This is POST #400!
This is POST #400!

I just figured out that this is my 400th post. I began writing on 7/3/2011, a little over four years ago. I have discovered that writing for this blog has given me the opportunity to research many topics and to explore what I think about those topics as I write.

In other words, I have increased my own background knowledge through reading and writing on this blog.

So, what could be the best way to celebrate this 400th post?

I can demonstrate how a post can increase a reader’s background knowledge on a topic as simple as the number 400!

There are multiple topics in various disciplines related to the number 400.  Here are several examples of what I learned by basing this post on the  significance of the number 400:


If this post were in Athens in 413 BCE, it could represent the The Four Hundred , a group that organized a revolution during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Their coup was organized after a financial crisis caused by a series of unsuccessful military campaigns, made them seek to establish an oligarchy of the elite. These Four Hundred were the wealthy members of the ruling class, and they believed that the oligarchy would manage foreign, fiscal, and war policies better than the more democratic government in place. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was part of a  Gregorian calendar year calculator, it would show the changes according to one cycle of exactly 400 years, of which 97 are leap years and 303 are common. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was a message from the Internet, it would be part of an HTTP status code for a bad client request. Receiving the message 400 means that the request was malformed. In other words, the data stream sent by the client to the server did not follow the rules. (source: Wikipedia)

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari's entry level computer.

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari’s entry level computer.

If this post was in Forbes Magazine, it would be a listing of the 400 wealthiest people in the world. The methodology for gathering this information is from interviews with employees, handlers, rivals, peers and attorneys. Debt is also consider a factor. Other methods explained by Kerry A. Dolan from the Forbes Magazine staff in her article Inside The 2014 Forbes 400: Facts And Figures About America’s Wealthiest:

“We pored over thousands of SEC documents, court records, probate records, federal financial disclosures, and Web and print stories. We took into account all types of assets: stakes in public and private companies, real estate, art, yachts, planes, ranches, vineyards, jewelry, car collections and more.”

If this post was a socialite calculator for the mid-19th century, it would hold the number 400 as an elite standard based on a remark by from Manhattan’s most famous social arbiter, Ward McAllister. His remark “There are only 400 people in New York that one really knows,” was the basis for social reports chronicled in the New York Sun. According to Collins Dictionary Online,  The notion ‘elite’ is said to be from the selection of high society guests by the socialite Mrs. William B. Astor Jr., whose ballroom could hold 400. (source: Encyclopedia Britannica)

If this post was a passenger train, it would have the nickname “The 400″ because of the distance it traveled (400 miles) between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago, Illinois in 400 minutes. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was a highway, it would be part of the interstate system in Ontario, Canada, or part of the 400-Series Highways. These highways have high design standards,are regulated at 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph) speed limits, with various collision avoidance and traffic management systems. (source: Wikipedia)

 If this post was a boat yard, it would be the historic boat yard #400 in Belfast, Ireland, where the RMS Olympic was constructed, the first of the three Olympic-class ocean liners. The RMS Olympic was the RMS Titanic‘s sister ship. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was an explanation of the appearance of celestial objects, it would explain that while the Sun is approximately 400 times the size of the Moon, it is also approximately 400 times further away. Their astronomical size difference is not comparable because of a temporary illusion causing the Sun and Moon to appear as similar size in the Earth’s sky.

If this post was a tree, it would be one of 400 in the ratio of the number of trees per human on Earth today.  A new study  explained in Science Tech Today (Los Angeles Times / NewsEdge) estimates the number of trees at somewhere around 3.04 trillion, or 400 trees for every person. The new study notes that this is a reduction in about half the number of trees that have been on Earth:

“‘The number of trees cut down is almost 3 trillion since the start of human civilization’ said Thomas Crowther, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who led the study. ‘That is an astronomical figure.'”

If this post was a batting average, it would represent (2 hits out of 5 at-bats) which is a numerically significant annual batting average statistic in Major League Baseball. Batting .400 was last accomplished by Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox in 1941. (source: Wikipedia)


"The 400 Blows" is seminal work of the French New Wave (1959) and directorial debut of 27-year old Francois Truffaut

“The 400 Blows” is seminal work of the French New Wave (1959) and directorial debut of 27-year old Francois Truffaut

If this post was a measurement of time between the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament texts, this post would represent the Intertestamental period, or roughly four hundred years.

If this post was part of a Bible as Literature study analysis, then this post would be discussing the verses from Acts in the Revised Standard Version:

“God spoke to this effect, that his posterity would be aliens in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and ill-treat them four hundred years.‘But I will judge the nation which they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’”(Acts 7:6-8 )

If you were looking for this post in the Dewey Decimal system, you would be looking in the 400s-language section. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was the central idea for a song, it would be for the song 400 Years by Peter Tosh (on the album Catch a Fire, produced by Bob Marley). Tosh was one of the core members of the band The Wailers (1963–1974), after which he established himself as a successful solo artist and a promoter of Rastafari.  Tosh explained that, “My songs are a revolution, not smiling songs.” He was murdered in 1987 during a brutal home invasion.  (source: Wikipedia)

The opening lyrics to this song:

400 years (400 years, 400 years. Wo-o-o-o)
And it’s the same –
The same (wo-o-o-o) philosophy
I’ve said it’s four hundred years;
(400 years, 400 years. Wo-o-o-o, wo-o-o-o)
Look, how long (wo-o-o-o)
And the people they (wo-o-o-o) still can’t see.
Why do they fight against the poor youth of today?
And without these youths, they would be gone –
All gone astray….
So, in celebration of the 400th post, you could listen to the song:


All of the above evidence on the significance of the number 400 is proof that every time I sit and write a post, the research that I do for that post has increased my background knowledge.

I hope you learned something new to add to your background knowledge from this 400th post!

Of all the national holidays, Labor Day is the most passive. It floats as the first Monday in September; it lacks a symbol, a song or ritual. Maybe that is not so strange for a holiday that has come to be a collective celebration of rest.

Labor Day is also set aside to recognize the importance of labor or work in our lives.

The importance of work is at the heart of a speech recorded by Retired Lt. General Russel L. Honoré for This I Believe, Inc. This I Believe is an “independent, not-for-profit organization that engages youth and adults from all walks of life in writing, sharing, and discussing brief essays about the core values that guide their daily lives.”

Honoré is best known for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina-affected areas across the Gulf Coast and as the 2nd Infantry Division’s commander while stationed in South Korea. Honoré, also known as “The Ragin’ Cajun”, offered an audio essay that was shared on NPR’s Weekend Edition, March 1, 2009.

Work is a Blessing

Honoré’s essay was titled To Work is a Blessing and in it he describes how his father influenced him to see labor differently. His own work experience began in his youth when he had to milk 65 cows twice daily:

“I remember complaining to my father and grandfather about having to go milk those cows. My father said, ‘Ya know, boy, to work is a blessing.'”

Honore described how he I looked at those two men, and “had a feeling I had been told something really important, but it took many years before it had sunk in.” As a young man, he joined ROTC to pay for college, and that obligation led to his 37 year career in the Army.

In the essay, he explains a visit to Bangladesh in the 80s and how he watched a woman breaking bricks with a hammer with a baby strapped to her back. When he asked if a machine would be more efficient than this form of human labor, an official explained that a machine would put that lady out of work. Honoré then understood:

“Breaking those bricks meant she’d earn enough money to feed herself and her baby that day. And as bad as that woman’s job was, it was enough to keep a small family alive. It reminded me of my father’s words: to work is a blessing.”

His position in the Army took him to multiple countries, where he grew to recognize that people, regardless of where they lived, who lived without jobs were not free. They become “victims  of crime, the ideology of terrorism, poor health, depression, and social unrest.” Instead, he argued that

“People who have jobs can have a home, send their kids to school, develop a sense of pride, contribute to the good of the community, and even help others. When we can work, we’re free. We’re blessed.”

Honoré’s essay is  (561 words); his audio recording of the speech is 4:02 minutes long. The readability level/Grade Level of the essay is 6.7 according to a Flesch–Kincaid readability calculator. Both the essay and the audio recording are available on the This I Believe website. In the audio recording, Honoré’s thick Louisiana accent personalizes his message, a form of a quick read-aloud while student can follow in the text.

Educators who might want to use this speech with students in grades 6-12 could align their questions to several Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading informational texts. Reading informational texts such as this speech help students build a foundation of knowledge in multiple fields. In addition to English Language Arts, this essay can be part of any social studies program from middle school geography to AP Human Geography. The background knowledge the essay provides helps them to be better readers in all content areas.

Below are four anchor standards from the CCSS and questions stems for each strand that could be used with this essay:

RI.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text of this speech says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • What textual evidence supports your analysis of the Honoré’s speech?
  • What inferences can you draw from specific textual evidence?

RI.9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of Honoré’s speech, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • What is the central idea of the speech?
  • How is the central idea developed?
  • What supporting ideas are included in the text?

RI.9-10.3 Analyze how Honoré’s unfolds a series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.

  • What connections can you make among and between the individuals, ideas, or events in Honoré’s speech?
  • What distinctions can you make between the speech’s individuals, ideas, or events?
  • Analyze how Honoré connects the ideas and events of the text?

RI.9-10. 4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in Honoré’s speech, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.

  • What does the word/phrase _______ mean in this selection?
  • How does the Honoré’s  use of repetition of ___________ impact the tone of his speech?
  • Identify and analyze which words or phrases specifically impact the meaning or tone?

Labor Day may be a passive holiday, but this day is important to recognize the importance of work in every life, and we should share that message with our students.

Honoré concludes his short speech by saying he has no plans to stop working, restating his belief in his father’s words:

“I believe in the blessing of work.”

The advertisement for the 55th Annual Mark Twain Library Labor Day Weekend Book Fair read,

“A large collection of Art books, Environment & Nature, Baseball books, many handsome sets and thousands of CHILDREN’s books..”

I want to make a correction to this advertisement.
There are 300 less children’s books at this book sale because there are 300 books in my car.
By next week those 300 books will be distributed into classroom libraries in grade 4-10 for independent reading.

The Mark Twain Library Book Sale in Redding, Connecticut, claims to be “the oldest – and one of the largest – in New England:”

The history of the sale begins with its namesake, Mark Twain in 1908. When Twain (Samuel Clemens) moved to Redding in 1907, he had more books than would fit in his new home so he donated over a thousand to start the Library. When Twain passed away in 1910, his daughter Clara donated more books for sale, and 107 years later, the Book Fair is still one of the library’s principal fundraisers.

This oldest book sale is also one of the best run in the state.

The sale is held in easily accessible Redding Heritage Community Center. As one entered, volunteers provided maps that detail the book table layout, from mystery selections to travel guides to a table marked ephemera.

The fiction tables in the adult section were organized by author (which made fast finding for copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Of course, having the hardcovers and trade paperbacks grouped together could be part of a sociological study in recent popular reading trends as evidenced by multiple copies of the The Stieg Larsson Trilogy/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (the fascination apparently over). There were wide aisles to accommodate the “book sale bump”- a result of patrons trying to read titles while carrying overloaded bags or boxes.

The volunteer help was outstanding; students (middle-high school aged) manned tables to tally books or straighten shelves. Rather than shy away, they approached shoppers with retail-like patter, “Would you like a box to place your holdings?” They checked book prices book-by-book and reloaded bags once they finished counting. Their adult supervisors handled several cashier’s tables. Outside, there were boy scouts who sold baked goods and (predictably) asked if patrons needed help carrying books to cars.

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

One large box filled with a variety (40+) of Star Wars related books. I am anticipating renewed interest with the December (18th, 2015) release of The Force Awakens.
10 neatly stacked copies of Jeanette Walls’s powerful memoir of her homeless parents in The Glass Castle for a Grade 12 English course.
5 copies of Under the Same Sky ( 2005) by Cynthia DeFelice which deals with migrant Mexican workers on an upstate New York farm; ideal for a small book group or lit circle. (Good story; horrible book cover).
Multiple copies of books from R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series and from Rick Rioden’s Percy Jackson series.


Selection of high interest titles

Final price for 300 good quality, high interest books for independent reading libraries in grades 4 through 10?


Thank you, Mark Twain Library Book Sale Library volunteers. As your founder stated, “We believe that out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.” (see post)

I know that greatness of a nation starts and continues with the practice of reading.
Your efforts will be felt in many public school classrooms in Connecticut not so far away.


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?


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.



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.


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.