Teachers, writers, librarians, and other industry professionals braved frigid temperatures and slippery sidewalks for a panel discussion on a challenging and pertinent topic – the who, what, when, where, and why of the Common Core State Standards. The first Children’s Literary Salon event of 2014 took place on January 4 at the main branch of the New York Public Library, with panelists Marcie Colleen, education consultant for the Picture Book Month initiative; Daryl Grabarek, editor of School Library Journal’s Curriculum Connections newsletter; and Amie Wright, who supervises the Joint Library School Pilot Selection Program at the NYPL’s technical services organization, BookOps. New York Public Library youth materials specialist Elizabeth Bird moderated the discussion.

Acknowledging the significance of the Common Core legislation, Bird asked the panel members to summarize what the initiative means and how it will have a direct impact on education. Describing the standards as “an instructional shift” characterized by “more contact with content-rich, informational content,” Wright pointed to what she believes is a deficit of skills that are placing many U.S. teenagers at a disadvantage. Students often reach 12th grade, she said, without having retained the basic knowledge they need to succeed as freshmen in college. Wright believes that the goal of Common Core is to correct this deficit by “creat[ing] better readers and giv[ing] kids the skills to pursue any jobs they want to.”

From Colleen’s perspective, the impetus behind the standards is to “create students who can dig deeper, look for varying points of view, and sources.” By tapping into a variety of comparative texts, she believes, students will learn to think critically about perspective and authorship, in addition to drawing new connections among a diverse array of resources.

Such sweeping educational reform is bound to be met with uncertainty and anxiety, and the Common Core has undoubtedly garnered its share of criticism. The panelists spoke to the most common of the misconceptions that persist – most notably, that fiction will no longer have its place in the classroom. “There is a push for high quality nonfiction [under the Common Core], but fiction doesn’t lose its spot in a child’s education,” Colleen said. Rather, she added, the Common Core emphasizes making cross-disciplinary connections through the use of a variety of texts and sources, whether digital or print, fiction, or nonfiction: in elementary school, the breakdown of informational and literary texts is 50/50. In middle school, the use of informational texts rises to 55% and in high school, 70% of materials are expected to be nonfiction.

Another source of confusion surrounding the Common Core revolves around Appendix B, which is a list of suggested reading materials. Appendix B specifically states that it is not meant to be a comprehensive list of books, but rather represents the types of texts that teachers may assign within their curriculums. What is problematic, Wright suggested, is that everyone sees the list in a different light. While some teachers are comforted by having what they believe to be a concrete list of required resources, others feel threatened and restricted by it.

If a book isn’t listed in Appendix B, some educators mistakenly believe that the book has no place in the classroom. Colleen raised the concern that many teachers have over the future of picture books in schools – and in her opinion, there is at least some validity to this worry. She elaborated by saying that, because picture books are designed to be read in partnership with children, and the Common Core emphasizes independent reading, kids are being transitioned sooner into Easy Readers. Nevertheless, Colleen said, “Savvy, wonderful teachers use picture books as springboards” to discussion, and she remains optimistic that this will continue to be the case under Common Core.

Something Old, Something New

However daunting the Common Core may seem to educators in its early stages, abundant digital resources are available to supplement and expand upon primary texts, Grabarek said. Educational apps that align with the standards can be illuminating and “natural choices for the classroom,” she said. Among those that Grabarek finds particularly immersive are the app for Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which includes primary source materials; an app called The Orchestra, which offers a detailed look at musical instruments and the dynamics of an orchestra; the Barefoot Books World Atlas app, based on the book of the same name; and the science app Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion, based on the book by Loree Griffin Burns.

No matter which specific materials teachers use to promote deep reading and enduring understanding in their classrooms, assessment is a necessary and inevitable aspect of the learning process. The panelists turned the discussion to that especially thorny element of the Common Core – standardized testing. “No one wants to talk about testing,” Colleen said. On one hand, she explained, the Common Core means that teachers are “empowered” and given creative license in the classroom, yet they are also responsible for ensuring that students perform well when it comes to testing. And not everything is inherently testable, Wright said; for example, digital literacy or the ability to build a research project. What the Common Core assessments will look like remains to be seen: “It’s an ongoing conversation, a dialogue, and a process. It will be interesting to see [the effects of Common Core] after 10 years,” Wright said.

Grabarek believes teachers have had their “confidence shaken” by the arrival of Common Core, but are gaining it back as the purpose and content of the standards are made clearer. Essentially, many educators continue to wonder if the Common Core will mean having to start over from scratch and to sweep the shelves of all the reading materials that they have been teaching for years. The short answer, the panelists agreed, is absolutely not. “If you buy books with conscience, you have a great collection already,” Grabarek said. In fact, plenty of teachers have been practicing elements of the Common Core standards in their classrooms for years – using primary source content, cross-referencing, and urging students to draw thoughtful connections between ideas, texts, and concepts. A little validation can go a long way. “Teachers could benefit from hearing ‘You are already doing a lot of these things,’ ” Colleen said.