The Common Core standards have been a hot topic of discussion in 2012—a topic that will get even hotter in 2013. PW talks to AASL president Sue Ballard and ALA’s Gillian Engberg.

The new Common Core State Standards—a set of educational imperatives that will place more emphasis on student literacy skills and critical analysis—have been a buzz-worthy topic among librarians, educators, and publishers in 2012. And that discussion will continue at ALA Midwinter, and well into the future, as the standards are being implemented over the next few years. Of course, as consultant Marc Aronson told PW this year, Common Core is “a magnificent opportunity,” but it is also “fraught with fear, as change always is.” As ALA Midwinter approaches, PW caught up with Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians, and ALA’s Gillian Engberg, the editorial director of books for youth at Booklist, for a brief look at where things stand with Common Core.

We’re still trying to sort out what the opportunities and challenges may be, but one thing for sure—more and more publishers are coming to PW talking about the potential impact of Common Core.

Susan Ballard: Not a problem, this has been at the center of our agenda for a little bit now.

Gillian Engberg: Yes, you’re not alone. I think everyone’s trying to makes sense of this, so you’re in great company.

Some come in wondering if this is just another confusing, ill-fated standard, but more are beginning to see this as a real opportunity for publishers, particularly with the Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction, and for librarians, because the Common Core emphasizes the skills and values embodied by librarians. One publisher even suggested that this could lead to a new golden age for school libraries. How do you see things going?

SB: Well, we hope so! And, you know, I have been seeing some indicators that go more toward the golden age side of things. There’s been some discussion among high-ranking officials at the national level—for example, people who have a lot of cachet in the education community—suddenly beginning to say, “You know what? The people who can help make Common Core work are the librarians, because they’re familiar with all areas of the curriculum, and they know the universe of resources and make the connections.” So we’re starting to see a lot of positive indicators, and I think that’s going to bubble up more in the next year or so as people look again at library programs that may have been phased out or minimized. So, yes, I hope we do see a renaissance.

GE: Well, I think right now what I hear people talking about are opportunities, because it is still too soon to know how it will play out. But, yes, it is a wonderful opportunity for libraries, because Common Core is asking teachers across subject areas to focus on basic literacy skills and the ability to synthesize concepts and materials from a variety of different sources. Finding those materials is a big job, and that’s exactly what the school librarian does. I think school librarians will prove to be indispensable, providing essential support and really partnering with teachers as they develop the curriculum.

A lot of this isn’t really all that new, though. What’s new with Common Core is the increased emphasis on nonfiction in the classroom, but I think the basic skills of encouraging inquiry and discussion, close reading, and synthesizing information across subject areas—that’s just great teaching. I think the standards will encourage more communication between teacher and students to really ensure that the students are absorbing the material, so they’re not just spitting things back out on a test. And I think there is a lot of room within Common Core for creative lesson planning. What I see is that Common Core will make every teacher a literacy teacher, and that will encourage more collaboration with librarians—and not just at school. There is an opportunity here for public librarians, particularly in helping educate parents about what they can expect from Common Core.

So, the Common Core will ripple out beyond the schools and school libraries?

SB: I definitely think there’s a role in Common Core for public librarians, and children’s and YA librarians, because we know, too, especially in a lot of urban areas, that some of the schools that will lead the move on the Common Core may not be in a situation of readiness in terms of digital resources. So those kids and teachers are going to be very reliant on public libraries to help support them in the after-school hours. And parents also, I think, need to be brought up to speed on how they can support their kids in meeting these standards. So I see our colleagues in the public library having a great role in this, too.

In fact, we have a joint committee on school and public libraries between YALSA, AASL, and ALSC, and the charge that the three presidents are prepared to give that committee at Midwinter relates to the Common Core. Basically we are working to task that joint committee to develop some tools and resources to support school and public librarians in the field, to ensure we’re working collaboratively for the kids. Also, at AASL, we’re about to launch a new task force that is going to deal with the Common Core. I’m just waiting for some i’s to be dotted, some t’s to be crossed. I’ve got the chair all set, and we really have a sense of who’s going to be on that committee, and they will possibly launch at Midwinter.

For publishers, the standards also seem to portend an opportunity, particularly with Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction. In terms of that market, do you see enough good, high-interest nonfiction in the marketplace already, or are there areas where you think publishers can be doing more?

SB: Well, there certainly are a lot of good informational texts in the marketplace already, and definitely school librarians are working with their school communities to map all those good informational texts that exist for the curriculum. That is an effort that’s happening as we speak. Now, we’re only talking about English-language arts and mathematics at this point. However, especially in the English-language arts area and reading, it goes across the curriculum—it’s not confined strictly to the English classroom. So, it’s worth noting that when it comes to informational texts, we’re looking at a range of topics, with social studies and science and all of that coming into the mix, as well.

GE: I think Common Core is a great opportunity for publishers to revisit their backlists—and to find ways to connect their frontlist with their backlist. Many publishers are already making those connections in their catalogues and in presentations at conferences. Even before Common Core, I think the publishing community was working to find ways to bring an increased focus to informational texts, but the standards certainly serve as an incentive to look again at some of the gems that a publisher may have published years ago and maybe consider giving these works a second life.

Which brings me to the now infamous Appendix B. As you know, Appendix B has created something of an outcry from some who have viewed that aspect of Common Core as a recommended reading list that was either inadequate or out of date. How do you approach Appendix B?

SB: My understanding is that [the books in] Appendix B [are] meant to be exemplars—you know, the sorts of texts that would address Common Core standards. So, I’m not getting hung up on Appendix B, though some people are, and I understand why people have reacted. You know, change is a hard thing, and this is all evolving as we speak, so some people are going to get nervous. But I think it wise to kind of let the dust settle a bit here.

GE: Yes—Appendix B was created as exemplars, not as a definitive suggested-reading list. And, really, it’s just an extension of what our mission has always been, which is to try to get more high-quality books for use in the classroom. That’s the mission, and I think our goal is not only to add to Appendix B with more suggestions of titles but also to show teachers that while the structure of the Common Core may be new, many of the skills it emphasizes are not new; I mean, good teaching is good teaching, and I think that as teachers continue to work with the standards, teachers will find that many of the activities that they’ve been doing, they can continue to do.

So, we’re all getting up to speed, but it’s fair to say that Common Core is going to be a major topic for libraries in 2013, and something we’re going to be exploring a lot more in the coming year?

SB: Oh, absolutely. In fact, the AASL has already aligned our standards to the Common Core, and we’ve done and will continue to do webinars on the Common Core for our members. So it’s already become very much part of our DNA.

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