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These titles aren't an outdated display, but rather a list.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?


  1. I just composed the middle division summer reading list with another librarian, and we put A Wrinkle in Time under the "classics" section. Our summer reading is going to be faculty-advised, so we purposely included very few classics--we want the faculty to engage with newer YA and discuss it with their students. The books you're talking about make me sad!

  2. I'm sad, too!! I'm just starting to delve into the new standards, and they're already making me nervous. So far, it just feels like we're moving backwards . . . . Not the direction I want to go!

  3. I wasn't thrilled with the list either. Who wants to read Black Beauty in this day and age? My kids are urban...they don't even know what 4-H is. I read those books as a child but as an adult, you couldn't pay me to read some of them. As a librarian, I have begun to weed/not order the classics because too many of them are totally not relevant.

  4. I am appalled by the list!
    How will you go about finding contemporary exemplar texts?


  5. Darcy,

    I'm not worried about the contempoary exemplar texts for the literature portion. We're already doing great things with "modern" literature. In fact, next year all our 8th grade classes will have a reading workshop format where students are quiet independent in their selection of what they read. If I didn't work with such great English teachers who were ahead of the game, I'd be spending a lot of time with review sources and award lists and reading, reading, reading.

  6. You may have missed the part where it says sample or suggested list. I believe the point is that the text must be complex.

  7. This isn't a recommended reading list. It is a list of sample texts representative of the reading level expected at each grade level. Selecting "classics" is a good way to accomplish this, since most of us can draw upon our own experience with these works to instantly recognize the level of complexity expected in the standards.

  8. I wrote this post almost a year ago, and my opinions haven't changed, as I'm starting to see some of my fears actualized.

    I do realize the text exemplars are only suggestions - note above where I state, in bold, that the books "...expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list." I go on to say the books are not a "prescribed reading list." But, by providing exemplars, the CC is very much giving a "recommended" or "suggested" list of books.

    I don't buy the idea that a list of classics is offered because they serve as a common touchstone for most educators. I'm a well read junior high librarian, but I've never cracked open 8 of the 10 texts listed at the start of the post. Maybe educators over 30 have read more of them?

    The committee that put this list together had an obligation to select the very best texts - out of ALL YA literature. In selecting old classics, they took the easy way out. It would have been much more valuable for them to identify modern texts that meet CC standards for complexity - a more daunting endeavor. Show us what CONTEMPORARY complexity looks like.

    In my region of New York State, there's a push to develop Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) as part of teachers' Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPRs). Just last week, as we met to write SLOs, we were encouraged to use the text exemplars in developing assessments. Scary.