School & District Management

Common Core Thrusts Librarians Into Leadership Role

By Catherine Gewertz — September 11, 2012 9 min read
Media specialist Monique German works with students, from left, Destiny Beacham, 11, Chelsie Lee, 12, and Amber Ellis, 11, as they conduct research for a report for a technology class at Powdersville Middle School in Powdersville, S.C. Schools are looking at librarians to help them implement the common-core standards.
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State Standards presses them into inquiry-based modes of learning and teaching. She helps them find a range of reading materials in printed or online form and collaborates to develop challenging cross-disciplinary projects. And like colleagues around the country, Ms. Hearne also plays important instructional roles often unrecognized by the public: as co-instructor alongside classroom teachers, and as professional-development provider for those teachers.

With the common standards on her doorstep, Ms. Hearne has a lot to do. Her library at Wren Middle School in Piedmont, S.C., is a nerve center in her school’s work to arm both teachers and students for a focus on new kinds of study. She’s working to build not only students’ skills in writing, reading, research, and analysis, but also teachers’ skills in teaching them. She and other librarians say they view the common core, with its emphasis on explanation, complex text, and cross-disciplinary synthesis, as an unprecedented opportunity for them to really strut their stuff.

“When it comes to the common core, librarians can be a school’s secret weapon,” said Ms. Hearne, who blogs as “The Librarian in the Middle.”

Like most school librarians, Ms. Hearne has been trained both as a teacher and a librarian, a combination she thinks is perfectly suited to helping students and teachers as the Common Core State Standards presses them into inquiry-based modes of learning and teaching. She helps them find a range of reading materials in printed or online form and collaborates to develop challenging cross-disciplinary projects. And like colleagues around the country, Ms. Hearne also plays important instructional roles often unrecognized by the public: as co-instructor alongside classroom teachers, and as professional-development provider for those teachers.

“The common standards are the best opportunity we’ve had to take an instructional-leadership role in the schools and really to support every classroom teacher substantively,” said Barbara Stripling, the president-elect of the American Library Association, and a professor of practice in library science at Syracuse University.

Media specialist Monique German provides research guidance to 6th graders at Powdersville Middle School in Powdersville, S.C. Already equipped with inquiry-based skills, librarians are helping teachers adapt their instructional techniques for the common standards.

Ms. Stripling’s work to implement the common core in the New York City schools illustrates the central role school librarians are playing as the standards move from ideas on a page to instruction in the classroom. Overseeing that district’s 1,200 school librarians, Ms. Stripling and her staff analyzed the standards’ expectations for inquiry and information-literacy, developed sample lessons and formative-assessment tools around key common-core skills, and shared those and other resources during four-day development sessions with the district’s librarians.

Guiding Teachers

Adopted by all but four states, the standards have prompted coordinating discussions among the library-association divisions that represent librarians in public schools, city libraries, and higher education, said Susan Ballard, the president of the American Association of School Librarians, one of those divisions. All librarians are affected by the new expectations, she said: those who help at K-12 schools, at city libraries during the after-school and weekend hours, and those on college campuses, who have had to support students unequipped for college-level research and inquiry.

"[The common standards] drove us to look at ourselves as an ecosystem, all working together,” Ms. Ballard said. “Students have a false sense of security that they can find anything online, but that’s mostly quick facts. They don’t know how to ask good, researchable questions, assess information critically. So much of the core is based in inquiry, and that is what librarians do on a daily basis. It speaks our language.”

A comparison of the AASL’s own standards for learning with the new standards showed similar expectations for students’ skills and “habits of mind,” she said.

As lead librarian for the New Hanover County schools in Wilmington, N.C., Jennifer LaGarde has been focusing intently on “beefing up” her role as an instructional support to teachers, she said.

“The common core is so much about how we teach,” said Ms. LaGarde, a national-board-certified librarian, winner of the ALA’s 2011 “I Love My Librarian” award, and the author of the “Adventures of Library Girl” blog. “We’ve been looking at support materials, but we’re more focused on shifting to inquiry-based instruction.

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“Materials are almost secondary; it’s really about helping teachers think about new ways to provide instruction and helping them see that there is someone in the building who already knows how to do that,” said Ms. LaGarde, noting that North Carolina, like many states, requires librarians also to be certified teachers.

As part of her district’s common-core implementation team, Ms. LaGarde spends a lot of time providing staff development on the standards. As the teacher-librarian for Myrtle Grove Middle School, she attends teachers’ planning and departmental meetings and works one-on-one with them to design projects and to scour new books, journals, and subscription databases for interesting and challenging reading material.

In her school in South Carolina recently, Ms. Hearne guided one social studies teacher in preparing for a cross-disciplinary unit on the Vietnam War. In language arts classes, students read the novel Cracker!, about a bomb-sniffing dog and its handler during that war. The social studies teacher wanted primary-source materials to pair with the novel. Working with Ms. Hearne, she found photographs of dog-handlers from that war, along with videos and transcripts of interviews with them.

Ms. Hearne and the other two middle school librarians also recently trained science and social studies teachers, who are now expected to teach their students literacy skills specific to those disciplines. That kind of staff-development work is especially important in tight budget times, Ms. Hearne said.

“There isn’t a lot of money to bring people in from the outside, so we have filled those shoes for our district,” she said.

Even as they play that role, however, librarians themselves are drawing on a leaner set of resources because of cutbacks in recent years. Between the 2004-05 and 2010-11 school years, 32 states lost library positions, according to an analysis by Keith Curry Lance, a consultant with rsl Research Group in Louisville, Colo. Those losses averaged 161 positions, or 16 percent, per state, but went as high as 48 percent in Michigan.

Ms. LaGarde said she has had no dedicated library budget in Wilmington for four years and instead must resort to “begging the principal” for what she needs. The common core’s emphasis on complex texts, and in particular on rich nonfiction, has given her “great ammunition” to expand her collection, as teachers demand new kinds of reading materials, she said.

In some places, the common core appears to be driving restorations of those budget cuts. Ms. Hearne reports that although this is her third year without an assistant, her book budget has doubled this year. That came in the wake of her superintendent’s request for a report on the percentage of fiction and nonfiction, and the age of the nonfiction materials, in the district’s school libraries, she said.

Revamping Collections

The common standards have prompted school librarians to “take a hard look” at their collections to weed out dated material and bolster challenging fiction and nonfiction resources, said the AASL’s Ms. Ballard. In doing so, they are looking especially closely at the rigor of the readings they offer, since the standards emphasize assigning students “on-grade-level” texts, even if that means extra supports are needed to help them. Librarians are also looking to better balance their collections with high-quality nonfiction, she said, since the standards use such texts as content-builders and vehicles for the teaching of discipline-specific literacy skills.

Paige Jaeger, who oversees 84 school libraries in the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., area, counted more than 700 “power verbs” in the standards, such as “analyze,” “integrate,” and “formulate,” that press students toward more rigor and inquiry-based learning. That has implications both for a library’s collection of resources and for the way teachers teach, said Ms. Jaeger, who conducted a recent common-core training for the AASL and posted those resources on her blog. She is preaching a three-part gospel to her colleagues: rich text, raising rigor, and repackaging research.

Ms. Jaeger helps teachers rework their curricula into research-driven activities that require students to put those power verbs into action. “If your assignment can be answered on Google, it’s void of higher-level thought,” she quipped.

Case in point: the typical report on a country, which is often little more than an assemblage of facts. Ms. Jaeger and her colleagues have reshaped it around a question. Students might be asked what it means to live in a globally interdependent world. They could be sent home with an assignment to examine the labels on their clothing and food and note their countries of origin. As a class, they can graph those nations and examine the emerging portrait of importers and exporters. Each student could dive into his or her country’s place in that system and write about the perils and promises of that role. Then, imagining themselves as ambassadors at the United Nations, they would have to figure out what issues are most pressing for their country and how best to plead for funding.

That kind of repackaging, Ms. Jaeger said, necessitates bolstering the rigor and richness of materials students use across the disciplines. Even as leisure reading at all levels of difficulty must still be well represented, more-challenging readings for core assignments are a must, she said. “If you have a core novel for a language arts class that’s off by four or five grade levels, you’ve got to re-evaluate that,” she said.

For instance, the immensely popular Hunger Games books are often read in 8th grade classes, Ms. Jaeger said, even though the widely used Lexile framework for text difficulty rates them as easy enough for late-elementary-level students. She suggests teachers consider as more-challenging replacements The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about a woman whose cancer was instrumental to later scientific research, or Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, an account of British explorers whose ship was trapped in ice in Antarctica in 1914.

Many 9th and 10th graders read Agatha Christie’s mystery And Then There Were None, which Lexile rates as appropriate for 2nd and 3rd graders. Ms. Jaeger is encouraging teachers to consider instead The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, about an autistic boy’s attempt to solve a dog’s murder. Instead of The Catcher in the Rye, which Lexile pegs to the 4th grade level, she suggests sophomores could read The Stone Diaries, which Lexile places at the 11th and 12th grades.

A Place for Literature

Librarians report having to work to allay two strains of worry among teachers: that the standards’ emphasis on nonfiction will reduce the role of literature in the curriculum and that every text assigned must be a complex text.

“I think those things have been misinterpreted, and people have freaked out a little bit, thinking literature won’t have a place” in classrooms anymore, said Ms. Stripling, the ALA’s president-elect. As common-core authors have noted, the recommended balance of nonfiction to fiction—half and half in elementary school, rising to a 70-30 split by high school—takes all subjects into account, not just language arts classrooms, she said. Teachers can meet the “complex text” expectations of the standards, she said, by “sprinkling” such readings into their assignments, surrounded by a variety of other materials.

Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Common Core Thrusts School Librarians Into Leadership Roles


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