While educators grapple with the Common Core State Standards, school librarians are finding aspects to celebrate. To start? Their jobs.
“I see it as a good thing for librarians,” says Shayne Russell, a library media specialist at Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ, who has been a school librarian for 17 years.
Russell believes that today’s fifth graders aren’t producing the quality of work their predecessors were a dozen years back. The CCSS is asking students to do rigorous work that they are fully capable of, in her view; she believes that many have just become used to digging less deep, through no real fault of their own. Librarians can step in and do the work they’re best at—including helping kids produce research based on multiple sources rather than a Google drive-by. “This is an opportunity to get [students] back into the library,” she says.
Deb Schiano couldn’t agree more. The school librarian at Lounsberry Hollow Middle School in Vernon, NJ, sees herself at the nexus of teachers and the new standards—with a responsibility to highlight resources teachers can use in new classroom lesson plans.
“School librarians have a huge role to play,” says Schiano. “The standards are broad. You can break them down further. There is so much more knowledge that we can add.”
School librarians’ and educators’ concerns are well known: lack of professional support in adapting their lessons; worries around finding materials; disapproval of how technology and attendant funding is being utilized for testing rather than learning; and the assessments themselves.
Even so, Russell is pleased with the CCSS’s renewed emphasis on nonfiction. She hopes to steer teachers toward periodicals and magazines that dovetail with the new requirements. Finding such materials can be a largely digital process, since many schools have canceled paper subscriptions due to cost. These materials are accessible in databases and online, and school librarians can point the way.
Professional support from librarians
Savvy librarians can provide support in broader ways. Sue Bartle, a school library system director in New York’s Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Cooperative Educational Services, recently co-launched a new website, Common Core Lens (commoncorelens.com), which is analyzing nonfiction books to help teachers locate CCSS informational materials. The nascent site has the promise to create a taxonomy around titles and to offer details about a book’s style and viewpoint, such as whether the title is written in narrative form or contains idioms, dialects, and alliteration, she says.
Anyone may add books to the site, but they also need to spend at least an hour inputting the information requested, says Bartle, who works with 27 school districts and 97 K–12 school library media centers. She believes that her process could be augmented if more publishers added details about titles, such as point of view and text features.
“Instead, they tell people that all of their books are CCSS compliant, which isn’t true,” she says. “In a sense, they all meet Common Core, but only in a certain way. And teachers want to use the best part of the book that is best for the Common Core.”
Professional support for teachers is also high on Jenn Bogard’s list. As a preK–6 literacy coach for a 35-school district in South Berwick, ME, Bogard works with teachers at three schools to help them examine literacy standards and create CCSS lesson plans.
Educators meet for six-week cycles, focusing on instructional practices, model lessons, or book clubs. These cycles rotate, helping them to focus their lessons on grade-level issues, says Bogard, a former elementary school teacher.
Topics range from teaching students how to read across texts in meaningful, purposeful ways to strategies for developing close reading skills and critical thinking.
“It’s a powerful way to make sure everyone feels supported,” she says. “There’s a lot more team work.”
To Scott McLeod, support for teachers is also critical. But as the director of innovation at the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency in Iowa, McLeod has been primarily focused on technology roll-out associated with the CCSS—which for many states includes online assessments for students.
McLeod, who oversees 12 private schools and 45 public school districts, questions today’s emphasis on purchasing digital materials for online testing, rather than student learning.
“I want kids to use technology,” he says. “But I want them to use it to empower them in a digital world. That concerns me.”
McLeod worries about the emphasis on assessments, with scores calibrated so that a majority will fail “right off the bat,” he says.
“Some states have set rates so high that they will not pass,” he says. “That does not do anyone good service.”
Wendy Stephens, a librarian at Cullman High School in Alabama, also worries about testing. She believes that some attacks on the CCSS would be better directed at the tests.
When “the standards are being brushed and tarred,” that vitriol “should be saved for the assessments,” she says. “There’s a lot of money being made on assessments, and we should be looking at what they’re doing and if they really are necessary.”
Alabama is in the midst of a political battle to repeal CCSS. In the meantime, Stephens has made it her job to help teachers understand the new standards, in particular the assessments, so they know what students will be asked during testing.
Long-term, Stephens believes that students and teachers will be able to meet the requirements with less worry. “There was a lot of anxiety last year,” she says. “But now with implementation, there’s less, as they’re finding they’re meeting the standards without having to change too much.”