Sunday, December 30, 2012

[Review] "Each Kindness" by Jacqueline Woodson

If there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not deter or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again. ~ William Penn

William Penn's words nicely convey the theme of Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, and illustrated by E.B. Lewis. Woodson says essentially this on her website about why she wrote Each Kindness

At some point in our lives, we are all unkind. At some point, we are all treated unkindly. I wanted to understand this more. I think too often we believe we’ll have a second chance at kindness – and sometimes we don’t.   

This lyrically written picture book tells the story of Maya, a new girl at school, whom Ms. Albert, the teacher sits next to our first-person narrator, Chloe. Now Chloe must decide whether or not to treat Maya with kindness, to treat Maya as a friend.  Chloe has many opportunities to choose kindness in the classroom, on the playground, at lunch. 

It's the choices Chloe makes and that she describes that leads to the realization that we don't always have a second, third, fourth chance to be kind. 

In this important work, Chloe has agency. Maya does not. She is the equivalent of a marginalize other, one without a voice. For the reader never hears from Maya. We only learn what she must feel through Chloe's filter. 

Typically, picture books and children's literature in general holds little appeal for me. The offerings today have a much different feel than the Little Golden Books on which I cut my reading teeth. Each Kindness is among the most significant picture books I have read, and it's a book I can see finding a place in any classroom, even on the shelves in my classroom where seniors will indulge in its lyrical truths. It's a book I'll pull from the shelf and share when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird or Kindred or any work of literature with similar themes. It's a book I'll invite students to read when I witness someone not choosing kindness. 

Awards: Best Book of 2012, School Library Journal
Nerdie: Best Picture Book of 2012, The Nerdy Book Club

Meet the Author:

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Getting to know Students Who "Hate Reading" Using Multigenre Reading Autobiographies

Like scraping fingernails on a chalkboard, hearing a student chant, "I hate reading" or its variant "I haven't read a book since seventh grade" sends chills down our spines and literally breaks our book-loving hearts.

How did this tragedy happen? More importantly, what can we do about it?

Increasingly, I offer students choice in the texts they read, and as I have written in this space, I have some reservations about the trade offs. Nevertheless, I have one class of seniors this trimester in which I'm giving an unprecedented reading choice opportunity.

But first, I wanted to get to know my students as readers so that I could better direct their reading choices and help the most reluctant readers find books. For this, I use a project from William Kist's The Socially Networked Classroom (Corwin 2010).

The project begins with students responding to a questionnaire, which is in the book and offered here via google docs.

Here is a portion of one student's responses to the questionnaire:

6. I never pretended to read as a child. I started to read when I was in first grade. 
8. Whenever I would read aloud, I had a stutter.
9. I prefer teen romance.
12. We were more able to afford books that came with tapes, so I was able to read or follow along.
13. I never was subscribed to a magazine, but my father would get Reader’s Digest.
14. My parents were never in a book club, but they had a small library of books and read often.
17. My parents really influenced me to read. They read to me every night to help me.
21. I always read the Junie B. Jones series in elementary.
26. I always liked to check out scary stories and read them during A.R.
27. The first book I loved what called The Bad Beginning.
31. When I read the Great Gaspy, it was very difficult to understand, but when I finished, I felt accomplished.
35. My religion reads the scriptures a lot which it has helped me improve.
38. I read the Unfortunate Events series when I was young. I love to read books that have the character have great challenges.
39.  I was required to read The Book Thief in high school, and I loved it from beginning to end.
40. My favorite book when I was young was Harry Potter. My favorite book that I read as a young adult is The Hour Glass Door.
41. I read the Hunger Games before it came out on film.
44. My father has really influenced me on reading. He is constantly reading and tells me the adventures that his story is going through.
45.  I know I understand a lot more vocabulary than a lot of teenagers do because of my reading habits.
46. Yes, I am currently reading.
49. I am reading the fifth Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix. 

       From this student's responses, I know she is a reader. I also learned that given a choice, she'll pick a "easy" read, Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix, over a more challenging classic text. Thus, my challenge is to help her find joy in choosing to read classics, which she enjoys reading as assigned texts.  

     Other students describe their struggles with reading and, sadly, how much they hated reading in middle school. I resounding theme for many is the constraints imposed on them by Accelerated Reader. 

Once students complete the questionnaire, they move on to the multigenre project. Some take a rather less is more approach and create a Prezi that groups their reading choices. Others, like Brigham, offer much detail about their reading choices. Here is Brigham's Prezi:                                                             

Once students begin speaking about their reading lives and sharing their reading experiences, which we do in a very informal way, I often hear other students commenting about also having read a particular book or series. Many students have read Lemony Snicket but aren't aware that he is Daniel Handler. That gives me the opportunity to introduce them to Why We Broke Up, a book I'm sure Marissa, whose questionnaire appears above, would like.

Through their projects, students open the book on their lives and tell me stories about how they game the AR system and how teachers wouldn't allow them to choose their own books, ironically as part of a program that's, at least theoretically, based on choice. I find myself defending the teachers who have no choice but to limit student choice. Kids often don't know this. 

We meander through the presentations, taking our time to share book titles and get to know one another through our talk about books. 

But before the questionnaire and the multigenre project, I share with students my project, which I created using Animoto:

The Multigenre Reading Autobiography project set the scene for my trimester of experimentation and increased reading choice, the plan for which I'll describe in my next post.

Feel free to create your own Reading Autobiography and share it in the comment section, and thanks for taking the time to read. I know you have a towering TBR book pile, too.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

An Allegorical Christmas Story, "The Singer" Excerpt

My friend Martha Lively posted a portion of Calvin Miller's retelling of the biblical Christmas story from The Singer over on her blog, Sharing Air. I first encountered Miller's powerful allegory in college. Reading Martha's post this morning, I found the allegory just as powerful all these years later and think it's a fitting reminder that the holidays hold a plethora of personal meaning for each individual.

May your day be happy, bright, and filled with meaningful stories. Thank you for spending part of your valuable time here with me.

from The Singer by Calvin Miller

The Father and his Troubadour sat down upon the outer rim of space.  "And here, My Singer," said Earthmaker,  "is the crown of all my endless skies—the green, brown sphere of all my hopes." He reached and took the round new planet down and held it to his ear. "They're crying, Troubadour," he said. "They cry so hopelessly." He gave the little ball unto his Son, who also held it by His ear.

"Year after weary year they all keep crying. They seem born to weep then die. Our new man taught them crying in the fall. It is a peaceless globe. Some are sincere in desperate desire to see her freed of her absurdity, but war is here. Men die in conflict, bathed in blood and greed."  Then with his nail he scraped the atmosphere and both of them beheld the planet bleed.


Earthmaker set earth spinning on its way
And said, "Give me your vast infinity
My son; I'll wrap it in a bit of clay.
Then enter Terra microscopically
To love the little souls who weep away
Their lives." "I will," I said, "set Terra free."

And then I fell asleep and all awareness fled.
I felt my very being shrinking down.
My vastness ebbed away. In dwindling dread,
All size decayed. The universe around
Drew back. I woke upon a tiny bed
Of straw in one of Terra's smaller towns.

And now the great reduction has begun:
Earthmaker and his Troubadour are one.
And here's the new redeeming melody—
The only song that can set Terra free.

The Shrine of older days must be laid by.
Mankind must see Earthmaker left the sky,
And he is with us. They must concede that I am he.
They must believe the Song or die.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Make It New: Staying Motivated Through It All

While cruising Facebook this afternoon, I saw a query on the Edutopia stream, posed by Michelle, a preservice teacher: 

The education field is not always what is envisioned when we are in college. As educators, how to do you stay motivated through the politics, paperwork, behavior problems, lack of parental involvement, and more?

For sure, finding the motivation to carry on at this time of year is difficult. I often wander if my utopian memories of college are more fact or fiction. 

As idealistic, new teachers, most of us envision ourselves saving the world. Perhaps we want to right the wrongs we observed among some of our own teachers. More likely, we desire to make a difference in the lives of students the way a special teacher did in our own. 

My personal role models are still my high school debate coach Nydia May Jenkins, whose "oh yes you can do it" mantra still guides my philosophy of student learning, and Dr, Bob Derryberry, who actually gave me money to talk! Read: compete in forensics. 

Both teachers took the time to know me as both a person and a student. 

Those who have responded to Michelle's question have offered some semblance of both Miss J's and Dr. D's teaching model: Focus on the students. Focus on the reason you entered the profession to begin with.
 I, too, offered a response to Michelle: 

Make it new: Find something new to celebrate each day. Find something new to learn. Remember the so-called "new" in education is often recycled from another era, and it too shall pass. For example, today a student presented a speech on narcolepsy. Of the 200,000 narcoleptics in the world, one is my student. How novel and interesting is that! That's definitely a new one for me in my 32nd year of teaching.

Indeed, the Modernist philosophy "Make It New" saves me from the rut too many teachers find themselves entrenched in. For better, teaching long term requires a constant reinventing of oneself. I seek to do this in a number of ways:

1. Read professional literature. I'm currently reading Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture by Diana Senechel  Regardless of whether or not I walk away from the book agreeing or disagreeing with the author, the book, as with all the professional reading I do, will help me clarify my own positions and reassess my teaching methods. 

2. Develop a "That which does not destroy me only makes me stronger" philosophy: I've had some rough years in my long career. I should probably write more about these struggles, but I don't want to relive the bad times for fear the negative thoughts, although cathartic, will make me too emotional in the present. 

That said, I have an ability to persevere and survive. Rather than seeking a way out, I look for a way through difficult times. For example, I had a principal from 1992-2004 whom I consider the embodiment of all that is wrong in education. During his tenure, I earned National Board Teaching Certification, and I did it without one word of praise or encouragement from him. I refused to allow this man to define me as either a person or a teacher. I drew strength from previous administrators, from my colleagues, from my family and friends, and from my own efforts to learn and improve. 

3. Know that you are not alone, so Pay It Forward: Each year ushers in a new cadre of teachers who need a professional community. These teachers value the collegiality of their more seasoned colleagues. Help them find meaningful professional development opportunities, from brief conversations about best practices to conferences to online collaborations. All of these have helped me "Make It New" immensely in recent years. These opportunities keep my teaching practice fresh, something I thought about today as I shared with students the memory of a student who hid my grade book from me back in the pre-computer days of my career, back in the days of hand-written grade cards, back in the day of manually tallying points on an abacus (JK) at grade card time. 

Often the new teacher is an experienced colleague moving from middle school to high school. A former colleague reminded me of this Sunday when we ran into each other out in town. My colleague introduced me to her sister as someone who "saved me my first year at Highland by giving me tons of materials." Honestly, I don't remember being so instrumental in my former colleague's survival that year, but I value her acknowledgment. 

4. Look to yourself for motivation rather than to external forces: Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us offers essential truths about motivation: It comes from within. More often than not, teachers see the incremental results of our efforts. Sometimes we must wait years to learn the true impact of our role in students' lives, if we learn it at all. We can't look to external rewards to sustain us in this profession. Ours is a profession far more important and meaningful. 

Yet there are times when a student writes a note, sends a letter, or gives the teacher an apple. Mine was a tasty carmel one yesterday from a student who endured the grueling Communication 1101 dual enrollment course I teach as well as senior English with me last trimester. Savor those moments, and remember that the inevitable dry spells will taste even better when you get that apple. 

Clearly, there is much to say on this issue of remaining motivated and negotiating the teaching profession. I realize wiser voices than mine have offered insights. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and discovering how we each Make It New in the coming new year. 

Me w/ former colleague Marv McCall who welcomed me to Highland years ago.
We recently had a moment to visit at the Festival of Trees teacher appreciation reception.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Not to Wear to School: A Visual Reminder

The teacher in me loves the allusion to TLC's reality show "What Not to Wear."

My female voice that prefers modest and professional attire appreciates the specificity of these images.

Every classroom, every office, every common area, every nook and cranny in my school will sport the "What NOT to Wear to School" poster.

I love this idea, the brainchild of my principal.

However, the irony of telling students they can't wear the types of clothing shown and described in the poster doesn't escape me, and it didn't get past one astute ninth grader today either. I do, however, prefer the poster to the larger than life displays sitting in student desks. I also know the other problem with the poster.

As a recent Harper's Bazaar article notes, it's possible to present oneself in an attractive manner regardless of one's income. Stacey London and Clinton Kelly make this argument regularly on "What Not to Wear."

Call me an old fashioned prude, but even I, a woman, am uncomfortable talking to a teenage girl whose "girls" are hanging out, and I don't like looking for a young man's face hiding in a hoodie.

We feed kids breakfast and lunch. We nourish their minds with wonderful stories. Don't we owe them a helping of realism that states, "How you present yourself to the world matters."

Even that old busy-body Polonius wisely advised Laertes: "Clothes oft make the man." It's true for teens, too.

*Coming next: "What to Wear to School," a post with images of the fabulously fashionable students I teach.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Image Annotation: A Close Reading Strategy with a Twist

Among the various ways we teach close reading to students, annotating and text coding are my favorite. Whether I'm teaching ninth graders in speech or seniors in communication and English, annotating and text coding is one of the first lessons and a recurring one.

Teachers had the opportunity to hear speakers share annotating lessons at NCTE 2012 in Las Vegas. I sat in on one such roundtable session during High School Matters.

With implementation of CCSS in 2014, annotating is experiencing somewhat of a revival as a preferred close reading methodology.

For all the ideas from professionals, including Tom Newkirk's superb discussion of annotating in The Art of Slow Reading, which I reviewed in an earlier post, it's one of my student's method of annotating a recent assignment that inspired this post.

The assignment, which is part of a longer unit: text-code and annotate the poem you selected from the Poetry Out Loud website.

Here's a picture of Treyton's annotation, which he has graciously permitted me to use:

The poem "Dreamers" by Siegfried Sassoon that Treyton chose to annotate is in the center of the page. I like that Treyton added both commentary and images to his annotation. The speech bubble connected to the image of a soldier with a gun seems particularly relevant to the line "Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives." Treyton offers a comment on the line and its relationship to the imagery.

I asked Treyton how he decided to use pictures in his annotation. His response: "You told us to look for images." Isn't it interesting to consider the ways students interpret directions? When I gave the assignment, I also included my usual instructions about annotating and text coding:

  • Ask questions in the margin.
  • Make connections to other texts, etc.
  • Summarize and paraphrase and rewrite lines in your own words.
  • Use text coding as a form of shorthand:
    • Box or circle new words.
    • ! for ideas that excite you or that are new to you.
    • * for ideas you find interesting or important.
    • ? when you have a question about something.
    • ??? when you are confused. 
    • X when you disagree with something. 
In fact, it's easy to find similar ideas about text coding in many places on the internet and in professional literature. 

Still, given the opportunity, students will often respond to tried and true teaching methods in surprisingly new ways. I often tell students, "God made books to be written in, so I'll look the other way if you use a pencil to gloss a few annotations into the book." Looks as though I'll need to view the occasional pictures that crop up a bit more closely, too. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christmas: A Not-So-Merry Time for Many Students

With the holiday season and it's many pressures to be merry and happy bearing down us, I can't help but think: Christmas is not a very merry or wonderful time of year for many of our students. Thus, we would do well to remember this during the holidays.

Go ahead and call me Scrooge, but I've never been a big fan of the holidays. Even as a child, I found the season brimming with pressure: Should I spend Christmas with my mom or with my dad? Would my father and step-mother fight about having Christmas with the grandparents? Will Grandma Cowen give my brother a trash can for Christmas again this year?

That last one is now a source of humor and jolly reminiscing for my brother and me, but at the time, it wasn't very amusing to a twelve-year-old boy.

Finding the perfect gift and negotiating the mall rush seems a trite concern when we consider that many of our students live lives more similar to those of Tiny Tim in Dickens's A Christmas Carol than Macaulay Culkin's character in Home Alone.

During the holidays, many suffer increased levels of stress, depression, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and substance abuse.

Paradise High School in Paradise, California offers a helpful list of behaviors that may signal a child in distress and in need of some extra care during the holidays: 

Concerning Behaviors

  • A change in habits (sleeping, eating, studying, activity level)
  • Marked personality change
  • Depression
  • Start, return to, or increase in drug or alcohol abuse
  • Cutting off friendships
  • Expressing "I don't care" attitude
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Isolating from loved ones and friends
  • Talk about hurting themselves
  • Unusual neglect of personal appearance
  • Giving away prized possessions or throwing away important belongings
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
  • Frequent complaints about physical symptoms (fatigue, headache, stomach upset, etc.)
Too often, the holidays are a time of high expectations and disappointing outcomes. 

Dr. Orman's website offers a detailed list of potential problems and coping mechanisms for the holidays. 

We can help our students by having an honest dialogue about some of these issues. 

We can give ourselves and others a well-deserved break during the holidays. Here's how:  

1. We all feel the pressure to be happy and jovial during the holidays. There's nothing wrong with you if you have a humbug attitude during this season of high expectations.

2. Take on only the responsibilities and extra duties you feel comfortable with. It's okay to say "no" when your proverbial plate is full. 

3. There is only one person we each control: ourselves. You have no control over Uncle Billy Bob and his pet corn-mash-eating goat. Live and let live during the holidays. 

4. Live in the present. Each holiday is unique, and we're wise not to let either good or bad memories interfere with the present. Our nostalgia for the past can keep us from enjoying the uniqueness of the moment. 

5. If possible, escape unpleasant past memories by taking a trip. Since I'm not a fan of the holidays, my husband and I generally take a holiday vacation. Last year we took a cruise, but this year we'll be home. I'm spending the extra time writing. So if you can't escape physically, plan a mental journey. 

6. Avoid blame when things go wrong. Thanksgiving day our neighbor's house flooded when he dishwasher leaked. My neighbor's daughter, posted a note on Facebook, giving thanks that the family pulled together to overcome a potential crisis. Such events make good stories in time. 

7. Expect the unexpected. It's easier to take a relaxed attitude toward problems when we plan for the unexpected guest, delay, or event. 

8. Cope with stress by exercising rather than through substances, whether they be food, alcohol, or drugs. 

9. Hope for the best but expect the worst. That way when things go well, you'll have reason for even more celebration. 

10. Have expectations only for yourself, not for others. Even then, don't expect too much from yourself. The holidays are suppose to be a time of joy and relaxation, so let yourself be at rest. 

During the holidays, teaching means so much more than reading and writing. Yet, writing about the holidays and the memories that construct their lived reality can benefit our students and ourselves.

This year I want to capitalize on the opportunities I have to serve my students as they struggle with the pressures of the season, and we may even have some celebratory moments, too. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

NCTE 2012: Dream, Connect, Ignite in Session I.27

Studio Room 6, Grand Arena, Main Floor by Grand Arena, MGM Grand
Saturday, 11-17, 1:15-2:30 p.m.

This session will provide participants unique teaching ideas for promoting close reading of texts through speaking, for teaching argument through refutation and discussion, and for overcoming the zone of silence that challenges both teachers and students in igniting dynamic classroom conversations.

Overview of our parts:
For my portion of the panel, I'll share three teaching ideas for inspiring student discussions, including student handouts. Additionally, I have created an iMovie showing my students engaged in these discussion formats. The discussion techniques encourage a dialogic classroom and breaking the zone of silence that inhibit student discussion. 
Ami will share teaching strategies for promoting effective small group discussion, particularly in large classes. She'll have an interactive component to her program, too, and will have a lesson plan for a class "Tea Party" and a Post-It note activity. 
Cherylann is a PhD candidate and will talk about significant research for using Socratic Seminar in middle school classes. She will give attendees research that validates discussion techniques such as Chart Chat that teachers use.
My colleague Debbie will share insight into creating a dialogic classroom and the ways words shape our worlds. She will have an interactive activity from the satire unit we included in our teaching of The Canterbury Tales. Additionally, she'll give attendees a set of questions and comments designed to elicit discussion and development of ideas in student writing. 
We hope to see / meet you in our session if you're attending NCTE. I've linked to the lessons I'll be sharing, but Ami, Debbie, and Cherylann will each have a plethora of additional resources. 

Weird Sisters in Macbeth whose beards make Macbeth question their gender. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Idaho Education Props 1, 2, 3: A Referendum with National Implications

The following is a letter/editorial I submitted to the Idaho State Journal on Tuesday, October 30, 2012. The ISJ has not published my comments. Here in Idaho teachers are under siege, and while we are a state small in population, politicians and pseudo-education reformers are watching and testing their agendas in Idaho. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a cool $200 thousand (corrected: 10:43 a.m.) dollars to the "Vote Yes on Props 1 2 3" campaign. In presidential politics, pundits often say, "As goes Iowa, so goes the nation." They might soon be saying that about Idaho and education reform. What is happening here has the potential to influence ed reform in each state.

My Letter to the ISJ:

“There he goes again.” Frank VanderSloot’s weekly tirade against teachers in the Idaho State Journal reminds me of Reagan’s mantra. In his latest paid essay, VanderSloot, after comparing teachers to murderers, once again assures us that he has “a great deal of respect for Idaho teachers.” To Mr. VanderSloot, I say this: I don’t sense any respect from you, and I have no respect for you or your positions, none of which are based in educational expertise or knowledge of the research on these issues.

Setting aside Vandersloot’s obvious disdain for educators, VanderSloot simply ignores the research on pay for performance and educational technology. Moreover, he misrepresents the purpose of tenure and its role in guaranteeing teachers due process in the dismissal process.

Regarding technology, Nicholas Carr sounds a warning about society’s use of the Internet in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In part, Carr discusses how using the Internet affects our ability to develop deep thinking skills, the kind that form multiple synaptic connections and embed into our memories knowledge that we access spontaneously later in life. The Internet, with its abundance of hyperlinks and multiple pages users access, interferes with the deep reading process, unlike traditional reading from a book. This constant movement from one hyperlink to the next disrupts learning and the brain’s ability to form connections among its synapses.

The Idaho Legislature, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, Vandrsloot, and Prop 3 supporters either ignore the research or don’t know it.  Carr and other researchers also describe a significant comprehension problem with screen reading. When we read from a screen, the research shows, we read in an “F” pattern. That is, we read the entire first line, but by the time a reader reaches the end of a page, the reader is reading very little of what’s on the screen. This is a topic I address with students in trying to make them aware of the pitfalls of screen reading.

Admittedly, Vandersloot says he doesn’t care whether or not voters support Prop 3; I suspect this is because he doesn’t really want to see money spent updating the antiquated technology in many Idaho schools and not because he has any real concern about student learning. If he and the politicians who passed Prop 3 really cared about student interests more than business interests, they would know more about ed tech and the potential problems associated with sustained screen time.

For example, they would know that many 1-to-1 laptop states and districts have found no discernable improvement in student learning. They would know that many districts have ended the programs because the associated costs of maintaining the hardware, providing tech support, and managing student usage far outweigh the benefits of giving each student a laptop. They would know that many of our schools don’t have the infrastructure necessary for supporting the laptops. My classroom, for example, has one Internet outlet and only a couple of working electrical outlets.

The Kyrene, Arizona school district spent $33 million on technology that didn’t improve test scores. Unlike Luna who dictated to the legislature his wish list, the Kyrene district gave careful consideration to their tech purchase.  Yet test scores remained flat.

Moreover, the latest issue of Education Week includes an article about a $1.5 million study funded by the U.S. Department of Ed in which researchers found that special services students are being funnelled into online classes without considering “how students with disabilities are served in online learning environments.” This concern extends to students in traditional classroom settings, too. In all the rhetoric about the imagined benefits of online classes, neither Luna, the legislature, VanderSloot, nor other endorsers of the proposition cite research to support their faith in these learning environments.

Luna, in contrast, has mandated students take online classes. Offering students options is one thing, but telling a student s/he has no choice but to take two online classes is quite another. I say this as a teacher who embraces technology as a way to support student learning and creativity and who actively seeks ways to incorporate technology into lessons. Unfortunately, neither Luna nor the legislature has supported teachers like me in our uses of technology. Instead, they seek to replace the human connection with a Hal-like computerized substitute.

Similarly, merit pay sounds like a brilliant idea. Who doesn’t want to be compensated fairly and meritoriously? The research about so-called pay-for-performance programs based on standardized testing is definitive. They don’t work. Last year, educational publications brimmed with stories about value-added assessments and the inherent problems with these. In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Dian Ravitch details the unfair nature of pay-for-performance programs such as the one in Prop 2. Educational Leadership says this about pay-for-performance: “Test-based pay is more useful politically than it is effective educationally.” Criticism of these plans goes back at least to 1907 when Edmond Holmes compared the learning that resulted from so-called merit pay based on test data to undigested food.

In fact, the uniform salary scale based on experience and education grew out of a system that loosely defined merit in such a way that men earned more than women and white teachers earned more than minorities. Yet supporting Prop 2 threatens to return us to such systems. Already we have heard stories about ways Idaho districts define merit that have little to do with student achievement in any way. Literature supporting Prop 2 acknowledges the ambiguous and inconsistent standards by which districts will assess merit: “Each school district develops its own plan with local student achievement measures that align with the district’s strategic goals” (“An Explanation of Propositions 1, 2 & 3”). I’m quoting here from pro prop literature delivered to my home. If the goal is to evaluate the merit of teachers, why are there no uniform standards for assessment? Answer: Pay-for-Performance doesn’t work. Rather than encouraging collaboration among teachers, as the aforementioned literature claims,  it’s more likely that competition, an unwillingness to share resources, and laying blame, primarily to English and math teachers, will ensue as the system evolves and the inherent problems become more apparent. Simply, we are not all in the same place in our careers, and collaboration that grows organically as teachers voluntarily work with one another will always work better than top-down mandates to collaborate and share resources.

I am a firm believer in the value of expertise and teachers proving their subject-area knowledge and ability to teach. I worked hard to earn National Board Certification, for which I owe the Albertson’s Foundation a debt of gratitude for supporting me financially and with mentoring through the process. Two years ago I recertified; I did this with my own money, as Idaho offers no support for National Board Certification, only lip service. I paid the $1,150.00 recertification fee and receive no monetary remuneration from the state or my district for having earned NBPTS certification. In fact, only a handful of Idaho NBPTS certified teachers have completed the recertification portfolio; most let their certification expire, including a colleague of mine.

Luna, however, says he supports National Board certification. Why, then, has Idaho’s number of National Board certified teachers dropped from more than 300 to under 150? Simply, it’s too expensive for poorly paid teachers to bear the cost alone. At one time, Idaho gave NBPTS teachers a yearly stipend for the first five years of certification. Now there is no incentive to earn what arguably is the most rigorous credential awarded teachers. The initial certification process costs over $2,500.00, and that’s for the portfolio and testing only. The emotional stress, time commitment, and other associated costs make it a questionable investment for all but a few.

In my thirty-two year career I’ve known many hard-working and dedicated teachers. They deserve due process. VanderSloot and his ilk would probably be surprised to learn that many administrators, all of whom were once teachers, also support due process guaranteed through tenure. Prior to Prop 1 passing, administrators had three years to dismiss poor teachers without cause. Yet few exercised that option.

After the probationary period, the tenure years, administrators still have a process for dismissing poor teachers. Accomplished teachers support ridding our ranks of teachers who don’t meet standards of excellence, but administrators at both the building and central office hold the power to dismiss, not teachers. We do, however, support due process. Ironically, the passage of Prop 1 means students have a right to due process now denied to teachers. I wander, will those who support Prop 1 also advocate for the abolition of students’ right to a hearing before expulsion or suspension?

Prior to tenure laws, teachers worked at-will. Pregnant women were routinely dismissed; others lost their jobs because of their political or religious affiliation. This is the reality VanderSloot and Luna envision for Idaho teachers. Teachers who feel their employment is tenuous or temporal are far less effective in the classroom and far more likely to seek employment in states that offer due process protections.

VanderSloot thinks teachers’ unions dictate to their members; however, the NEA functions on principles of representational governance. When I was in the eighth grade, I learned about Samuel Gompers and the origins of the labor movement. I remember feeling a sense of pride in my country and its history of workers’ rights.

As an undergrad at Southwest Baptist University, my professors preached the merits of membership in professional organizations, and the union topped their list. VanderSloot insults the intelligence of all union members when he characterizes us as “misinformed.” I read extensively about the issues affecting my profession and freely voice both my approval and disapproval with my professional organizations, including the IEA, unlike VanderSloot who simply parrots what Luna says and thinks.

Each time a teacher reads a criticism of unions, s/he is reading a denigrating remark about himself/herself. Teachers populate unions. It’s no surprise that the school board association supports Prop 1; after all, it allows them to ignore teachers’ concerns. While there are boards that will respect teachers enough to negotiate in good faith, many will, and have, impose on teachers a benevolent dictatorship, a take-it-or-leave-it business model. That’s why they claim the negotiation process is running smoothly under Prop 1. Once the deadline passes, the lines of communication close.

It’s noteworthy that those who support Prop 1 claim it’s good for teachers but only those in power over teachers and politicians offer statements of support for it. Also, claiming that unions undermine Idaho’s right to work status is rather disingenuous since that very law significantly weakened the union to the extent that the argument is rendered moot.

Frank VanderSloot would have Idaho’s electorate think supporting Props 1, 2, and 3 is “leveling the playing field” when the reality is voting “yes” will do the opposite. No teacher has the funds to pay for full-page advertisements calling for a boycott of Melaleuca, yet VanderSloot casts himself as the victim. Unbelievable.

On one point I do agree with Mr. VanderSloot. His weekly essays are “personal message[s]” and not professional ones. In Idaho, only educators have been shut out of the process by which the state regulates our profession; all other state employees have a voice in the laws and procedures that control them. On November 6, please tell Frank VanderSloot that expertise matters, that teachers deserve the same respect afforded other professionals, and that regardless of his personal feelings and missives, next to their parents and families, teachers value students educational success more than he does. Please vote “no” on Props 1, 2, and 3.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do," an Up-Close Review

Despite the structural problems in Sandra Stotsky's book-length follow-up to her 2010 literacy report in which she chided teachers for privileging reader response to close reading (New Criticism) techniques, she makes some important points about English teacher's responsibilities and English curriculum in The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do, an unfortunate title because it's just not very easy to remember. Stotsky's multifaceted premise is this: The secondary English curriculum is incoherent. English teachers are "the only ones" who can fix the lack of coherency in the English curriculum.  

By incoherent Stotsky means the curriculum lacks increasing complexity from one grade to the next, that there is too much inconsistency among grades in terms of the types of texts taught in various English classes, that the curriculum is based on skills acquisition rather than great literature, and, perhaps most importantly, that literature from one grade to the next doesn't provide proper connections in scaffolding that allows students to make connections across genres and grades as they read more complex texts. That is, literature is too often taught in isolation rather than as part of a unified whole. 

Stotsky offers several causes for the problems she notes, including these: NCTE's policy and standards; the move from junior high to middle school that resulted in generalists rather than English majors teaching English in 6-8th grades; the organization of schools into semesters and elective courses that gave students more choice rather than a required literature curriculum; and poorly trained teachers entering the profession, which she blames on university education departments. Finally, Stotsky chides English teachers for abandoning texts with complex syntax and higher reading levels for contemporary and YA fiction that she cites as having more simplistic syntax and lower reading levels.

 Even the Common Core fails to escape Stotsky's criticism. She critiques the CCSS for basing its standards on skills rather than advocating a coherent English curriculum, although she does offer some praise for the supplemental appendixes that offer text suggestions. Unfortunately, Stotsky doesn't say anything about the loopholes in CCSS offered with the three-pronged triangle that suggests ways teaches can continue to teach texts with lower reading levels.

Perhaps Stotsky doesn't intend to castigate English teachers, but I can't help but feel defensive when a writer uses hasty generalization such as "only" in arguing who should fix the literacy problems many students and schools face. English teachers, arguably, reacted to changes in social and cultural norms as early as the 1960s. Moreover, English teachers have little to no say in the organizational structure and hiring practices in schools. Stotsky lets principals, et al. off the hook when she opens the book with off-putting language targeting English teachers.

Indeed, Stotsky's push for close reading may be a moot point with the adoption of CCSS, which she rightly says emphasizes close reading strategies.

Moreover, she privileges AP teachers over other English educators. As a non-AP teacher but one with a MA in English and National Board Certification (renewed), I'm offended by this. I have seen many first-year teachers and other early career English teachers posting online requests for help from veterans because they don't know how to approach the AP and honors classes they have been assigned to teach.

Yet Stotsky claims these teachers are the only ones trained to instruct students in close reading techniques inherent in New Criticism. That's sheer nonsense. Stotsky misses an important opportunity to take the College Board to task for abandoning it's requirement that AP teachers have subject-area MA degrees or National Board Certification.

Perhaps the most problematic argument Stotsky makes is that eleventh grade English teachers should devote significant class time to teaching primary documents such as the Federalist Papers. Certainly, primary documents have a place in the English curriculum and can serve to inform imaginative literature, but to insist that English teachers become endorsed social studies teachers without at least chastising history and government teachers for abdicating their responsibility to teach seminal primary documents is unconscionable and offensive.

A scholar intent on attention to detail should do her due diligence to ensure her information is accurate. Two glaring errors appear in the book, both of which make me wander about other information. First, Stotsky gets Native American author Sherman Alexie's name wrong. She calls him "Alexie Sherman."

Secondly, she uses a teacher's lesson on Jonathan Edward's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as an example of how to teach close reading. There are several problems with the example: First, Stotsky claims the text is in an anthology and that students listened to a recording that "sounds" like Edwards. Edward's sermon is over seven hours long; no anthology at the high school or college level includes the entire text. It's impossible to know that Edwards "sounds" like since we have no recordings of him; all the recordings I've heard characterize Edwards as a "fire and brimstone" rhetorician with a booming voice. He was not. Edwards had a soft-spoken presentation persona. He did not shout. Indeed, his speaking manner and sermon content appear incongruous with one another. The recording the teacher used prompted one student to say, "That's creepy."

I'm all for using classroom teachers' lessons as models when the teacher cited gets it right, but Stotsky's example doesn't. We have all made mistakes in our teaching, but we're not all elevated as models of teaching to emulate. These teachers must be held to a higher standard, one we should all strive to achieve.

Another problem with Stotsky's book is her failure to define coherence early in the text. Instead, she does this toward the book's middle. Had she defined what she means by coherence early on, she could have then built her argument in a less off-putting way. After all, English teachers are the target audience, and as a road-weary group, many English educators won't be open to reading a book that begins with finger-pointing.

Even though I had difficulty putting aside my emotions, I still think English teachers should read the book and respond to Stotsky both with praise and questions. I gave the book **** on Goodreads. 

More importantly, Stotsky should make the rounds of conferences principals and superintendents attend and make her case to those who actually have control of policy. Too many principals don't get that there is a difference between an English teacher with an endorsement based on having a minor in English and an English teacher with a MA in English.

Telling English teachers that they need strong subject-area credentials is a bit like preaching to the choir, albeit a shrinking one with a waning chorus.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Stop Apologizing for Prescribing Curriculum, English Teachers

Would a math teacher tolerate a pedagogical philosophy that endorses allowing students to design the algebra, geometry, or calculus curriculum?

Do science teachers offer students control of which biological, anatomical, or zoological concepts they'll learn?

How much control do history teachers offer students in a mandated survey of American history course? Do we allow students to choose to skip Reconstruction so they can spend more time reading about the history of baseball, for example?

These and other questions about who controls the curriculum have weighed on my mind recently following a conversation with a neighbor who proclaimed, "I liked English until the teachers started telling me what to read."  

Comments such as this often put English teachers on the defensive, which explains my response to my neighbor:

"Why do we criticize English teachers for telling students what to read when we wouldn't think to question the math teacher who requires students to learn specific mathematical concepts?"

I've been on the pro-choice reading bandwagon since discovering Kelly Gallagher's seminal Readicide via the ECNing book study. I have promoted the 50/50 approach to required reading Gallagher advocates and have embraced a "first do no harm" approach to assigning texts.

I still believe in choice, but I'm uncomfortable with the hit my curriculum has taken by giving students more choice in both reading and writing (more on this in a forthcoming post). I'm not convinced that capitulating to the "I don't like to read" and "I don't like this book" complaints really serves students all that well.

Only in English classes do we argue that students should have so much control over the curriculum.

We may be doing students a grave injustice by marginalizing classic texts while we promote more student reading choice.

Yesterday a student contacted me to share his summer reading experiences. During our chat, the student, a recent grad, revealed that he doesn't care much for YA lit but prefers to read classics. Next on his TBR list is George Orwell's 1984 and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

The conversation makes me question the pedagogical shift I've implemented in my classroom, and I wander what makes this student thirst for the classics. Perhaps it's the same thing that make them appeal to me: sophistication of language structures, timeless themes, archetypal elements, etc.

Certainly, what we read depends so much on personal taste and interests, but it's time English teachers question the questioners who challenge our classic curriculum choices. The long tradition of English literature deserves respect from students, parents, and mostly from us.

I'll continue to offer students some choice in their required reading, but I'll make no apologies for also insisting that they study literature from the Anglo-Saxon period through postmodernism as part of the required curriculum.