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October 25, 2014

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Consider the Source: On the Common Core Trail

149061407 Consider the Source: On the Common Core TrailHere’s my latest report from Common Core land. Two weeks ago, I was on the road for four days along with Sue Bartle leading Common Core (CC) workshops. I learned a lot—much of it encouraging.

There was a clear pattern to the week: the crowds increased each day—and by Thursday, there was a waiting list for people who wanted to get into our packed sessions. (We’re scheduling a new event for them.) As the crowds grew larger, the attendees’ backgrounds got more diverse. When Sue and I began offering these workshops in August, almost all of the people who came were school librarians, and that held true earlier in the week. But by Thursday, more than half of the guests were public librarians, teachers, supervisors, and administrators. Geography played some part in this: the more rural the area, the smaller the crowd and the higher percentage of school librarians; as we moved into larger cities, more people attended and they worked in a wider variety of jobs. Yet, even if location was one reason for the change in attendance, there was a clear theme in the questions, discussions, and overall mood that matters to all of us: CC is no longer coming someday, it’s here.

As each day went by, the discussions became ever more practical and pragmatic. People were no longer questioning whether CC was a good idea or what it is or where to find basic information about it. Instead, they were talking about implementation: What can I do to make sure that Common Core is part of my next lesson or unit? It was this real-world practicality that made the event seem worthwhile to teachers and administrators. Perhaps the single most exciting aspect of the week was seeing these school teams arrive together and work together—the idea that Common Core will only succeed when everyone in the building works together (and the local public library is an informed, integrated, resource) was no longer an aspiration, it was an unfolding reality.

Of course, with the practical comes frustration. Here are some of the kinds of questions we heard:

“How can I do all of the wonderful work on evidence, argument, point of view, and juxtaposed sources that CC wants, when my shelves are filled with books that all use the same layout and same huge color images, and say little about their sources?” Our answer is to use multimodal resources—another CC mandate—juxtapose an article from a magazine or database with a book on your shelves. Look carefully with your students, are the books really identical? Do they all have page numbers, tables of contents, and references to experts that were consulted? Do the experts or the institutions they work at have websites where you can get new information? Do their sites recommend a book on the same subject written for older readers to compare and contrast?

Another important question we heard was, “How can I use longer nonfiction books by excellent authors in my class when the books are only in hardcover and cost too much?” One strategy to meet this challenge is to divide up your class into “literature circles” in which students thoughtfully discuss a work. Twenty-five kids can be divided into five groups of five: one might use that costly hardcover, which the library may have or be able to get through interlibrary loan; another group can use a paperback; a third can use an ebook that’s available to multiple users; a fourth can work from a magazine and a related database; and a fifth group might even find a relevant graphic novel. With this approach, the cost problem has been transformed into a differentiated learning opportunity. Of course, this means the teacher has to work closely with her librarian to select resources that fit together.

And then there was this dilemma: “Having a display on ghosts, are they real?, would be great, but I have too many parents in my community who would protest. I pick my battles and that is one I don’t want.” That isn’t a Common Core question—it’s an issue for how you run your library. But it’s true that in opening the door to evidence, argument, and point of view, Common Core will bring more controversial questions out in the open. The issue is no longer about giving one novel to one child, it’s about showing students the many ways in which library resources look at issues, including everything from global warming and fracking to animal testing and using instant replay at Major League Baseball games. Some parents are likely to object when they see a view they dislike on display. Where, I would respond, do you want your children to see these debates, on the Internet or in an environment where adults help them recognize different points of view and evaluate their arguments?

And finally, here’s another question that many in our audience grapple with: “I’m a public librarian and teachers come here, hand me a list of books that they say is Common Core–approved, and are mad when I can’t find them. Indeed, many are out of print.” That list is the infamous Appendix B to the Common Core English language Arts Standards. As the list clearly states, these books are exemplars, not selections (for more on this topic, see “The Problem with Common Core’s ‘Appendix B,’”). Push back by pointing out that nonfiction, in all areas, can’t be frozen in 2009. Instead, check out recent selections by the National Council for Teachers of English’s Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children, the National Council for the Social Studies and the Children’s Book Council Carter G. Woodson Book Awards, the National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council’s Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12, the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, the Association for Library Service to Children’s Notable Children’s Books, and the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Award for Nonfiction for Young Adults. See if any of their award-winning books can meet the same needs.

Each of the above questions reflects real problems that aren’t easy to solve. But that’s what is so wonderful about them: they arise because Common Core is real, it’s here, it’s happening, and we’re learning, together, how to make it work.

This article was featured in School Library Journal's Extra Helping enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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