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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Common Core Compliance — Real and Fake

I gave another Common Core professional development talk yesterday, this time to some 100 folks, mainly middle school ELA teachers, some Social Studies teachers, some librarians, even some Special Ed instructors. The day taught me a lot. For those of you who have not really delved into CC, there is one term you need to know: point-of-view. In the past this was a negative in NF for K-12, where the god was “objectivity,” being “reliable” or in that famous kiss of death, “good for reports.” If a book was “gfr” that meant it was not very interesting, not very eye-catching, not troublesome yet useful — safely bland. From 5th grade on, the CC insists that students treat Social Studies, Language Arts, Science, even Math as the lands of debate, discussion, evidence, analysis and most of all POV. The CC insists that our students can catch knowledge on the fly, in formation, taking shape — they can swim with sharks of POV.

Yesterday I asked the attendees to try an experiment — we grouped them as teachers and librarians together, and then asked them to create clusters around a topic. That is to take some beat in their regular scope and sequence and find materials — books, yes, but also newspaper articles, documentaries, websites, youtubes — that took clearly clashing POVs on that subject. Was Columbus a hero or a genocidal maniac? Why did King Tut die? Is global warming a real issue or a liberal lie? These clusters worked well. Some clusters showed the gaps in our literature for young people — even though it is easy to find photos of segregationists who opposed Dr. King, or famous speeches such as Gov. Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation forever” classic, it is not at all easy to find memoirs, novels, interviews that make that strongly held view personal — we have swept it under the rug. The same with the Holocaust, where Hitler Youth was really the only source that quickly came to mind to create a cluster that was more than “voices of the dead.” I hurry to add that no one is trying to “balance” Dr. King with Gov. Wallace and treat them as equal — but to understand that moment as it really was, we need to hear resistance just as much as idealism.
I strongly suggest that anyone who reads this blog start to think of clusters around the standard areas in the curriculum — not a good book on X, but what is the conversation, the clash of materials, that can engage students in the conflicting views on X.

One wonderful teacher told me that he was thrilled at this focus on POV and debate because just this year, after 11 years teaching in middle school, he had written up a list of his strengths and weaknesses, showed it to his students, and asked how they thought the class could be improved. They asked for…more debate and discussion. But I also heard from a number of attendees about false compliance with the CC — that teachers and even administrators are trying to find ways to shoehorn what they have been doing for years into CC just by giving new labels to old bottles. Instead of questioning how to meet the essence of CC, they try to find the faintest resemblance between what they did yesterday and what the CC demands. This false compliance may work for the moment — and I have heard the same thing in other school districts — but in 2014 we will have CC assessments — and there the new labels will be useless. So anyone planning to retire next year can, I suppose, get away with this slight of hand, but boy I would not recommend it as a long term strategy — neither for the kids it robs of real thinking nor even for the teachers themselves.

On my way home, I got a call from yet another publisher trying to figure out the CC — friends this is happening, get on board.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Last night my grad class in Teaching History Through Children’s Literature discussed a “cluster” of items about Jane Goodall. They had read two short children’s biographies, viewed several videos about her and including her, and had read related articles about her. They were especially impressed by listening to the authors of the children’s books talk about the work they did constructing their books. They never knew how complex the decision making is for authors and illustrators and they were surprised by the complexity. So…all of this conversation about clusters of material is exciting because it will help us bring this complexity into the classroom and unpack it for all of us. Right now I am thinking about two questions: First, what are some productive mixes of clusters? Second, how should we respond to the gaps in historical information?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    we are inventing this cluster concept on the fly so we don’t yet know what will or will not be a productive cluster, or what productive means, since we need to see teachers and librarians develop assignments and assessments to go with them. As to gaps, one place to start is the databases that many school libraries already own — so articles culled from newspapers or magazines may well add voices not as visible in books — same with documentaries, songs, websites — all of which fit the CC interest in learning across media. But of course this requires the librarian to know what she has, or how to find what she needs. And, as Betty Carter told my Rutgers NF class — it also means librarians who, say, only have books from one POV, but learn of another that features a different POV, need to make a case for the budget to get the missing books, and then demonstrate to administrators how the books were used and why they were valuable.

  3. Sue Bartle says:

    On my way home from dropping Marc at the airport I had to stop and shop.
    Thinking about the clusters as I shopped I stopped in the coffee aisle.
    A good analogy for clustering:
    Type – Coffee – Regular or Decaf
    Type – Fiction or Nonfiction
    Container – Coffee – K-cup, Tin, Pouch
    Container – Fiction or Nonfiction – Print or Nonprint
    Form – Coffee – Whole Bean, Regular Grind, Fine Grind
    Form – Fiction or Nonfiction – Books, eBooks, journals, narratives, articles, blogs, wikis, glogsters, prizis, poems etc…
    Variety/Flavor/Genre – Coffee – French Vanilla, Hazelnut, Irish Cream
    Variety/Flavor/Genre – Fiction – Mystery, Fantasy, Historic, Realistic
    Nonfiction – you have narratives and biographies etc but I still see these as types.
    We could talk about the subject areas but then you still need to drill down into them for variety/flavor/genre of NF.

    Marc and I discussed going deeper into nonfiction to give everyone a better understanding – we need genres or something to identify and distinguish nonfiction in a better manner. (flavor or variety?? – not sure)
    We definitely need a POV identifier for nonfiction. I think we could recognize other identifiers in NF as well. What should they be? Where does text structure fit in here? Productive mixes of clusters? not totally sure yet but – I plan to write up the clusters discussed yesterday in the workshop and will share them with Myra and Marc for more development and discussion.

    I belief this is extremely interesting because Myra has the student viewpoint of the cluster and we bring the teacher/librarian viewpoint of the cluster development.
    Both will be beneficial to bring clustering forward.
    We need to work on this together to bring about the CC shift and ways to unpack this in instruction to our students. As I left the coffee aisle I could smell the opportunity and I believe eventually with more discussions and collaborations we will be able to taste the success. Now, I need a latte – decaf of course!

  4. Jeff Kresge says:


    I was in attendance at your session on Tuesday and was the person working on the civil rights cluster. First off, I wanted to say thank you so very much for giving us the inspiration on how to attack the Common Core from a social studies perspective. Unfortunately, we are often an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.

    I am currently developing my unit on the 1920s in the U.S., a perfect topic for clustering with the Harlem Renaissance, prohibition, jazz, changing roles of women, and explosion of literature and media, et cetera. My intention is to provide many examples of works and have the students wrestle with the purpose of the work as well as what it tells us about the 20s as a whole. I’m hoping to elicit a wide range of results in my grade 8 classroom that can then lead to a discussion that ties into your other point – that true history is unsolved and can change based upon the data provided and the interpretation of that data.

    I’m fully on board and looking forward to infusing this into other areas of study as well, but I have this question lingering in the back of my mind – How will these skills be tested? We know that teachers will be evaluated in many states based in no small part on test performance. How can someone reliably test results from education such as this? Should we care, or should we do what many of us have always done, which is to teach in a way we feel is best for the whole of a child’s well being and hope this translates a pen-and-paper test?

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    I enjoyed your comments and the work of your cluster group. We are in a bit of a limbo period in assessments, since the Social Studies Common Core tests are not due until 2014. So in one way, you have room to experiment. But in another you don’t know what the end point will be. Your approach is so right it cannot hurt your students (and thus your rating) but I don’t know enough yet to be able to say what would be ideal. I will pass along what I learn. For the 20s make sure to use Harlem Stomp by Laban Carrick Hill as one resource, and of course there is the music of the time — many people have used the tempo of the 20s as a contrast to the past and as an index of the speeded up moment — might be interesting to have kids try some of the dances of the age, versus the dances of the pre-wwI era, just to feel in their bodies the change in speed and mood.