I have a new name for my Common Core crusade: The Right to Know. Here’s why:
Both Marina, my wife, and I teach in state colleges in New Jersey. Recently Marina asked her students to select and research a subject that interested them. One student wanted to learn more about nutrition in K-12 schools, another about the infrastructure of the U.S. Postal Service. Before they set off to conduct interviews, they discussed whom they would approach–their research strategy. It quickly became apparent that these undergraduates didn’t know how to gather information. Either out of fear of intruding on administrators or executives, or simply comfort, they thought that they should begin by approaching the people who held jobs they knew, such as the cafeteria staff, or the mail carriers on their routes.
The undergraduates, we realized, know only their own world–neighbors, peers, the immediate village of people similar to them, or those that they encounter in their daily lives–and the distant yet omnipresent glories of popular culture.
I mentioned this to Adrienne Mayor, my co-author on The Griffin and the Dinosaur, whose husband is studying how information circulated in ancient Greek democracies, and she was able to make a connection between pre-Classical Greece and ours. We have re-created the world of pre-urban culture, where people know only their neighbors and the gods (celebrities). They are only dimly aware of the links and the connections that explain how the world actually works, how power functions.
As educators, we have neither instilled in our students the right to know, nor taught them how to uncover or discover the workings behind the outcomes that affect them–whether it’s a matter of law, economics, education, or technology. Our students’ focus is on what they hear or learn from peers, or what is beamed to them through media feeds.
I was with Adrienne because we were to speak about Common Core and STEM in San Francisco at the Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California. I realized that the goals Common Core and STEM relate directly to the world of Marina’s students. Common Core in its emphasis on evidence, argument, and point of view, aims to provide students, from their pre-Kindergarten days on, the means of knowing and a sense of ownership. A glance at this morning’s paper demonstrates that; we are giving young people the tools to question a statement on global warming; to interpret the latest amazing discovery on the origins of the universe; to make sense of tectonic shifts in nations and states. This information belongs to every student.
Instead of squabbling over elements of Common Core–doubtless many aspects of the standards, the rollout, and the assessments can be questioned and improved–we need to look at what the standards offer: a ladder. We must break through the blur of the immediate, the present, the trending, the insistent clamor of this song, that rumor, and this Instagram and tweet; we must shift from that which students can relate to (commercial media has infinitely more refined and better financed tools to both discover and shape what young people think of as their own interests) to what they need to know, to the skills and tools that will allow them to know, and the assurance that they have a right to know.
We must, to borrow from the author M.T. Anderson, break through the Feed. That is the job of educators. Otherwise we conspire in consigning young people to the lives of our distant ancestors–understanding only their village and their gods. Surely that cannot be our gift to the 21st century.
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