this lesson. Even if you are limited to short visits, you can be a powerful actor teaching and reinforcing critical reading skills.”
School librarians, your skills and knowledge of books and readers, make you the priestesses of process, the oracles of creative reading, the apostles of inquiry. Embrace that role and advertise it to your school community. This is the door that CC has opened for you.
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