Thursday, December 5, 2013

Telling Legislators and Trustees a Teacher's Truths

This past Monday I attended my district's school board meeting, which was a special session with our local legislators prior to the upcoming session of the Idaho legislature.

The meeting consisted of central office administration articulating concerns and challenges facing our district. I found the information quite enlightening. However, rather than recounting local issues, my focus here is sharing comments I had the opportunity to make during the 2.5 hour meeting. I attended as a representative of my local branch of the Idaho Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association.

I spoke up three times during the meeting, which is three more times than I have spoken at a board meeting during my 33 years teaching. Simply, I had a new experience, and I found myself unable and unwilling to be quiet.

On Pay-for-Performance:

For the past two years, Idaho has had a pay-for-performance system that by the admission of our superintendent "awarded large sums of money to some teachers and left other equally hard working and dedicated teachers with nothing." As Superintendent Vagner noted, the system is unfair, and my district is working hard to make what the legislature, via State Superintendent Tom Luna, has wrought fair and equitable. I commend the district for learning a hard lesson and appreciate its efforts to change and learn.

As the discussion continued, I, too, offered a perspective on P-4-P when someone commented about the "need to study the program before making a decision":

So-called merit pay doesn't work. The research consistently shows this, and Diane Ravitch clearly lays out the case that merit pay doesn't work since teachers are not the sole entity determining a child's performance on high stakes tests.


At one point discussion centered on the implementation of the CCSS. In Idaho, as in other places, there is a growing backlash against the CCSS implementation, which in Idaho takes the form of the Idaho Core Standards (ICS). This is Idaho's interpretation/rewrite of the CCSS. When legislators asked about the reasons for the backlash and after one shared that some are pushing to let parents create their children's curriculum, I offered insight into the reasons for the push-back:

During my recent trip to Boston for the NCTE Annual Convention, I attended two session in which presenters articulated the case against the CCSS. First, teachers did not write the CCSS. The primary architect of the CCSS is David Coleman, and he's not an educator. Teachers don't like being told how and what to teach by someone who is not an educator. 

When those outside of education are the ones to dictate subject and methods, that de-professionalizes my profession. The message is that teachers shouldn't be listened to but that those outside education are the experts. 

Additionally, many teachers don't like high stakes tests. We've already heard several of our administrators talk about the lost instructional time as our students will be taking eight hours of tests, and it will be virtually impossible to schedule labs for student research or any other instruction. 

The CCSS is all about supporting high-stakes testing, and these tests costs in many ways. Thus, the CCSS is a means to an end, and the end is the test.

My comments were met with considerable resistance, most notably among other teachers. One said, "The NEA supports the CCSS." Another said, "The CCSS is not about tests." To that I responded:

It most certainly is about the test. The whole point of the CCSS is to administer a high-stakes test at the end of the year.

I was reminded by another person that No Child Left Behind had tests, too. And to that I remarked that it's true but we now have even more tests and longer ones, too.

Our director of curriculum countered with this: "I've been working with teachers on implementation of CCSS the past two years, and they're very enthusiastic about it."

Of course, he's right. Many teachers are excited about CCSS. That doesn't surprise me. Many teachers like the CCSS. There is much about the standards that I like, but they aren't perfect by any means. Those who know the history of the standards movement and who understand the multi-faceted nature of the process rightly evaluate the standards and articulate their concerns. We should all be wary of those who choose to turn our profession over to outside business interests. We should all question the agendas of those, including our colleagues, whose involvement in CCSS implementation net them monetary gain, which is the case among those in my district who have worked on "unpacking" the standards during the summer.*

On Teacher Retention:

 During the presentation the district trustees and legislators heard a report about the difficulty of finding qualified teachers in math and special services. Additionally, they heard the grim statistics about teacher retention. Nearly 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years. When the question about what the legislature can do to address the growing attrition problem, I offered some insight:

Stop listening to those in the education reform movement. Organizations such as Teach for America have deprofessionalized teaching by turning it into the equivalent of a temp job. For example, Michelle Rhee was a TFA teacher who had five weeks of training during the summer before being placed in a Baltimore classroom. She taught three years. Then she was hired as chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system. When she lost that job, she started Students First and now is a self-proclaimed "expert" who gets a lot of attention despite her limited teaching experience. 

When you go to Boise, think twice about supporting alternative certification routes. These undermine the efforts of the state's teacher education programs by placing people with little to no teaching experience in the classroom where they experiment on students. Programs such as ABCT deprofessionalize teaching by sending the message that it's a job that requires very little training and expertise. 

I appreciate that many of my comments were supported by my district's administration and that the administration commented about the problems students returning from their foray into online learning programs face. The district reported that these students typically return to school having earned only one or two credits the previous year and must then be placed in the alternative high school. Most won't graduate on time. Of course, their educational loss is the online business's monetary gain. Yet the state continues to divert much-needed public educational funds from public schools into private enterprises.

I have no delusions when it comes to whether or not my words resonated with the politicians, either in the state house or in the board room. Why would a politician listen to a teacher? They didn't ask for my opinion. I foisted it upon them. I guess at heart I'm still a bit of an idealist in my hope that one day those with power will listen to the real experts. But I won't hold my breath while awaiting that day.

*I was one of those people during the summer of 2012, and I'm currently employed as part of  the NEA BL Master Teacher Project, for which I'm contracted to write units and lesson plans that are all CCSS aligned.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

NCTE 2013: K:08 "Lend Me Your [H]ear: Envisioning Listening in 21st Century Classrooms"

In 1974 East German political scientist named Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann published a ground-breaking study designed to explain how Hitler was able to rise to power.

Spiral of Silence theory argues that the media exerts such an influence over public opinion that those who perceive their opinion to be the minority do not speak. This silence is grounded in the threat of isolation and the fear of isolation when the issue at hand has a moral component.

Spiral of Silence theory has implications for classrooms, particularly in our media-saturated world where the loudest and shrillest voices seemingly drown out the rest.

We all have seen the "wall-flower" student who cowers in the corner of our classrooms afraid to speak up. Often they fear social isolation from their peers and/or feel threatened if they hold opinions other than those of their teachers.

How can we engage these students in discussion and those who dominate the discussion in listening? 

Addressing this question is at the heart of Session K:08 "Lend Me Your [H]ear: Envisioning Listening in 21st Century Classrooms."

I'll be teaming up with Ami Szerence and Cherylann Schmidt, and we have some fabulous teaching materials for you!

Ami has some fabulous teaching ideas for assessing listening and engaging students. When I first saw Ami's agenda, I thought I knew where she was going with these strategies. Wrong! Ami will offer some unique approaches and fresh takes on each one, and I can't wait to try them out in my room. Ami's agenda includes. Here's a link to her session materials and a list of the activities:
  • Listening and the Common Core
    • How can teachers support students through authentic instruction without bowing to standardized test prep.
  • Listening Presentations and Video examples of students engaged in active listening activities.
  • Tone-in: Tuning in to SOAPStone
    • We use SOAPStone as a reading analysis activity. How can teachers leverage it to support listening?
  • Synched in to Silent Debate
    • What happens when there is no talking during an argument but students still engage in reason-giving?
  • Paper-talk Writer 
    • A new twist to Conversation Roundtable
  • Floe-Fishing Socratic Seminar
    • A new approach to the classic method teachers love and use.
Cherylann also has some fresh ideas for teaching listening. Cherylann teaches middle school, and idk, I remember how much work it takes to get these adolescents focused. You may recognize the labels, but the methodology will be new! Here's Cherylann's agenda:
  • How teachers model listening within the classroom
  • Active Listening in Writing Conferences
  • Active Listening in Reader’s Workshop
  • Student Recommended books
  • How I ask students to use listening skills?
  • Socratic seminar - How students agree with their classmates
  • Literature Circles
  • Debate - specifically rebuttal piece of debate
In typical fashion, I have over-planned. I'm looking to my background as a speech and communication teacher for inspiration as I seek new and interesting ways to engage students in speaking and listening that supports reading and writing. My teaching has been greatly influenced by communication studies. Here's a link to my session materials and a list of the lesson ideas I'll be sharing:  
  • Listening Skills Survey: Creating a Plan for Improving Listening
  • How well do our students listen? This survey is designed specifically for students, and mine are often surprised with their scores! They typically don't listen as well as they think they do.
  • "Yes But" and "Yes And": Using Improvisational Games to Improve Listening and Flesh Out Arguments.
  • In the session I'll include copies of the essays I use from Breakfast on Mars, which I have been granted permission from the editor to share. I'm so excited about this.
  • The Art of Listening: Giving and Following Instructions Activity
  • My students love this activity and are quite surprised when they see their finished masterpieces. They gain much insight about their listening skills.
  • GIST Listening and Summarizing
  • This is a lesson that serves so many purposes and is especially effective when we challenge students with difficult texts.
Finally, we'll have a drawing for a signed copy of That Shakespeare Kid by Michael LoMonico, and I'll preview some ideas about using the new Folger app for The Tempest to teach students how to listen for and identify tone in texts. I'm working on the lesson plan but have not had a chance to pilot it yet. I'm calling the lesson "Toned-Up" and will share at a later time.

Hope to see and hear you in Boston. Thanks for stopping by and listening with your eyes.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"That Shakespeare Kid" by Michael LoMonico [Review & Teaching Ideas]

When teachers prepare to teach Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet or any other Shakespeare play, they often do what Ms. Hastings does in That Shakespeare Kid by Michael LoMonico: They begin with a lecture about the Globe Theater, Shakespeare's life, and Elizabethan England. After all, don't kids need to know about the three biggies before cracking open the play?

Readers will find the answer later in this post. *wink*

That Shakespeare Kid tells the story of Peter, an eighth grader who, in his eagerness to read Romeo and Juliet, suffers a tragic accident when his mom's Riverside Shakespeare crashes down on his head and gives him a concussion that results in Peter speaking lines from Shakespeare's plays whenever he attempts to talk. He still thinks in "normal" English, and he can text his best friend Emma who becomes his "spokesperson" on a journey that takes him from social outcast to the center of adolescent and adult attention.

The organizing trope--using lines from Shakespeare as a plot device in a YA novel--is both clever and original. The novel does more than re-imagine a classic, it literally juxtaposes Early Modern English with Late Modern English. This alternating English functions thematically to say that Shakespeare remains as relevant to 21st Century audiences as it was to Elizabethan ones.

LoMonico funded and published That Shakespeare Kid through a successful Kickstarter campaign, which he describes:

But the real hero of That Shakespeare Kid isn't Peter or his friend Emma. Their English teacher Ms. Hasings embarks on a much more important journey than the one Peter and Emma take together. She literally rethinks her pedagogical approach to teaching Romeo and Juliet when Peter texts Emma a question for Ms. Hastings about her methodology that she can't answer: "Will this stuff about Shakespeare's life and the Globe Theater actually help us understand Romeo and Juliet?"

Although a relatively minor character, LoMonico uses Ms. Hastings to show readers the Folger Shakespeare Library pedagogical approach to teaching Shakespeare, and he does it without mentioning the Folger and without maligning other teaching methods.

Those familiar with Folger performance methodology will recognize the insult activity, "Three Dimensional Shakespeare" by Michael Tolaydo (see Shakespeare Set Free), and other performance tasks that culminate in a student production. There's even a nod to The 30 Minute Shakespeare editions edited by Nick Newlin. In That Shakespeare Kid, LoMonico gently says, "Here's how to get students excited about studying Shakespeare; here's how to get students out of their seats and onto their feet in performance activities; and here's how to turn students into life-long lovers of Shakespeare rather than one-time readers of Shakespeare." Although I have been using performance pedagogy yearly since 2007 and periodically throughout my career, I learned some new tricks and will refine some old ones after reading That Shakespeare Kid.

Teachers looking for ways to get students hooked on Shakespeare should consider using That Shakespeare Kid as either a read-aloud, a book club selection, or a whole-class read. There are many options for adding this charming novel into our curriculum, including using the addendum, which includes all the Shakespeare lines in the book in an easily referenced compilation, as a source for line-tossing and paired skits, as Ms. Hasings does with her class.

NCTE 2013: Are you attending? If so, stop by the Folger booth #825 and/or attend a Folger session and learn more about performance pedagogy from the Folger Shakespeare Library, meet Michael LoMonico, and consider obtaining a copy of That Shakespeare Kid.

I hope to see you in Boston and invite you to attend my session. I'll have a drawing for a free copy of That Shakespeare Kid.

 "Lend Me Your [H]ear: Envisioning Listening in 21st Century Classrooms" 
Session K:08 
Sheraton, Sheraton/Beacon G Room, 3rd Floor 
Saturday, November 23, 2013, 4:15-5:30 p.m.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

[Lesson Plan] Carousel Discussion: "The Taming of the Shrew" Act 5

My students are winding down our unit on The Taming of the Shrew. Today students participated in a Carousel Discussion. Here's how I presented the lesson to students:

Teacher Preparation:

Before students arrive for the discussion, teachers must prepare the materials. I first acquire five pieces of butcher paper on which I attached the materials I gave to students the previous day. Carousel Chart Labels are enlarged to enable easy use by students,  and the student handout *Act 5, Carousel Discussion. This gives students the opportunity to look over the ideas they will discuss in the activity. 
Prior to their arrival, I hung the posters/charts around the room, making sure to leave enough room for groups to gather and share the space. It's important not to give students a reason to avoid participating.

Student Instructions:

When students arrive, they see the posters and know something is up. After they have been seated, I direct their attention to the posters/charts and tell them they'll participate in a carousel discussion. 

I define Carousel Discussion: 

Carousel Discussion  (also known as Rotating Review) scaffolds both  new concepts and/or information for review through movement, conversation, and reflection from one station to the next in a circular pattern, similar to the rotation of a carousel. It  is a cooperative learning activity that allows students  to discover and discuss ideas and themes in a literary work, such as The Taming of the Shrew. This technique allows for small group discussion, followed by whole-class reflection.

While taking part in Carousel Discussion, small groups of students rotate around the classroom, stopping at various “stations” for a designated period of time (in this case, 5-6 minutes).  At each station, students demonstrate their  knowledge of a topic or concept and share their ideas with their small group and with other groups who have already visited the station.  Each student  posts his/her ideas at each station for all groups to read. In turn, students may respond to the contributions made by those who have already rotated through the station.

After all students visit each station, the class reconvenes for a whole-class discussion and to report on each topic. 

I remind students that they have already seen the topics they'll be discussing, that they may use their scripts, that they need to use parenthetical citations in their responses, and that they need specific references to the text to support their ideas and opinions. 

Finally, I instruct students to initial their responses as these will be the basis for their grades. 
I tell students I'll evaluate their posts based on the following criteria:

  • Accuracy of information.
  • Specificity of textual references.
  • Response to the given topic.
  • Interactions with other comments. 
  • Ability to support their ideas via close reading. 
Conducting the Discussion:

Students report to their stations, which are all numbered. 

I set the timer and remind students not to talk. I put 6 minutes on the timer for the first round and allow one minute for rotating to the next station.

Between rounds, I tell students to circulate clockwise with those who were at #1 going to #2, those at #2 going to #3, those at #3 going to #4, those at #4 going to # 5, and those at #5 going to #1.

We continue through the rotation five times until each student has had a chance to respond to each post. During rotation, I respond to questions and remind students that discussion means interacting with what others have written. 

The students circulate and remain quiet during the lesson. Many use their texts to look for supporting material. One student returned to a previous chart, when she had time remaining from the next one, so she could modify her response. 

Since students had notes to which they could refer, the use of their texts, and the discussion items prior to the discussion, they remained on task throughout the activity and at times commented that they had more to say on a given topic.

The Animoto highlights students working on the discussion as well as their finished Carousel Discussion charts ready for reporting. 

Reporting from the Groups:

We used the last part of class to report back and to clarify ideas. For example, during student reports, I was able to point out where students needed additional information to make their arguments. I did this by posing questions. For example, when one group reported that Petruchio was polite to Katherine at first but became rude later, I was able to ask them why he behaves this way. "Is Petruchio being deceptive or is something else going on?" 

That same group reported that Petruchio's kissing Kate at the end and going off to bed is a form of deception. This allowed me to ask why they label the ending deceptive. That resulted in a student saying she didn't understand the question because she didn't know the term deception. 

This admission was quite revealing because we have talked about pretending, deceiving, tricking characters throughout, and without an understanding of the term, the student cannot get to the heart of the play. 

Consequently, I was able to remind students that knowing the words leads to understanding and that they need to help me realize when we need to spend more time talking terms. 

The discussion also exposed gaps in student knowledge when students struggled with analyzing the relationship between Bianca and Kate.I learned that we need more time talking about whether or not Bianca is jealous of Kate and/or vice versa. I also learned that we need to revisit the scene in which Baptista and others compare Kate to Bianca. 

Since each group reported on the totality of each chart, these discussions were much safer than a whole-class-discussion that might leave a student feeling embarrassed or silent from fear of being wrong. 

NCTE 2013: Are you attending? If so, I hope to see you there and invite you to attend my session.

 "Lend Me Your [H]ear: Envisioning Listening in 21st Century Classrooms" 
Session K:08 
Sheraton, Sheraton/Beacon G Room, 3rd Floor 
Saturday, November 23, 2013, 4:15-5:30 p.m.

*Special thanks to Dana Huff for including this resource on her The Taming of the Shrew Wiki.

**This lesson plan is one I constructed for the Better Lesson NEA Master Teacher Project; it will be part of a complete unit on The Taming of the Shrew and will be in a much more detailed format on the BL site at a later date. Additionally, the unit is part of the senior English course I am creating for the BL NEA MTP this school year. The project will ultimately include every lesson I teach this year and will include resources, student work samples, a video component, a reflection, and several layers of tagging. I never design lessons for the purpose of preparing students to take high stakes tests.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stereotypes, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and "The Taming of the Shrew" [Lesson Plan]

Can the stereotypes we attach to groups and individuals lead to self-fulfilling prophecies that influence behavior?
English engraving of the peoples of the world. via Wikipedia Commons

Ever since I studied The Taming of the Shrew at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2008, I've read Shakespeare's troublesome play as a character study, particularly of Kate. While many see the play as sexist and demeaning of women, I read it as social and familial commentary about the way a woman reacts to her home and cultural environment.

Finding a NPR episode of "All Things Considered" reinforces my reading. "How Stereotypes Can Drive Women to Quit Science" describes the way "stereotype threat" has such an impact of female scientists that their job dissatisfaction leads them to leave their profession.

Consequently, I decided to use the NPR text during my class's study of The Taming of the Shrew. 

Lesson Procedure:

1. First, I led the class in a discussion of labels we can attach to the primary characters:

  • Kate the curst
  • Bianca the spoiled favorite child
  • Baptista the frustrated father
  • etc. 
2. Next, I introduced the concept of stereotype threat: 
  • Stereotype threat occurs when one feels at risk and ultimately conforms to negative behaviors and expectations associated with a given stereotype. 
3. Prior to playing the program, which is less than ten minutes, I suggested students take notes as they would be participating in a fishbowl discussion afterwards. I then played the program. That said, if I were to teach the lesson again, I'd pause the program periodically and give students time to take notes. I gave students some questions to consider as they listened:

  • What percentage of what happens to us do we not remember and why is this important?
  • What stereotypes about male/female speech have the researchers challenged?
  • What did the researchers learn about men's and women's speech?
  • What did the researchers learn about women in math and science professions in relation to talking to their male and female colleagues?
  • What is stereotype threat?
  • What did the researchers learn about stereotype threat and human behavior, particularly among men and women?
  • Why is psychology important in thinking about stereotype threat?
  • How does stereotype threat create a vicious cycle?
  • How can this information inform our reading of The Taming of the Shrew?

4. After listening, I explained fishbowl discussion to the class and asked for volunteers. Students eagerly volunteered:
What interests me most about the student discussion is their comments about stereotypes associated with their lives. While I would like to have heard more comments about the play, I learned more about my students' perceptions of cultural stereotypes in our community, and that's priceless. 

As a concluding thought, I asked students to think about how we label characters in The Taming of the Shrew and how those stereotypes influence the characters' behavior. This is the big idea I want students to consider both in literature and in life. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Working Our Way Back to the Bard: Studying Shakespeare is about Studying Shakespeare's Language

A new rendition of Romeo and Juliet will soon appear in theaters. It has produced quite a furry since Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter, has taken many liberties in his modernization of Shakespeare's language.

Writing at, Susan Wloszczyma writes: "By the time this muddled and dumbed-down version of one of the greatest love stories ever told comes to its can't-arrive-soon-enough conclusion, some might be compelled to exclaim, 'Oy! Romeo, Romeo.'" Wloszczyma characterizes Fellowes's treatment of the star-crossed lovers as a "hack job" and gives it a measly two stars. 

Not having seen the newest incarnation of R&J, I can't speak from an informed position about the general quality of the movie experience. Instead, my thesis is this: 

Rather than attempting to drag Shakespeare into our sloppy 21st Century vernacular, we should be "working our way back" to the Bard.

As this production from the Open University, argues, messing with the original language in Romeo and Juliet, as in all Shakespearean works, denies an audience a complete artistic experience.

For example, translators of the Bard often destroy the puns inherent in Early Modern English. "There are rhymes and puns which don't work in Modern English that do work in OP." OP meaning the "original pronunciation."

We miss the meaning of the sonnets when we don't consider the original pronunciation.

Teachers who eschew Shakespeare's language send a message to students, and the message is that we don't think kids are smart enough to learn Shakespeare's language. That's insulting. We shouldn't proclaim to students the equivalent of "You blocks, you stones, you worse than useless things," to borrow from Shakespeare, in our treatment of the original language.

As the video says, the original language and pronunciation can actually make understanding the play's themes easier. Shakespeare becomes more difficult for students when we fail to teach some simple ideas about pronunciation.

There are many stories, movies, and plays about teen lovers with parents who don't approve of their relationships. Watch this season's Homeland to witness one.

But there is only one William Shakespeare, and he's all about the language; he's all about the "words, words, words." That's something Hollywood needs to remember and English teachers should never forget.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

May I Have Your Attention, Please? Paying Attention to Teaching Attention

"Attention must be paid to such a person. Attention must be paid." Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman

A recent article in Slate decries the loss of students' attention spans (Schwartz, Barry. "Attention Must be Paid. Slate. 23 September 2013). Schwartz isn't the first to suggest schools need to help students develop longer and stronger attention spans. Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2011) first made me begin rethinking the often fragmented structure of the nation's classrooms. More recently, many educators have jumped on the teaching grit pedagogical fad. This is the focus of Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

In her popular TED talk, Angela Lee Duckworth talks about what constitutes grit and her studies in education about how to build grit. The truth, says Duckworth, is that behavioral science doesn't know much about how to build or teach grit. It's this admission that I thought about while reading Schwartz's essay.

Rather than acknowledging that we don't know much about how to develop grit, Schwartz admonishes educators that they need to teach grit. He uses the SLANT methodology practiced at KIPP schools to substantiate his point:

"They teach first-graders to pay attention by training them to SLANT (sit up, Look and Listen to the speaker, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the teacher)."

What KIPP teaches and Schwartz describes is the essence of paying attention, the central idea of active listening. It's something I use as grading criteria in my speech classes when I tell students that the way they comport themselves as audience members will factor into their speech grades. But I'm on shaky ground because I have nothing but my observation of student behavior on which to justify evaluation of audience behavior, and I'm also watching and listening to speeches while I watch those students in their desks.

Schwartz goes on to use personal training as a metaphor for building attention spans. Gradually, a personal trainer teaches her clients to build muscle mass and endurance. Indeed, our country's commitment to sporting excellence offers a model for teaching grit. But unlike sports, schoolwork often requires a quiet mind and still body.

I illustrate this point to students with a story about myself: While taking a graduate-level research class, I spent ten hours solving a problem on a homework assignment, knowing that homework did not count as a grade. I did, however, know that the homework empowered me to complete the three research projects, so I stuck with the problem until I solved it.

As Duckworth notes, neither innate intelligence nor IQ determines success. Perseverance, tenacity, a stick-to-it attitude, etc. all have more to do with achievement than being smart. Duckworth cites research showing that students need a growth mindset: The belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can grow and change with your mindset. Showing students that the brain is malleable and changeable helps them realize that intelligence isn't fixed and that they can change past failures into future successes.

I've thought often about the question: Why do some students succeed through perseverance and others quit so easily? I'm a stick-to-it kind of person. I literally hate quitting, and I've rarely quit. I can identify what motivates me, but transferring that tenacity to others is more easily said than done. There's a real internal drive that accompanies the finish-no-matter-what mindset. In part, my drive comes from not wanting to satisfy those I perceive as wanting or expecting me to fail. At times I wish I cared less.

For his part, Schwartz argues:

Teachers have a responsibility to train complex minds that are suited to a complex world. This is at least as important as teaching young people mathematics, biology, or literature. For teachers, at all levels, attention must be paid to teaching that attention must be paid. 

Indeed. That's what makes Schwartz's allusion to Death of a Salesman so interesting to me and his admonition of teachers and current methodology so troubling. Here's the passage from which Schwartz draws his allusion:

Then make Charley your father, Biff. You can't do that, can you? I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person. You called him crazy... no, a lot of people think he's lost his... balance. But you don't have to be very smart to know what his trouble is. The man is exhausted. A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man. He works for a company thirty-six years this March, opens up unheard-of territories to their trademark, and now in his old age they take his salary away.

Are they any worse than his sons? When he brought them business, when he was young, they were glad to see him. But now his old friends, the old buyers that loved him so and always found some order to hand him in a pinch--they're all dead, retired. He used to be able to make six, seven calls a day in Boston. Now he takes his valises out of the car and puts them back and takes them out again and he's exhausted. Instead of walking he talks now. He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him anymore, no one welcomes him. And what goes through a man's mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent? Why shouldn't he talk to himself? Why? When he has to go to Charley and borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend to me that it's his pay? How long can that go on? How long? You see what I'm sitting here and waiting for? And you tell me he has no character? The man who never worked a day but for your benefit? When does he get the medal for that?

The passage is uncanny in its relevance to teaching, individual teachers, and the expertise we possess. Attention must be paid, and it must be paid by a public and by a government that doesn't pay attention. It's a bit hypocritical to tell teachers in public schools to follow the example of charter schools (i.e. KIPP) in their fostering of grit. It's unfair to cast public teachers by the wayside and embrace those schools that get to choose the students they want to teach.

Our profession has been allowed to fall into disrespect by the very people who generally turn to us to solve society's problems, and attention must be paid. Schwartz writes that we can't depend on the marketplace to foster grit:

"It would be foolish to expect commercial sources to force complexity on an unwilling public." 

Really? This is a huge part of the problem, and attention must be paid. We in education are exhausted. We are tired of being told that society's problems are ours alone to solve. Attention must be paid. The public, indeed, has an attention deficit problem, and it didn't originate in schools nor can schools solve it alone. Until Schwartz and others pay attention to that, until they become mindful of that, teachers will be able to do little to divert students' attention to gritting it out in the classroom the way they often do in sporting arenas.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sports: Defining Priorities in American High Schools

On Friday evenings my Facebook newsfeed fills up with reports of high school football games. As a high school teacher, the W-L record of my school's athletic teams interests me, and I try to follow their progress and ask about their games. Occasionally, I attend games but mostly as a ticket-seller. Frequently, patrons thank those of us at the gate for volunteering our time. What they often don't know is I get paid, although not much, to take tickets. This is only one of the many expenses associated with high school sports.

Cross-state Rivals: Highland Rams vs. Coeur d'Alene Vikings
I have never really understood the sports obsession, although I am an avid baseball fan, nor do I understand adults obsessed with following their high school teams. I missed my last high school reunion because it was scheduled during the fall so we could attend one of the school's football games as part of the festivities.

Now the October, 2013 issue of The Atlantic poses a question missing from the education reform debate: "The Case Against High School Sports." This is the burning question we in education and those in the education reform movement should be asking and the issue that begs serious attention. It's an issue I addressed in this post.

Certainly, the goal of providing adolescents a productive way to occupy their free time is a worthy goal, as Amanda Ripley explains in her brief chronicling of high school sports history. Arguably, as American schools supposedly lag behind so many other developed countries, especially in STEM subjects, we must ask: At what cost to the education of our young people do we prioritize our high school sports program?

Much of what happens in schools centers around sports. Every year schools devote a week to homecoming festivities, time to pep rallies and homecoming assemblies, etc. In my school, the primary function of student leadership class is planning these and other activities, including prom. We are to believe that the cost-benefit analysis of devoting an entire class to time for planning events outweighs the student enrolling in another academic course. Many students take student leadership all four years of high school, and in my school, many of these students also enroll in a noncredit release time so they can attend religious-studies class during the school day.

During the economic hard times schools have recently experienced, few schools have cut sports programs. Already cash-strapped parents have had to divvy up pay-to-play money and there may have been some reduction in stipends, but schools still employee athletic directors, trainers, coaches, activities secretaries, and others, including bus drivers who transport teams great distances. Here teams frequently travel nine or ten hours one way to compete. Indeed, our Friday game was with a school (in-state) nine hours away.

"Football cannot be defended in the high school unless it is subordinated, controlled, and made to contribute something definite in the cause of education," (Roy Henderson, athletic director of the University Interscholastic League, 1927). It's time to ask the question: What does football contribute to academics? And we need an honest assessment.

I'm interested in honest answers about the amount of time students spend preparing for and playing a sport, as well as how their attendance and school class choices are impacted by their participation. I know students who have dropped my Communication 1101 class because its academic demands would interfere with their sports participation. A student only has so many hours in a day. They and their parents make choices about how to use that time. What gets omitted when the priority is sports?

Those happy with the status quo argue that homework has little to no positive impact on student performance and that kids spend six and a half hours in school already. As I alluded above, this is often an untrue comparison, first because many students fill their schedules with classes related to or in support of their activities, including seeking out teachers who coach and who adjust their expectations based on their coaching responsibilities; second, students typically spend at least 10-15 hours practicing a sport compared to 5-6 hours a week in math, history, or English class.

Additionally, when coaching interferes with teaching duties, especially during spring sports, students in core classes often find themselves attending with a substitute. Over the years, I've heard many frustrated students attempting to teach themselves difficult math concepts because the teacher was absent for a game.

Indeed, students benefit from participating in sports. The research supports this as Ripley acknowledges, but what about the cost to those students who don't participate? They often feel marginalized when the sports program takes precedence. In one study of 30,000 students at the University of Oregon, Ripley describes, when the football team succeeds, academic performance among college male students decreases.

Ripley also chronicles the cultural change in one Texas school when sports were abolished and academics became the priority. Premont, Texas had an either/or choice: Either drop sports or risk closure by the state.

At this juncture, either the American public--including parents, educators, reformers--must acknowledge its priority is maintaing the competitive sports program status quo, or the pseudo education reformers will continue eviscerating public education. In these competing choices, there will be a winner and a loser. That's the nature of competition.

*Corrected link: 1:34 p.m. MST, Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Exiling Adjectives and Adverbs: Does Writing Clarity Depend on Vilifying Modifiers?


At least that's the gist of Mark Liberman's quantitative analysis of adjective and adverb frequency in select writing samples.

In "Stop Hating on Adjectives and Adverbs" (Slate, September 10, 2013) Liberman challenges popular conventional wisdom that says,

To make writing clear, banish adjectives and adverbs. Go through your writing with the cap off the red pen and strike through as many adjectives and adverbs as possible. Be direct and to the point. State what you mean without the embellishment. Avoid the clutter adjectives and adverbs add to your writing. They make writing dense and unreadable. 

That's a rough paraphrase of the conventional wisdom Liberman pushes against. His study is fascinating, in part because of the texts he analyzes.

First, taking a page from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for whom the notorious Bulwer-Lytton annual bad writing contest is named, Liberman analyzed a paassage from Paul Clifford. Here's the first sentence:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

The 1591 word passage Liberman examined contained 11.7% adjectives and adverbs (6.8% adjectives and 4.9% adverbs.

Next, Liberman turned his attention to On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Zinsser, of course, is one of the writing authorities who decry the use of adjectives and adjectives as "clutter." Yet in the 3,500 word passage he analyzed, Liberman found 12.8% of the words are adjectives and adverbs! Does this mean Zinsser's writing is less clear than Buwer-Lytton's? That, of course, is doubtful.

Liberman also analyzed a passage from the notoriously dense Jaques Derrida's Of Grammatology. Derrida used 13.9% adjectives and adverbs in the 17, 134 words in chapter 2. That's 19% more than Zinsser.

As Liberman notes, Mark Twain also bashed the use of adjectives and adverbs: "When you catch an adjective, kill it." Twain's letter, however, uses 14.1% adjectives and adverbs of its 1304 words! Maybe Twain was being satirical. Clearly, I need to reread the letter.

Science writer Okulicz-Kozaryn, author of "Cluttered writing: adjectives and adverbs  in academia," and the one who inspired Liberman's study, devoted fully 15.8% of his 803 words to adjectives and adverbs, which goes to show "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," and the truth of "First, practice what you preach."

In all, Liberman studied 45 texts. There is a winner of the prize for using the most adjectives and adverbs. The record was set in 2004 by Ben Yagoda who wrote an article called "The Adjective--So Ludic, So Minatory, So Twee" for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Hw ironic! In his 1607 word article, Yagoda devoted 18.3% to adjectives and adverbs!

Liberman's fascinating study (adjective intended), makes me ponder: What does make writing clear?

Writing Clearly is about more than the number of adjectives and adverbs a writer uses.

Writing clearly is about diction and syntax, and punctuation, and grammar.

Writing clearly is about noun clauses, adjective phrases and clauses, adverbial phrases and clauses.

Could it be that writing clearly may be about many of the seemingly archaic rules teachers such as my eighth grade English teacher drilled into us via sentence diagramming: avoid prepositions at the end of a sentence, avoid split infinitives, avoid beginning a sentence with because and with coordinating conjunctions. Those probably aren't the rules we want to attach ourselves to.

Perhaps, however, we need to pay more attention to meta-writing, the kind that focuses on sentence-level considerations, and, dare I say it, close reading that analyzes syntactical structures so students can learn from them and model them in their own writing.

As Liberman explains:

Finally, there's a technical flaw in the whole "avoid adjectives and adverbs" admonition. Nouns are often modified by other nouns, by prepositional phrases, and in other ways that don't involve adjectives; and verbs are often modified by prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and so on. And if it were true that modification in general was a Bad Thing, then we'd need to count these other sorts of modifiers as well, not just adjectives and adverbs.

Clearly, in English and in writing in English, there are no absolutes. Write on! 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Candy and the Cankersaur" by Jason Sandberg [Review and Teaching Ideas]

As children my boys loved dinosaurs, so I decorated their room using dinosaur wallpaper, baked and decorated dinosaur cakes for their birthdays, read dinosaur-themed books nightly, and played dinosaur games with them. 

Although dinosaurs ceased to roam the earth long ago, they still romp through the imaginations of children, whose natural inquisitiveness and desire to learn know no such extinction. It's in this vein that graphic artist and author Jason Sandberg introduces Candy and the Cankersaur (Kindle $1.99) a visually stunning ebook sure to appeal to the dinosaur-lover in most children and in many parents and teachers, too. 
Candy and the Cankersaur uses stunning images to narrate the story of Candy, a child who from all appearances leads a privileged life. Simply, she has every material object money can buy, but what money can't buy is what Candy wants most: time with her busy father.

To "solve" his and Candy's problem, Candy's father decides she needs an exotic pet, one no other child has. That's how Candy and Cank get together. As with any good story, there's a conflict. In Candy and the Cankersaur, jealousy rears it's ugly green head, and something must be done when another child's covetousness threaten Candy's and Cank's bond.

Sandberg describes himself as

a Fine Artist who also wants to produce the ‘missing books’ from my childhood, the books I wished I’d had.

While Candy's story will appeal to both boys and girls, it's themes will signal to parents the importance of 

  • spending time with their children rather than worrying so much about the toys in the toy box,
  • teaching children that there are times when the hard and fast rules must be broken, especially when they threaten someone's safety,
  • admitting a mistake and making amends leads to stronger friendships and relationships, and
  • sharing and generosity are among the most admirable traits we can foster in our children.
Teachers will want to mine Candy and the Cankersaur for its clever alliteration, such as "Buster the Beast Bester." That's quite a tongue twister, making the book a good read-aloud for my speech students. 

Additionally, I like the abundance of dialogue and voices Sandberg uses. This, too, is something I look for in read-alouds, particularly those my students use in our children's story-telling unit. 

As more classrooms and students acquire iPads, the demand for high-quality ebooks will grow. Finding high-quality stories that reinforce the virtues of kindness and friendship while appealing to children's love of exotic animals reinforces the benefits of moving from print to pad. 

Finally, a colorful book like Candy and the Cankersaur will allow me to move an old lesson-plan into the twenty-first century. I like having students write their own stories for wordless picture books. This is something I first did with Tuesday by David Wiesner, which is now available as an ebook.

Unfortunately, having only one copy of the book presented many limitations to the assignment, so I abandoned it long ago. In contrast, an ebook gives me the opportunity to resurrect that extinct assignment using the Kindle Cloud Reader. And although CatC isn't a wordless book, I can adapt the assignment by projecting only the pictures and having students write their own version of the story. Then we can compare their rewrites to the original. 

Looks as though that old dinosaur of an assignment isn't extinct after all, thanks to Candy and the Cankersaur by Jason Sandberg! 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Speaking Beyond the Classroom: Using Voice Comments in Google Drive

After seeing a post about Voice Comments via Free Technology for Teachers, I decided to play around with it. I love conferencing with students about their work, and know that many find my handwritten comments nearly impossible to read. Even when I attempt to decipher my hieroglyphics, I sometimes fail to accurately interpret my chicken scratching.

Before launching into the challenges and successes in my journey to learn Voice Comments, I'll share a few ways I plan to use the app in my classes this year:

1. Feedback for students: Students will need to set up a Google account, learn to use Google Drive (particularly the sharing, editing, and commenting features), and install the Voice Comments app. Additionally, teachers will need to "train" students to listen to the audio feedback. We all know that our written comments often get ignored by students, so it's imperative that teachers find ways to validate student listening to the comments.

2. Reflection about Units, Lesson Plans, and Assignments: Voice Comments offer teachers a unique opportunity to reflect on their own practice. I often have good intentions about writing reflections at the end of units, making immediate changes in lesson plans right after teaching the lesson, etc. We all know what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men! Typically, I don't remember what I planned to change until after the next time I teach the lesson! Am I the only one who does that?

3. Sharing Resources with Colleagues: Whether you share within your department, building, district, or virtual PLN, imagine bringing colleagues voices into your classroom and/or onto your couch and learning directly from them as they talk about how they teach a lesson, plan a unit, etc.

4. Peer Evaluating: What if students could peer evaluate by talking to one another outside the classroom? Although not all students will embrace this idea, once a few do, more will. Rather than skyping (as some of my students have done), Voice Comments allow students to highlight sections of text and sync the comments with the highlighted section. I see a much more productive peer evaluating experience than I often get in my classroom.

Additionally, monitoring peer evaluating in the classroom is a challenge for me, especially when I am working in a group. With Voice Comments, not only will I be able to offer students feedback, but I can listen to the feedback they give one another and improve the peer evaluation experience based on what I learn from their feedback.

Launching Voice Comments

To get started with Voice Comments, you'll need to access your Google Drive Page. Once there, select the red "Create" button and navigate to "Connect More Apps" in the gray box at the bottom of the page.

After selecting "Connect more apps," I needed to search for Voice Comments. Launch the app. You should get a request to "Allow" a list of options. Click on "Allow."

After installing the app, choose a file to experiment with. I have not yet figured out how to delete a comment and rerecord it, so I wanted to experiment first.

I decided to experiment with a fudge recipe. To access my voice comment, go to "Comments" in the top right corner and click on the link that will redirect you to my first attempt to use the app. Here's the link to the fudge recipe. 

There is a big gap in the audio where I wasn't sure how to stop recording (Stop is on the right where the microphone icon was located.). To hear the playback of my comments, click on the green arrow. After the gap, you'll hear my dog Snug barking followed by me mentioning my inability to remember talking about a feature of the app, which I still couldn't remember! What I forgot to talk about is the highlighting feature I mentioned earlier in the post.

You might encounter a prompt requesting that access by the app. This shows up as a small box in the middle of the page. You'll need to select "allow" in a smaller box; otherwise you'll get a spinning wheel that will prove very frustrating.

Another challenge I faced in learning how to use the app was with my built-in microphone. Even though I had granted the app access, it still gave me a message saying it couldn't hear me. I was able to fix this by clicking on an additional "Allow" box in the upper right corner just above the "We can't hear you box." Then I had to exit out and reload the app.

For me, technology always poses a learning curve, but once I overcame these initial hurdles, I found the app increasingly easy to use. That said, the real test will be on the receiving end!

Next, I experimented with an assignment reflection/tutorial. I chose to talk about teaching silent scenes in Beowulf. Here's the link. As readers of this blog know, I'm a huge disciple of performance pedagogy in language arts and take any opportunity I get to share the Folger Shakespeare methods with others. Voice Comments will be a useful tool, enabling me to talk about ways I use the Folger methods in my classes.

Since my first reason for learning the Voice Comment app is for feedback on student work, I decided to practice on a student-generated silent scene from a few years ago. Here's the link. I do see some challenges with the highlighting feature and with my ability to compartmentalize in my head what I want to say to students. Even though I mention surface errors in my example here, that's not really what I want to focus on in the future. My goal is to use the app as a way to comment on organization and ideas and only briefly mention surface errors.

Although conferencing with students about content and organization is my main focus in providing feedback, I do see potential for creating tutorials that address surface errors and grammar. That said, there's probably a better way to do this.

Jennifer Roberts has a helpful video tutorial; however, the site has changed somewhat, and I tried to address these in my post.
Both students and teachers know the old story about dropping a load of papers over the bannister and assigning those that land on top an A grade. Most old-timers like me know what it's like to return papers with coffee and popcorn stains. I have shaken my purple and pink pens in attempt to force more ink onto the page, and I've looked frantically for the pen I began grading a paper with days ago. Perhaps these stories will become legends of long ago as technology continues to evolve.

Happily, I can now dismiss students from class knowing that that evening my voice will once again greet them from the virtual beyond. (Insert smiley emoticon here!)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Teach Like a Pirate": Review 1, "Channeling My Inner Pirate"

Dave Burgess admonishes teachers to channel their inner pirate in his popular professional book Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator (Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. 2012).

I found myself of two minds while reading TLaP, so in that spirit I've decided to write two separate reviews of the book, which I gave four stars on Goodreads, one representing my two inner teacher voices. In a sense, I'm having a left brain vs. right brain debate with myself about the book.

This post focuses on what I like about the book and how I found myself reliving the pirate moments in my teaching career. I'll post my second review a little later.

Review 1: Channeling My Inner Pirate: A.K.A. Drama Queen

The drama queen teacher in me (I have a drama endorsement) loves Burgess's many lists of ways teachers can get students up and moving. Simply, teachers who teach like pirates embrace the edutainment philosophy and make class an increasingly fun place to be while still teaching to the standards, whether or not they be local, state, or CCSS. Simply, we can have and do it all! That's the premise of the book.

Thus, while reading TLaP, I began thinking about the ways I've unleashed my inner pirate over the years. At first blush, my list looks like this:

Have Fun with Food:
Early in my career, I incorporated a Medieval Feast into my Chaucer unit as a culminating activity. I checked a recipe book out of the library and translated the recipes from Middle English to late Modern English. Students prepared some of the dishes, and I made some, too. We decorated the room and dressed in costumes. I'll never forget the disgusting taste of Goss Sauce, and was surprised about how much I loved the Pomegranate drink one student made.

From early in my career, I've done what nearly every teacher does: I've fed my students. These days we have our Mocktail Party in my Communication dual enrollment class and our Anglo Saxon mead hall boasting celebration when we study Beowulf. A colleague creates a speakeasy when students study The Great Gatsby, but I have a junk food feast party that correlates with the party scenes Fitzgerald describes. The junk food feast works as a catalyst for emulating Fitzgerald's writing style.

TLaP inspires me to find other ways to incorporate food into my lessons. What do real pirates eat anyway?

Move Like a Pirate:
I've seen enough pirate movies to know they don't sit in lounge chairs on the ship's deck. Pirates have some impressive moves and quite capable get others moving too.

My colleague Debbie has a great description of Living Iambic Pentameter on her blog.Having been trained in the Folger Shakespeare Library's teaching methods, movement is no stranger to students in my classroom. I believe in getting students out of their seats and onto their feet whenever possible and incorporate performance pedagogy into my lessons, including poetry and prose, whenever possible.

My classroom is small, so sometimes I move class out into the hall so we can form a big circle for sharing and mingling. When students become "experts" on a topic, term, or concept and when they share their "expertise" with one another by getting out of their seats, we build our classroom community and reinforce our learning. When students are up and moving, they are more engaged learners and more likely to contribute to class discussion.

Speed dating, having a mocktail party, performing group speeches, blocking and performing scenes from literature are only a few of the ways I get kids to bust a move in class. I've even had kids play leap frog to get a sense of Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and compete in a braying contest when we studied A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Take it to the Street:
There's more than one way to take students on a field trip.

Many years ago as part of the Julius Caesar unit, I began having a small outdoor festival. Students played Olympic-style games and wore togas. A few colleagues joined the party, which led to an all-school Shakespeare festival one year and a Twain festival another year. These festivals took lots of energy and became an all-school endeavor in conjunction with our local university.

One year I taught Uncle Tom's Cabin and decided to send my students on an Underground Railroad trip. I solicited businesses to act as points along the railroad. Students had cards they took to the businesses for documentation, and some of the businesses functioned as covert agents working to capture "students" along their journey. I incorporated a writing assignment into the project, too.

When I teach The Great Gatsby, I solicit our school resource officer to help by giving a presentation on drunk driving laws in our state. After, we set up an obstacle course of orange cones on the parking lot or practice football field behind the building. Students wear goggles that simulate the vision of an inebriated person and drive a golf cart through the obstacle course. This is a popular activity that would work well with any text that uses alcohol as a plot or character device. It's especially effective in the spring when students make plans for prom and graduation.

On her blog, Debbie describes the poetry/art project we turned into a museum walk for our seniors last year. I wrote about the project in an earlier post, too.

More about the Book:

My favorite parts of TLaP are the many lists of suggestions for engaging students in learning. Burgess talks about how to use music to inspire learning, how to become a guest speaker in your own class, how to simply transform the room's atmosphere using plastic sheeting, how to move the students physically and the class literally from the room to other physical spaces.

Burgess wants teachers  to be "daring, adventurous, and willing into set forth in uncharted territories." The pirate teacher "rejects the status quo and refuses to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence. They are entrepreneurs who take risks and are willing to travel to the ends of the earth for that which they value. Although fiercely independent, they travel with and embrace a diverse crew."

As too Burgess says, too many teachers teach from a perch (the desk). Burgess incorporates the metaphor of a lifeguard tower to describe such teachers. Others call the the "sage on the stage." To engage students in learning, we must willingly immerse ourselves into our classrooms.

In fact, Burgess uses PIRATE as an acronym that he explains throughout Part I of the book. In Part II, he offers the extremely helpful list of ways to channel your inner pirate, and in Part III he tells us "How to Build a Better Pirate," meaning how to get our pirate ship to set sail without sinking!

As with my colleague Debbie, simply reading TLaP brought back memories of my pirate moments. Early on I began keeping a list of new ideas inspired by Burgess's book. Simply, the pirate creed works for any subject. Although Burgess teaches history, I see his ideas at work in my own classroom and in those of inspirational teachers from around the country and across disciplines and grades.

So get out your spyglass, matey, and view your classroom with a patch over your eye, a parrot on your shoulder, and a peg in your leg. I bet you have your own inner pirate bounty buried in your files like treasure on a pirate's map. And if you don't, a treasure map awaits in in Teach Like a Pirate. Here's to blue skies and smooth sailing.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Censorship in the Classroom and the Choices Students and Teachers Make

The renewed assault on the works of Sherman Alexie and Laurie Halse Anderson, two of my favorite writers, by the censors among us, has caused me to ponder the ways both students and teachers censor.

Censorship, after all, is a matter of choice.

My definition of censorship in the classroom moves beyond a strictly legal definition of the word: 

The suppression or proscription of speech or writing that is deemed obscene, indecent, or unduly controversial.

Since Plato first suggested banning poetry instruction, self-appointed censors have targeted various texts they deem unsuitable for public consumption. Thus, what began as a neutral term in ancient Roman society has evolved into a highly-charged emotional agenda. Make no mistake, censorship, at its core, is all about suppression and control. 

There is a question that enters my mind each time I hear some self-appointed moralist or member of the thought police propose censoring a book, a painting, a song, a movie, or a television show:

Who censors the censors?

But this post isn't about those who target Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I have taught and will continue to teach Alexie's fabulous YA novel. I keep Anderson's book, and others, in my classroom library and have recommended it to many students and teachers, and I buy more of her books each time I hear about a new assault on her work. It's the way I choose to #SpeakLoudly.

Today I want to talk about the ways students and teachers practice censorship in the classroom.

Teachers First

We teachers make choices to include and to exclude certain texts in our curriculum. This summer I've read many blogs railing against the summer required reading assignment. When teachers assign specific texts for students to read during the summer, regardless of the various merits of those texts, they are exercising control over a students' reading life, even during the months when the student isn't enrolled in a class at school. Do we really have a right to assign homework when we don't even have a student in class? 

Required summer reading smacks of censorship in that, perhaps a stretch, it seeks to control students' thoughts during the warm hiatus. Teachers don't trust students enough to allow them to simply "let my people read," as Donnalyn Miller chants. 

Others, especially bloggers with children battling the required summer reading, have eloquently penned thoughtful arguments against the counter-productive and diminishing returns of required summer reading. In "The Battle of Summer Reading," Gary Anderson describes how required summer reading subverts the reading choices his children make on their own and the on-going battle to get the books read. 

When children must complete summer reading in lieu of their own reading choices, to my thinking that's a form of censorship. 

But it isn't just the summer reading mandate that censors. Teachers also censor in the classroom, and as I write this, I'm including myself. I like being in control. It's not easy to relinquish control to adolescents. Yet I must ask myself: At what cost to students' love of reading am I exercising total control over the reading students do in my classes? 

Sure, I have specific curricular mandates, both in terms of literature and writing. However, my current goal is to use the CCSS, which my state has adopted, not as a way to limit curriculum choices but as a way to expand them to include more rather than less student reading choice. I'm asking myself an essential question: How can the CCSS work to expand student choice rather than constrict it? To answer the question, I'll work to balance the three angles of the CCSS Three-Part Triangle for Measuring Text Complexity: 

Currently, the focus has primarily been on quantitative measures since labeling and leveling books based on lexile scores alone is easy and gives the money changers a way to score contracts and earn profits. 

It's incumbent upon teachers to push-back against this reductive thinking that takes an equilateral triangle and morphs it into a scalene with little to no equality in terms of consideration for texts or students. 

Those who advocate for only prescribed texts, for informational texts privileging imaginative literature, for quantitative measurements that exclude qualitative and reader-task considerations, for eliminating student choice in classroom reading mandates, those who take this narrow position stand with the censors. They are no better than the Wesley Scroggins among us who want to censor Speak. We must ask the question Kelly Jensen asks on Book Riot when she wrote about the latest effort to censor Speak: "What Are Grown-Ups Afraid of in YA Books?" I include teachers and administrators and superintendents and school boards and politicians and pseudo-education reformers and all others who desire total control and prescriptive curriculum in my critique. 

As a new school year approaches and teachers in over forty states implement the CCSS, I'll look for ways to use the standards to give the reader, the student, as much freedom and consideration as possible. For example, I'll be asking myself how I can teach the hero archetype while giving students more choice about the hero myths they read, both classic and contemporary, such as Katniss and others in YA literature. Many will choose to read Beowulf or The Iliad in its entirety rather than just the excerpts I assign if I do my job well. At least that's been the reality of student choice in my classroom in recent years. 

Sometimes student choice is simply a matter of offering students two or three texts to consider and letting democracy rule. I do this when I teach Shakespeare. Last year students chose between The Tragedy of Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew. They chose Macbeth. Long live democracy. Long live the freedom to read and to choose one's own reading material. 

Students' Turn:

Early in this post, I said I want to talk about the ways students and teachers practice censorship in the classroom. There is not a teacher who hasn't experienced students who censor. They do it in many ways:

  • tuning out with earbuds in to drown out the sound of the teacher
  • skipping class
  • using Spark Notes and other online cheats to avoid reading the assigned text
  • sitting defiantly in the back of the room reading Eragon, for example, while the teacher talks about a required text
  • teacher shopping for a class that doesn't require any reading (They do exist). 
  • copying work from past students or friends in another class
The ways students get around being told what to read are as varied as their retinal patterns. For those who need more evidence that students self-censor and censor teachers' prescribed reading, consider this infographic Epic Reads shared on Facebook earlier today: 

The censors among us to whom we devote our outrage, those who challenge Sherman Alexie, Laurie Halse Anderson and many other YA writers, certainly pose a serious threat, one we must diligently challenge and speak against. They pose, unfortunately, only one threat to books and reading in our classrooms. Sometimes evil and upsetting forces exist within. Too often, "We have met the enemy and they are us." 

This school year: Start the Choices. Stop the Censorship.