Graphic by Christopher King that accompanied the editorial piece "In Defense of Annual Testing"

Graphic by Christopher King that accompanied the editorial piece “In Defense of Annual Testing”

My Saturday morning coffee was disrupted by the headline in the New York Times opinion piece, In Defense of Annual School Testing  (2/7/15) by Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education research and consulting firm. Agitating me more than the caffeine in the coffee was clicking on Aldeman’s resume. Here was another a policy analyst in education, without any classroom experience, who served as an adviser to the Department of Education from 2011 to 2012. Here was another policy wonk with connections to the testing industry.

In a piece measuring less than 800 words, Aldeman contended that the “idea of less testing” in our nation’s schools, currently considered by liberals and conservative groups alike, “would actually roll back progress for America’s students.”

…annual testing has tremendous value. It lets schools follow students’ progress closely, and it allows for measurement of how much students learn and grow over time, not just where they are in a single moment.

Here is the voice of someone who has not seen students take a standardized test when, yes, they are very much in “that single moment.” That “single moment” looks different for each student. An annual test does not consider the social and emotional baggage of that “single moment” (EX: no dinner the night before; using social media or video game until 1 AM; parent separation or divorce; fight with friend, with mother, with teacher; or general text anxiety). Educators recognize that students are not always operating at optimum levels on test days. No student likes being tested at any “single moment.”

Aldeman’s editorial advocates for annual testing because he claims it prevents the kinds of tests that take a grade average results from a school. Taking a group average from a test, he notes, allows “the high performers frequently [to] mask what’s happening to low achievers.” He prefers the kinds of new tests that focus on groups of students with a level of analysis possible only with year to year measurement. That year to year is measurement on these expensive new tests is, no doubt, preferred by testing companies as a steady source of income.

His opinion piece comes at a time where the anti-test movement is growing and states are looking at the expenses of such tests. There is bipartisan agreement in the anti-test movement that states students are already being assessed enough. There are suggestions that annual testing could be limited to at specific grade levels, such as grades 3, 8, and 11, and that there are already enough assessments built into each student’s school day.

Educators engage in ongoing formative assessments (discussions, polls, homework, graphic organizers, exit slips, etc) used to inform instruction. Interim and summative assessments (quizzes/test) are used continuously to measure student performance. These multiple kinds of assessments provide teachers the feedback to measure student understanding and to differentiate instruction for all levels of students.

For example, when a teacher uses a reading running record assessment, the data collected can help determine what instruction will improve a child’s reading competency. When a teacher analyzes a math problem with a child, the teacher can assess which computational skills need to be developed or reviewed.

Furthermore, there are important measures that cannot be done by a standardized test.  Engaging students in conversations may provide insight into the  social or emotional issues that may be preventing that child’s academic performance.

Of course, the annual tests that Aldeman suggests need to be used to gain information on performance do not take up as much instructor time as the ongoing individual assessments given daily in classrooms. Testing does use manpower efficiently; one hour of testing can yield 30 student hours of results, and a teacher need not be present to administer a standardized test. Testing can diagnose each student strengths and/or weaknesses at that “single moment” in multiple areas at the same time. But testing alone cannot improve instruction, and improving instruction is what improves student performance.

In a perverse twist in logic, the allocation of funds and class time to pay for these annual tests results in a reduction of funds available to finance teachers and the number of instructional hours to improve and deliver the kind of instruction that the tests recommend. Aldeman notes that the Obama administration has invested $360 million in testing, which illustrates their choice in allocating funds to support a testing industry, not schools. The high cost of developing tests and collecting the test data results in stripping funds from state and local education budgets, and limits the financial resources for improving the academic achievement for students, many of those who Aldeman claims have “fallen through the cracks.”

His argument to continue annual testing does not refer to the obscene growth in the industry of testing, 57% in the past three years up to $2.5 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association. Testing now consumes the resources of every school district in the nation.

Aldeman concludes that annual testing should not be politicized, and that this time is “exactly the wrong time to accept political solutions leaving too many of our most vulnerable children hidden from view.”

I would counter that our most vulnerable children are not hidden from view by their teachers and their school districts. Sadly their needs cannot be placed “in focus” when the financial resources are reduced or even eliminated in order to fund this national obsession with testing. Aldeman’s defense is indefensible.

time clock americanYes, American teachers do work more hours than their international counterparts, but exactly how much more could be a matter of perception versus reality, and testing may be to blame.

A recent study comparing the number of hours worked by American teachers shows the difference in instructional time is not as significant as has been publicized in the past. Researcher Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has published his findings in a working paper titled “The Mismeasure of Teaching Time“. His research contradicts claims of American teachers working twice or even 73% more hours than their counterparts in other countries, correcting these claims by grade level to 12% (elementary) 14% (middle/intermediate), and 11% (high school).

The reason for the difference, Abrams suggests, was the the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) offered by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) used to collect data on this topic:

The most recent data reported to OECD is from the 2007-08 survey, which was 44 pages long and contained 75 questions.  Teaching time is the 50th question and it asks teachers to round up the number of hours. As a result, responses were often inflated.

In addition to suggesting that the process of answering 50 questions clouded the responses of teachers taking the survey, Abrams contended that the inflated time also came from a misinterpretation of “teaching time” calculated by the OECD as the “net contact time for instruction.” By definition, excluded from net contact time are activities such as professional development days, student examination days, attendance at conferences, and out of school excursions.

In applying the OECD definition of teaching time, Abrams concluded that one contributing factor to the over-estimation by American teachers was the large number of hours spent assessing students.

Using examples from school districts in Massachusetts, Abrams offered a breakdown of the time teachers spend assessing students in grades 2-8:

  • For students in grade two, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments tied to the state exams
  • For students in grades three and six, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 16 hours are lost to state exams in ELA and math;
  • For students in grades four and seven, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 20 hours are lost to state exams in ELA, ELA composition, and math;
  • For students in grades five and eight, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 24 hours are lost to state exams in ELA, math, and science. 

Averaging a student school week at a very generalized 35 hours means that students in Massachusetts grades K-8 could spend approximately 1.5-2 weeks of each school year being assessed. Spreading this time out over the school year may contribute to the perception of a never-ending test season.

The report considered the time American educators spend assessing students at every grade level contributed to the misperception of teaching time. More importantly, the study highlighted the disparity in pedagogical practice between the education systems in United States compared to other countries. Like so many other researchers, Abrams contrasted American schools with Finland’s school system. He noted that the difference in teaching time between the two countries was not as great as originally publicized, but that the difference of practice is the “polar opposite.” In Finland, the structure of the school day has 15 minute breaks between classes or 15 minutes of play for every 45 minutes of instruction, for a total of 75 minutes per day, with no standardized tests. The result is that Finland’s teachers demonstrate little confusion on defining teaching time.

The data provided by Abrams suggests that American teachers do work more than other teachers worldwide. Using Paris-based OECD figures to convert the percentage of time into regular 40 hour weeks means that American elementary teachers work 2.4 weeks (12%); middle/intermediate teachers work 2.75 weeks (14%) and high school teachers work 2.2 weeks (11%) more than other teachers worldwide.

If the demand for assessment is the reason for the difference,  I am confident that most American teachers could think of other things to do during those weeks other than testing.

I am sure their students feel the same way.

Most overused verb used by students in school: Bored.
Least favorite word teachers want to hear: Bored.

In order to bring teachers and students together to explore what could happen when people are bored, look at the the hypothesis of Dr. Sandi Mann. She has been seeking to prove that boredom leads to creativity. Her research with other psychologists at the University of Central Lancashire was explained in an article on the Psychology Blog. In an experiment, she asked one set of participants to copy numbers out of a telephone book for 15 minutes; the other set of participants were immediately engaged in a standard creative task-inventing as many different uses as they could for a polystyrene cup. (Mann & Cadman, 2013).

The group that had been bored for 15 minutes of copying came up with the most uses.

“Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity.

In order to put Mann’s hypothesis to a less scientific test, the writers at the Blog New Tech City posted an article demonstrating a variation on Mann’s experiment using “Post-It notes, sponges, plastic forks (and maybe a little bit of wine).”  The results are seen on the video posted on YouTubeVideo: What Happened When We got 130 People Really, Really Bored:

In New Tech City’s re-staging, one group copied the phone book; one group read the phone book; one group went to the bar. These tasks are not dissimilar from “traditional” classroom activities.  Copying can be tedious, such as copying words from a dictionary, especially if students do not see the purpose in the activity. Reading should never be boring, but there are some textbooks that should carry a prescriptive warning: “May cause drowsiness.” What about the bar? Well, consider the lunchroom. The grouping in New Tech City’s experiment is easily transferred to a school setting.

Teachers could first analyze the procedure from Mann’s or New Tech City’s experiments to get some ideas on how to generate creative thinking or problem solving from the “boredom” of sitting in class. Since both experiments were “low-tech”, the process could be replicated easily. Here is the analysis:

  1. Mann posed a problem that had not one but multiple solutions;
  2. In both experiments, there were cheap, ordinary, familiar objects to use (post-its, forks, sponges, styrofoam cups);
  3. Once placed in a group, participants could sit where they chose;
  4. Ideas between people were shared because talking was permitted;
  5. Results (by group) were visual using post-it notes;
  6. Peer feedback was given.

This example of moving from a state of to boredom to a state of creativity could be reconfigured as a class activity by providing students a challenge to offer a solution to a prompt using similarly innocuous items. Their creations could demonstrate their understanding or interpretation in a creative way. Teachers could use the collaboration and cooperation in the classroom to stimulate ideas and support peer to peer feedback as well as formatively assess what students know, or more important, what students are capable of doing.

There could be some interesting combinations:

  • Paper plates and coffee stirrers illustrating …..Shakespeare’s scenes?
  • post-it notes and yarn ……elements in the periodic table?
  • popsicle sticks and napkins …..for highlights in American history?

Or teachers could just let students create and then reflect on their inventions.

Dr. Mann’s experiments show that boredom is a fertile ground for creative expression. Teachers could use this research in lessons that could benefit their students.

Someday, “I’m bored” might even be the best thing a teacher might hear.

IRONY

Situational Irony

It was situational irony…staring me in the face.

In looking for lessons for poetry month, I came upon a worksheet that asked students to analyze a poem. The poem on the worksheet was “Introduction to Poetry” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

Below the poem on the worksheet were two columns: “Examples of figurative language” go in the left hand column; “Types of Figurative Language” go into the right hand column.

When I came upon this worksheet in a curriculum guide, I was, at first, amused by the situational irony of this assignment.

But I became bothered once I considered that if this worksheet exists, there probably are others just like it in countless number of curriculum guides across the country.

In the poem’s 16 lines, Collins captures the kind of encounter that language arts teachers too often promote. He is able to highlight the absurdity of “worksheet”  analysis used to prepare students to discuss the elements of poetry without regard for the beauty of the poem itself.

Collins’s opening line sets up this poem as a gift, one worthy of wonder and imaginative speculation for the reader:

I ask them to take a poem   
and hold it up to the light   
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.

But Collins is familiar with how literature is “taught” to students. His  attitude towards literary analysis is in the last two lines of the poem. You can hear his speaker’s …what is it….frustration? exasperation? resignation?  in knowing what will happen to his gift of a poem:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose   
to find out what it really means.

So here is the situational irony. The poem that tries to make a case for admiring the beauty of a poem rather than reducing it to its elements to find out what it means is reduced to a worksheet in order to beat a confession out of the poem to find out what it means.

I really like this poem. In his typical gentle melancholy fashion, Collins makes a solid case against “teaching” a poem. I would like to think I could honor that purpose and not use a worksheet to teach Introduction to Poetry.

Accept this apology, Billy Collins.

Continue Reading…

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

Let Them Make T-Charts!

January 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

Pity the copier.

Stuck in the windowless corner of the teacher’s room, churning out page after page of quizzes, newsletters, and course descriptions. Probed and shoved and slammed, the oft maligned copier needs a break.

What could teachers do to lessen the toll that results in the overheated roller or stapler malfunction?

Stop the madness….there is no reason to copy a graphic organizer!

The graphic organizer is meant to help students prepare for another activity…a discussion, a quiz, or an essay. Graphic organizers can be used at any grade level. Graphic organizers can be used in any subject. But, teachers, please…. most graphic organizers do not need to employ a copier.

t-chart image

Who cannot draw the T-chart?

Take the T-Chart here at left. The T-Chart consists of two lines, a long horizontal line that is bisected by a vertical line. Why does this need to be prepared and run through a copier? Students can draw a T-Chart easily, or fold a paper “hot-dog style” to get the same result. What part of the T-Chart necessitates the use of expensive toner?

Venn

Venn Diagram-Perfect circles can be problematic

Consider next, the popular Venn Diagram used for compare and contrast exercises. Of all the organizers, this is one that may require students to have little practice to get perfect, however, is the symmetry of shape what teachers want students to notice about the Venn Diagram? That there are two perfect circles overlapping with a shared oval in the center? The problem with two perfect circles of equal size and shape is the implication that when an object or topic is compared and contrasted, the information is also equitable. On a prepared Venn Diagram, there is exactly the same amount of space on each side for the purpose of contrast, but there is a smaller, cramped center for comparable attributes. Perhaps a student can practice some freehand circle creation, find out how to use a protractor, or use some object -a water bottle? cup? paper plate?-to trace a circle. What students should not fret about is how to draw two perfect circles, because the Venn Diagram functions as an organizer even with lopsided ellipses.

KWL imageThen, there is the popular K-W-L chart, where students list what they know, what they want to know, and what they learned. This graphic organizer is much like the T-Chart, and even the youngest student can draw vertical two lines on a page. Folding a paper into thirds is also an effective way to achieve a K-W-L organizer without have to wait for the teacher in front of you to finish copying next month’s math worksheets. Having students write the headings for this chart can reinforce the purpose of the organizer as well.

plot mountain

Plot Mountain diagram

Next, the “plot mountain” diagram is a staple in English Language Arts classrooms, but as a universal tool in deconstructing literature, the organizer has its flaws, so much so that the replication could make its use damaging. Some plots have long expositions (Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy comes to mind); some have short expositions (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet‘s opening sonnet). One of arguably several climaxes for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the courtroom scene which is followed by a long falling action (four  chapters)  before Bob Ewell’s climatic attack on Scout. There is no falling action in The Tell-Tale Heart by Poe which ends at the climax. These few examples demonstrate that each story has its own construction, its own mountain; plot is not a one size fits all, as this organizer would seem to claim. For this reason, teachers should allow students to sketch their own version of a story’s plot mountain, featuring all the little crags and mini-climax moments in rising and in falling.  Teachers should save the plot mountain as a flexible concept, one that is not enhanced by standardized reproduction.

foursquare imageFinally, there is the “four-square” organizer, used to provide attributes  on a topic that is printed in the center. The object is to think of details that fit specific categories or boxes in each of the paper’s four quadrants. Think of a big cross in the center of the paper, or a paper folded in half vertically, and then folded again horizontally. This organizer is often used in word study, as in the Frayer model, with a word in the center and each box used for a specific purpose: an illustration, an example, a definition,or an antonyms are all possible categories for this organizer.

Guru_Mindmap

Guru Mind Map on Wikipedia

Using the copier to create these organizers not only is expensive in toner ink and valuable teacher time (spent trying to get that last crinkled bit of paper out of the feed drawer!), but these organizers limit critical thinking for some students.

Students should be given the opportunity to organize their ideas the way that best helps them understand a concept. They should be cognitively and kinesthetically active in creating and completing an organizer of their own design

Mind maps, for example, are original creations that are centered on a concept that is drawn or written on the center of a blank landscape or page. From this central concept or word, an individual can branch out on the page by adding using words or pictures that show other connections. No two mind maps are the same, and their use in improving student understanding is well documented. My favorite mind-mapping website is Daniel Weinstein’s The Creativity Core with variations on mind-mapping activities for his students.

So, teachers, step away from the overheated copying machine, and get out blank paper and markers. Let the students fold their paper to make graphic organizers,  trace shapes, or choose other patterns to list information.  Bring out the rolls of butcher block paper and let students try and map out their ideas. Let them pencil their thoughts in wobbly circles and uneven lines, because the use of the graphic organizer is not about the shape for the information, but the information that is organized in the shape.

And leave that copier for the more important duties….those field trip permission slips!

The Hollywood Academy released the 2015 nominations this past week, and their choices for best picture, best actor, and best director lit a firestorm on social media about the lack of diversity in their choices.Oscar

Some of the heated discussions called into question the make-up of the Academy, which according to a  2014 Los Angeles Times article is:

  • 93 percent white
  • 76 percent male
  • Average age of 63

The percentages that make up the homogenized Academy bear a striking resemblance to the make-up in the canon of literature traditionally taught in high school English classrooms, a list of works dominated by white male writers. There are numerous reasons as to why the literature is singular in gender and race: politics, economics, culture, and textbooks play a part. The most probable explanation on why the traditional canon endures, however, may be as simple as teachers teaching the books they were taught.

Even the average age of the dead white male writers in the canon is the same as those in the Academy. A sampling of traditionally assigned authors at the time of their deaths (offered in no particular order) is the average age as the members in the Academy=63 years: John Milton (72), Percy Bysshe Shelley (30), F. Scott Fitzgerald (44), Dylan Thomas (39), Arthur Miller (90), William Shakespeare (52), John Keats (27) Ernest Hemingway (62), William Faulkner (65), John Steinbeck (66) William Blake (70), George Orwell (47), and TS Eliot (77).

My observation that older white male literature dominates the curriculum is nothing new, and while there are there are glimmers of diversity, authorship bears little resemblance to readership. Occasionally, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson pop up to address racial diversity, while the inclusion of Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are worthwhile contributions to gender equity.

At the same time, there is a growing body of popular young adult literature from authors representing diversity such as Jacquelyn Woodson, Sharon Draper, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Gary Soto, and Sherman Alexie.  In a manner akin to film audiences, students have been voting for these book choices with their pocketbooks or checking out library books. They are selecting materials (novels, graphic novels, animé, pop culture, biography) that they want to read.

As readers, students look for characters like themselves, who have problems like themselves, even if the settings of the stories are in the ancient past or distant future. If a student never builds empathy with a character because all the assigned reading comes from the canon, then the canon is disconnected from personal experience and useless for that student. If creating life long readers is the goal, curriculum developers must pay attention to student interests and the trends in the popular reading lists. Continuing the disconnect between the traditional canon in school and what students choose does little to build credibility.

That same kind of disconnect is seen in the nominations submitted by the Academy. Their choices show a wide gulf of opinion between critics and audiences, between the selected films and popular films at the box office. National Public Radio (NPR) film critic Bob Mondello noted the low audience numbers for many of the 2015 nominated films:

MONDELLO:  If you total up all of the grosses for all of the best picture nominees this year, you come up to about 200 million, which is roughly what a picture like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” makes all by itself so that you’re talking about very few eyeballs were on those pictures.

Mondello’s noting the difference in box office is striking in comparison to the the top three box office films to three of the nominated films for best picture:

TOP GROSSING:
1 Guardians of the Galaxy – $333,145,154
2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 $330,643,639
3 Captain America: The Winter Soldier – $259,766,572

NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE:
94 Birdman  $26,725,993
95 The Theory of Everything $26,317,946
100. Boyhood  $24,357,447

Mondello further suggests that Academy has not supported its own self interest in making nominations:

And the idea here is that you’re not going to watch the Oscar telecast unless you have a horse in the race….And I think what they’re hoping is that the next six weeks up until the show, these movies will be seen by a lot more people. If they aren’t – and they only have 38 days to do this – then you’re going to have the lowest rated Oscars telecast in the history of the Oscars.

Encouraging people to attend the films nominated by the Academy will be a challenge, and the success of the Oscars this year will be determined by audience choice. The deaf ear of the Academy this year may make them more open to diversity in future years. In contrast, a deaf ear from curriculum developers who continue to assign literature from the canon because “it has always been taught” may result in student audiences disconnected and less interested in reading anything at all.

Hoping to bridge this disconnect are organizations such as the Children’s Book Council (CBC )Diversity Committee whose mission statement is:

We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s and young adult books.

The organization We Need Diverse Books is also committed to expanding diversity in literature and in the video below, the popular YA writer Jon Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) makes a compelling case for including other, newer voices into the literary canon that is taught in classrooms.

Unlike the choices made by this year’s Academy, the choices in English classroom should represent diversity in authorship, in genre, in character, and in topics because the readership is diverse. NPR’s Bob Mondello’s metaphor about engaging an audience for the Oscar show this year could be a metaphor for creating life long readers. Unless students “have a horse in the race” in what they read, they will not value the choices made for them.

I have seen how the monthly Scholastic Publishing Company book flyer can set student readers’ hearts aflutter. scholastic-flyersScholastic’s marketing through classroom book clubs gives them direct access to all levels of student readers, and when a school hosts a Scholastic book fair, students can browse books or products with book title tie-ins. Moreover, Scholastic offers resources to teachers including lesson plans, discussion guides, and leveled reading programs.

So when Scholastic releases a report titled Kids and Family Reading Report, they speak with authority.

The Fall 2014 report was based on a survey given in conjunction with the UK international marketing firm YouGov. The objective was to “explore family attitudes and behaviors around reading books for fun.”

The key findings of this research, were based on a nationally representative sample of 2,558 parents and children including 1,026 parents of children ages 6–17.

In this survey, there were questions about parental reading habits, ages for reading aloud, and the use of e-readers.

Given my interest in providing time in school for reading, I was particularly interested in what the survey had to say about dedicated time and developing readers.

There were three key finding about reading in school:

#1: One third of children ages 6–17 (33%) say their class has a designated time during the school day to read a book of choice independently, but only 17% do this every or almost every school day.

Scheduling time for independent reading is important, but making sure that time is sacrosanct conveys to students the critical importance of reading.  Making sure independent reading time is respected also demonstrates that schools value the ninety-one percent of children ages 6–17 in the survey who stated that “my favorite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.”

#2: Half of children ages 6–17 who read independently as a class or school (52%) say it’s one of their favorite parts of the day or wish it would happen more often.

The 52% is a combined percentage of boys and girls, with 61% of girls agreeing in contrast to the lower percentage of 41% of boys agreeing (see data below). However, it is distressing to see a drop of 9% in reading for fun since 2010.

Screenshot 2015-01-11 20.39.11

 

#3 School plays a bigger role in reading books for fun among children in lower-income homes. 61% percent of children ages 6–17 from the lowest-income homes say they read for fun mostly in school or equally at school and at home, while 32% of kids ages 6–17 from the highest-income homes say the same.

There was no one reason for the difference why twice as many low-income students read for fun during dedicated time in school, however, time and access to books are the most obvious possibilities.  How students have access to independent books was factored into this survey with libraries as being the most important resource. Although Scholastic was not directly named, school book fairs, book clubs, and bookstores were judged to be among the leading sources for children ages 6–17 to find books to read for fun.

Finally, the survey suggests the most important allies schools have in promoting reading are parents who want their children to choose books:

  • Three-quarters of parents with children ages 6–17 (75%) agree “I wish my child would read more books for fun.”

So while this Scholastic survey could be considered self-serving, (after all, they are interested in selling more books) the data does support the importance of time for independent choice reading in schools. The survey highlights the power of enlisting parents in putting independent reading programs in place in school. Ultimately, the results of Scholastic’s survey supports those classroom teachers who recognize the value of independent choice and inviolable time to read.

So, pass out those book flyers, browse the book sale, get those students to the library, and put up the sign:

“We Have Time to Read for Fun!”

This four-year-old blog has had a slight makeover in appearance. I removed the header photo
montage of used books on the classroom shelves and in the back of my car:Light background_edited-3

 

Used books istuffed n the back of my car

Used books stuffed into the back of my car

This purpose of this blog, however, will not change. There still will be posts dedicated to how I am putting books in the hands of students. There will be posts about instructional strategies that work in classrooms. There will be posts about issues in education.

In other words, this blog will continue offering the same old messages in a new wrapping.

Of course, educators regularly refurbish old ideas with new wrappings.  Take for example, the literature circle. The literature circle has been in education since 1982 when, according to Wikipedia, fifth grade students in Karen Smith’s class, organized themselves loosely into groups, and started to discuss individual novels.

 Smith was surprised at the degree of their engagement with the books and the complexity of their discussions, they had no outside help or instruction from their teacher (Daniels, 1994). From here literature circles evolved into reading, study and discussion groups based around different groupings of students reading a variety of different novels.

In contrast to the the classroom where a whole class novel is taught by the teacher,literature circles have provided students the chance to participate in self-directed discussions in by taking on different roles and responsibilities.

I am a big fan of literature circles as a way to encourage critical thinking, student choice, and independence in students. I have been promoting the incorporation of literature circles at multiple grade levels. Most recently, several of the 7th and 8th grade classes in my district have been using the literature circles in their new block schedule with some success. The teachers in these classes began by using the traditional roles for students: discussion director, connector, illustrator, vocabulary enricher, text locator, and researcher. The transition was smooth since students were already familiar with these roles from literature circles in elementary school.

Last month, I began offering teachers suggestions on how to offer some “new wrappings” for these old roles. Using a list of writing genres, I suggested that the teachers could offer roles for students in the literature circles and also include authentic writing prompts.circle green

In these new wrappings, each student’s role could center on one of the following writing genres:

  • Write a Personal Letter from one character to another;
  • Prepare a Greeting Card to or from a character;
  • Develop a Things to Do List for a character;
  • Write Classified or Personal Ads that connect to a chapter;
  • Prepare a mix tape for a character and explain the choices;
  • Draft a resume for a character;
  • Compose a TV script from a chapter with notes for stage directions;
  • Script a Talk Show Interview or Panel with characters;
  • Record a recipe that is associated with the book;
  • Organize an Infographic using facts from the story;
  • Create and organize Receipts, Applications, Deeds, Budgets from the story
  • Obituary, Eulogy or Tribute for a character 

These roles could rotate the way the traditional roles rotate in a literature circle, or the roles could be added as special collaborative writing activities.

The incorporation of technology to literature circles expands the opportunity to “wrap” the old roles in new digital covers. In a literature circle of four or five students, the major platforms for social media can be used as a way to have students interact with a text. With (or without) technology, students can rotate roles where they could:circle blue

  1. Tweet a summary
  2. Design a Facebook Page for a character or event;
  3. Suggest “pins” for a character as on Pinterest;
  4. Write e-mail correspondences between characters;
  5. Plan Instagram messages.

I also encouraged  teachers to number the seats in the literature circles, and then assign roles based on the number of the seat a student selected. Another strategy would be to offer a “surprise” role that rotates to a different numbered chair every meeting.

Like so much in education, old strategies can be made new.
Old literature circle roles can be made new with genre writing and/or with social media.

2015 New Year means a new wrapping for this old blog, but there will always be used books for classrooms in the back of my car!

I just completed attending the ICT Language Learning Conference for Learning Language where ICT stands for “information communication technologies,” a term that encompasses both methods and technology resources. Here in the United States, the most appropriate synonym would be what we refer to as”IT” or information technology. (So, if you are in the US and see “ICT”, please read “IT”)

Florence side 3

The winding streets of Florence, Italy

This international conference was held in Florence, Italy, a city of amazing architecture, museums crammed with magnificent art, winding streets and incredibly narrow sidewalks. Finding the right path through the city maze was challenging.

While I was at the conference, I had an opportunity to compare my understanding of the education systems in the United States with several educational systems in other 54 countries. I was fortunate to share a presentation created with fellow educator Amy Nocton, a world language teacher at RHAM High School in Hebron, Connecticut. Our session (Blogging to Share, Exchange, and Collaborate)  highlighted how we use blogging in our instruction in grades 6-12.

Because of my own interests, I attended sessions that featured integrating technology in instruction. After a dozen sessions, I came to three important takeaways:

1. Students at every grade level are more motivated when content is integrated with ICTs;

2. Measuring the effectiveness of ICTs poses a challenge for all stakeholders;

3. Educators have limitations in integrating ICTs.

The issues in these three takeaways are the same issues that I see in the education systems in the United States. We educators know that the students enjoy using technology as a learning tool, but we are not sure which of these tools are the most effective in meeting the needs of students while delivering instruction. The concern of educators worldwide in accessing or “grading” students when they use ICTs is a major roadblock, a concern aggravated by individual comfort levels for educators using ICT. An individual educator’s aggravation may increase exponentially  against a rapidly changing technology landscape where platforms and devices change but educational systems and their filters and limitations appear to crawl towards the end of the 20th Century.

In short, we educators are never going to learn all this stuff.

I suppose it is comforting to see the same problems that American educators experience are playing out on a global scale. At the least, we are not alone.

On the other hand, it is frustrating to see that there are educators from other countries perseverating on the same problems. Everyone seems to recognize the excitement generated when ICTs are used in class, but there are choruses (and in many different languages at this conference), of “We still do not have access!” or “Are these ICTs really working?” or even “Many teachers do not know how to use the ICTs!”

Florence 4

When on this narrow path….

After several presentations, I also grew concerned that ICTs perceived as limited to assessment measurement.  A few presenters offered their research with highly scripted programs where students could be “interactive” by answering predictably scripted responses. While these scripted programs are a step more engaging than a curriculum prescribed textbook, they are only a small digital step above the pencil and (scantron) form type of response. Such controlled platforms are on the same path as the testing programs (SBAC, PARCC) being developed back in the United States to address the need, or the mandates, in measuring student understanding. Even at this conference, the message about the ability of ICTs to assess and grade may be drowning out the more creative possibilities that ICTs offer.

In contrast, I did hear a reference to student choice where a presenter, Feyza Nur Ekizer of Giza University, offered her students a chance to develop “knowledge envelopes” or portfolios to gather as much information on a topic so they would be prepared to answer with a written response on that topic. She gave her students choice in what they found on a broad topic (ex: love), and reported (not surprisingly) that the students wrote longer and more detailed responses than they ever had before in a response weeks later. Her use of technology was minimal, but the students had control over their paths of inquiry in gathering information for their “knowledge envelopes.”

Florence side 2

…or on this narrow path…

At this time in digital history, there are many platforms available for student to choose how and what to gather for information in authentic inquiry research.The presenters at this conference had done a great deal of work, and they shared their learning on the platforms they had chosen for their own inquiry. We were, as are our students, the passive recipients of information; we were on each presenter’s narrowed path.

Worldwide, our students (K-12) are far more comfortable working across platforms in gathering information (from websites, social media, blogs, and other visual/audio media) than their educators. Why would we want them to step backwards and use only what we require to prove their understanding? We should not limit the use of ICTs to assessment delivery systems when students can use ICT to create their own multi-media texts individually and collaboratively if they are given the opportunity.

...there may be little choice.

…there may be little choice.

In addition, students (worldwide!) should not have to wait for educators to become experts with ICTs when platforms are growing exponentially. Instead of trying to master the expanding field of ICTs, educators must see how the expertise they already have in a content area should be used to guide students through choice.

The role of teacher should shift to guiding students in developing content and understanding. Teachers who are skilled in a discipline’s content can help students determine the accuracy, relevancy, and legitimacy of information in developing student inquiry on topics.

ICTs must not be the exclusive means of measuring understanding, instead ICTs should be included in how students develop their understanding of content.

For students, there are many different paths (or platforms) to choose in learning content and there are certainly more paths to come. ICT should not be used exclusively to restrict students to the narrow paths of measurement alone. Based on my discussions with other attendees, there may be other educators from the conference who recognize how much this ICT path of student choice and inquiry may be narrowing unless we act to change it.

The amazing city of Florence, Italy!

The amazing city of Florence, Italy!

Students will encounter challenges in choosing ways to use ICTs as I did walking the narrow pathways on city streets of Florence witnessing amazing and magnificent sites. Through student choice in ICTs coupled with teacher guidance, students will also gain the freedom to explore those amazing and magnificent topics that interest them.