You can sometimes feel like the Old Stage Manager in this job, watching ’em all come and go for their hour upon the stage. Big picture books, little picture books, good girls and bad girls, vampires, angels, fallen angels, books for boys, fantasy, and realism. The players have producers: not just publishers but also the forces that drive publishers, whether it’s the economy, projected demographics, social trends, or educational policy.
Both the whole language movement and the call for multicultural education brought trade books into the classroom; No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on standardized testing, not so much. (Who had time?) With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards into most of our nation’s schools, what books are we going to see where?
The initiative’s name — specifically, the “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects” — seems oddly chosen, given that the term “common core” is best known to us from the University of Chicago’s Great Books program, where a set of classic texts provided the core of undergraduate education. The new Common Core program does not include a list of required reading at all. Instead, it encourages teachers to use a variety of texts, increasingly complex in form and content as the student goes from year to year, to teach a variety of similarly progressive skills in reading and critical analysis “in order to help ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy no later than the end of high school.” (The entire document can be found here.)
A key distinction of the Common Core is its emphasis on the reading of nonfiction texts. Where other standards initiatives have taken great care in requiring students to read classic fiction, folklore, and poetry, the Common Core requires increased use of (again, increasingly complex) informational texts as a student progresses through the grades, culminating in grade twelve with a 70–30 percent split between informational and literary “passages,” a ratio devised by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. I love the attention to nonfiction and increased reading across the disciplines; I’m all for increasing complexity. I worry that the mention of “passages” means a return to those oh-so-scientific SRA boxes of the 1960s, where we read from large cards, color- and type-size coded to reflect “increasing complexity,” each one printed with a “passage” appended with reading comprehension questions that taught us only how to game the test.
The success of the Common Core will be in the implementation, of course. As nonfiction author and genre expert Marc Aronson wrote to me, “I love the ELA CC Standards because while we have all long praised ‘critical thinking,’ these standards emphasize critical reading of nonfiction. Instead of asking students ‘what happened when?’ we will now be asking ‘why does this author claim that happened then, and how come that author sees it differently?’ I feel like I’ve died and gone to history heaven.” But Aronson also worries that time- and money-pressed schools will turn to prepackaged, Lexile-stamped, “Common Core Ready!” educational series and packages rather than using the truly Core-adhering books he and our other fine nonfiction authors create. I worry, too: whole language and multiculturalism and books-in-the-classroom all brought forth as many cynical publishing efforts as they did first-class books.
But here is where we are going to try to help. Next month will mark the debut of our new quarterly digital newsletter, at this point rather unimaginatively titled Nonfiction Notes from the Horn Book, a companion to our popular free monthly Notes from the Horn Book. Nonfiction Notes is also free and will highlight those new and recent nonfiction books that we believe truly speak to the Common Core’s “vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century.” Current subscribers to Notes will automatically be signed up for the new quarterly; stay tuned for more information as we have it.