I thought I was being so smart. When we decided to dedicate October to a discussion of the Common Core, a subject I don’t have much to say about, I grabbed a date at the very end of the month. My plan: see what other people wrote, and liberally borrow ideas for my own post. But now it’s all been said, and said well, and it seems unhelpful to repeat. So I’m going in a different direction.
Luckily for me, at a children’s and teen literature conference earlier this month, I got to see librarian, supervisor of librarians, and all-around Common Core expert Sue Bartle give a presentation called “The Common Core, Nonfiction, and You!” Two things she said grabbed my attention. First, and I quote, “I don’t care about the Common Core. I care about nonfiction.”
Second, she mentioned that she once played Benedict Arnold’s mother in a school play.
But back to the Common Core. With all the concerns among parents and educators about how they will be implemented, Sue clearly feels that the new standards are bringing positive attention to nonfiction. After the talk, she generously agreed to chat further about how the CC will impact nonfiction authors.
“I keep hearing it’s going to be great for us,” I said. “Do you think that’s true?”
“Absolutely” was the short answer. Teachers have lots of concerns about implementation, she said, especially about the added emphasis on testing. But the increased attention on nonfiction is a great thing. “Teachers need help getting kids excited about reading, and that’s where your books come in.”
I asked about how the Common Core might change the way nonfiction is viewed. She explained that it’s pretty common for librarians to know fiction better than nonfiction, and to see nonfiction largely as something kids ask about when they have to write a report. The Common Core can “elevate nonfiction,” she said, “and get more people talking about it.” She thinks the CC will be great for those readers, often boys, who naturally prefer nonfiction, but who are sometimes steered toward “real literature”—that is, novels. A good book about snakes should count as “real” reading, Sue said.
“So with the librarians you supervise, you’ve seen an increased interest in nonfiction?”
Yes, she said. “Librarians and teachers often ask, ‘Tell us books, tell us what’s good.’ Everyone knows about Jim Murphy, how great his books are.” And they’re hearing more about other great authors—she mentioned Tanya Lee Stone’s Courage Has No Color and Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change. “Great books that can accomplish what Common Core sets out to do.” She’d like to see publishers promote their nonfiction titles as aggressively as they do their fiction, and thinks it may happen. “We’ll see.”
Seems like good news, right? But then I got the question I’m most interested in: “Should writers pay attention to the Common Core?”
“Continue to do what you do,” she said. “Don’t spend time thinking about Common Core. We look for good stories. If you take the time to weave in the Common Core, we’re going to see it, and not in a good way.”
“But what if someone writes a good book, and it doesn’t meet the standards?” I asked. “Isn’t that a danger?”
“A book on almost any subject can meet the Common Core, can be used in a Common Core way. The key is: can the book be a starting point for going deeper, for analysis? Can it spark engaged reading and stamina?”
“So writers should know about the Common Core standards, understand them, but only after writing should we think about how they relate to what we have done—is that about right?”
“Yes,” she said, adding, “I beg you never to have the standards sitting there when you write.”
Sue Bartle is the School Library System Director at E2CC BOCES in western New York. Check out her blog at: http://nonfictionandthecommoncore.blogspot.com