Random fact No. 89 about me: by day, I work at an education non-profit in New York City. Amongst the education community, the phrase “Common Core Learning Standards” (CCLS) has been bandied about quite a bit. Some of you, particularly if you’re education-minded or have school-age children, might have heard of it too. As a primer, the Common Core is a state-led effort to establish a uniform K-12 curriculum nationwide. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core. As might be expected, the two main content areas are Math and English Language Arts (ELA).
Part of the ELA Standards is a focus on using non-fiction and fiction books in the classroom to engage deeper learning. That’s the kind of reading I did, especially in high school and college—and I loved it. It creates an environment conducive to critical thinking and ripe for interdisciplinary education. This is something, I’d argue, all students should be introduced to as early as possible and we’re on that way now. I spoke, via email, with Olga Nesi, a coordinator in the Office of Library Services of New York City’s Department of Education, about the ELA Standards and the focus on books.
RF: As a former English major and avid book lover, I love the focus on fiction and non-fiction texts as part of the ELA standards. What does it mean in practice?
ON: Traditionally, ELA standards have focused on literature. What is new is the required, shared focus on “informational text.” ELA teachers, in addition to teaching students how to read and think about literature, will be expected to also teach them how to read and think about “informational text.” As reading science is distinctly different from reading history, teachers of both these subjects are expected to teach their students how to read and think like scientists and historians, respectively. In all cases, the expectation is that students are able to read not only for information, but primarily to be able to come to some conclusion about what they have read. Analysis and synthesis of text(s) is, therefore, no longer optional. The “reporting” of information is no longer sufficient. In order to achieve these new standards, students will have to clearly express the “so what?” of what they have read. What all this means in practice is that we have to become comfortable with the ambiguity engendered by authentic thinking and learning. In this scenario, the “best” answer is not necessarily the “right” one, but the one that is most well thought-out and supported.
RF: What do these texts offer that may be more stimulating than a traditional textbook?
ON: Traditional textbooks are artificial constructs developed to convey as much information as possible. Student levels of engagement with the information in textbooks tends to be superficial. The primary difference between say, well-crafted literary non-fiction and a textbook is that the former makes greater intellectual demands of the student. It is in learning how to comprehend these more difficult texts that students develop as thinkers versus developing as seekers of answers to questions that have already been answered.
RF: Do you believe that early, in-depth exposure to novels, literary non-fiction and other primary texts will encourage lifelong reading as students become more comfortable with these forms of writing?
ON: In-depth exposure to novels, literary non-fiction and other primary texts can encourage lifelong reading—provided we do not over teach. We will need to be cautious that in-depth exposure does not become synonymous with stripping all joy from the act of reading. After all, reading becomes a lifelong habit only for those students who enjoy it.
RF: The focus on primary texts will be a huge boon to other subjects like history and science. What would you foresee as positive school-day experiences with primary texts?
ON: The ultimate goal of all inquiry is the creation of new knowledge versus the regurgitation of established knowledge. In the CCLS landscape, students refer to primary sources in order to create meaning. They are directly involved in the process of analyzing sources and drawing supportable conclusions from them. In this landscape “reading” is expanded to include any “text” from which inferences and conclusions can be made. Therefore, a text might take any of the following forms: scientific data, photographs, artifacts, graphs, charts, posters, film, music, etc. What is exciting is the expectation that students will be directly involved in the creation of content versus the memorization of content. Positive learning experiences are those that are structured to require students to be “present” and active in their learning. Incidentally, this is hardly anything new. Good teachers have always known this. What is new is the expectation that all learning will be structured in this way.
RF: What role will libraries have in assisting schools in the implementation of and fidelity to the Common Core?
ON: The inquiry/information literacy skills taught through the library align seamlessly with all of the literacy Common Core Learning Standards and are common to all content areas. A greatly abbreviated list of these skills includes: locating and evaluating information, distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information, gathering relevant information and organizing it to facilitate the making of claims, drawing conclusions from information, supporting claims with evidence, considering multiple perspectives, and presenting new knowledge. One of the more pressing issues with these new standards is a lack of clarity: what do we teach? The alignment between CCLS and inquiry/information literacy skills enables librarians to translate the standards into actual classroom instruction. We are poised to take on a leadership role in translating largely amorphous standards into tangible practice.
RF: When I heard about this Common Core focus on fiction and non-fiction, it seemed like a no-brainer. What took so long to formalize it as a strategy for increasing academic achievement in literacy?
ON: I cannot even begin to speculate about why this took so long. What I do know is that the formalization of this strategy is a windfall for school librarians who have always known the importance of literacy in the landscape of academic achievement and lifelong learning.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.