Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Info Texts on Display

In my inspection of the Common Core Standards, I'm totally stuck on the Appendix B exemplars and the emphasis on informational texts. As a result, I'm ignoring all the wonderful ways in which the Common Core align with AASL's Standards for the 21st Century Learner. Check out a standards crosswalk here. Common Core IS good news for librarians!!

My initial reason for delving into the Common Core is really silly -- I just wanted to create a book display. I was hoping to give teachers examples and ideas of great high-interest non-fiction. Our English teachers were depressed by the idea of "informational texts," so I wanted to display some of the MANY great titles that I thought fell into the category in an attempt to cheer them up. Here's a little peak at my display:
Above: Informational texts display with "Common Core" Apples
Above: Informational texts display with high interest non-fiction

Now that I've spent loads of time with the Standards, do I still think these books are what the Common Core had in mind? Hummm...not so sure. Though, if I had my way, teachers and students would be selecting from these examples, rather than primary source documents written by dead, white men (minus the token Harriet Tubman biography) as suggested in the text exemplars.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Teaching Primary Source Documents in ELA: The best fit?

Above: A portion of my bookshelf
This is the second post in my series on the Common Core Standards. You can find the first one here

This is a picture of my bookshelf. I was going for optimism when I labeled my binder for the Common Core Standards. Hearts and smiley faces make everything better, right?

Actually, to be honest, I don't hate the standards. I know I was pretty harsh on the text exemplars in my last post, but the standards do have a lot going for them.

Even though English teachers in my building are dismayed (and the word dismayed isn't hyperbole), I'm excited about certain aspects of the standards, especially the focus on informational texts.

At some point, I promise I'll talk about the GOOD aspects of the standards, but first, I think some clarification is in order.

In my previous post, I implied that the text exemplars weren't a prescribed reading list, citing this from Appendix B: "They expressly do not represent a a partial or complete reading list" (2). I interpreted this to mean that "we" (the state? the district? the individual teacher?) could select any and all appropriate readings.

After further investigation, I think the quote from Appendix B is misleading. When you explore the supporting documents, you realize that some items from the text exemplars ARE a prescribed reading list (at least a partial one). For example, the document "Myths v. Facts About the Common Core Standards" says:

"In English-language arts, the Standards require certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America's Founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare" (1).

If you look at the standards themselves, you find examples like the following from the 9th grade ELA standards:

 "Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington's Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'), including how they address related themes and concepts" (RI.9-10.9).

And this, from the 11th-12th grade ELA standards:

"Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics" (RL.11-12.9).

From what I can tell, the REQUIRED content of "classic myths and stories from around the world" occurs at the K-8 level in the Standards, while the REQUIRED content of  "America's Founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare" occurs at the 9-12 level in the Standards. Keep in mind, though, that Appendix B exemplars include classic literature and seminal U.S. documents at MOST levels beyond the required content. 

So, some items from the text exemplars ARE prescribed.

Now that that's cleared up (?), let's look more closely at the ELA informational texts requirement and their focus on primary source documents.

Primary source documents are GREAT. I totally believe students should be using them to inform their research, but is an ELA classroom the best place to read primary source documents? The text exemplars in Appendix B list five informational ELA texts for Grades 6-8. Four of the five texts are primary source documents from American history (this includes a letter by John Adams, Frederick Douglass' narrative, Winston Churchill's address, and John Steinbeck's tour of America).

Does it really make sense to teach these primary source documents in an ELA classroom? ELA teachers can't possibly devote the necessary class time and energy needed to firmly ground the documents in their historical context. It's MUCH MORE LOGICAL to have students explore primary source documents in their Social Studies classrooms within the framework of an appropriate unit.

Oddly, the text exemplars don't suggest students read primary source informational texts in their History/Social Studies classroom. (Remember, Common Core Standards currently exist for ELA and Math -- other subject areas, like History, and Science are just supposed to "focus" on reading and writing within their subject areas, but are not given specific standards, though Common Core has provided text exemplars for these subject areas to indicate what kind of texts they're expected to include).

There are eight suggested texts in the 6th-8th grade History/Social Studies informational text strand, and out of these eight, only one (the Constitution's Preamble and the First Amendment) is a primary source document. The rest of the informational texts are well-chosen, modern, engaging accounts of history (Side note: where are the engaging, modern informational texts in the ELA exemplars?).

Why are the standards asking us to teach America History primary source documents in ELA and not in Social Studies? How does that make sense? Can anyone clarify this for me?

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Name Game: Library to Learning Commons. Is it worth the stress?

Lately, I've been thinking about names. What's the purpose of a name? Does a name really impact how something is viewed or perceived? More specifically, I'm contemplating name changes. When I got married a few years ago, changing my name wasn't a big deal. I know other brides agonize over losing their "identity" when dropping their maiden name, but for me it was a non-issue.

In stark contrast, the name change I'm contemplating now seems like a HUGE deal - though I wasn't expecting it to cause quite so much of a stir.

Our profession seems to undergo name changes on a pretty regular basis. In the first half of the twentieth century, people who did my job were "librarians." Then, in the 1970s, we became "media specialists," with the clarification of "school library" thrown in to reduce confusion. To be honest, I've always had trouble introducing myself as a "school library media specialist" -- it's a mouthful, and I'd rather have a title that's not ten syllables in length.

In recent memory, some in the profession began to adopt the title "teacher-librarian." This is a label I can get behind. In social settings, I always introduce myself as a teacher because that's what I do -- I teach, ALL DAY LONG. It's only when people ask, "and what do you teach?" that I add, "I'm a school librarian." Because I already consider myself a "school librarian" I have no issue with AASL's decision to officially change our title, though I would have been happy to also endorse "teacher-librarian."

From this:
To This?
Worth the stress?

In another arena, we're contemplating changing the name of our physical space, as we transition from a "library" to a "learning commons" model. We're already a learning commons in many ways:
  • Flexible physical space that changes during the day to accommodate individuals, small groups, and large groups
  • Multiple groups working simultaneouly
  • Quiet spaces for individuals and small groups
  • Spaces and resources for differentiated learning opportunities
  • Serves as a center for Web 2.0 tools
  • Showcases student work
  • Online 24 hour access to resources
And we'll be addressing these things in the next six months:
  • Wireless to allow for network access in the whole commons
  • Cultural center with live performances
  • Interactive OPAC
So if we're already doing all these things that make us a learning commons, why not change our name to reflect it? It sounded like a great idea to me, and so, with the rest of the district librarians, we began the process of changing our program names.

And then we hit a roadblock Or two. Or three.

It turns out, everyone didn't think the name change was a good idea. One concern, voiced by someone I respect, suggested that changing our name could potentially put our jobs at risk. Everyone knows the role of a "library," but they're far less familiar with a "learning commons." Board members, administration, and the public may have a much easier time eliminating something "superfluous" like a learning commons (what happens there, anyway?), than they'd have eliminating a library. The concerned individual also felt that the name learning commons suggested a space that could be staffed by whatever teacher happened to be using it at the time. It's a "commons," after all.

During our conversation, she wanted to know why it mattered. What was the purpose of changing our name? It's JUST a name. Couldn't we still do learning commons "things" and continue to call ourselves a library?

And I didn't have an answer. Does it matter? Is there a real reason to change our name?

But, after an hour of thinking on the elliptical, I decided that yes, there are some very concrete reasons to change the name, especially at the elementary level, where progress towards a learning commons model is much slower:
  • Changing the name is aspirational. It gives you something to strive for. If you're calling yourself a learning commons, you best be doing your darnedest to look, act, and operate like a learning commons. 
  • The new name provides guidance for administrators. When a librarian lobbies for changes, an administrator can easily Google "learning commons model" to see if the proposed changes align with the program goals.
  • Changing the name helps a library start-over. A new name means things are changing - the building population shouldn't expect the status quo. A  new name can excite your building and build momentum towards creating an environment that embraces a potentially different way of thinking.
Even though I've come with reasons as to why a name change matters, I'm still on the fence, especially because, for all practical purposes, we already are a learning commons.

Anyone out there changed their name from "library" to "learning commons?" Did you run into an resistance? Did concerns develop that you weren't anticipating?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The hunger to jump

"But there are some people, who don’t wait.

I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache.

Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked I just have to jump in and do it."

Will Richardson posted this quote on his blog. It's originally from Robert Krulwich of NPR.

And it PERFECTLY sums up how I feel on a daily basis.

Is it always a good thing? Nope - half the time it causes extra stress or frustration. I try hard to resist jumping at every opportunity. Sometimes I have to sit on my hands, unplug my keyboard, delete an already composed email, or force myself to walk away from an office door before knocking -- but more times than not, I can't resist - I send that email anyway or knock with reckless abandon.

And even when jumping causes a headache - I willingly sign up to do it again and again - because I'm addicted to those moments when jumping in results in something amazing.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, May 9, 2011

NY State SLMS Conference 2011: A reflection

On Friday I presented at the New York State SLMS conference, "Learning for Life." Many materials from the conference are available online through the conference wiki. If you'd like to access any of the resources I discussed in my Session II presentation, "Technology and Web 2.0: A Smorgasbord of Engagement Ideas," you can find them here.

Image from
It's always wonderful to leave a conference with great new ideas. These were my two highlights from this weekend:

Image from
  • Susan Cambell Bartoletti, author of They Called Themselves the KKK and Hitler Youth (among other things), spoke at Friday's lunch. Because I'm currently obsessing about the new Common Core Standards and their focus on "informational texts," I was DELIGHTED to listen to this non-fiction author speak about her work. Her presentation was insightful and funny, but it also did a wonderful job reminding me that non-fiction books can be incredibly engaging. English teachers -- don't despair! With authors like Susan Cambell Bartoletti, you'll have plenty of options for hooking your readers with informational texts.
  • Image from Library Journal
  • I also really enjoyed Buffy Hamilton's session "It's Time to Get Unquiet: Inviting Student Participation in Your School Library Media Program." Buffy is the "Unquiet Librarian" and works as a school library in Georgia. If you don't already follow her work in the field of school libraries, you should! She's a wealth of information and ideas. Buffy discussed a number of toolkit items, many of which we regularly use, including blogs, polls, and Google Forms. Although I'm familiar with all the technologies, she helped me think about using them in a new way that encourages student participation. I really need to work on giving stakeholders a bigger voice in the management of our library program, and focusing on participatory librarianship will force me to do so. As a result of her presentation, I've allowed students to comment on our library's Facebook page. I had previously disabled the commenting option, but doing so sacrifices a valuable opportunity for student participation. So, even though it still makes me nervous, I'm going to allow it. I also plan to post polls and surveys on the Facebook page to so I can get student opinions before making decisions.
Any other ideas for implimenting "participatory librarianship" as described by Buffy Hamilton? I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Weeding the Common Core Standards

Note: This is the first in a series of post where I investigate the new Common Core Standards and their impact on my school library.

Imagine walking into a middle school library and seeing a display with a prominent sign stating "Great Stories: Check them out!" Accompanying the sign are the following books:
  • Little Women
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Dark is Rising
  • Dragonwings
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
  • "The People Could Fly"
  • The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks
  • "Eleven"
  • Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad
What would you think? Maybe, "Boy, this library needs a good weeding!" or "Oh, this poor library doesn't have any money to buy new books!"

I certainly wouldn't be impressed. The average age of these titles is 1958, and the MOST RECENT of these books is nearly twenty years old.

These titles aren't an outdated display, but rather a list. A very important list: The grade 6-8 Text Exemplars for the new Common Core Standards. This list were compiled within in the last few years, even though it reads more like a list that was made decades ago.
Logo from the Common Core Standards

These ten titles are part of the "Stories" section and the samples "serve to exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with . . . The choice should serve as useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms" (2 Common Core Standards Appendix B).

After examining the list, and reading the above, my breathing was rapid and my pulse elevated. It wasn't until I got to the final line that I felt my panic decrease -- at least a little bit. The Appendix does point out that the exemplars "...expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list."

Even though it clearly states that the exemplars aren't a prescribed reading list, it still concerns me. How many schools will ignore that statement and use the exemplars (maybe due to lack of time?) as a foundation for their curriculum. It's scary.

Now, I understand the importance of the classics, but I also value engagement. How many 12 year old boys will be engaged by Little Women? Even more modern titles like A Wrinkle in Time and Dragonwings are dated. If kids aren't connecting with the text, there's very little hope that they'll find success when undertaking tasks that ask them to "summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain's novel . . . and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity..." (89 Common Core Standards Appendix B).

Appendix B does include information on the process of text selection. Educators were surveyed to ask which texts they've successfully used with a given age band, and then these were examined by a committee for appropriate text difficulty, complexity, and quality, in addition to "publication date, authorship, and subject matter" (2 Common Core Standards Appendix B).

When you consider all categories in the ELA 6-8 Text Exemplars, the average age of initial publication is 1930. I've always been dismayed by ELA classrooms where students suffer through a list of moldy canonical literature. As a librarian, I want students to LOVE READING, so it's upsetting when teachers don't seize the opportunity to expose their students to modern, relevant titles.

I'm even more dismayed by the Common Core Exemplars because I feel like my district currently does a WONDERFUL job of mixing old and new. Yes, our 8th graders read Anne Frank, but the curriculum is balanced with more modern titles like Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak or Twisted. I really, really hope the new standards and the exemplars don't mean we're going to give up all the progress we've made towards building a modern, relevant reading list in exchange for an outdated compilation of classics.

What do you think of the Text Exemplars for the Common Core Standards? Do all these older titles deserve a place on the list? Is the list an accurate representation of what's being taught in modern ELA classrooms?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Math Research in the Library

M + A - T / H x ME = ?!?

I'll admit it: I'm not a math fan. I suffered through Calc I and Statistics in college, but that was the limit of my tolerance for numbers. My brain just doesn't work that way.

Unfortunately, one of my goals this year was to collaborate with every department in the building. And that meant math. Even though I don't like it. Painful? You bet! Happily, for my own personal sanity, we came up with a collaborative project that I'm IN LOVE with. It checks all my boxes: it's relevant, it's engaging, and it utilizes technology.

Here's what we did:

I am working with an Algebra class that's a mix of 8th grade accelerated students and regular 9th grade students. And we're talking about bullying. Bullying? Math? Huh? Actually, it's a beautiful fit. My building, like most others across the country, is invested in preventing bullying. To get a clear picture of the problem in our building, administrators decided that we needed a survey. So we wrote one. Check it out here.

Our math students are now using the data collected in the survey to produce charts and analyze the results. This dovetails perfectly with their benchmarks, which require them to construct histograms and scatter plots. I'm learning ideas like "quantitative vs. qualitative" and "bivariate vs. univariate." We're utilizing Excel to organize the data and produce visual representations of the results. After completing the charts, the students will build a bulletin board to unveil the information to the rest of the building.

The kids are totally digging it because they're investigating THEIR PEERS and THEIR BUILDING. It's been interesting for them to see how their personal experiences compare with the population at large. As a librarian, I love it because:
  • The information is really relevant and timely
  • We get to talk about bias
  • We're introducing most of the kids to a technology they've never used before
  • It showcases math's application in the REAL WORLD
It's a great project for you to implement in your building. Pick a topic that's important, do a survey, and then have the kids analyze the results. It works for any math curriculum that involves statistics and could easily be done in elementary through high school libraries.

I won't bore you with all the survey results, but I do have to brag on one question: Students were asked to identify places where bullying is least likely to occur, and of all the options, the library came it near the very top. We think we're a safe, comfortable environment for a lot of kids, but it's nice to have that backed up by the data!