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.

Screenshot 2014-06-11 20.37.34

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.

Screenshot 2014-06-12 07.18.45

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.

read1

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.

Since I write to understand what I think, I have decided to focus this particular post on the different categories of assessments. My thinking has been motivated by helping teachers with ongoing education reforms that have increased demands to measure student performance in the classroom. I recently organized a survey asking teachers about a variety of assessments: formative, interim, and summative. In determining which is which, I have witnessed their assessment separation anxieties.

Therefore, I am using this “spectrum of assessment” graphic to help explain:

Screenshot 2014-06-20 14.58.50

The “bands” between formative and interim assessments and the “bands” between interim and summative blur in measuring student progress.

At one end of the grading spectrum (right) lie the high stakes summative assessments that given at the conclusion of a unit, quarter or semester. In a survey given to teachers in my school this past spring,100 % of teachers understood these assessments to be the final measure of student progress, and the list of examples was much more uniform:

  • a comprehensive test
  • a final project
  • a paper
  • a recital/performance

At the other end, lie the low-stakes formative assessments (left) that provide feedback to the teacher to inform instruction. Formative assessments are timely, allowing teachers to modify lessons as they teach. Formative assessments may not be graded, but if they are, they do not contribute many points towards a student’s GPA.

In our survey, 60 % of teachers generally understood formative assessments to be those small assessments or “checks for understanding” that let them move on through a lesson or unit. In developing a list of examples, teachers suggested a wide range of examples of formative assessments they used in their daily practice in multiple disciplines including:

  • draw a concept map
  • determining prior knowledge (K-W-L)
  • pre-test
  • student proposal of project or paper for early feedback
  • homework
  • entrance/exit slips
  • discussion/group work peer ratings
  • behavior rating with rubric
  • task completion
  • notebook checks
  • tweet a response
  • comment on a blog

But there was anxiety in trying to disaggregate the variety of formative assessments from other assessments in the multiple colored band in the middle of the grading spectrum, the area given to interim assessments. This school year, the term interim assessments is new, and its introduction has caused the most confusion with members of my faculty. In the survey, teachers were first provided a definition:

An interim assessment is a form of assessment that educators use to (1) evaluate where students are in their learning progress and (2) determine whether they are on track to performing well on future assessments, such as standardized tests or end-of-course exams. (Ed Glossary)

Yet, one teacher responding to this definition on the survey noted, “sounds an awful lot like formative.” Others added small comments in response to the question, “Interim assessments do what?”

  • Interim assessments occur at key points during the marking period.
  • Interim assessment measure when a teacher moves to the next step in the learning sequence
  • interim assessments are worth less than a summative assessment.
  • Interim assessments are given after a major concept or skill has been taught and practiced.

Many teachers also noted how interim assessments should be used to measure student progress on standards such as those in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or standardized tests. Since our State of Connecticut is a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), nearly all teachers placed practice for this assessment clearly in the interim band.

But finding a list of generic or even discipline specific examples of other interim assessments has proved more elusive. Furthermore, many teachers questioned how many interim assessments were necessary to measure student understanding? While there are multiple formative assessments contrasted with a minimal number of summative assessments, there is little guidance on the frequency of interim assessments.  So there was no surprise when 25% of our faculty still was confused in developing the following list of examples of interim assessments:

  • content or skill based quizzes
  • mid-tests or partial tests
  • SBAC practice assessments
  • Common or benchmark assessments for the CCSS

Most teachers believed that the examples blurred on the spectrum of assessment, from formative to interim and from interim to summative. A summative assessment that went horribly wrong could be repurposed as an interim assessment or a formative assessment that was particularly successful could move up to be an interim assessment. We agreed that the outcome or the results was what determined how the assessment could be used.

Part of teacher consternation was the result of assigning category weights for each assessment so that there would be a common grading procedure using common language for all stakeholders: students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Ultimately the recommendation was to set category weights to 30% summative, 10% formative, and 60% interim in the Powerschool grade book for next year.

In organizing the discussion, and this post, I did come across several explanations on the rational or “why” for separating out interim assessments. Educator Rick DuFour emphasized how the interim assessment responds to the question, “What will we do when some of them [students] don’t learn it [content]?” He argues that the data gained from interim assessments can help a teacher prevent failure in a summative assessment given later.Screenshot 2014-06-20 16.50.15

Another helpful explanation came from a 2007 study titled “The Role of Interim Assessments in a Comprehensive Assessment System,” by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment and the Aspen Institute. This study suggested that three reasons to use interim assessments were: for instruction, for evaluation, and for prediction. They did not use a color spectrum as a graphic, but chose instead a right triangle to indicate the frequency of the interim assessment for instructing, evaluating and predicting student understanding.

I also predict that our teachers will become more comfortable with separating out the interim assessments as a means to measure student progress once they see them as part of a large continuum that can, on occasion,  be a little fuzzy. Like the bands on a color spectrum, the separation of assessments may blur, but they are all necessary to give the complete (and colorful) picture of student progress.

Yesterday, there was one paperback copy of The Hunger Games squeezed in-between other trade fiction. Two hardcover copies of Mockingjay were together on an opposite shelf. These books from The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins had been donated to a local Goodwill store. When I found them tucked away on the store’s shelves, I knew that the series had met a tipping point: still popular but not popular enough to treasure and keep.photo (19)

The Hunger Games series (2008-2010) has been to today’s graduating seniors what the Harry Potter series (1997-2007) was to today’s 28 year olds…a collective reading experience. The series developed a dedicated young adult following, and the most obvious signs of their dedication was the carting of hardcover editions because each reader could not wait for the book to go to paperback.

Once The Hunger Games series caught fire (literally), book conversations centered on Katniss. There were speculations on her choice of Gale or Peeta. Predictions on the fate District 13 were rampant. The publication of each new book in the series was a major event; students shared copies from period to period. When the first film, The Hunger Games, came out students critiqued every detail that was present and noticed every detail that was missing.

Our Reading/English/Language Arts teachers loved having students read these books as well. The series laid the connections to more traditional texts such as the Greek myths or Romeo and Juliet. There were plenty of connections on current events in the economy and media that could be made as well.

Finding three copies in the used book shelves now, however, signals a sputtering of interest. Students will still pick up the used copies from the book carts in the classroom, but the rabid fans have moved on.  Collins has helped this year’s graduating seniors develop their independent reading skills, the kind of skills that will serve them well in the future.

There are benefits to the recycling of books. I spent $7.98 on the three copies that would have been $27.66 if purchased new. The consequences of reaching a tipping point in popularity is a benefit for classroom libraries, which means finding used books from this series will be easier now that …. “the odds be ever in our favor.”

It’s official.

The chocolate milk debate  as a test writing prompt is dead in Connecticut to all grade levels.choclate-milk

Yes, that old stalwart, “Should there be chocolate milk in schools?” offered to students as a standardized writing prompt was made null and void with one stroke from Governor Malloy’s pen. According to Hartford Courant, (6/12/14) Malloy Veto Keeps Chocolate Milk On School Lunch Menus,

“to the vast relief of school kids, nutritionists, milk producers and lawmakers, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy used his veto power Thursday to kill a bill that would have banned chocolate milk sales in Connecticut schools.” 

Apparently, the same nutritional charts, editorials, and endorsements from dairy groups organized in packets and given to students from grades 3-11 to teach how to incorporate evidence in a fake persuasive argument under testing conditions was convincing enough to have real CT residents make a persuasive argument for legislators. To show his solidarity with the people, Governor Malloy quaffed down a container of chocolate milk before vetoing a bill that would have banned the sale of chocolate milk in schools.

Standardly, the writing prompt is addressed in English/Language Arts (ELA) class in elementary schools, but in middle and high schools, a persuasive essay is often the responsibility of the social studies teacher. The assumption here is that the skill of persuasion requires research and the incorporation of evidence, both taught in social studies classes. In contrast, ELA classes are dedicated to the analysis of literature through essays using a range of skills: identifying author’s craft, identifying author’s purpose, editing, and revising. The responsibilities for the writing portion of an exam are divided between the ELA classes for the literary analysis essay and the social studies classes for the persuasive essay. This design is intended to promote an interdisciplinary effort, but it is an intellectually dishonest division of labor.

ELA teachers have choices to prepare students for standardized tests using ELA content (literature and grammar) to improve skills. Math and science teachers are also tied to their disciplines’ content in order for their students to be prepared.  Social studies is the only core discipline with the test-prompt disconnect.

So, what topics might test creators design to replace the infamous chocolate milk debate prompt? Before test creators start manufacturing new and silly debates, there is a window of opportunity where attention could be brought to this disconnect between content and testing in writing. Here is the moment where social studies teachers should point out to test creators the topics from their curriculum that could be developed into writing prompts. Here is a foot in the door for the National Council for the Social Studies to introduce writing prompts that complement their content. For example, there could be prompts about Egyptian culture, prompts on the American Revolution, or prompts about trade routes and river based communities. Too often, social studies teachers must devote class time to topics unrelated to curriculum.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Field Test given this past spring (2014) to 11th graders was about the use of social media by journalists. When they took the test, I overheard the following exchange:

“Of course they use social media,” grumbled one student, “who is going to stop them?”
“Do they think they are ‘cool’ because they mentioned Twitter?” countered another.

Previous standardized test writing prompts (in Connecticut, the CMT and CAPT) for high school and middle school have been devoted to asking students to write persuasively on the age students should be able to drive; whether wolves should be allowed in Yellowstone National Park or not; whether to permit the random drug testing of high school students; and whether there should be uniforms required in schools.

Please notice that none of these aforementioned prompts are directly related to the content in any social studies curricula. Furthermore, the sources prepared as a database for students to use as evidence in responding to these are packets with newspaper opinion columns or polls, and statistical charts; there is no serious research required.

Here is the moment when social studies teachers and curriculum leaders need to point out how academically dishonest the writing prompt is on a standardized test as a measure of their instruction in their discipline. No longer should the content of social studies be abandoned for inauthentic debate.

The glass in Connecticut is half-full now that students can have chocolate milk in schools. Time for test creators to empty out the silly writing prompts that have maddened social studies teachers for years.

Time to choose content over chocolate.