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.

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

So what?”

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

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

“So what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked my students So what?

And I scrawled So what? on their papers.

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

My students also hated theSo what? question.

They complained to me, but their conclusions improved.

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

So what?



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

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

They must read a book a day…maybe more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baseball is America’s sport, but I do not have a baseball “favorite team”.
My favorite team is whoever is playing the New York Yankees.
I hope that team wins…and wins big.

I hate the New York Yankees.

That said, I do have an appreciation for the cultural contributions of individual Yankee team members.
For example, I liked Babe Ruth…but the Yankees got rid of him.
I liked the architecture of the “House that Ruth built”…but the Yankees got rid of that, too.

I liked Lou Gehrig…and I especially liked how gracious he was when he retired from baseball after he was diagnosed with ALS amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.Before the diagnosis, Lou Gehrig was known as the “iron horse” of baseball, and according to the official Lou Gehrig website,   

….Gehrig’s consecutive game streak of 2,130 games (a record that stood until Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995) did not come easily. He played well every day despite a broken thumb, a broken toe and back spasms.

Other statistics on the website highlight his remarkable career:

  • Gehrig’s 184 RBIs in 1931 remains the highest single season total in American League history.
  • He batted .361 in 34 World Series games with 10 homers, eight doubles and 35 RBIs.
  • He also holds the record for career grand slams at 23.
  • He hit 73 three-run homers and 166 two-run shots, giving him the highest average of RBI per homer of any player with more than 300 home runs. 

When Gehrig’s illness forced him to retire, the sportswriter Paul Gallico suggested to the New York Yankees management that there should be a  “Recognition Day” to honor Gehrig.

On July 4, 1939, 62,000 fans watched in Yankee Stadium as Gehrig delivered a short speech during which he described himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

When Gehrig spoke that day, there were multiple microphones, but only a small section of the speech was recorded.

The text and audio from the speech are on the American Rhetoric website.

During the speech, Gehrig listed the relationships he had with others repeatedly as “a blessing”.

First, he thanked the fans:

“I have been to ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”

He thanked his fellow teammates:

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky.”

He thanked the NY Yankee’s management team, and he thanked the members of the rival team, the NY Giants:

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something.”

He thanked the grounds keepers:

“When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in the white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something.”

He thanked his parents:

“When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing.” 

And, he thanked his wife:

“When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know.”

In the brief text of only 286 words, Gehrig demonstrated both incredible grace and excellent speech-craft.

On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig succumbed to ALS.

The speech he left is a great literary text to share with students in middle or high school. The readibility of this speech is about a grade 7, and there are several rhetorical devices worth noting. For example, Gehrig’s rhetorical strategies in the speech included the anaphora, which is the repetition of a first word or phrase in successive phrases (“when”) and epistrophe,  a stylistic device in which a word or a phrase is repeated at the end of successive clauses (“it’s a blessing…”).

Giving students speeches to analyze is one way for teachers in all subject areas to increase background knowledge about history and American culture. Teaching this farewell address meets the Common Core Literacy Standards English Language Arts and for History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Subject Areas, that require students to determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.

On July 4th, we celebrate all things American. What could be more American than baseball…even if it is a farewell to baseball address? Lou Gehrig’s speech is one of the great American inspirational speeches…even if he was a NY Yankee.

Oh, and one more thing I can say that I like about the Yankees?

I like my husband.. he grew up as a Yankee fan.

Visitors to the annual summer Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut can picnic in the criss-crossed paths that separate tidy flower beds. Those familiar with the festival know to bring collapsible chairs that sit just little higher up so as to see the small stage over the tall stalks of bee-balm, phlox, roses or delphinium.Screenshot 2015-06-28 21.25.27

On June 24th, that small stage was bathed in warm setting-sunlight as Ted Kooser, United States Poet Laureate (2004-2006), stepped up to read several of his poems. The tail of his light jacket was rumpled  into his right back back pocket; above him, the tail of a circling hawk flashed red with each wide turn.

Only 24 hours earlier, there had been hail, damaging winds, and a reported micro-burst. Now, New England held back her willful nature, as if to say, “Yes, I can be a gracious hostess…” to those who organized the poetry and music for the evening.

Ted Kooser is both a poet and essayist, whose collection Delights & Shadows was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He is also a Professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is probably best known for his promotion of American poetry through the free weekly American Life in Poetry column that features contemporary American poems:

 The sole mission of this project is to promote poetry: American Life in Poetry seeks to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.

In each column, Kooser makes a brief introduction to the poem that is featured, why it might have been selected, or what is most striking about the poem. For example, in his introduction to Barbara Crooker’s poem “Sparklers”, he writes the poem was selected because

“… in 2004 we set off the fire alarm system at the Willard Hotel in Washington by lighting a few to celebrate my inauguration as poet laureate.”

Crooker’s 15 line poem is featured in From American Life in Poetry: Column 484 and  she begins with a familiar image, how she wrote names in the air using the light of the sparkler:


We’re writing our names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth. I use the loops of cursive,

make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake….(cont)
Poem copyright ©2013 by Barbara Crooker from her most recent book of poems, Gold, Cascade Books, 2013.
Kooser’s promotion of poets like Crooker may be the reason for the large crowd attending the reading. Once he took the stage, Kooser spoke about poems that centered on his relationships with his father, his mother, and in particular his mother’s cousin, Pearl.
He read the poem “Pearl” (read here at Chautauqua, a lake community in southwestern New York/text of the poem reprinted on this site.)
This poem opens with his mission to speak to his mother’s elderly cousin, Pearl:

Elkader, Iowa, a morning in March,
the Turkey River running brown and wrinkly
from a late spring snow in Minnesota,
the white two-story house on Mulberry Street,
windows flashing with sun, and I had come
a hundred miles to tell our cousin, Pearl,
that her childhood playmate, Vera, my mother,
had died….

After he finished reading, Kooser noted that this poem had been adapted and made into a 17 minute film that won a New England Film Contest in 2012:

When a midwestern poet (Dan Butler) visits an elderly relative (Frances Sternhagen) to bring news of his mother’s recent death, the visit takes an unsettling turn.

He told the audience he was “quite proud of” the film, which can be viewed here:

Many of the poems he selected to read were short, from the break up of a marriage (“Neither of us would clean the aquarium”) to the memory of his dog (“The ghost of my good dog, Alice,sits at the foot of my ladder”). Too soon, it seemed, that Kooser explained that his “voice was giving out” as he wrapped up the reading from the stage.

But this crowd did not seem disappointed. Seasoned by unpredictable weather, they appreciated the rare quality of the evening.

On this beautiful June night, while the Nebraska poet spoke, the setting offered by Connecticut was sublime.


Forgive the boasting, but the survey results for our a silent sustained reading program for 7th and 8th grade students in our school district are in..,and the teachers are feeling very proud.

573 students answered a 12 question survey about their experience this year for SSR, but let’s start with the most important response:

71.4% responded that SSR “made me a better reader this year.”Screenshot 2015-06-18 21.32.12

A better reader! That admission from students ages 11-14 is an achievement that can leave the faculty smiling proudly over the summer. And speaking about summer, the same students answered positively that they believe that they would read over the summer: 69% responded that they plan to read  (28% definitely; 41% sometimes).

Our SSR program was embraced by several teachers and up and running well by November. The classroom libraries were stocked with a combination of traditional and high interest materials. That meant 20 minutes a day of the block schedule (92 minutes) was dedicated to reading independently. By January even more classrooms were on board, and by April, all classrooms were practicing reading for pleasure, teachers included.

Those teachers who hesitated at first were slowly converted, and more than one commented, “I think I am a better reader as well!”

These same 573 students took many standardized tests this year generating scores that determine each student’s reading ability against a standard. But those test scores do not measure a student’s self-assessment of their reading.

Our June 2015 survey does.

Our June survey asked 12 questions about reading, and every response showed growth in attitudes that we recorded from our September 2014  survey. That beginning of the year survey was used as a benchmark to measure student attitudes towards reading.

Compare the responses from September to June when asked student if they thought reading was “fun”:

7th & 8th grade students Usually Sometimes Rarely
September  22% 48% 25%
June 32% 54% 14%

In one school year, 10% of the student population changed their attitudes towards reading…all in a positive direction.

The survey also recorded what students look for in selecting their own reading materials:

length of the book 26.9%
cover of the book 46.2%
the book is part of a series I like 61.8%
a friend recommended the book 48.2%
a teacher recommended the book 31.1%
a parent or another adult recommended the book 22.2%
a movie is connected to this book 24.4%

The survey also asked how many books students were reading a month:

at least 1 32.1%
1-2 books 14.8%
3-4 books 17.1%
4 or more books 12%

Do the math. 184 students (32%) read at least one book a month. That means students who read one book a month for eight months (8) of the school year collectively read 1472 books…and that just the total of books read by 1/3 of the class.

Combine our findings with those of the Scholastic Publishing company in their survey 2014  “Kids and Family Reading Report”

Scholastic is one of the publishers that has a presence in schools through book fair sales, and they released three key findings 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.

#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.

#3: Sixty-one percent of children ages 6–17 who live in the lowest-income households say they read books for fun mostly in school, or the same amount in school and at home, while only 32% of children ages 6–17 who live the highest-income homes say the same.

The most interesting statistics for our teachers  in our survey was that students believe their parents are connected to their independent reading. Along with the information that 22% of students look for suggestions from parents in selecting reading materials, they also indicated how critical the role of parents and family is (over 50%) when they share what they read by checking all that applied:

I share what I read with:

Friends 56.9%
Family (parents, relatives) 53.1%
Teacher 33%
Other 13.4%
 Next year’s plan? Focus on this parent connection, flood the classrooms with more books, and read, read, read.
Beyond the survey, there is one more piece of evidence. These final images display the lists of the favorite books the students read this year from Mr. Robert’s class. He was one of the early embracers of SSR, and his results speak for themselves:

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