“So….what problems do your students have in writing?” I ask middle school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”

“So….what problems do your students have writing?” I ask high school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”

One might conclude that students in grades 7-12 have a thesis statement problem…or maybe not.

Maybe the problem of writing a thesis statement is that so many teachers in middle and high school expect that students must have a well-written thesis statement before they can write an essay.

Maybe the emphasis on a well-developed thesis as the start to the essay is misplaced.

After all, according to Webster’s Online Dictionary, an essay (noun) has another meaning beyond “a short piece of writing that tells a person’s thoughts or opinions about a subject”. The word essay also means a “trial, test; an effort, attempt.” An essay is literally “an initial tentative effort; the result or product of an attempt” and a thesis statement is a student’s position in such an effort or attempt….a “test drive” of sorts.

Instead of expecting well-developed thesis statements, teachers could have student test drive a thesis statement by using one of several online tools known as “thesis generators.” These online tools are free and allow students the opportunity to practice with different ideas as they prepare to write an essay.

My favorite, and easiest to use, is the Tom March Thesis Builder 

Screenshot 2014-09-23 21.12.56This site asks students to respond to a series of questions:

  • What’s the topic you want to write about?
  • What’s your main opinion on this topic?
  • What’s the strongest argument supporting your opinion?
  • What’s a second good argument that supports your opinion?
  • What’s the main argument against your opinion?

As they use this thesis generator, students are instructed to:

  1. Answer questions in short phrases (not full sentences).
  2. Do not use periods / full stops (.) at the end or capital letters at the beginning of the phrases you write.
  3. Click the “Build a Thesis” button when you’re finished.
  4. A window will pop open with your Built Thesis.
  5. Go back and adjust your answers to smooth out the thesis until it makes sense and expresses your beliefs. Clicking on the “Build a Thesis” button again will update your thesis to show your changes.
  6. Once you’ve got a thesis statement, use the Make an Online Outline button to generate the framework for your essay.

Once students use a generator, such as the Tom March thesis generator,  they may recognize a sentence “pattern” used in creating a thesis that acknowledges a counter argument. These sentence patterns might start with a qualifier such as “even though”, “because”, “despite”.

Acknowledging the counter arguments is specifically addressed in the thesis builder on John Garvey’s Thesis Builder site. The generator on this site asks students:

  • Is what you say always true always?
  • Are there exceptions?
  • Are there good reasons why your position may have a down side?
  • How can you make your position have a reality check?
  • What general reasons why your position may have problems can you admit up front? To make absolute statements usually causes your essay’s thesis to seem foolishly simplistic.  Get real!.
  • Here’s a trick: begin your qualification with a word like “although” or “It is true that. . .” Don’t worry if it’s not a complete sentence.

Finally, the thesis builder on the Ashford University website  provides different levels of complexity as a student creates a thesis. Once a student enters information into this generator, a series of different thesis statement models on the same idea is offered for students to choose:
Model #1: Thesis Statement
Model #2: Thesis with Concession
Model #3: Thesis with Reasons
Model #4: Thesis with Concession and Reasons

There is also an outline generated on this site that can be used by students in writing the essay.

If teachers and students use these thesis generators, the emphasis on the thesis statement as a starting point might be shifted to another, often overlooked, important part of the essay…the conclusion. The conclusion is where the student’s “test drive” ends, and where the student ends up should matter even more than where the student started.

The advertisement on Book Sale Finder for the Wilton Public Library Book Sale  in Wilton, CT, read,All books on sale for this sale… not just Children and Teens.”

The reason for the clarification? This annual end of summer book sale usually offers the best selections of donated books for children and teens in the area.

This past weekend’s sale  (9/19-21) did not disappoint.

In the space of an hour, I collected over 200 books suited for students in grades 5-10. High interest titles such as Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging for the older students, selections from the Lunch Lady graphic novel series (“serving justice, and serving…..lunch!”) for the younger students. My shopping spree was fueled by the knowledge that Sunday was the 1/2 price day. Hardcovers were $1.50; paperbacks were as little as $.25. At these prices, who could resist picking up multiple copies of Chicken Soup for the Teenaged Soul or duplicate selections from Margaret Peterson’s Haddix series?

All books are headed to the independent reading classroom libraries in the intermediate, middle, and high schools in West Haven. In particular, the SSR (silent sustained reading) in grades 7 & 8 is a reading initiative that is now possible because of the new 90 minute block schedule. Teachers explained the SSR program to parents during the Open House last week and encouraged attending parents to discuss reading for fun with their children.

My industrious selecting caught the attention of several of the volunteers who provided the extra bags and boxes I needed. These Friends of the Wilton Library were genuinely delighted that I was removing a large portion of their inventory.
“These books will be enjoyed again,” from one.
“You are exactly who we want to come to these sales,” from another, “these will be books for classrooms!”
“You got so many of the better titles,” from a third who seemed to know YA literature as she perused my selections.

Like good professional salespeople, they continued to affirm the choices I made as they counted….and counted, and counted. The sum total? $150.00!

This event was advertised as an “Awesome Autumn Book Sale” and yes, it was awesome! This is the first day of autumn, and this autumn I can confidently predict there will be a multiple floods…multiple classroom book floods!

Thank you, Friends of the Wilton Public Library!

The 7th and 8th grade teachers who administered our own  “How I Feel about Reading Survey” to teams of students have collected some contradictory data. The survey is based on questions suggested by Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide. In this book, Gallagher uses the term “readicide” to define “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.”

The student body is divided into four teams at each grade level, and each team has taken the survey these first few days of school. Each team’s survey provides a snapshot for  a group of students and their attitude towards reading.

The results are contradictory. Take for example the results on 8th grade team in student responses to two prompts: I think being a good reader is important for success in life juxtaposed with the results from I read everyday and look forward to my reading time.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 22.19.16

Yes, students agree that reading is important, but the data shows they do not feel that the practice is important enough to do every day. Moreover, most students do not think reading if pleasurable with over 50% voting they “rarely” look forward to reading. This results from these questions were repeated throughout the grades 7 & 8, team by team.

This data suggests Gallagher’s diagnosis that students could be suffering from “readicide”, an unfortunate consequence of education’s current culture of assessment. The requirements to assess student learning often means employing reading practices that include worksheets, quizzes, or tests; none of these are “fun.”

To counter this, teachers at the middle school are implementing an ambitious independent reading program- 20 minutes a day in a block period- where students are encouraged to read whatever they want from classroom libraries. There are no quizzes. There are no tests. There are no worksheets.  The students will have time built into their day to read, but most important, the students get to choose what they want to read. They can choose from the school book collections or bring in their own book. They will talk about their books with each other, and teachers will visit and conference with them to listen about the books they choose.

In fighting the toxic effects of “readicide”, teachers already have the data that gives them an ace up their collective sleeves…most students have admitted that reading is important for success in life. Guaranteeing that success will be the goal of the 7th and 8th grade teachers who will be working this year to change that high percentage of students who are “rarely” looking forward to reading to a higher percentage of students who “usually” looking forward to reading. Hopefully, teachers can add an “always looking forward to reading” survey choice as well.

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.

photo 3

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.

photo 2

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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.

full page_edited-2-1

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.