I’m moving.moving_van

This blog is moving with me.

This Used Books in Class blog will now be headquartered in West Haven, Connecticut, as I have taken a position as the Language Arts, Social Studies, Library Media and Testing Coordinator for their public school system. West Haven is a shoreline community with six elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school, and a high school that houses a student population four times my previous school.

I am very excited about this opportunity.

One of my first responsibilities will be helping teachers at the middle school (grades 7 & 8)  develop an independent reading program for their extended English/Language Arts period. To make the reading program a success, the teachers plan to offer student choice in reading and that means the classroom libraries need to be expanded.

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Six bags full for $180 !

Building or expanding a classroom library can be expensive, but by seeking out gently used books, the expense can be minimized to as little as $.50/book. One simply needs to know where to look….and the best place to look for gently used quality books for any age is at the Grandmother of all Connecticut Book Sales, the Labor Day Book Sale that benefits the Mark Twain Public Library in Redding, Connecticut.

photo 1Some library book sales in Connecticut have a few tables or sections of a room devoted to books for children or teen readers. In contrast, the Mark Twain Library Book Fair has an entire room with literary treasures galore for young readers. I had hardly scanned the first tables when the neatly arranged copies of Rick Riordan books caught my eye. All three copies of the Red Pyramid filled the bottom of my bag, followed by novels from his Percy Jackson series, including the elusive The Last Olympian. I turned around to find a variety of titles from John A. Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, selections from Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, selections from Margaret Peterson’s Haddix series as well as copies from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.

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Boxes of Young Adult (YA) novels & non-fiction from the Mark Twain Library Book Sale; $.50-3.50 each!

Once I collected books from YA series, I looked for individual titles by writers who are always popular: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Brian’s Winter, Mike Lupica’s Heat and Travel Team; Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Mcgee, Milkweed, Stargirl; and a plethora of princess stories from Meg Cabot. If there was a book that was a hit with middle school readers, this book sale had it…in triplicate. Finding multiple copies was helpful, since multiple classrooms will be accessing these books during the same independent reading periods. For this reason, I had no problem justifying the purchase of seven copies of Louis Sacher’s Holes or Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped.

There were several student volunteers tabulating my haul, and I would ask them every now and then, “Did you ever read that book?” or “Do you think a student would like to read this book?” They would nod enthusiastically. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul got a soulful look from one of the tabulators, who explained, “Some stories in this are just so…sad. I felt better reading them.” They approved of my selections.

I was soon packed up with six bags full of young adult novels and non-fiction for $180, and I was helped to my car by a boy scout (literally…he was in uniform!).

Tomorrow, I plan deliver this first load of books to the teachers, creating the “book flood” in their classrooms. The Mark Twain Library Book volunteers who so capably load the tables, organize the donations, and make the whole experience a “destination” for readers of all ages must be credited with helping more than their own library. Their hard work has made an expansion of classroom libraries possible. A wonderful effort from a library named for the American writer who once said that, “out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.”

Now, let us see how these expanded classroom libraries help grow the students of West Haven!

My seven-year-old nephew hosts his Lego creations on shelves all over his room as though he is curating a museum show. Look, but do not touch.  My three year-old great niece sings the refrain, “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (NOTE: the tune is a maddening “songworm”)

My two sons were adamant that I should not give away their Legos when they went to college.

Those tiny, multi-colored plastic building bits have a dedicated, even obsessive, fan base. Such fanaticism is the  reason why I thought the following story I recently heard on National Public Radio (NPR) would make for a great informational text that blends visual, print, and audio with social media for a wide range of readers.

The story was titled,  Lost At Sea, Legos Reunite On Beaches And Facebook and the audio was broadcast on 7/26/2014.

The text for audio link reads:

Nearly two decades ago, a massive wave struck the Tokio Express, a container ship that had nearly 5 million Legos onboard. The colorful toy building blocks poured into the ocean. Today, they are still washing up on shores in England.

The NPR page contains a link to the Facebook site (https://www.facebook.com/LegoLostAtSea) where beachcombers have been uploading photos of their findings:

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Each photo on Facebook is accompanied by a few words by the person who posted the photo- a little story to share.

What makes this story of the missing Legos so wonderful is that there are a multitude of stories in other media. Each has a different take on the lost cargo of Legos which were swept off the container ship 17 years ago.

South Florida’s Sun Sentinel ran the article Sea Hunt a year after the loss. The story by Margo Harakas (May 26, 1998) featured interviews with oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer and beachcomber Cathie Katz. Ebbesmeyer provided his estimate that in excess of 1,000 containers a year slip their moorings saying, “That’s not much considering the 40 million or more containers transported across the oceans annually.”  Katz and Ebbesmeyer  both found a delicious irony in the kind of Lego toys that was lost at sea…that particular Lego container contained aquatic-themed toys.

The Atlantic offered specifics on the kinds of aquatic-themed toys in the story Why Are All These Legos Washing Up on the Beach? in an article by Megan Garber that ran 7/26/2014:

 There were toy kits that included plastic aquanauts. And spear guns (13,000 of them). And life preservers (26,600). And scuba tanks (97,500). And octopi (4,200).

For the older students, there is an article by Joseph Gallivan (8/9/2014) in The Independent, Life’s a Beach to Comb, that discusses the technical details of the Lego spill:

A container ship, the Tokio Express, en route from Rotterdam to New York on 13 February 1997, was hit by a rogue wave about 20 miles off Land’s End. She tilted 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back, and lost 62 HGV-sized containers overboard.

The article goes on to discuss the contents of other famous cargo spills including one that released chocolate: Hershey’s Kisses, Tootsie Rolls, Reisen dark German chocolates, and Werther’s hard butterscotch candies. Another spill involved 500,000 cans of beer, and yet another spilled out a container of yellow ducks. There is even a mention of a few dead bodies found floating in the ocean’s currents…all lost at sea.

The variety of these informational texts about these lost Legos can serve as a springboard for other research students can do on topics ranging from ocean currents to degrading plastics to the cultural fascination with the Legos themselves.

For those fortunate to live near a beach, there is even an invitation to share their beachcombing findings. The oceanographer Ebbesmeyer has provided his address with directions on how to share:

…findings can be shared with Curtis C Ebbesmeyer, 6306 21st Ave NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA. Please include photos of yourself and drifters, written accounts, locations and dates. Factual descriptions, concerning the drift of the water body fronting your shore, are welcome.

So, I guess it is true. When it comes to tracking Legos, “everyone is cool when you’re part of a team.”

“Ancora imparo. [I am still learning.]“

― Michelangelo, at age 87 in 1562

In the United States, students will spend 96 weeks or collectively about two years of their academic life in summer vacation days. Our 183 day (in Connecticut) school year became standardized not because of farming, but as a result of an industrial society that opted to let urban students out of the sweltering cities during the summer months.

Kenneth Gold, a professor of education at the College of Staten Island, debunked the myth of an agrarian school year in his book School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools. He noted that if schools were following a true agrarian school year, students would be more available during the summer months while crops were growing but unavailable during planting (late spring) and harvesting (early fall).  His research demonstrated that before the standardized school year, there were concerns that too much school was bad for the health of students and teachers:

“There was a whole medical theory that [people would get sick] from too much schooling and teaching” (Gold)

Summer vacation was the solution to these medical concerns during the mid-19th Century. The result was a standardization of education has led to our present “summer leisure economy.” The 21st Century emphasis on  academic skills  necessary for success in life now contrasts with the mid-19th Century’s standards. There is a growing body of research on the adverse impact of summer vacation on learning.

A meta-analysis of 138 influences or “what works in education” was published (2009) in Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement by John Hattie and Greg Yates. Their  results are posted on the Visible Learning website.  They ranked the effects of completed studies (international), and using data from these studies they demonstrated that an influence greater than .04 was a contribution to student achievement.

For their finding on summer vacation,  39 studies were used to rank the effect of summer vacation on student achievement. The findings using this data revealed summer vacation as having a negative effect ( -.09 effect) on education. They ranked summer vacation at the bottom of what works in education, a dismal 134 out of 138. Many researchers refer to the achievement damage done as the “summer slide.”

So what do some teachers do to counter this effect?

At the beginning of summer, students are sent home with work packets, reading lists, and other materials to counter the effects of what is commonly known as the “summer slide.” My school (grades 7-12) is no exception, and the objective for assigning this work is to provide students the practice in reading, writing, or math they need to maintain the skills they have developed during the school year.

The reality is that by mid-August, students and parents recognize they are in “crunch time,” and the summer work assigned as academic practice morphs into a contentious activity that looms large on the calendar. Parents remind/force/argue students to complete the work. Students may wait until the last possible moment to do schoolwork. Both parents and students see the work as an incursion into their summer break from school.

Meanwhile, on the teacher side, the knowledge that all those packets and reading responses will be submitted for assessment the first weeks back at school is daunting as well.

I believe I can safely say that no one-teachers, parents, students- likes summer work.

As an example, I recently received a note from a parent whose child is in enrolled in an honors level. This level is assigned more work to do, and she offered an impassioned plea that her children work hard to juggle their academics, athletics, jobs, etc. “They need a break,” she begged stating that they already can read and write well. “Why must we do this to students every summer?” she asked.

Must we? Do students who read and write well really need more practice? Do students need a break?

I wish I could make all stakeholders, including this one, happy by declaring that summer vacation should be an “academic-free zone”, but in my educator’s heart, I do not believe that students need a “break” especially when it comes to learning. I believe learning is ongoing, and those work packets and reading lists are designed at a minimum to keep students’ minds active. Granted, some of the assignments may be poorly designed, but they are based on a philosophy of maintaining skill sets.

While many students are fortunate to have the means to travel during summer vacation or indulge in firsthand experiences that benefit them academically, there are other students in their classes who do not. The work packets and summer reading equalize academic practice for all students during summer vacation.

Furthermore, learning individual responsibility to complete work assigned is another lesson at all grade levels. Students who choose other endeavors, namely athletics or jobs, must learn to be organized. In my experience as a teacher, the students who are the most successful are those who participate in multiple activities and learn to balance their academic responsibilities. How a student completes his or her summer work is also life lesson.

Consider again the 96 weeks that students have off for summer vacation during their academic career (K-12) because of a decision made in the mid-19th Century. Yes, I want students to have time to play and to travel and to relax, but why not have some assigned academic practice during their collective two years in the 21st Century that are afforded for summer vacation?learning never stops

I am happy to concede that the summer work packets and reading lists are a poor substitute for authentic learning, and I will continue to look for ways to encourage student minds throughout the entire year, not just from September to June. In considering the note from that parent, I am thinking that interdisciplinary summer work might prove successful in reducing the amount for students and in sharing the grading workload for teachers.

Summer vacation, however,  should not be an excuse to stop learning. The artist Michelangelo explained that he was “still learning” at the age of 87. Our job as educators is to encourage students to recognize they are always learning, year round. Whether there are work packets, reading lists, or other assignments, there is no summer break from learning.

A student’s mind should not be on vacation.

15% of the 21st Century is almost over and the headline Before Buying Classroom Technology, Asking ‘Why?’  by Ross Brenneman is in Education Week.

This is one of the most popular stories of the week, July 18, 2014.

Why?

Not why is this story popular, but why is there even a question as to question why schools should buy technology?

Certainly, the headline is never the whole story, but the why in the question posed is misleading or frustrating.

Any educational purchase, capital or operating, should always begin with the question “why?”, yet the impression the article makes is that there are administrators who, in an attempt to personalize learning for students, are purchasing technology without having a plan or vision.

Consider first that the word in question-technology- is defined as:

the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area;  capability given by the practical application of knowledge of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems” (Merriam-Webster).

Ironic, then, that the impression the article makes is that technology is causing administrators more problems than solving them.

The article cites Allison Powell, vice president for new learning models at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, who recounts that some administrators are saying, ‘I bought all this technology, now what?':

“They’re buying the technology without thinking through what their specific learning goals and outcomes are, and technology might not be the right tool for that.”(Powell)

Such characterizations do not inspire confidence in leadership for learning in the 21st Century.  A look at the comment section that followed the article echoes similar frustrations :

Good grief!!! I have been involved with instructional technology as a teacher, a librarian, an administrator, and in higher education since the early 1990s – and there STILL has to be an article/debate/controversy how to best integrate technological advances in our nation’s classrooms?!ALlen Educator

“Why?” is a good question. However, there’s also “What?”, “Who?”, and “How?” (Assuming “where” is your school and “when” is ASAP.)-Tad Douce

This general portrayal of hapless administrators is not helpful to education, especially when just a few reasons to incorporate technology are obvious:

-standardized testing is now done, or will be done, digitally;
-data and data analysis to improve instruction uses technology;
-achieving college readiness (research) means students will use technology;
-career readiness (business) means students will use technology;
-communicating (in real time) with all stakeholders is education requires technology.

There are more, but these obvious reasons are just a few that could guide administrators to shape a vision as they invest in technology as they would any other educational purchase to prepare students for the future. The answers to the question “why” therefore, are generally understood.  Instead, the question “how will this technology be used” should be foremost in any administrator’s design for the future.Screenshot 2014-07-23 22.51.36

Furthermore, how will any administrator’s vision or design for the future be shaped and reshaped depends on developments in technology; technology is not a one time purchase. There will be many iterations of technology, hardware and software, used in classrooms tomorrow (…. and tomorrow and tomorrow). Above all, in meeting these iterations, an administrator’s vision or design must include ongoing training for educators.

To be fair, Education Week’s article centered on the use of technology in the delivery of personalized learning. In the end, Brennerman points out that the 21st Century is no different than any other century, that “personalized learning can be implemented without technology.” Yet, the headline says nothing about this message. Rather, the impression left is that there are many visionless administrators asking “why?”as if technology is a fad.

Administrators must work to correct the general impression made by the “why” in this headline.  With 85% of the 21st Century ahead, the question should be  “how will” their vision continue to shape the role of technology in education’s future.

This morning I had to slow down in the children’s books section of the Friends of the Westport Library Summer Book Sale. I slowed to sort through the extensive offerings of books on tables in the big tent. I also slowed to keep an eye on three-year-old Pearl, my niece’s daughter, in the smaller tent. That slowing down resulted in a great payoff in picture books.

I shopped on the first day of the sale, Saturday, (7/19/14), prepared to haul away several bags of books for the classroom libraries. A check of the travel section did not disappoint. I quickly located seven copies of The Places in Between, a memoir by Rory Stewart who walked his way across Afghanistan in 2002. This memoir recounts how he survived:

 “…by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers…Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion-a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following.”

This memoir is an assigned text for the Honors Grade 10 summer reading, a non-fiction selection to meet the World Literature focus. The seven copies would retail for $74.90; I got all of these copies for $13.00. There were other trade fiction paperbacks that I added: Little Bee; Cry, the Beloved Country; and The Things They Carried. There were also multiple copies of different episodes in the Bone series for students who enjoy graphic novels.

After shopping for the classroom libraries, the browsing through the children’s books tent felt like a bonus sale. Here was an opportunity to get books into Pearl’s hands, and the Westport donators did not disappoint. The tables were piled high, and the aisle wide enough for patrons with small children in tow.
The books were in excellent condition, so much so that my niece commented, “Look, these pop-up books can still pop-up!”
I located copies of books from the classic picture book canon, and we ended up with a small pile including:

  • Make Way for Ducklings  by Robert McCloskey.
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.
  • Shrek by William Steig
  • Linnea at Monet’s Garden By Christina Bjork
  • Miss Rumphius  by Barbara Cooney
  • The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese.

We had to stop and read some of the books to Pearl to keep her engaged and were particularly grateful for the large areas roped off outside the children’s book tent. This space lets patrons check their selections before heading to the check-out tent. This space is critical for some of the patrons who stock up like I do with multiple bags and boxes.

Pearl and her mom enjoy "Make Way for Ducklings"

Pearl and her mom enjoy “Make Way for Ducklings”

In total, we spent an hour collecting books at the sale and fifteen minutes at the organized check-out tables. As they are every year, the volunteer who counted my five bags full was pleasant and well-trained. She was curious about where I taught, however.

“You are putting these into classrooms…where?” she asked.
I explained these were going to a middle/high school in Northwest Connecticut.
“Oh, I don’t know that area well…I guess I lean more to the New York area,” she offered.
“When possible, so do I,” was my response.

Totals spent? $96.00 for the classrooms, and $13.00 for Pearl who left the sale toting her “summer reading” picture books. From emerging to life-long readers, the Westport Book Sale offers a chance to stock up on picture books and memoirs and all the other genres in-between.

Teachers are looking to include informational text in their English Language Arts classrooms, but what about informational space?

The hard copy of the NYTimes Saturday Sports section on Saturday, July 12, 2014, was an opportunity to teach how space can be information.

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My photo; photo also featured in Deadspin blog

The photo above shows the front page of Sports Saturday. Students can note the banner is in the same location, floating at the top of the page with teaser photos for the content inside. Under the banner and centered on the page is  a feature that is usually on the inside of the sports section, a column of player trades and transactions in the different sports leagues for the day. The column is actual size, straddling the paper’s fold and surrounded by white space. Below the fold, one transaction in the column is highlighted in bright yellow. The rest of the page is blank.LeBraun trade(22)

 

Why the single highlighted line? What was the reason for all the white space? 

The Cleveland Cavaliers signed LeBron James.
Yes, during the same week when the semi-finals and finals for the 2014 World Cup riveted millions, the only news that mattered to sports fans was a short declarative sentence, “Cleveland Cavaliers signed F James LeBron.”

That was the purpose of the white space….to provide emphasis.

The other transactions listed from Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, however significant in the future, were not as significant at this moment.

That was the purpose of the yellow highlighted line, “Cleveland Cavaliers signed F James LeBron.”

In determining an author’s purpose, which in this case was the layout editor’s purpose, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) offers a methodology to have student review the craft and structure of a text. Teachers use these these standards to frame questions about the text:

English Language Arts Craft and Structure Anchor Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5
Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

The front page of this Sports Saturday provides multiple opportunities to discuss the difference between denotation (what is on the page) and connotation (what is implied). In helping students to consider the craft and structure of this particular layout, a teacher could use questions based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) that might be:

• How would you summarize what you read in the written text? (denotation)
• How would you summarize what you see in the white space in contrast to the written text? (denotation)
• What do you notice about where the highlighted information is placed? (denotation)
• What conclusions can you draw about the layout editor’s choice to highlight only one player transaction? (connotation)
• What is your interpretation of the use of the white space ? (connotation)
• Can you formulate a theory for the layout ? (connotation)
• Can you elaborate on a reason the editor used the small font in the player transaction column for this news? (connotation)

Of course, the story of the LeBron signing was also inside the Saturday Sports section. Michael Powell wrote the feature article  Star Reconnects With a Special Place in His Heart where the news of LeBron’s return was celebrated:

“The man knows his region, and his audience, and his life. Even as the news broke on television, you could hear out your window Cleveland residents loosening more or less random whoops. Car horns beeped. Strangers exchanged bro-hugs and palm slaps” (Powell-NYTimes)

Students could read Powell’s article to extend their thinking about the impact of this one player’s return to a team he left several years ago. Then, there is LeBron’s own essay, co-authored by Lee Jenkins, in Sports Illustrated. In this essay, LeBron explains the reasons for his return:

“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get”  (LeBron/Jenkins Sports Illustrated).

In this essay, LeBron anticipates (and connotes) the level of commitment that will be necessary for continued success:

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have” (LeBron/Jenkins Sports Illustrated).

These other two informational texts could also provide opportunities to have students practice denotation and connotation:

  • How would you summarize what you read in these written texts? (denotation)
  • What conclusion can be drawn after reading these three texts? (connotation)
  • What is your interpretation after reading these texts? Support your rationale. (denotation/connotation)

A final exercise? Have students research the cost of a full page spread in the NYTimes ($70,000 non-profit; up to $200,000 for profit). Have students discuss or make arguments on the use of white space in this layout once they know the expense of the layout editor’s choice.

The best part of these exercises is that the reader does not need to know basketball to appreciate how this information is communicated: through layout, through a feature story, and through a personal essay.  I do not follow basketball, and I am only peripherally aware of LeBron’s role in the NBA. I was intrigued, however, about the use of white space to convey information. I also considered the different size of spaces related to the text. The size of a basketball court in the NBA is  94′ by 50′ or 4700 square feet. In another measurement, LeBron has a rumored vertical leap the size of 40 inches or so (the average NBA player can jump 28 inches). Finally, the size of the NYTimes page  is 24″ x 36″ or 864 square inches.

In each case, size matters. In this context, space matters as well.

Bags ready? Set to find great bargains? Go to Newtown, Connecticut, for the Friends of the C.H.Booth Library where over 100,000 books, records, DVDs go on sale annually. Their book sale always marks for me the beginning of the book sale season. This year’s starting date was July 12, 2014.

For the first time, I went on the admission day ($5) and used extra help (husband & son) to follow me with bags. Even then, I was too late to get the 20 or so copies of The Great Gatsby I saw someone packing up at the check out counter. My son noted that I also missed out on copies of of The Hunger Games Trilogy selections.
“The woman was only four feet away from you when I saw her stuffing them in her bag,” he claimed, “but I wasn’t going to tackle her.”

Fortunately, thanks to the diligent efforts of what looked like a small army of volunteer Friends of the Library, the tables were well organized by genre and author. I was able to get multiple copies of the 12th grade summer reading book, A Walk in the Woods.. In addition, I filled bags with the required summer reading for Advanced Placement English Literature including:
Little Bee, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and
Bel Canto. I also found copies for the grade 10 world literature library including The Places in Between, The Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and A Long Way Gone.
There were also books to add to classroom libraries for independent reading including Dairy Queen, Elsewhere, and a pile of books from the Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

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Counting Books at the check-out with the friendly volunteer

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Five bags of books for classroom libraries for $229.00; a bargain!

The book sale at Newtown is a model of efficiency. There is room to move between tables, the books are properly sorted by genre ( for the most part) and the volunteer help is cheerful and efficient.

“You must be using these in a school?” suggested the woman checking us out as she counted out 20 copies of The Help.
“Actually,” my son replied feigning seriousness, “we really like this book….we’re going to read every single copy.”
“Oh,” she started, and then smiled,”you’re terrible…”

What is not terrible is that I spent $229 for over 80 books; some of them core texts and some for independent reading.
The summer book sale season helps me put books in the hands of readers. The Newtown Friends of the Library book sale does that extremely well.

12 graders during SSR

Our 12 graders during independent reading- SSR

How challenging is it for a teacher to run an independent reading program? Very challenging. That is the only thing thing that Newsweek reporter Alexander Nazaryan got right in his NYTimes op-ed piece The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’ (7/6/14).

His lack of success in having students choose their own reading for pleasure over the course of one school year, should not grant him the opportunity to decry the practice. His own failure to encourage students to engage in reading for pleasure should not dissuade other teachers from encouraging students to develop life-long reading habits. Had he the proper training and resources in balanced literacy, he would have witnessed how the challenge of implementing independent reading in a classroom can be met at any grade level and is a critical step to making students life-long readers.

If he had the training, he would recognize that teachers who are familiar with books for specific age groups and levels of interest can make reading recommendations to students or help facilitate highly successful peer to peer book recommendations. If he had the resources of high interest, low-level texts in jam packed classroom libraries for his students, he would have increased the level of engagement. If he had utilized the time for reading to individually confer briefly with students about their reading while other students read quietly, he would have established a classroom routine that would allow him to informally measure student growth as they read. Finally, if he had impressed upon students the importance of reading for pleasure, he would have helped their academic success in all other classes.

Research studies (compiled by the American Library Association) have determined that reading outside of the classroom is the best predictor for student success:

The amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to achievement in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information. Students’ reading achievement correlates with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do (Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding 1988; Guthrie and Greaney 1991; Krashen 1993; Cunningham and Stanovich 1991; Stanovich and Cunningham 1993).

This research from the ALA is borne out by testing through The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, which has monitored the academic performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students  since the 1970s. Long-term trend assessments in reading are measured on a scale of 500 points. In taking the NAEP, students volunteered information on their reading habits. The results from this data in 2012 demonstrated that the average score for the 22% of those students aged 13 who never (or hardly ever) read independently was 25 points lower than students who read every day. By age 17, the difference had increased to 30 points.

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NAEP scores for 13 year olds who read for pleasure and the increase in standardized test scores

This data confirms what we have witnessed in our own classrooms. Our students are given SSR (silent sustained reading) time in class for independent reading in grades 7-12. Independent reading for our school means that students get to choose what they would like to read without having to take a quiz or a test on the book. The only “requirements” are that students keep a running record (we are using Shelfari) of their independent reading books. We ask them to share their recommendations with their peers. We talk to them about what they read.

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Holding up cards with the numbers of book read independently (included one world lit choice book)

Sometimes students are offered a choice from a length list of thematically connected books, and sometimes the choice must be in a particular genre (non-fiction, memoir, world literature). Other times, the choice is entirely open and students can read whatever books they want. Our block schedule allows us the luxury of offering students 15-20 minutes each period. A quick estimate means that over the course of the school year (40 weeks), meeting twice weekly (roughly 30 minutes minimum a week), students will be offered a minimum of 20 hours of reading time in class. They make very good use of that time.

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Holding up the number of books read in grade 9

The main goal of our independent reading program is to encourage students to read beyond the walls of the classroom; our 15 minutes spent in class is intended as a “hook” to connect students with books that they might want to read or as a “refresher” to reconnect a book already being read.

Seniors holding up the number of books read independently in a semester

Seniors holding up the number of books read independently in a semester

Encouraging students to read independently means practice, and the time we provide in class contributes to that reading practice. At the end of this year, we are celebrating the number of books read over the course of the year by taking group photos of students proudly holding up the number of books they have read independently over the past school year. So, rather than read a confessed failure in an op-ed piece that incorrectly characterizes independent reading written by someone who has left education, take a look at how the challenge of independent reading is being successfully met in our classrooms. The proof is in the pictures.

Throwbacks in education are common.

This time, Robert Pondiscio, a Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institution is itching for a fight to reopen old “reading war” wounds. He has taken umbrage with the NYTimes (7/2/14) opinion piece Balanced Literacy Is One Effective Approach by Lucy Calkins: Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and a proponent of balanced literacy.

Pondiscio’s op-ed (7/3/2014) titled, Why Johnny Won’t Learn to Read charges back into the heat of that fight as he referenced the 1997 National Reading Panel’s review of studies on the teaching of reading.

In reminding everyone that “phonics won,” Pondiscio jettisons the definition of the word “balanced” in the phrase balanced literacy. The Oxford Online Dictionary states that when “balanced” is used as an adjective, it is defined as:

  • Keeping or showing a balance; in good proportions:
  • Taking everything into account; fairly judged or presented:
  • having different elements in the correct proportion

Screenshot 2014-07-06 17.07.23Since 1997, the term “balanced literacy” has come to mean that the parts of the phonics approach should be in good proportions with other approaches for teaching reading and writing. Pondiscio however, recasts the phrase “balanced literacy” in mythological terms, as a hydra…“a new head for whole language.” His interpretation is unsupported by definition.

Pondiscio’s wish that the “win” by phonics would eradicate whole language’s contributions to teaching literacy is overstated as some of the recommendations by the NRP could be associated with whole language:

  • Teaching vocabulary words—teaching new words, either as they appear in text, or by introducing new words separately. This type of instruction also aids reading ability.
  • Reading comprehension strategies—techniques for helping individuals to understand what they read. Such techniques involve having students summarize what they’ve read, to gain a better understanding of the material.

Beyond his use of the NRP’s 17 year-old-study, there is another problem in his choice of evidence, a quote by Susan Pimentel, one of the “principal authors of the Common Core.” Pimentel lacks the academic credentials to qualify her as an expert in literacy  (BS Early Childhood; Law Degree) in her claims that balanced literacy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” In contrast, many early literacy educators find the ELA CCSS worrisome, running counter to the spirit of new and emerging readers.

Moreover, Pimentel’s on again/off again association with the other CCSS “architects” (David Coleman and Jason Zimba) from Student Achievement Partners (SAP) was laid bare by Mercedes Schneider in a February 27, 2014, post: Schneider Dissects Sue Pimentel’s Role in Common Core Drafting; Exposes How 3 People Were Main CCSS Architects. In a blog post, Schneider documents Pimentel’s role through SAP’s tax filings and marginalizes Pimentel’s contributions with a suggestion that her inclusion on the CCSS was gender-based, “a female speaking to an audience from a profession that is primarily female, and that is good public relations for selling the CCSS product.”

Further on in Pondiscio’s op-ed, there is a reference to a NY Department of Education study on the Core Knowledge Study (2008-2012) which demonstrated, “significantly stronger gains than comparison school students on nearly all measures was for 1000 students in grades K-2 in 20 schools.” The use of this study is no surprise. Pondiscio’s promotion of this Core Knowledge program is due to the leadership of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a Fordham Medal of Valor winner. What is missing is information on the size of the study, which involved less than 1% of K-2 student population (1.1 million total student enrollment in 2013), and its methodology in comparison to other literacy programs. Hirsch himself concurs that, “The study was too small. We need a bigger one – and one that gauges long-term as well as short-term effects.”

But what is Pondiscio most damning complaint against balanced literacy?

 “While the Common Core focuses kids’ attention on what the text says, balanced literacy often elicits a personal response to literature.” (Pondiscio)

Let me repeat his concern.

Pondiscio is distressed that a student may respond emotionally to a work of literature.

How is this a problem?

I quite am certain that a personal response in a reader is exactly what any author of literature hopes to achieve.

Reading literature is more than a decoding exercise. Reading literature at any age, especially good complex  literature, is an exercise that connects the reader and the author in an intimate bond of empathy.

Balanced literacy does require a student use evidence from a text, but the advantage to balanced literacy is that it recognizes that students cannot be silenced on what they think or feel about their reading, whether the choice of texts is theirs or not.

Pondiscio’s issue with whole language is that it emphasized reading for meaning instead of spelling, grammar, and sounding words out. In making this final part of his argument, Pondiscio reduces words to data or things devoid of meaning.

Such thinking reminds me of a line from Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, a film study on William Shakespeare’s Richard III.

While filming on the streets of  NYC, Pacino is seen asking passers-by what is their relationship to Shakespeare. One pan handler stops long enough to explain how he feels the words in Shakespeare “instruct us”:

If we think words are things  and have no feelings in words…then we say things to each other that mean nothing.

But if we felt what we said,  we’d say less and mean more.

The pan-handler shuffles off after offering his personal explanation on words and meaning.

Pondiscio claims he wants “students to grapple with challenging texts that are worth reading,” but grappling with what the pan-handler says about the meaning of words in those texts, challenging or not,  is even more important.

I teach students how to write. I do not make them writers.

There is a difference.

I have taught the writing process for over twenty years. I have taught students at different grade levels how to write for a specific audience in a specific format for a particular purpose. For example:

  • Write a letter to your principal asking for an extra 15 minutes of recess. (persuasive letter)
  • Research Shakespeare’s use of biblical imagery in Hamlet. (literary analysis)
  • Imagine you are a citizen of the ancient city state of Sparta. What would a typical day be like? (narrative)writing

I know how to teach students to incorporate evidence in their writing. I have lessons on how to find the best evidence, and I have lessons on how to use a “stem sentence” to incorporate their evidence. I have lessons on how students should cite their evidence.

I can teach students how to use order in establishing a position in an argument, how to expand their ideas in analysis, and how to use sequence in telling a story.

I can teach students how to use a “formula” approach if they get stuck by having them:

  • Start with a question, a quote, a definition, or example;
  • Write a thesis with three points and then develop each of these points into paragraphs;
  • Restate their best idea in the conclusion.

I teach the writing process: draft, edit, review, revise, (repeat), polish, and publish.

After all these lessons, I am confident that my students can write better.

I am not sure they are writers.

This past week, I went to hear the writer Dani Shapiro (Still Writing, Devotion: A Memoir) talk about her creative process as a writer. I thought I might hear some new ideas or inspiration that could help me teach my students to become writers.

Ms. Shapiro was composed as she ruined any notion that I could offer my students more than I already did in class. She was gracious as she crushed my hopes for easy solutions. I scrambled taking notes, but fortunately, what she said that night is posted on her blog:

Are there steps that lead the writer to the page? Steps that we can take, teetering one after the next, that will somehow get us into that longed-for state of the page rising up, the world receding?

I’m sorry to say that after all my musing I was unable to come up with a game plan, for myself or anyone else. Honestly, I never really thought I would, because every writer’s path to the page is unique and fraught in its own special way.

As she spoke, the issues I had with Michael, a student I had in class this year, came to mind.

All year, Michael was compelled to write, but not the writing I required. He would hang around after class asking me to “quick read” a story.  (Note: they were very dark short stories). After an assignment, he would ask me what was my favorite part of an essay he had handed in. Before I could speak, he would read aloud his favorite line from that essay.

He took umbrage when I made a critical comment. He could not write on demand. He dawdled with all sorts of technology while others scratched out a timed essay. He hated turning in his incomplete work complaining “I didn’t get to say what I wanted” or “I just couldn’t get started.”

After class, I would correct the essays. Michael’s papers could begin like any other student’s paper. Pronoun antecedent issues. Capitalization problems. Missing apostrophes. I would write the usual blunt comments,”Get to the point!” in the margins. But I learned to look for that sentence, usually somewhere about 2/3 through his essay, for that sentence….and I would have to stop.

Everything Michael wrote before that sentence in an essay was in need of revision, but everything after that sentence in the essay was different, shaded…altered. He could write something that silenced the teacher voice in my head.

“I knew that was good,” he would say looking for my approval.
“Yes,” I would agree, “that was very good. I have no suggestions.”
That would please him, until the next writing assignment he would be forced to write.

As Shapiro states, there are no prescribed steps I can devise to “lead the writer to the page.” She could not help me develop a game plan to get my students “into that longed-for state of the page rising up, the world receding,” just as there was no game plan that made Michael a writer. I know he is on a unique path, and I know I did not teach him this path.

His path illustrates the difference, a difference I recognize between my teaching writing and my teaching a writer.