Screenshot 2015-03-18 07.04.18Saturday, March 14th, Cornelius Minor, a Staff Developer at The Reading & Writing Project gave the luncheon keynote address to over 300 educators at the 2nd Annual Conference for  The Teaching Studio at The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, Rhode Island.

While he began his address with humor and participation, Minor quickly got to the serious matter of his topic:

“In a world of inequity, how are we giving tools to students to let them become heroes to rescue themselves?”

For those not in attendance, there could be some confusion on Minor’s use of the term “hero”; the word is commonly associated with superhero characters from the Marvel or DC Comics. Minor himself even referenced the superhero Batman in his speech in order to make his claim that teachers are the voice-overs in their students’ lives. He suggested that teachers could emulate the voice of Batman’s mentor, Lucius Fox who is played in the films by the actor Morgan Freeman.

The role of the mentor as the “voice-over” is an integral part of the hero’s journey archetype. In the classic hero’s journey, in film and in literature, there are twelve (12) steps.  Step 1 begins in the Ordinary World, when the hero hears a Call to Adventure (step 2), which He or She initially Refuses (step 3). By step 4, the hero encounters someone who can give him advice in order to prepare for the journey ahead. That someone in step 4 is The Mentor, a character that students are already familiar with some examples from films.

Students at every grade level can name film mentors such as Glinda from the Wizard of Oz, mentor to Dorothy; Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, mentor to Luke Skywalker; and Gandalf, mentor to both Hobbits, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, in the the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Minor, however, asked his audience to turn from cinema’s world of fantasy in order to suggest the role the ordinary teacher plays everyday is as powerful as these other mentors.

“Think about that Morgan Freeman voiceover in the movie…. to ‘Be the Batman,'”intoned Minor enthusiastically in order to illustrate that every student needs to hear that voice-over in their heads to “Be the hero” of their life.

While teachers may lack the gravely voice of Morgan Freeman, teachers can help their students when they decide to Cross the First Threshold into adventure (step 5) and meet Tests, Allies, Enemies (step 6) before taking a New Approach (step 7) when setbacks occur day by day, grade by grade.

Just as the characters in epic literature or in film Confront Ordeals (step 8), teachers in real life can contribute by helping students Achieve Success and Rewards (step 9) as they prepare to Return to the Ordinary World with new knowledge (step 10). Helping students achieve success is critical to prepare students for future tests, both literal and figurative (step 11), and the final step 12 is when students finally complete the journey with knowledge, literally the “elixir”, which will be used to help others.

“What’s the last ‘best’ book you read on your own?” I would ask students when I taught middle and high school.

When I asked them this question, the boys almost always answered “Hatchet“.

“That’s the last book I read, too,” many would admit.

The number of Hatchet fans was 100% among the vocational agriculture students I taught for seven years in a rural school in Northwest Connecticut. Their love of this novel resonated with their desire for independence, adventure, and the outdoors.

The author Gary Paulsen shares many of these interests according to his biography:

Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.

In Hatchet, Paulsen’s protagonist, Brian Robeson, is a thirteen-year-old boy from New York City. From the onset, Brian is ill-prepared to meet the hardships of the wilderness when the single engine plane he is riding in from New York to Canada crashes because the pilot had a heart attack. Thus begins a compelling survival story, and my students loved survival stories; many of them were experienced hunters or fishermen.

The opening chapters of Hatchet also cover Brian’s personal background, his knowledge of his mother’s affair and his parent’s subsequent divorce, and the events leading up to the plane crash. Since the pilot had offered Brian a few minutes of flight lessons, he is able to control the descent of the plane until it crashes into a lake. He swims to safety with his only asset, a small hatchet he has taken from the crash.

Brian’s wilderness education alternates between emotions of loneliness and his physical needs. He learns to respect the natural world through a series of unexpected encounters with a bear, a porcupine, and a wolf. A turtle’s eggs give him a food source until he learns how to fish.  He learns how to build a fire and how to store food properly after a serious spraying by a skunk. Initially devastated about his inability to signal a passing plane for help, Brian works to improve his skills by constructing a studier lean-to.  These incidents mark a change in the “new” Brian, one who is far more self-reliant than the “city boy” who left on the plane to Canada. My students enjoyed the notion that “city boy” values must change to include skills they valued as well.

In recounting Brian’s emotional turmoil caused by his parent’s recent divorce, Paulsen uses simple and effective word choice and syntax; Brian is monosyllabic with memories, “The words. Always the words. Divorce. The Secret. Fights. Split. The big split.” Many of my male students spoke monosyllabically as well. These simple statements capture Brian’s stream of consciousness effectively without sentimentality.

There is just the right amount of the “yuck” factor in the novel to satisfy a young male reader. When the plane resurfaces, Brian decides to retrieve the plane’s flight location transmitter. While diving in the plane, he comes upon the decomposing body of the pilot:

“The fish. He’d never really thought of it, but the fish—the fish he had been eating all this time had to eat, too. They had been at the pilot all this time, almost two months, nibbling and chewing and all that remained was the not quite cleaned skull and when he looked up it wobbled loosely.”

Paulsen illustrates Brian’s growth as he learns how to adapt to increasingly dangerous situations; he survives a tornado and a terrifying moose attack. The reader is increasing aware of the self-confidence that Brian develops towards the end of the novel:

“Come on, he thought, baring his teeth in the darkness—come on. Is that the best you can do—is that all you can hit me with—a moose and a tornado? Well, he thought, holding his ribs and smiling, then spitting mosquitoes out of his mouth. Well, that won’t get the job done. That was the difference now. He had changed, and he was tough. I’m tough where it counts—tough in the head.”

54 days after the plane accident, Brian is rescued. Like all characters in a coming-of-age novel, he is not the same; he is more introspective and thoughtful. Paulsen’s narrative convinces students that Brian’s transformation is real, and that maybe such transformations are possible for themselves.

The novel’s grade level equivalent is 6.3; the Lexile® measure is 1020, but labeling the interest level as grades 6-8 is a mistake. My students’ interest in Hatchet was the standard for all other reading choices as in, “This book is not like Hatchet” (*sigh*) or “This book is almost as good as Hatchet.”

Hatchet was the 1988 Newbery Honor book and, fortunately for teachers wishing to offer books like Hatchet, it is the first in a trilogy + one. After Hatchet came The River,(1991); Brian’s Winter, (1996); and then Brian’s Return, (1999).

Paulsen also has two non-fiction offerings: the book Guts, a set of true short stories of survival, and Winterdance, a story of running the Iditarod. Both titles were also popular with my students.

Paulsen’s wilderness experiences set a high standard for adventure stories for my students, and the experience of reading this book was often so powerful that I had to (figuratively) drag them “out of the woods” in the book to notice other compelling stories on our classroom’s bookshelves.

Hatchet was my “go to” for the reluctant reader, and I always had several copies on hand to lend out. There were copies for the first time reader and for the re-reader, but I did have to draw the line on occasion. While Hatchet can still be the best book some of my students have ever read, it cannot be their last.

When Erik Larson was interviewed by the NY Times for his latest book Dead Wake about the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania, he Screenshot 2015-03-11 23.14.19expressed his purpose for choosing to write in the narrative non-fiction genre:

“It is not necessarily my goal to inform. It is my goal to create a historical experience with my books. My dream, my ideal, is that someone picks up a book of mine, starts reading it, and just lets themselves sink into the past and then read the thing straight through, and emerge at the end feeling as though they’ve lived in another world entirely.”

There is nothing of analysis in his stated purpose for writing, but there is a desire to have a reader engulfed by a narrative that ends in the reader “feeling.”

In contrast, in the first three anchor standards for reading (grades k-12), the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts spell out the expanse between their objectives and Larson’s expression to use narrative non-fiction to connect viscerally with the readers:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3
Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

The anchor and grade level standards were written purposely to be devoid of any reference to reader’s feeling or connection. These standards were carefully articulated not to be confused with the popular  Reader Response Theory supported by Louise Rosenblatt that focused “on the reader rather than the author or the content and form of the work.”

“Reading closely” in the CCSS has been spun as “close reading”, defined by the The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) as:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (2011, p. 7)

Analyzing the definition of close reading (above) through analysis in a WORD SIFT highlights the CCSS emphasis on ideas and meaning for the student:Screenshot 2015-03-11 22.02.36

Missing from this definition? The word “author.”

This word sift analysis illustrates how the “close reading” advocated by the CCSS requires students to read for meaning, with no consideration to the intent of an author.

The NYTimes interview with Larson provided him the opportunity to state that he does not write to a standard; he says nothing about “meaning” and “ideas”. Instead, Larson poetically defined his goal for writing. He writes for the reader to have an experience, and that experience is ” his “dream” or “ideal.”

While the language of the Common Core contrives to eliminate the author’s role in creating texts, those same texts students will be expected to “close read”, Erik Larson reminds us that authors do not write to meet a standard.

Authors write to create feelings in their readers, whether those readers are reading closely or not.

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 8.46.23 AM

Order for questions for #satchat 3/7/15

Rather than sleep in, hundreds of educators spend Saturday mornings (7:30 EST) tweeting away on Twitter in discussions with other educators worldwide about current issues in education. The hashtag #satchat takes educators to the discussion selected for that morning. The topics are usually posted (see left) by one of the coordinators so that educators can prepare in advance for the flurry of responses they want to make for the hour of tweeting. The topic on 3/7/15 was tweeted out by as Tomorrow’s Classrooms Today. 

At 7:30 AM this Saturday, the tweet tsunami began and soon Twitter’s#satchat was trending (by the numbers: 3654 Tweets; 603 Participants; 49.2 Tweets Per Minute according to Billy Krakower ‏@wkrakower ).

Call those engaged in this particular form of edu-communication the Coalition of the Willing. They are spread out nationwide, perhaps clustered in some geographic areas, but connected in this digital parking lot every week for the sharing of ideas with like-minded educators. At every session, and during the week, there are participants cheering #satchat as their Professional Learning Network (PLN).

These members of the Coalition of the Willing tweets out positive, occasionally fanatical, statements about the difference these virtual meetings make for them in their practice. These three samples prove such enthusiasm:

rWith Twitter the knowledge of one becomes the knowledge of all.
aStarting my morning w/ , expanding my PLN and continued growth through collaboration.
Today’s : the best proof that teachers are most certainly part of solutions in education.

Reading tweets from the Coalition of the Willing on any Saturday, there those messages that bemoan educators are not taking advantage of social interaction and information shared on links through Twitter or any other social media. Let us call those educators the Coalition of the Unwilling. Many in this coalition are unwilling because they do not see the value of a Twitter form of professional discussion; many do not have the time to participate; many are not proficient with technology and are frustrated with their attempts to engage; many do not care. For whatever reason, and regardless of platform, there will always be a group of educators currently employed who are not independently engaged.

What can be done to change this paradigm? What about looking at the next generation of teachers?

Question #5 on this round of #satchat asked about the tools can educators can utilize to involve stakeholders in the future of education. Knowing that the Coalition of the Unwilling is already not interested (not available, not proficient, etc…), I offered the following sentiment on a tweet for Q5:

For our future, engage teacher ed programs.

A response came from 

And energetic new teachers often get sucked into the status quo when they enter the “real world” of schools. 

My response?

That’s why we hook potential and new teachers into Twitter; It’s an inoculation against the status quo.

If educators today want collaboration and communication with the educators of tomorrow, then the Coalition of the Willing needs to collectively use social media to engage with the teacher education programs. Most new recruits in teacher ed programs are already familiar with social media, and understand how to make connections. They must be brought into the dialogues on social media platforms like Twitter in order to be inoculated against the isolation of those first years of teaching or serving as an administrator.

Every #satchat discussion is the perfect complement to teacher education and teacher preparation programs. Week to week, #satchat offers what could be considered the most authentic syllabus for a “Contemporary Issues in Education” course. And there are Twitter chats with hashtags for any other education course as well: #Engchat for English teachers, #kinderchat for Kindergarten and elementary teachers, #BYOD for schools using bring your own digital device approaches, etc.

The Twitter handle @Cybraryman1 (Jerry Blumengarten) updates a webpage with links to hundreds of hashtag links and the National Education Association offers an article “Can Tweeting Help Your Teaching?”  with links to support beginners such as the Twitter Handbook for Teachers.

Targeting colleges and universities with teacher ed programs to engage with professionals on social media platforms could bring collaboration in teacher preparation in the short term which might improve teacher retention in the long run.  At a minimum, professors and instructors should consider how easily participation in education chats could be used as assignments: follow students, review posted links, assessing a tweet’s 140 characters. This is more authentic, and less burdensome, than grading long papers.

At a time when professional development can be costly, there are educators with experience on education chats who are ready to lend support and guidance for free. There are educators who want to learn from each other and share what they know. They are the Coalition of the Willing, and many are already on Twitter on Saturday mornings, tweeting #satchat and trending.

Teacher educators? Please, have your students join them…or maybe have them respond at a more reasonable hour, say, after noon?

There are advertising campaigns that successfully employ the technique of “advertised ignorance” or “false authority” where an individual proudly declares that he or she is not an expert  just before rendering an expert opinion. An example for this form of advertising was from a series of promotions for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup starring actors who portrayed doctors on popular soap operas. Here is the 1986 TV commercial starring Peter Bergman:

This commercial was the second in a series of successful TV doctor endorsements for over the counter medicines; people responded well to taking medical advice from a celebrity who admitted he was not an expert.

The broad acceptance of this logical fallacy may explain why the creators of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were successful promoters.  With minimal experience as educators or certifications in K-12 education, a handful of individuals convinced the National Governors Association that a set of national achievement standards was necessary to improve education.

These “Architects of the Common Core”, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, founded The Grow Network, an internet-based consulting organization before joining with Sue Pimentel to found Student Achievement Partners (SAP), a non-profit organization which researched and developed “achievement based” assessment standards. These three were not experts in education through research or practice, but like the doctor who plays an expert on TV, they were confidently endorsing the Common Core as the cure for all of the nation’s education ills.

The exorbitant cost for their diagnosis and cure was the topic of an article that ran in The Federalist (January 2015) by   titled Ten Common Core Promoters Laughing All the Way to the Bank. The tagline:

People intimately involved with creating or pushing Common Core are making a lot of money despite having demonstrated exactly zero proven success at increasing student achievement.

In addition to Coleman, Zimba, and Pimental, the article lists other who have endorsed the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for profit. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein; Former New York Education Commissioner John King;  Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Idaho State Superintendent Tom Luna; Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett; and Dane Linn, Vice President for the Business Roundtable. The lone educator William McCallum, head of the University of Arizona’s math department, has begun a nonprofit curriculum company, Illustrative Mathematics, to generate materials for Common Core.

In her article, Pullman lists the credentials for each of the ten promoters and details how much they have financially gained, or still stand to gain, for supporting the Common Core. What these ten individuals collectively lack in education experience, they make up in business acumen. Like the handsome pretend doctor in the Vicks 44 commercials, who was paid handsomely for his marketing, these quasi-educators endorsing the Common Core will reap profits whether the CCSS initiative is successful or not.

Of course the irony of this form of endorsement is that one of the key shifts in education for the English Language arts standards is that students should place an emphasis on evidence whenever they make a claim:

The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information.

If this key shift in the CCSS had been considered when the standards were in their genesis, there might have been an emphasis on requiring evidence for the claims of these CCSS promoters. However, once the standards were announced in 2009, 44 states rapidly moved to adopt the CCSS. Many of these states were spurred on by the Race to the Top federal funding deadlines that awarded extra points to applications completed by August 2010.

The nationwide rush to adopt the standards had been spurred on by non-educators or policy wonks that represented businesses that stood to profit as state after state swallowed what has turned out to be costly, even bitter, medicine.

Whether that CCSS medicine will be effective is yet to be determined, but twelve states who had initially signed on have filed to opt out….A decision not to follow the “doctor’s” orders.

March 2 was Dr. Seuss’s birthday, celebrated as Read Across America Day. In West Haven, Connecticut, planning for the event began in January when the Reading Department discussed how teachers were the model readers in every building. In a previous post, I added a sideshow of photos of classroom doors that teachers and staff designed to help students recognize the importance of reading and pay tribute to Dr. Seuss.

Many of the designs were remarkable. There were doors decorated as “Readboxes,” a playful twist on the movie-dispensing Redboxes. There were doors decorated with book choices displayed in Twitter tweets, or pie charts, or hot air balloons taking students “to the places they will go.” There was even a Type 40 TARDIS door where Dr. Who can meet Dr. Seuss!

Even more remarkable was the amount of time and effort that these West Haven educators put into the communal sharing of texts. Back in January, the hope of the Reading Department was that conversations about books would happen between students; between teachers and staff; and between teachers and students and staff.  Too often in education, there is an expectation that reading a book will end in an assessment or grade. Too often, reading a book means analyzing theme, discussing character change, or identifying setting.  Too often, there is no celebration in reading.

The hope of asking teachers to share their favorite titles on classroom doors was that these displays would spark new conversations about books that were far more informal, something akin to a student saying,  “Hey, I like that book, too!”

Two other West Haven elementary schools participated in the Read Across America, and their classroom doors and bulletin boards will hopefully continue their school community’s conversations about books. At minimum, their door decorations have definitely sparked conversations about  the impact of Pinterest on education!

Some of Mackrille Elementary  School’s offerings are seen here:

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The numerous weather delays and cancellations resulted in a delay of festivities for Forest Elementary School, but their enthusiasm for engaging in conversations about favorite books and reading is clearly evident:

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These posts wrap up the 2015 West Haven edition of Read Across America where educators contributed time and effort to celebrate reading. Now, we can listen for students to say, “Hey, that’s my favorite book, too!”

A Seussian-thanks to all those who participated:

The doors, the books, a wonderful sight
Seeing everyone share was such a delight!

March 2 is Dr. Seuss’s birthday, celebrated as Read Across America Day. Here in West Haven, Connecticut, there were book sharing activities for teachers and students in grades K-12.  Planning for the event began in January when the Reading Department discussed how teachers were the model readers in every building.
Because teachers are successful readers, several teachers and staff members shared their personal reading histories with students and other staff members. This sharing was most evident with a wall display at Washington Elementary School where students could “Guess which book was a childhood favorite?” Photos of teachers when they were in elementary school were paired with book covers such as The Little Prince or Go, Dog, Go!

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At Bailey Middle School, teachers also shared their favorites with recommendations for students in Grades 7 & 8:

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Since reading “opens doors”, teachers and students at several different elementary schools shared their favorite books together on classroom doors. The Doors of Haley Elementary School were a Pinterest-lit explosion:

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While grades 5 & 6 teachers and students combined to pay tribute to Dr. Seuss and share their favorite titles on the Doors at Carrigan Intermediate School:

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The day’s celebrations included other activities as well. Students at Savin Rock dressed as Dr. Seuss characters and spent time in their classrooms reading. At Pagel’s Elementary school, there was a character parade that ended in a laser light show.  Forest Elementary School will be celebrating with a door contest  held  mid-week. Finally, at West Haven High School, 12th grade students wrote letters to 9th grade students listing the books that they would recommend to read in order to succeed.
The National Education Association (NEA) created Read Across America in order to  motivate children to read. Their research has shown that children who are motivated and spend more time reading do better in school.
The photos from West Haven illustrate a high degree of motivation where teachers and students are talking about books. The day’s success was made possible through the  collective efforts of teachers and students  and building principals.
Thank you to all who participated in a Dr. Seuss fashion:

One Thanks,

Two Thanks,

Big Thanks,

True Thanks!

One of my favorite things to do when I taught a poetry unit was to select a poem I had not ‘prepared” to teach and then ask students to give me their impressions. A selection like this always brought interesting discussions because there was no prescribed agenda; we read for meaning together. One of the “go to” poets in such classroom experiments was the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

My students were already familiar with his Paul Revere’s Ride. They were also familiar with some of his acquaintances including the authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens. His verse was always accessible to students in different grade levels; the narrative in his poetry always captured their imaginations.

As we approach this last weekend in the coldest February on record, readers can get a glimpse of how Longfellow might have approached his birthday on the 27th with  Afternoon in February:.

The day is ending,fence
The night is descending;
The marsh is frozen,
The river dead.

Through clouds like ashes
The red sun flashes
On village windows
That glimmer red.

 

The snow recommences;
The buried fences
Mark no longer
The road o’er the plain;

While through the meadows,train
Like fearful shadows,
Slowly passes
A funeral train.

The bell is pealing,
And every feeling
Within me responds
To the dismal knell;

Shadows are trailing,
My heart is bewailing
And tolling within
Like a funeral bell.

In six short stanzas, this New England poet accurately captures the bleak experience of this winter month. Looking back, I am reminded how well my students understood that this Longfellow’s poem makes a solid case for February’s brevity!

Testing a Thousand Madelyns

February 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

My niece is a beautiful little girl. She is a beautiful girl on the outside, the kind of little girl who cannot take a bad picture. She is also beautiful on the inside. She is her mother’s helper, fiercely loyal to her older brothers, and a wonderful example for her younger brother and sisters. She is the gracious hostess who makes sure you get the nicest decorated cupcake at the birthday party. She has an infectious laugh, a compassionate heart, and an amazing ability “to accessorize” her outfits. For the sake of her privacy, let’s call her Madelyn.

Two years ago, the teachers at her school, like teachers in thousands of elementary schools across the United States, prepared Madelyn and her siblings for the mandated state tests. There were regular notices sent home throughout the school year that discussed the importance of these tests. There was a “pep-test-rally” a week before the test where students made paper dolls which they decorated with their names. A great deal of time was spent getting students enthused about taking the tests.

Paper dollSeveral months later, Madelyn received her score on her 4th grade state test. She was handed her paper doll cut-out with her score laminated in big numbers across the paper doll she had made.

Madelyn was devastated.

She hated her score because she understood that her score was too low. She hid the paper doll throughout the day, and when she came home, she cried. She could not hang the paper doll on the refrigerator where her brother’s and sister’s scores hung. The scores on their paper dolls were higher.

She cried to her mother, and her mother also cried. Her mother remembered that same hurt when she had not done well on tests in school either. As they sobbed together, Madelyn told her mother, “I’m not smart.”

Now, the annual testing season is starting again. This year, there will be other students like Madelyn who will experience the hype of preparation, who will undergo weeks of struggling with tests, and then endure a form of humiliation when the results return. The administrators and teachers pressured to increase proficiency results on a state test, often forget the damage done to the students who do not achieve a high standard.

That paper doll created during the fervor of test preparation is an example of an unintended consequence; no one in charge considered how easily scores could be compared once they were available to students in so public a manner. Likewise, many stakeholders are unaware that the rallies, ice-cream parties, and award ceremonies do little to comfort those students who, for one reason or another, do not test well.

There is little consolation to offer 10-year-old students who see the results of state tests as the determiner of being “smart” because 10-year-old students believe tests are a final authority. 10-year-old students do not grasp the principles of test design that award total success to a few at the high end, and assign failure to a few at the low end, a design best represented by the bell curve, “the graphic representation showing the relative performance of individuals as measured against each other.” 10-year-old students do not understand that their 4th grade test scores are not indicators for later success.

Despite all the advances in computer adaptive testing using algorithms of one sort or another, today’s standardized tests are limited to evaluating a specific skill set; true performance based tests have not yet been developed because they are too costly and too difficult to standardized.

My niece Madelyn would excel in a true performance based task at any grade level, especially if the task involved her talents of collaboration, cooperation, and presentation. She would be recognized for the skill sets that are highly prized in today’s society: her work ethic, her creativity, her ability to communicate effectively, and her sense of empathy for others. If there were assessments and tests that addressed these particular talents, her paper doll would not bear the Scarlet Letter-like branding of a number she was ashamed to show to those who love her.

Furthermore, there are students who, unlike my niece Madelyn, do not have support from home. How these students cope with a disappointing score on a standardized test without support is unimaginable. Madelyn is fortunate to have a mother and father along with a network of people who see her all her qualities in total; she is prized more than test grades.

At the conclusion of that difficult school year, in a moment of unexpected honesty, Madelyn’s teacher pulled my sister aside.
“I wanted to speak to you, because I didn’t want you to be upset about the test scores,” he admitted to her. He continued, “I want you to know that if I could choose a student to be in my classes, I would take Madelyn…I would take a thousand Madelyns.”

It’s testing season again for a thousand Madelyns.
Each one should not be defined by a test score.

In a well organized essay, explain how the author conveys his meaning. Be sure to consider structure, diction, setting, and point of view.

Popular MechanicsAbove is the prompt I used when I taught Advanced Placement English Literature (APLit) for all kinds of literature. This was before the Common Core’s “close reading” dictums; APLit students read and looked for author style and purpose because that was the focus of the course.

Tonight (2/22) there is a Twitter Chat #aplitchat on Raymond Carver’s short story “Popular Mechanics”; across the nation, APLit teachers will contribute their ideas on how to guide students through this particular dark story. I am trapped here in CT under another 7″ of snow, and while I wait to be dug out, here is an explanation of how my students wrote about this story.

When I passed out the copies,my students were, at first, delighted to see its brevity; the entire story is under 500 words. I would watch my students as they silently read. As they would finish in unison, their heads would snap up in shock.

Some of my students saw the story as deeply disturbing; others saw the story as dark humor. They wanted to talk plot, so I would allow several minutes of “What just happened?” and “They killed the baby??” and “Those people are sick!”
No surprise that Carver’s story generated strong responses by all of my students.

My next step in pre-writing would be to share some supporting information.  One year I gave the students the Biblical story of King Solomon to contrast the behavior of the mothers in each. Every year, I provided the definition of the word issue, the key linking the concluding sentence and the title. Here are some of the possible means of issue with connections to the story.

  •  something that is printed or published and distributed, esp. a given number of a periodical: 
  • a point in question or a matter that is in dispute, as between contending parties in an action at law; 
  • offspring; progeny:
  • a discharge of blood, pus, or the like;
  •  to go, pass, or flow out; come forth; emerge.

My students would reread the story, take notes, and spend several minutes of peer-to-peer discussions in groups. They would share how Carver’s structure, diction, setting, and point of view contributed to their understanding. After the discussions, I would ask them to draft a response using the standard prompt above.

My contribution to the #APLitchat tonight is a folder with three student exemplars that were created one year as a result. These drafts represent some interesting ideas as seen in some of these excerpts:

Student #1

Finally Carver uses these simple but revealing details about his characters to keep his story interesting and detailed but also very concise. The story starts in a bedroom, a place they probably consecrated their marriage but he is now tearing apart by leaving. We then switch to the doorway of the kitchen, paralleling her change in emotion. The kitchen is typically a place of family and love.

Student #2

Carver uses words and phrases such as “Bring that back” and “I want the baby” (Carver). The use of very simple, short words provides a more aggressive, hard-hitting tone. Carver’s sentence construction is very mechanical and rhythmic, which furthers Carver’s theory that the inner workings of a marriage and a family can be broken down into a mechanized object where basic laws of physics can be applied.

Student #3 

Carver brings in this contrast of light and dark in his first paragraph that states “it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.” There is still light in their life before the argument, but as he packs, it begins to fade. By the time the couple is in a shady corner and the baby is torn apart, the house is darkened. It creates good imagery for the reader to illustrate the family “issues.”

As these excerpts from essay illustrate, Carver’s terse dialogue and minimal details helped my students appreciate the link between an author’s style and his or her purpose. Students enjoyed “Popular Mechanics” and at the end of the school year, they would always mark it a story that made them think about an author’s choices in writing a story.

I was fortunate to have 90 minute block periods to do this lesson in one sitting, but the lesson can be spread over two sessions or truncated to fit into a 45 minute block organized as 15 minutes of reading and discussion and 30 minutes of writing.

Good luck, #APLitchat on your discussion, and may all issues on responses to this story be resolved!