“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”

Following a post called “NYT Bestsellers So White?” by margaret11smith, two of our Politics of Reading classmates recently discussed Common Core Text Exemplars in our class with respect to their lack of diversity compared to the demographics of the United States, particularly the rising numbers of nonwhite school-age children.  They also discussed the fact that many of the texts on the list are quite old: the majority of them were written more than fifty years ago, and many are much older than that.

The original Common Core English-language Arts Work Group members list published in 2009 showed a surprising number of standardized test company representatives:  fully half  of them were employees of either ACT, Inc. or The College Board (SAT, AP, CLEP, etc.).  (Make of that what you will.)  The English-language Arts Feedback Group, comprised largely of college professors, was formed to “play an advisory role” to the Work Group, “not a decision-making role in the process” of constructing Common Core State Standards.

Perhaps the standardized test reps and the college professors have not worked with actual children and actual books in the field in a very long time, and are simply unfamiliar with quality books that better represent the diversity of the world we live in and that are available currently?

There is a caveat that introduces the list that disavows its use as a recommended reading list:

“The following text samples primarily serve to exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with. Additionally, they are suggestive of the breadth of texts that students should encounter in the text types required by the Standards. The choices should serve as useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms. They expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list.”

Nevertheless, that is precisely what the exemplary text list gets used as–a recommended reading list.  The 2010 English Language Arts Work Team contains many more actual school teachers, though, who presumably work with children and books, so what accounts for the age of most of the “exemplary texts”?  From my perspective as someone who has worked for years in an elementary school library and in a public library, many teachers are not aware of the most current books–unfortunately, but also understandably.  Teachers are very busy, and most do not have the time to read many children’s books (unless they are picture books in a library or bookstore, which are very short and easy to read in a few minutes).  That means they tend to use books they are already familiar with, or that are on recommended reading lists.  A number of the teachers in my school showed up in the library after Common Core Standards were adopted, anxious and with precisely this list in hand, and asked for these books–just those books, exactly those books, not ones of “similar complexity, quality, and range.”

It is time-consuming to keep up with current children’s and young adult literature.  I read many dozens of new books every year, and even more book reviews.  I discuss the books with librarians, professional reviewers, authors, booksellers, bloggers, children, and parents. I am more than happy to provide readers’ advisory services to anyone.  And yet, the year that I was responsible for updating the recommended summer reading lists by grade level for all the elementary schools in my district, I was faced with an immediate restriction:  each grade-level list could only be as long as a single sheet of paper that would be printed out and sent home in children’s backpacks.  That meant for every newer book I put on the list, an older, classic one had to be taken off–one remembered and beloved by parents, teachers, and librarians alike.  How do you decide?

In addition, even if the newer book was critically acclaimed and award-winning and wildly popular and filled a much-needed niche, if that book was not in the majority of the school libraries in our district, it couldn’t go on the list.  Time and again, I was surprised at what various schools in our district didn’t have in their libraries.  Library books are not purchased at the district level in our school system: individual school librarians buy books for their libraries according to their needs and tastes.  Some need to focus their budget dollars in particular collection development areas.

So for every The Crossover (Kwame Alexander), Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Grace Lin) (which did make it to the Common Core list), One Crazy Summer (Rita Williams-Garcia) or Esperanza Rising (Pam Muñoz Ryan) that makes it onto the general recommended reading list, there are at least half a dozen books that are thirty years old or more that remain.  That is how you end up with a list like the Common Core Exemplar Texts:  Tradition. Nostalgia. Canon. Inertia.  No one could ever seriously claim that Esther Averill’s The Fire Cat is an undying example of children’s literature, and that nothing has been written that’s better since it was published in 1960, but it’s on that Common Core Text Exemplars list.

firecat

It’s a lot of responsibility to represent a pillar of society (education) in producing a list that many people apparently regard as “the last word.”  I would have liked to have been able to take the easy way out myself, and claim that the list I was in charge of only represented examples of quality.  I felt a little like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz who claimed to be the Great and Powerful Oz, watching parents so seriously consulting their copies of the schools’ recommended reading list, dutifully searching for those books that had the full weight and authority of the school district behind it.  Sometimes, when those recommended books were all checked out (because they were on The List), I offered parents alternate suggestions that I knew full well were just as good, but almost invariably I was politely turned down because they wanted only the ones on The List.  Worse yet, I felt deeply reluctant to ever admit I was the one ultimately responsible for that year’s list (even though it was a perfectly good list, at least as good as the year before and the year after)–because The List had taken on a life and authority and conclusiveness of its own.

There’s always someone behind the curtain.

manbehindcurtain

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6 Responses to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”

  1. claire.s says:

    Juniperonjupiter, thanks so much for this post, I really enjoyed reading it. It was eye opening to read about these so highly regarded reading lists from the perspective of someone who has been in charge of making them. I’m sorry to hear about the immense pressure it seems that was put on you in making summer reading lists because of how strictly parents and students were likely to stick to them. I love how to phrased it — that the list had taken on a life of its own. The fact that both the students’ teachers and parents, in your experience, were so married to the idea of adhere precisely to the common core or summer reading lists is concerning. How limiting for the students! Each student is different and is going to relate better and get more excited about certain authors and books. What if that special set of books for one student isn’t on the list? Will they miss the opportunity to have access to the books that are going to make THEM fall in love with reading? Like you said, no one could claim that no literature equal or better than The Fire Cat has been written since 1960. If we continue to be so caught up in “The List” we are completely scaling down the scope of amazing children’s literature out there. I am wondering if you perhaps had a better experience when advising students one on one with reading recommendations?

    Also, common core has got to be aware of how much teachers stick to their lists despite the caveat that you quoted. Seeing how much these lists truly define the books that students are presented with makes the effort to get more diverse books in common core standards all that much more important. Again, thanks so much for your post, it really supplemented our class discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. juniperonjupiter says:

    Claire.s, thank you and Caitlin so much for presenting the discussion in class! You guys did a great job and inspired me to write this post. I talked to a coworker who used to be a high school librarian in the same school district about this issue today, who wrote “The List” for our district high schools one year. He has witnessed the same parental adherence to the recommended reading lists, and thinks it is because, as he puts it, parents can be a “little intense” about their children’s education in this school district, which has a reputation for excellence within the state. He thinks some parents believe that if their children don’t read those recommended books they won’t have a successful school career–which is just sad.

    You are exactly right: I do believe it is limiting to try to stick so rigidly to a list. Recommended lists are a good starting point, but as you said, each student is different and what lights up one’s imagination is not necessarily the same as what will ignite another’s. I do prefer to talk with kids, finding out what they have read before and loved, or disliked, before recommending something for them. It takes more time, but it is more tailored to them as individuals. There are so many good books (and truthfully, a lot of bad ones); and it is the goal of most children’s librarians, I think, to get the right book in the hands of the right child at the right time, to foster a lifelong love of reading.

    It is interesting to me that the Common Core people use such very old text exemplars, though. I wonder if they are playing it safe with such traditional choices–and by claiming their “exemplary” list is not really a recommended reading list (talk about word games)–so as not to be accused of playing politics one way or another, with newer selections.

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  3. Annie R says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective! It was a very interesting and enlightening extension of our presentation. When MaryKate and I were researching the diversity of Common Core recommended texts, many of the blogs we read recommended diverse and contemporary alternatives to the books, but offered no ways in which to obtain them. It is very easy to argue that schools need more diverse books and teachers should deviate from the Common Core list, but in reality there are no simple or easy solutions. As you said, “teachers are very busy and do not have time to read many children’s books.” I think this points to bigger problem in public education. Teachers are not being given the time nor the opportunities to develop their lesson plans and skills as teachers within the context of their diverse classes. Instead, they must rely on traditional texts. Many times teachers have neither the time nor the means to develop their own reading list that represents the diversity they see in their classroom. I found your insight on summer reading lists incredibly interesting as well. I was surprised to learn that if a book was not in the majority of school libraries in the district, it could not go on the reading list. I wonder if this has more to do with the budget that individual school librarians have access to, or the pervading acceptance of traditional texts. With the signing of ESSA and the Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program, which will promote literacy programs and develop effective school library programs, I wonder if we will see a shift to more diverse books in school libraries or if the program will simply encourage a continuation of older, white male dominated texts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • juniperonjupiter says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Annie R! You and MaryKate started us all off on this discussion of Common Core texts, along with margaret11smith, so thank you for that, as well. It’s been a great and evolving discussion.

      I should probably amend my statement that if the majority of school libraries in the district don’t carry a book, it CAN’T make it onto the recommended summer reading list, to that it is highly unlikely to–because the list represents a consensus of the recommendations of all those libraries. Some school libraries might need to replace a large number of aging nonfiction books that are no longer considered correct; or might need to purchase a substantial number of foreign language books if the school is dual language, for instance; or the curriculum might change, and teachers may ask for more books in a particular area. What needs to be purchased varies, which has an impact on what a school library can afford to purchase otherwise. I do hope that school and other librarians consciously take on the mission of finding and purchasing many more diverse books though.

      A recommended summer reading list is a good place for children and their parents to start, but it shouldn’t be the sum of their reading. Hopefully a list will contain a balance of classics and newer titles; but any list is prone to omissions, biases, and restrictions that may never get mentioned. So take them with a grain of salt!

      I talked to my now-retired former boss about the Common Core Text Exemplars, and she responded: “What disturbed us as librarians was not that the exemplar list was created, but that it didn’t have input from librarians. And that touches on a further topic: librarians versus reading teachers with their leveled texts! Don’t get me started.” Lol.

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