Education buzzwords—whole language, multiple intelligences—come and go, but 45 states chose to adopt the Common Core Learning Standards. Why? Because the Common Core defines the critical thinking, the habits of mind, and the problem-solving abilities required for academic success.
The question for educators: what types of instruction help students develop these skills? In an ideal world, it’s instruction that asks students to do something with information: the raison d’être of librarians. So how do librarians insert themselves into the critical discussions taking place around these instructional shifts?
Professional development is a good place to start—in the best cases, across institutions. In 2011, the New York City Department of Education Office of Library Services formed a partnership with the City University of New York to do just that—to design a community of practice around the Common Core and the high-school-to-college transition.
Participants—teachers, college faculty, and librarians—began the work by identifying the challenges first-year college students face. These included different knowledge demands and task requirements (for example, secondary schools often require students’ reactions to texts as opposed to thinking about texts within the disciplines), the movement from assignments with built-in supports to independent work, and the increasing volume and complexity of readings. (An opportunity to express some of their frustrations allowed participants to build trust and, thereafter, to focus on instruction as the method to change student outcomes.)
A detailed agenda with clear goals kept everyone engaged and focused at each meeting. Five sessions were devoted to revising and aligning a high school curricular unit on Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Algonquin, 1991) to the CCSS and college demands. An instructor introduced the unit and received feedback using a set protocol. A summary, which included the findings and listed next steps, was shared by a documentarian for further learning and reflection.
The Common Core prepares students for college by having them discover and apply critical approaches to complex texts to other primary texts and writing assignments. Participants commented on how this unit, focused on a novel, presented many opportunities to integrate informational texts similar to those a college faculty member used in his class. The librarians provided literary analysis from databases such as Contemporary Literary Criticism and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism (both Gale) to incorporate into the unit, which reflected the types of well-structured arguments students will analyze and write in a first-year college course.
Participants suggested various pedagogical methods for integrating text excerpts from the articles. In this case, the group decided to create its own graphic organizer to model the critical reading approaches they wanted students to incorporate, including space for text excerpts, directions for identifying the author’s main points, and unfamiliar vocabulary. A second organizer posed questions to facilitate textual analysis. During the final session, participants structured the order of the texts for the unit and discussed how to use the same graphic organizers to address the increased complexity of the texts.
The Common Core challenges teachers to look beyond the novel or a textbook as the primary instructional source in favor of collections of texts. Students must build strong content knowledge by reading complex texts and developing the critical thinking skills involved in evaluating arguments and evidence. Participants left the workshop knowing that they can turn to librarians for support in identifying materials for instruction and developing assessments.
The Common Core provides no easy answers or ready-made lesson plans because it focuses on the tough task of making students think. This collaborative model is effective because it outlines a process articulating how librarians contribute to this essential work—collaborating across institutions and disciplines to align curriculum and instruction to students’ sense of wonder and curiosity—and to good old-fashioned inquiry.
Leanne Ellis is a library coordinator for the New York City School Library System, NYC Department of Education, Office of Library Services. To submit an On Common Core opinion piece, please contact Rebecca T. Miller at email@example.com