Twice this summer, I found myself thinking that maybe educators are not taking advantage on how we could show films  in class.

We seldom, if ever, show the film’s credits.

Perhaps the lack of attention to film credits is because there is not enough time already for what many educators might consider a passive activity of sitting and watching. I have worked for administrators who have limited or banned films entirely from curriculum because they perceived that a movie shown in class was merely a babysitting tool. In these situations, I would try to convince them that film is artful storytelling, one that engages the visual and audio learner very effectively.

Films and the Job Market

This past summer, after watching Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) and the last broadcast of The Daily Show (8/6/2015), I considered a different argument: films should be included in schools as part of career development.

Consider first this annual entertainment (film) ticket sales graphic over the past 20 years from Research and Market Reports:

Screenshot 2015-08-22 13.52.06

The explanation that followed:

The global movie and entertainment industry is expected to reach an estimated US $139 billion in 2017 with a compound annual growth rate of 4.2% over the next five years. This growth is likely to be driven by the acceleration of online and mobile distribution of movies, lower admission prices, and government policy initiatives in developing countries.

Or, read the report from The Motion Picture Industry Association on its website:

In the process of producing video content for today’s audiences, the American motion picture and TV industry contributes approximately $40 billion per year in payments to more than 330,000 local businesses across the country, according to the latest economic impact figures.

Credits for Pixar’s film Inside Out

Screenshot 2015-08-22 13.44.47Pixar’s film Inside Out was a 94 minute animation on the “headquarters” that managed the emotions of a 12 year old girl, Riley, during a particularly difficult time in her life. After the resolution, the first set of film credits (producer(s), director, actor/actress credit) ended with a montage of emotional centers running the lives of supporting characters in the film: Riley’s teacher, a pizza girl, a bus driver, a dog and (hilarious) a cat.

Then, another six full minutes of credits ran after the montage, a listing of all those who had contributed to the film. These credits scrolled listing teams of people involved in creating this animation: visual effects creators , sound designers, animators, editors, artists, etc. (an abbreviated listing is on  Internet Movie Database- IMDB page). Six minutes listing the names of people employed in a film that was very profitable:

  • Budget: $175,000,000 (estimated)
  • Opening Weekend: $90,440,272 (USA) (19 June 2015)
  • Gross: $335,390,545 (USA) (7 August 2015)
Jobs in the Film Industry

Educators are confronted with preparing students for employment in this 21st Century economy that is far more diverse domestically and internationally than any before it. The names of those who had worked on the film Inside Out  had been employed in creating a product for the Walt Disney Company, a major corporation which held assets worth a total of 74.9 billion (US dollars) in 2012.

Perhaps, instead of limiting the showing of a film and asking students about the message or information, we should slow the credits down and ask them to find out answers to some important questions:

What are the kinds of jobs we see in film credits?
How much does one of these positions get paid?
What skill sets do you (students) need to have to get each of these jobs?

There is a great amount of talk about teaching students to be collaborative, and any film can be an example of collaboration.  Unlike a poem, essay, or novel, a film has multiple authors who each bring a particular skill to its creation. The six minutes of credits illustrated how enormous this collaboration had been in Inside Out.

Giving credits-The Daily Show
Audience on the last night of "The Daily Show" as part of the final walk-through

Audience on the last night of “The Daily Show” as part of the final walk-through

I found myself thinking about showing credits again when, on the night of his last broadcast, Jon Stewart offered a backstage look at those who had worked on his show to make it successful. In one section of the show, there was an extended hand-held camera walk-through of the offices and studio taken from Stewart’s point-of-view. As the camera moved through the hallways and onto the set, Stewart rattled off the names of those who had worked in every aspect of The Daily Show‘s production: writers, designers, researchers, editors, make-up and costumers, and even his family.

The sequence took 6:46 minutes in total, culminating with the contributions of the viewers and studio audience. After the clip, Stewart repeatedly praised the members of this collaborative team as a positive experience.

Maybe that particular clip will never be shown in a classroom, but the walk-through raises questions educators should consider. What skills did these people have in order to get a job with The Daily Show? With The Daily Show as part of their resume, where will these people now find employment? How many in the television audience watched this walk-through and envied those who had a hand in creating this show?

Film and entertainment is a major industry in the US and international economy, and educators should make students aware of the possibilities. When showing a film in class, we might let the credits (slowly) and explain that these jobs could be something they would be interested in doing as a career. At the very least, teachers may have students do a little research and find out what the Gaffer does in a film.

The last part of the credits in Inside Out listed the names of the children born to the entire team during the six years of production. Following the names, there was a dedication from the entire collaborative team:

 “this film is dedicated to our kids. please don’t grow up. ever.”

But our role as educators, is different. Educators prepare them [students] to grow up….and maybe develop skills that could be featured in a scrolling film credits.

Several years ago, I was teaching John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn to a group of sophomore students. While they did struggle with the first four stanzas of the poem, they lingered on the the memorable last stanza of the poem:

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!                           45
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’        50

Like other students before them in previous years, they wrestled with the conclusion that Keats arrived on with the closing lines:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

What is beauty?

When I asked students, “What is beauty?” they had many different ideas. In one session, we discussed physical beauty. It was not a surprise that each student held a different idea about physical beauty. After they listed the characteristics,  I offered a photo of “beautiful” face. When I shared this photo, they all agreed she was beautiful.

Computerized face: Survival of the Prettiest by Nancy Etcoff

Computerized face: “Survival of the Prettiest” by Nancy Etcoff

After they agreed, I revealed that this particular face had been generated by a computer. The beautiful face was developed as part of the research by Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard psychologist and medical researcher. Her research on attitudes towards beauty resulted in a book titled, Survival of the Prettiest.

The face they all agreed was a beautiful face was, quite literally, an average[d] face. The graphic at right had been generated by a computerized program that averaged the faces of hundreds of women. In other words, this was not a single woman who defined beauty, but a representation of multiple women.

The conclusion my students reached was, although the face of the woman was beautiful, a  “virtual babe”, she was really just “average”.

The Truth in Averages

The students discussing the computerized face understood averages; they were confronted with the term daily. They maintained an attendance average; they received a grade point average. They knew mathematically that an average is a form of reduction; a division into an arithmetic mean. They also understood that calculating an average did provide a kind of truth in their performance, but not the whole truth. There was almost always a test or quiz or project that could be in “dispute” or “unfair.”

They did agree that the face created by the computer program was probably more equitable in making qualitative judgements. Every face was weighed by the software program in exactly the same way. They suggested that there was probably more “truth” (fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal) in the averaging process in the face’s creation than in their GPAs.

Truth is Beauty?

“So, is this particular beauty ‘truth’?” I asked again, pointing to the computerized face, “…is this a true individual ‘beauty’?”
They did not think so.
“Collectively, then?”
“Mrs. Bennett, all this proves is everyone together is beautiful…and that is the truth!”

What say you, John Keats?

Notice how I am trying to beat the character limit on headlines?

Here’s the translation:

For your information, Juniors: Connecticut’s Common Core State Standards Smarter Balanced Assessment [Consortium] is Dead on Arrival; Insert Scholastic Achievement Test

Yes, in the State of Connecticut, the test created through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) based on the Common Core State Standards will be canceled for juniors (11th graders) this coming school year (2015-16) and replaced by the Scholastic Achievement Test  (SAT).

The first reaction from members of the junior class should be an enormous sigh of relief. There will be one less set of tests to take during the school year. The second sigh will come from other students, faculty members, and the administrative team for two major reasons-the computer labs will now be available year round and schedules will not have to be rearranged for testing sessions.

SAT vs. SBAC Brand

In addition, the credibility of the SAT will most likely receive more buy-in from all stakeholders. Students know what the brand SAT is and what the scores mean; students are already invested in doing well for college applications. Even the shift from the old score of 1600 (pre-2005) to 2400  with the addition of an essay has been met with general understanding that a top score is  800 in each section (math, English, or essay). A student’s SAT scores are part of a college application, and a student may take the SAT repeatedly in order to submit the highest score.

In contrast, the SBAC brand never reported student individual results. The SABC was created as an assessment for collecting data for teacher and/or curriculum evaluation. When the predictions of the percentage of anticipated failures in math and English were released, there was frustration for teachers and additional disinterest by students. There was no ability to retake, and if predictions meant no one could pass, why should students even try?

Digital TestingScantron

Moreover, while the SBAC drove the adoption of digital testing in the state in grades 3-8, most of the pre-test skill development was still given in pen and pencil format. Unless the school district consistently offered a seamless integration of 1:1 technology, there could be question as to what was being assessed-a student’s technical skills or application of background knowledge. Simply put, skills developed with pen and pencils may not translate the same on digital testing platforms.

As a side note, those who use computer labs or develop student schedules will be happy to know that SAT is not a digital test….at least not yet.

US Education Department Approved Request 

According to an early report (2006) by The Brooking’s Institute, the SBAC’s full suite of summative and interim assessments and the Digital Library on formative assessment was first estimated to cost $27.30 per student (grades 3-11). The design of the assessment would made economical if many states shared the same test.

Since that intial report, several states have left the Smarter Balanced Consortium entirely.

In May, the CT legislature voted to halt SBAC in grade ii in favor of the SAT. This switch will increase the cost of testing.According to an article (5/28/15) in the CT Mirror “Debate Swap the SAT for the Smarter Balanced Tests” :

“‘Testing students this year and last cost Connecticut $17 million’, the education department reports. ‘And switching tests will add cost,’ Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell said.”

This switch was approved by the U.S. Department of Education for Connecticut schools Thursday, 8/6/15, the CT Department of Education had asked it would not be penalized under the No Child Left Behind Act’s rigid requirements. Currently the switch for the SAT would not change the tests in grades 3-8; SBAC would continue at these grade levels.

Why SBAC at All?

All this begs the question, why was 11th grade selected for the SBAC in the first place? Was the initial cost a factor?

Since the 1990s, the  State of Connecticut had given the Connecticut Achievement Performance Test (CAPT) in grade 10, and even though the results were reported late, there were still two years to remediate students who needed to develop skills. In contrast, the SBAC was given the last quarter of grade 11, leaving less time to address any low level student needs. I mentioned these concerns in an earlier post: The Once Great Junior Year, Ruined by Testing.

Moving the SBAC to junior year increased the amount of testing for those electing to take the SAT with some students taking the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) or selected to take the NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress).

There have been three years of “trial testing” for the SBAC in CT and there has been limited feedback to teachers and students. In contrast, the results from the SAT have always been available as an assessment to track student progress, with results reported to the school guidance departments.

Before No Child Left Behind, before the Common Core State Standards, before SBAC, the SAT was there. What took so them (legislature, Department of Education, etc) so long?

Every Junior Will Take the NEW SAT

Denver Post: Heller

Denver Post: Heller

In the past, not every student elected to take the SAT test, but many districts did offer the PSAT as an incentive. This coming year, the SAT will be given to every 11th grader in Connecticut.

The big wrinkle in this plan?
The SAT test has been revised (again) and will be new in March 2016.

What should we expect with this test?

My next headline?

OMG. HWGA.

The conditions for the Perseids shower were excellent this week, a meteorological event unusual for Connecticut’s usually overcast conditions. The moon was in its new phase leaving a darkened sky for viewing. Clear skies for over 48 hours, defied Mark Twain’s sentiment, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

Watching the trails of light trailing the metereroids as they bounced against Earth’s atmosphere, the meteorologic conditions in New England were perfect for …well, watching meteors!

The name Perseids derives in part from the word Perseides (Περσείδες), a direct reference to the Greek mythological hero Perseus who was responsible for slaying the Gorgon Medusa.

The meteoroids (their correct name while still in space) that bear his name appear to originate from the constellation Perseus, a directional aid to viewers in determining which shower they are viewing on a given night.

The meteoroids in the Perseids are fast with speeds around 37 miles per second or 133,000 miles per hour, and  according to NASA, there can be as many as 100 per hour. The largest size of the meteroids are about the size of a pea or marble, with most the size of sand grains. It is only when it hits the ground that a meteoroid is called a meteor.

The Perseids meteoroids are composed from dust and ice from the Swift-Tuttle comet that crosses the Earth’s orbital path every August. Swift-Tuttle’s orbit has been traced back nearly 2,000 years and is now thought to be the same comet that was observed in 188 AD and possibly even as early as 69 BC.

Video from ukmeteorwatch

Stories and Star Mapping

All that technical information was not yet known to those storytellers who provided an explanation to our ancient forebears of what was happening in the night sky every August.  The retelling of the story of Perseus and his rescue of the beautiful princess Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus would be prompted by the viewing of their constellations Perseus and Andromeda which overlap and share a bright star, Alpha Andromedae.

Claudius Ptolemy  the Greek/Egyptian writer  (AD 90 –c. 168) of Alexandria, was also a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and astrologer, who promoted 48 constellations in his 2nd-century Almagest,

He also listed the constellation of Cassiopeia, a star pattern aligned with Andromeda and Perseus, an ultimate hovering bad mother-in-law. Cassiopeia’s constellation would remind storytellers of how Andromeda was set in chains because of this troublesome queen’s vanity.

While the association of these stories with the fixed objects of the sky helped early navigators travel the world, they now help navigators find their way virtually through the universe. Naming the objects in the sky and sharing these names through stories began with imagination, but now aids in the science of mapping.

Some of the constellations may not look like their namesakes: Hydra, Ursa Major, Orion, etc, however, their stories have been shared millions of times for thousands of years. The retelling of these stories connects us to others across the globe who viewed the same night sky to see the Perseids this week as well as to those who saw the Perseids in 69 BCE.

Ancient Western Civilizations explained the Perseids in various ways:

  • Greeks saw them as a commemoration of the god Zeus’s visitation on Danae, the mother of Perseus, in a shower of gold;
  • Romans believed that the meteor shower was the god Inuo-Priapus fertilizing the fields.
  • Eventually, the The Catholic religion coopted the Perseids as the “tears of Saint Lawrence“, since 10 August is the date of that saint’s martyrdom.

Contemporary References

While the Perseids themselves did not make an appearance in the PBS drama Downtown Abbey, their backstory did. In an exchange in episode two of the first season, the characters Matthew Crowley and Lady Mary exchange their interpretation of the Perseus/Andromeda love story, foreshadowing their own tumultuous courtship:

Lady Mary:  I’ve been studying the story of Andromeda. Do you know it?
Matthew Crawley:  Why?
Lady Mary:  Her father was King Cepheus whose country was being ravaged by storms. And in the end he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her, naked, to a rock…
Violet, Dowager Countess:  Really, Mary, we’ll all need our smelling salts in a minute.
Matthew Crawley:  But the sea monster didn’t get her, did he.
Lady Mary:  No. Just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father’s problems, she was rescued.
Matthew Crawley:  By Perseus.
Lady Mary:  That’s right, Perseus. Son of a god. Rather more fitting, wouldn’t you say?
Matthew Crawley:  That depends. I’d have to know more about the princess and the sea monster in question.

So, even the stars of post-Edwardians of Downton Abbey knew those famous stories connected to the fixed stars in the heavens.

Such stories from the night sky remind us of how connected we are here to both the present and the past simultaneously. Science may be able to explain and measure the distances between these objects, their size, and their exact location, but the association with story is what makes these objects in the sky so memorable.

Just as memorable as standing out in a field watching the Perseid Shower zipping across the pre-dawn sky on a clear night in Connecticut….and that was an unexpected and amazing story.

“…but first, I give them a quiz,” the 2nd grade teacher was telling me.
“A quiz?” I was surprised, “Why?”
“Well, how will I know they read their homework?” she responded.
“But…they are only in 2nd grade…so……” I trailed off; she blinked expectantly.

I didn’t finish my sentence.

“So… this is how the madness starts,” is what I wanted to say.

Quid Pro Quo Assignments

Homework has always been a bit of an educational  “quid pro quo (Latin). The “give something, get something” in schools where a quantitative grade marks the successful exchange of educational services, the teacher, to the student in a paper-or digital-transfer.

Quid pro quo homework follows a cycle: the homework worksheet is distributed; the homework worksheet is completed; the homework grade is entered OR the homework is assigned, and the student is quizzed to check compliance.Non-compliance can sometimes bring a punitive action.

This cycle does not facilitate trust between teacher and student.

The quid pro quo cycle of homework has been customary practice in the upper grades, but recent studies are raising concerns about the increasing amounts of homework in the elementary grades.

Increase in Homework for Elementary

The focus on back-to-school issues in the media such as the article Kids Receive 3 Times the Recommended Homework Load in the 8/12/15 issue of TIME magazine  is bringing attention on the tripling of homework at the elementary level. The amount of homework raises concerns in policy and research:

From the National Education Association Research Spotlight on Homework

“In the last 20 years, homework has increased only in the lower grade levels, and this increase is associated with neutral (and sometimes negative) effects on student achievement.”

From Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003 (Cooper, Robinson, Pattall REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH )

“No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework–achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math).”

From The American Journal of Family Therapy Homework and Family Stress: With Consideration of Parents’ Self Confidence, Educational Level, and Cultural Background

Family stress, measured by self-report, increased as homework load increased and as parent’s perception of their capacity to assist decreased.

One conclusion is that the increase in homework at the elementary level is not only academically ineffective, but also stressful, particularly for families with limited educational resources.

Long Term Consequences of Too Much Homework

A consequence of assigning homework as high stakes, rigorous, or graded practice in the lower grades sets up a disturbing paradigm that becomes ingrained in the upper grades. Homework becomes less about good practice in a discipline and more about student responsibility. In the upper grades, where homework does show academic value, the homework grade is often an average of the two.

Another consequence is how quickly younger students can be trained into a exhausting pattern of expecting a grade for each assignment. Once that pattern is set, students may require a grade for anything they turn in. They may not be able to discriminate between a grade for a long-term assignment or for busy work, and in the course of 13 years of education there will be a great deal of homework that is simply busy work.

Once that habit of quid pro quo homework has been established in the younger grades, it can become an addictive monster at every other grade level. For example, the 2nd grade student who will be met with a quiz for reading homework will be conditioned to associate reading with quizzing.

Constant quizzing could mean the student may never understand how to read for pleasure or grow to love reading. Ironically, reading for pleasure has been proven to be the one academic skill that will make that student successful way beyond that second grade classroom.

from jarofquotes.com

from jarofquotes.com

Of course, homework should receive feedback, an equally critical part of the educational process, but one that serves a different purpose than grading. Feedback on homework could be a positive experience for a student. It can be unexpected, encouraging, comforting, instructional, corrective, supportive-as opposed to a graded assignment….especially for a student in an elementary grade.

If the homework given in a 2nd grade class is to read, a quiz should not be the method to check to see if students did the reading; a  sidebar conference or quick discussion about what was read might be a better assessment.

Not everything needs a grade.
When selecting homework assessments, teachers should consider the question “Is this homework simply busy work?”  as well as other questions:

  • Is a quiz necessary to see that a student has read a homework assignment?
  • Is correcting this homework the best use of time?
  • What does this homework assignment accurately measure ?
  • How many times have I had students do this same homework assignment?

Homework is Practice

Teachers can measure a student’s performance through other forms of assessment. While a teacher, at any grade level, has little control over the conditions and support for homework once a student leaves the building, there are multiple opportunities for the teacher to monitor student progress while students are in the classroom.

Furthermore, homework’s design is to provide students the opportunity to practice, which raises the question: should student practice homework be assessed at all?

This school year, it’s time to halt the increase in elementary homework and the potential madness of its quid pro quo value.

Instead, educators should heed the research that shows students in elementary grades need less homework, and when they do have homework, the emphasis should be on practice.

Students -all students-need the practice more than they need the grade.

seating chartThe seating plan is often thought of as an important element for student success. From the first day of school, the seating plan is a teacher’s strategy for learning student names, and student names can be the most important piece of information a teacher can gather the first day of school.

For that reason most teachers choose to use an initial seating plan that is alphabetical, but once names are committed to memory, should teachers still use the seating plan?

Scramble the Seating Plan

One year, I experimented with my 9th grade students to change things up by using a different approach that was based on a need to have students be more cooperative and collaborative.

Every day, I would greet the students at the door with the following directions:

“Line up at the front of the room.”

Bags and backpacks tossed along the front wall, I would then ask them to organize themselves, without talking, according to different criteria. This criteria was not academic, and sometimes spontaneous, for example:

  • by birthdate;
  • by hair color (dark to light);
  • by middle name;
  • by number of letters in their street address;
  • by size order (tallest to smallest);
  • by color of their shirt (following a spectrum);
  • by the last four letters in their last name.

I would encourage them to silently communicate with each other. Some used a form of sign language; others simply put a letter or number on a piece of paper in order to find their place in line.

Once they were organized, I would check to make sure they were organized correctly (and not trying to stand next to a “buddy”). I would then place the newly organized line into whatever desk arrangement I had chosen. I would feed them into rows, sometimes horizontally and sometimes vertically, across the room. I would place them in a large square forum style set of desks. I would position them in short slanted sets of rows, angled towards the front. By the end of the first week, they were “trained”, and the process took less than 5 minutes.

Organizing groups

When I wanted to set up groups, I would arrange the desks in pods. Then I would create small groups by having them stand in groups based on other criteria, for example:

  • by fast food preferences (Taco Bell, McDonalds, Arby’s, Burger King);
  • by pet (cat, dog, reptile or bird);
  • by favorite color (blue, green, red, yellow);
  • by favorite car (Ford, Chevy, VW, Subaru, Toyota):
  • by favorite meal (pizza, spaghetti, hamburger, tacos).

Then I would either leave the groups intact or take one member of each group to form new combinations. I could take one  category overflowing with students and disperse those members into each of the other categories. These new groups could work for a day’s activity or a long term project. The students never knew who they might be working with that day or week.

Purpose

My purpose for this scramble every period was social. Since our high school was a regional school, the 9th grade was a 60%/40% combination of students who had been together during grades k-8 with new students from any one of 10 area schools. Over the years, I had noticed the isolation of the newer students while familiar friends wanted to work exclusively with each other.

My goal was to have students get to know each other in order to work collaboratively and cooperatively. For weeks during this exercise, they were collaborative and cooperative.

By the end of the second month, however, some of the students expressed weariness of this daily exercise.

“Can’t we sit where we want?” they asked.

I agreed. Frankly, I was running out of criteria!

When they sat in their preferred seats or tables, I did notice that there were interesting social combinations that would not have happened if they had not spent time together as I mixed them up. My goal appeared to have been met.

Vocabulary and the Seating Plan

I did not give up the opening scramble entirely.  I would use the format for vocabulary lessons by placing a different definition on each desk, and handing a card with the matching word, one to each student, as they entered the room.

“Match the word to the definition on the desk,” I would say, “…that is your seat for today!”

This form of seating plan kept my social goal intact while letting me know how much vocabulary I needed to review.

Summary of Seating

My adventures in seating worked well most of the time. There were days that I was convinced that students represented by one part of the alphabet were definitely more challenging than other parts or that determining hair color was a more arbitrary decision than I realized.

However, I will counter that no seating plan was ever perfect, and I could still manage the “preferential seating” requirements of PPTs by placing myself or an aide next to students who had that listed.  Preferential seating is not always at the front of the room, and I found that most secondary students with that designation would prefer a more confidential location at the back of the room where they can be supported more discreetly.

At the end of the school year, my 9th graders waxed nostalgic about how I had made them scramble every morning.

I obliged them one more time:

“Line up by summer vacation plans… nearest distance from the school to the farthest….and no talking!”

From the stay-cationers to traveling vacationers, they were so cooperative!

There is a gap between writing for school and authentic writing.

Just how big is that gap? If you consider an NPR interview with E.L. Doctorow that was recently replayed on the airwaves, the gap is a chasm….nay, an unmeasurable abyss.

What Doctorow said about his approach to the writing process, leads to only one conclusion about the teaching of writing:

We’re doing it wrong.

Doctorow’s original interview was replayed after his death on July 21st, 2015. His initials E.L. stood for Edgar Lawrence, and he was noted for his work with historical fiction including  Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005).

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

The NPR broadcast (7/22/15) was created from a collection of interviews from their archives. In one exchange with Scott Simon, Doctorow had responded to a question about his writing process by saying,

DOCTOROW: The ideal way to get involved in this sort of work is to write in order to find out what you’re writing. You don’t start with an outline and a plan.

Maybe you can feel the shudder of writing teachers everywhere, especially those insist that students first draft an outline or use a five paragraph template for any piece of writing. Of course, Doctorow was writing in the narrative format, where his plan started with the use of particularly “vocative images” to begin his stories:

And in this case, it’s the first line in the book where Andrew’s saying I can tell you what I’m about to tell you, but it’s not pretty. And suddenly you find yourself with your character.

The narrative genre may lend itself to Doctorow’s approach of “finding yourself with your character,” but writing in schools, especially at the secondary level, is in the expository/informational or persuasive genres. The Common Core State Standards have reinforced very deliberate borders between these genres. But Doctorow confounds these boundaries, incorporating factual information into his historical imaginings that play with the “myth of history” as an end product.

In a 2008 interview with George Plimpton published in the Paris Review (“The Art of Fiction, No.94″), Doctorow boasted about his use of history:

So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth.

History teachers may get sidetracked with Doctorow’s argument that history is a battlefield, “constantly being fought over because the past controls the present.” Yet, in taking the risks in “letting in light and air” to history,  Doctorow’s created another truth, a truth that did not require writing from his own experiences:

Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing.

Again, there may be a palpable shudder from writing teachers who have used “writing from your experience” as a mantra.

Analysis of literature was another area that Doctorow explained to NPR’s Steve Inskeep (in archived interviews) that almost kept him from being a writer:

That kind of analytical action of the mind is not the way you work when you write. You bring things together, you synthesize, you connect things that have had no previous connection when you write. So, all in all, as valuable as my [analysis] training was, it took me through language in the wrong direction.

Apparently, all those literary essays assigned by English teachers could be stifling this next generation of writers.

In making the connection between reading and writing, however, Doctorow described his own experience and this would win approval from teachers:

 I was reading constantly everything I could get my hands on. And, you know, at that age, something else happens if you’re going to be a writer. You’re reading for the excitement of it and to find out what happens next, just racing along. And then another little line of inquiry comes into your head. You say, well, how is this done?

So, what can writing teachers learn from one of America’s most celebrated novelists? What advice might they consider in writing instruction?

  1. Students should not limit themselves to write from experience;
  2. In narratives, students should not use an outline as they find the story through a character instead;
  3. Students should know that history is flexible enough for play, and for letting in  “air and light”;
  4. Analysis essays can take writers in the wrong direction;
  5. To be writers, students must read;
  6. Writing is knowing.

Whether teachers heed the advice of Doctorow from these interviews may not matter, as it is acknowledged that each writer differs in approach and style. Without question, however, the writing process for Doctorow flies in the face of any prescribed writing instruction. As he explained to Inskeep:

I seem to appreciate quiet. And when I’m writing I like to seal everything off and face the wall and not to look outside the window so that the only way out is through the sentences.

In the bell-to-bell day of today’s classroom, with a constant stream of interruptions during timed essay writing or writing on demand, we are doing it wrong.
It is unlikely that a student writer will find the quiet that Doctorow appreciated.
There is no blank wall.

Students will have to find their own way out of the narrative through sentences, but teachers should try to give them the time and space to let that happen.

This summer, I plan to spend time organizing question stems to spark critical thinking and post them on a number of slides to share with teachers.
OR
I could shorten the process and use just one slide. I could ask one question that is guaranteed to drive critical thinking. I could ask:

So what?”

To be honest, the first time I was asked this question in an academic setting, I was appalled. I felt I was being taunted. I was sure the professor was just being rude.

I was uncomfortable…I could not give an effective response.

“So what?”

I hated the question. I hated that the professor was goading me. I hated Dr. Steven D. Neuwirth. 

I was taking a graduate course (560) Literature of the American South, what I thought would be a “fun” course as I completed my Master’s Degree in English.

I remember distinctly the moment that was not fun…the evening of the second class.

“So what?” Dr. Neuwirth wrote on the chalkboard; he snapped a piece of chalk as he underlined the question for emphasis.

So what? he repeated in class after I offered what I thought was a brilliant observation on the evidence of dignity as a character trait in a discussion on William Falkner’s As I Lay Dying.

I was irritated. I had worked very hard on my responses.

So what? he scrawled in big letters on the paper I handed in three weeks later.

I was angry. I had worked even harder on that response.

My frustrations continued. Nothing in my training had prepared me for his persistence with the So what? question.

I had done what had worked in every other class. I had developed a thesis. I had used evidence. I had proved my thesis.

Regardless, my answers did not satisfy his challenge. So what? He found my reasoning lacking, and because he was not satisfied, neither was I.

I needed to think how to explain better.
I had to think differently.
I had to think critically.

It was then I realized that Dr. Neuwirth’s So what?” question was making me think critically.

Dr. Neuwirth’s irritating challenge brought me to recognize that it was not enough for me to develop and prove a thesis in a paper. I had to prove why my argument mattered.

For example, it was not enough to prove that Faulkner’s characters displayed dignity despite their social status, I had to question so what is the reader to take from his writing?

I had to ask the question So what?” not with attitude but with curiosity. Curiosity led to inquiry:

  • So what was my point? 
  • So what was missing from my response?
  • So what should I want the reader to know or do?
  • So what happens next?
  • So what do I do to cause or prevent something from happening ? 
  • So what makes this work or not work?
  • So what will this information lead me to study next?

Such inquiries led to me to make conclusions. I had always found conclusions difficult to write. I had always followed the predictable formula of restating the thesis, but I found that when I used the critical question So what? I could offer a broader conclusion.

For example, when I developed a thesis on the dignity of Faulkner’s characters and provided evidence from the text, I was really posing the question “Why should anyone read novels by Faulkner?” When I asked myself so what? I could conclude that Faulkner’s characters spark empathy in the reader.

It turned out that I did not hate theSo what? question.

I did not hate Dr. Neuwirth …although, admittedly, liking him took a little longer. While I did understand the importance of being challenged, I still found him a brilliant but abrasive teacher.

Four years after that class, I  became a teacher, and I taught literature. My students wrote predictable and boring conclusions that restated the thesis. They were not thinking critically. I had to do something.

Dr. Steven Neuwirth, Western Connecticut State University-created the University's Honors Program and served as its first director; he passed away February, 2004.

Dr. Steven Neuwirth, Western Connecticut State University-created the University’s Honors Program and served as its first director; he passed away February, 2004.

I asked my students So what?

And I scrawled So what? on their papers.

And I wrote So what? on the Smartboard -without chalk.

My students also hated theSo what? question.

They complained to me, but their conclusions improved.

So here is one question, one irritating question, for critical thinking for sharing on one slide:

So what?

 

 

The Southport Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, hosts a summer book sale every July under large tents that cover most of the lawn and in the library’s auditorium. Browsing for books under this acreage, one can only imagine “Where did all these books come from?”

The most logical conclusion I can come to is that Southport residents must do nothing all day but read.

They must read a book a day…maybe more.

I tried as hard as I could to lessen the load of titles on the young adult tables, but the six boxes (approximately 250 books) I hauled out from the sale barely made a dent. These books will go into classroom libraries for independent reading (silent sustained reading -SSR), literature circles, book clubs, etc. The premise of bringing these books to the classroom is to make sure that students at all grade levels have access to books at any given moment during the school day.

In under two hours, I filled six boxes with plenty of favorites (grades 5-10) from authors Gary Paulson, Meg Cabot, Ann Brashares, Jerry Spinelli, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Rick Riordan. I also grabbed selections of book series that fall into the “popular culture categories” such Goosebumps (RL Stine) , Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey), Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan), and Alex Rider (Alex Horowitz).

These are not the books that teachers will “teach” but they are the books students will read; the difference is described in an earlier post.

There was a box of a dozen copies of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. I picked up 10 clean copies of this best seller as a reading choice for students groups who prefer non-fiction. This is the story of a young boy in Malawi (Africa) who developed a contraption that would provide his village with electricity and running water:

With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forget an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him. (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind)

There is increased attention to incorporate informational texts such as this book because of the design of the  Common Core State Standards in Literacy which suggest that by 12th grade, 70% of a reader’s diet should be non-fiction. The copies I have are enough for a small group(s) to read in literature circles or book clubs.

I also collected copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the American Literature classes (grade 10). This apocalyptic novel is worth including in a curriculum because of McCarthy’s style and message. In an earlier post I describe how The Road was the first book I collected for use in the classroom; its integration into curriculum was very successful. Copies of the book with its distinctive black cover and bold lettering were easily found among the 10 or 12 tables of donated fiction….as if there had been a massive book club after-party.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 14.16.55There were large crowds attending the Southport Pequot Library’s annual sale on Saturday, and the long lines of patrons waiting patiently to check out at the volunteer cashier tables might cause one to wonder if the sale has become a victim of its own success?

On the other hand, as they slowly snaked past the tables of nature books and cookbooks, patrons continued to browse and added even more purchases to the piles in their arms or bags. No one complained as there was always something to read.

Overflow of books or marketing geniuses??…those long lines on a Saturday afternoon could just be another successful marketing technique by the Friends of the Pequot Library.

While they are not wrapped in shiny paper with frills and bows, the piles of donated used books on the tables of the local area library book sales this summer are presents.

It does not matter that these presents are “re-purposed” or “re-gifted”…these books will be presents to students to encourage reading. It’s Christmas in July for filling the classroom libraries!

red boxFor this special kind of “Christmas shopping”, I have been to three Connecticut library books sales: the New Milford Public Library, the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, and the Westport Public Library. These large book sales have the titles that students want to read, because the books have been donated by students who have already read them. These gently used donated books have already been field-tested.

Choosing books that student want to read is different than selecting books that students should read. Educators believe that students should read selections from the literary canon, for example, those written by Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and the Brontë sisters. Students should read titles such as The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Odyssey. These selections from the literary canon are often assigned in middle or high school classes.

But many students do not want to read these pieces of classic literature for pleasure. They want to read a title from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or The Hunger Games series. The key difference between reading for pleasure and assigned reading is recognizing that students have similar guilty pleasures as adults in reading popular culture,

Students want to read titles such as the Dork Diaries;  Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You; Hatchet; or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These are the titles they look for in their independent reading choices. So, I looked for these titles at the three book sales, and I found copies of all of them.

The titles students want to read can build vocabulary and fluency for the classic literature they are assigned in school. Reading books by John Green (Looking for Alaska, The Fault in our Stars), Anthony Horowitz (Point Blank, Scorpio) or Sarah Dessen (Dreamland, This Lullaby, The Truth About Forever) gives students the chance to practice reading for pleasure. I looked for these titles, and I found copies of all of them as well.

Reading for pleasure for today’s teen reader means wandering in some very dark worlds as students are particularly drawn bleak futures as depicted in the Divergent series (dystopian world) or Delirium series (dystopian world) or the Chaos Walking series (finding yourself in a dystopian world).  Again, I found copies of all of these titles.

Student readers of fantasy, a genre sadly overlooked in most school offerings, cannot get enough of Rick Riordan’s retelling of Greek Mythology (The Lightning Thief, The Last Olympian) or his newer Egyptian series (The Red Pyramid). I found multiple copies from both series.

When students are offered the titles they want to read, they can practice reading the way marathoners train for races or musicians rehearse for performances. Practicing reading in school with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) or for homework improves their reading pace, their reading accuracy, and helps students develop a reading routine.

It does not matter if reading practice for pleasure includes some titles from the often maligned series from Captain Underpants (intermediate grades) or Twilight (high school grade). The elements of story (protagonist, antagonist, conflict, rising action, and resolution) are in each. Not to mention Stephanie Meyer’s borrowing passages from Wuthering Heights to accessorize her vampire-filled trilogy.

There is good reading practice in the R.L. Stine collections from Goosebumps to Fear Street, and there is good reading practice in Fruit Baskets (Manga) or Calvin and Hobbs comic books or in the  Darwin Awards series. And, yes, I purchased many copies of each.

Titles with movie tie-in such as the Star Wars series, World War Z, or the original Jurassic Park are always popular, and students check to see how accurately the film matches the text. YA Chick lit from Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) orAnn Brashares (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) appeal to a particular female demographic while novels written by Nicholas Evans and Jodi Picoult can take that same group well into adulthood. I found copies of all of these.

What I did not find were those popular Minecraft books, but those will come in book sales next summer as more and more students engage in the game platform. Note: In 2016 expect a Minecraft wave near you!

All together, shopping at the three book sales yielded book as “presents” that will be spread out over 50 classroom libraries. These popular books will encourage students to practice reading in and out of school  to build up their reading stamina, for school and for life.

The Friends of the Library website lists all the book sales in Connecticut, and there are plenty of opportunities year-round to increase libraries that are geared for reading pleasure. Our students will be life-long readers if they develop the solid reading habits.green box

So far, this has been A Very Merry Book Sale season! Happy Holidays!