Don’t Fear the Core!

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by Sean McCollum

In the last decade, the Common Core State Standards have been both a source of anticipation and hand-wringing among parents, educators, and yes, writers for children. As a long-time freelance writer of children’s nonfiction and educational content—and a HUGE lifelong fan of children’s literature in general—I want to go on record that CCSS offers some cool opportunities for upgrading the curriculum in many school districts. And young readers and children’s writers stand to benefit, as well.

The Common Core State Standards are exactly that—standards. Teams of experts and educators developed grade-level benchmarks for what kids are expected to learn and skills (like effective writing!) they are expected to have developed in core subject areas. The standards are targets for schools, teachers, and students to aim for in terms of knowledge and skills. There are valid criticisms, in my opinion, that classroom teachers themselves were not as involved in the process as might seem sensible, and that some of the standards are overly ambitious. However, the adoption of CCSS moved the U.S.—or at least the 42 states that adopted the initiative—toward a shared vision of what a quality, well-rounded education looks like.

As with all big initiatives, Common Core has its significant faults. For one, I think it places too much emphasis on college-prep and neglects students whose learning styles are not well-served in the traditional classroom. Secondly, CCSS quickly got co-opted by the testing industry that saw dollar signs first and student development significantly lower on the balance sheet. The conflating of CCSS with high-stakes testing has been one of the biggest misconceptions about Common Core, and I hope school districts will take a stand and emphasize genuine learning over test scores. I’m also hopeful that some of these shortcomings will be tweaked, revised, and even abandoned wholesale in the years to come. (To see a send-up of anti-Common Core attitudes, check out the Funny or Die video here.)

What’s intriguing for children’s writers is the emphasis the Common Core curriculum places on reading. Students are called on to study more nonfiction and primary source documents related to social studies and science. That will leave less time for creative literature, a shift that has upset its fair share of English teachers. At the same time, if you drill down through the standards you will find much-needed emphasis on critical-reading and critical-thinking skills; students are not just taught to recount the plot or make a judgment of whether or not they liked the book, but to back up their reasoning with textual details and evidence. For those of us who have been paying attention to current election cycle, these are definitely skills that could use some refinement.

Good writing for young people will never go out of style, and will always have a place in our schools and in children’s hands. Historical fiction like the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis and the upcoming nonfiction narrative history series Lost by Tod Olson are just two exciting examples of children’s lit that land in the sweet spot of the Common Core. Telling a good story is still the essential ingredient in writing for kids, and I see no evidence that CCSS is an obstacle to that. Rather, I believe it opens new avenues for a wider-variety of quality books and articles to touch the minds of well-taught readers.


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