Next week I am going to have the wonderful opportunity to speak with a great many New York City public school librarians http://11libraryservicesfallconference.wikispaces.com/ about the new Common Core standards. I’ve been working on my talk, and last night Maryann Cappiello was generous enough to review my power point and help be get it all into shape. As we discussed the talk, she said something that crystalized to me the entire shift taking place now in classrooms and libraries — and thus in the minds of publishers, editors, and authors. In the past, selecting nonfiction books for K-12 was a matter of matching content. Thus savvy publishers, engaged librarians, and, of course, classroom teachers, needed to know their scope and sequence cold. A typical “advice to the prospective author” website would urge the tyro nonfiction author to carefully select only those topics and approaches that fit the grade at which that subject was mandated by a large state.
I personally did not heed those boundaries, but they did undergird decisions for, say, nonfiction series where subject, Lexile, treatment were all precisely fitted into state standards. But now that has changed. The CC standards focus on approach, engagement, and understanding, not topic. As Maryann said, that is a more “writerly” approach — it is thinking more about how a book tackles a subject that which person or event blares out in the title and cover image. The standards track the evolving skills students gain in reading nonfiction texts, identifying details, tracing arguments, winkling out first cause and effect and then point of view, and then comparing these matters of treatment across media. Now, rumor has it, clever schools will find ways to map these reading skills on to the old, familiar, scope and sequence. But the shift in emphasis is real.
For example, from quite early on, students are urged to pair and compare books on the same subject. If you needed to know a date or find a paragraph to summarize, there would be no reason to do that. But if you are looking at an author’s choices — why he chose that statement, that phrase, that opening incident, that pairing of image and text, and not the ones used in the other book — then you are no longer looking for discrete facts or a handy precis. You are not even looking for right and wrong — as, for example, you would not be if the class read two poems, or two novels, on similar themes. Students are not out to nail one author for being wrong — though doubtless they will find our flaws, and more power to them — they are seeing a style, a mode of thinking, an approach behind nonfiction. And, of course, this is designed to help them find their own voices as authors, thinkers, investigators. We have long had the “for and against” books, but perhaps now publishers will need to publish “back to back” books — not two different ideologies, but two different “takes” on a subject. What fun.