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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Key Shift in the CC Standards

Next week I am going to have the wonderful opportunity to speak with a great many New York City public school librarians 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.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    The idea of comparing “takes” on a subject is central to understanding history. I have written about this in my book HISTORY MAKERS, where I included a chapter called “Powerful Pairs, Triplets, and Quads,” which deals with comparing two, three, and four biographies of the same person. Fortunately for us, publishers continue to publish books that make these comparisons possible, educational and enjoyable. Take, for example, the number of recent books published about Amelia Earhart or Jane Goodall. This material is perfect for talking about how different authors create different biographical accounts. Whatever we call this–back to back books or powerful pairs–this is great stuff. In my experience, kids love to do it. It makes them the “powerful” ones because they have the opportunity to make discoveries. I wholeheartedly support this approach.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    perfect, thanks

  3. Sharon Grover says:

    One of the things that’s so intriguing to me about the Common Core is the emphasis on informational texts as literature, even to the point of encouraging making those comparisons of a given subject between an informational text and a fictional text. It’s exciting to have the focus return to critical thinking and away from rote learning.

    Let us know how your talk goes with the librarians.

  4. Dr. Aronson! Today, you spoke at Davis Drive Middle School and your story of how sugar changed the world blew my mind!!! It was phenomenal. I purchased the book from our PTA. It was a pleasure meeting you. I am the Guidance Counselor that introduced myself after you spoke to the 8th grade. I plan on follow your Glog and looking more into Guys Read. Have a safe trip home. Cheers.

  5. Janelle Bolstad says:

    CC is hitting our district like a ton of bricks. It is our first year to implement the new CC objectives. Adding to what teachers have always included but now it needs to be to the next degree. Comparing and contrasting non-fiction books is great, but this would have to be taught at an early age if we are going to create thinkers outside the box. The CC will be good for our students but, the learning curve of the new expectations will take a while to perfect. I just hope this doesn’t change again in the next five years to comething else. We are always changing things that truly aren’t broken in the education system.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    will do, thanks

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    thanks, I enjoyed chatting at dinner

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    yes that is exactly the problem, if CC is just another flavor of the month