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My school district completed four days of first class professional development that began with a visit from Dave Burgess, the author of Teach Like a Pirate and ended with faculty-led collaborative committees organizing for an accreditation visit from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).  In four short days, the veteran teachers adjusted, organized classrooms, and prepared the first week of lessons. The administrators indicated that schools were off to a “great start”  while the facility management personnel finished polishing the floors and touching up wall paint. One group however, looked different.

teacher appleThe new teachers’ eyes glazed over. Although some have taught for years in other districts, each one has been lost in the labyrinth of our hallways at least once this past week. There are at least fifty names they still need in order to match staff to academic disciplines and a number of faces before they begin to match their attendance rolls with students. The location of materials for various units of study has yet to be established; boxes are unopened in their classrooms.

In short, they are whelmed. Merriam-Webster online defines whelmed as

1. to turn (as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2. to overcome in thought or feeling : overwhelm

According to the dictionary, there is no “over” in being “overwhelmed”. Watching the newest members of the faculty trying to mentally sort through the information they had taken in the past four days reminded me of how I felt my first few years of teaching. Putting “over” with whelmed seemed redundant; I was “engulfed completely” my first years of school as well.

Twenty-three years later, I am less whelmed by the start of school, but I still have to adapt. There are always new materials, new changes to schedules, new students to get to know. In 2013-2014 there is also a new state mandated teacher evaluation system and a set of new tests will be rolled out this year to measure the new Common Core State Standards. For these new-to-district teachers, the flood of information in the early days of the school year must seem insurmountable. There is research, however, that indicates with three years of practice, teachers develop strategies for being effective in improving student achievement in the classroom.

In particular, there is research that demonstrates that “teachers in their first and, to a somewhat lesser extent, their second year tend to perform significantly worse in the classroom” (Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain -2005). In a follow-up interview to this study, Kati Haycock was quoted in Education Next as saying,

“And experience does matter for inexperienced teachers. As a group, first-year teachers tend to be less effective than those with even a little more experience, and effectiveness tends to climb steeply for any given cohort of teachers until it begins to plateau after a few years. According to research by Eric Hanushek and others, disproportionate exposure to inexperienced teachers contributes to the achievement gap.”

How a teacher develops on a learning curve is significant for both the teacher and the students, which is why the story from Mokoto Rich of the New York Times At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice (8/26/2013) flies in the face of both anecdotal data and research studies. The article addressed the high turnover rate of teachers in charter schools by first highlighting the story of 24 year-old teacher, Tyler Dowdy. With two completed years of teaching behind him, Dowdy is “exploring his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school.” The article described him as someone, “who is already thinking beyond the classroom, wants something more.” His interest in education appeared cursory, “I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.”

Supporting Dowdy’s lack of commitment to the profession, was the statement by Wendy Kopp, founder of  Teach for America (TFA)  who said,

“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers…The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

Kopp’s claims, however, have little credibility considering her own lack of classroom experience. While she has taken TFA from a $22 million dollar enterprise in 2003 to a $244 million dollar business in ten years before her departure this year as CEO, there is no record of her creating or delivering lessons to students herself. She has not had the experience of developing or implementing classroom management skills, a major cause of much teacher turnover.  Teachers, new and old, experience first-hand the fallacies in her argument. Yes, during the first years, teaching can be greatly improved, but that does not mean a new teacher has become “great”. Like so many educational reformers without classroom experience, Kopp dismisses critical teacher training as something that can be condensed, like TFA’s five week summer teacher preparation program.

A five week training for TFA is luxurious compared to the two and a half weeks of training over the summer for other teacher training programs, such as the YES Prep program like Dowdy’s, where new teachers “learn common disciplinary methods and work with curriculum coordinators to plan lessons.” Yet, these teachers from these accelerated programs will look the way new recruits in my district look, glazed and anxious. These teachers will soon learn the importance of experience. They will understand that the only way to learn how to teach is to practice teaching over and over and over….in spite of being whelmed.

Read picture books.

Yes, I am talking to you.

(No, not you kids….)

I am talking to you….you, Advanced Placement English Literature teacher, pretentiously waving me off with your worn cover of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Yes, you too..the one taking notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the book you assigned for summer reading?

Time to do some other kind of reading.

Time to read for pleasure.

It’s time to wallow in Sendack (Maurice), Carle (Eric), and Seuss (Dr.).

Max Horton Ladybug

It’s time to discover Mo Williams’s Pigeon, Jon Scieszka’s Big Bad Wolf, and Jon Klassen’s hatless bear.

BearPigspigon

Why?

Primarily because teachers, all teachers, who are familiar with children’s literature can be positive role models for their students. They can engage students by making references to these books or they can make suggestions to young readers. They may even use them in lessons. But a new compelling reason has come out of a study by Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis, senior lecturers in primary education at Cardiff Metropolitan University. A review of responses by teacher trainees for primary grades indicates that reading children’s literature is good for your well-being.

An article in the British paper The Guardian Why Teachers Should Read More Children’s Books explains the study and promotes a paper Reflecting on Teacher Wellbeing that Bowers and Davis will give at Issues and Changing Perceptions conference in December 2013.

They had set up a year-long blog where teacher trainees could post reviews for three books they used with children over the course of the year. They then asked a focus group of these blog contributors a series of questions about their own reading experiences, such as, “What made you become a reader?”

The joys of reading became apparent, namely, how they had enjoyed “getting totally lost in a book” or “absorbed” by the narrative. It also became evident that they had close personal associations with certain texts from their own childhoods, and the fact that they could turn the page of a book and by knowing what was on that page gave them comfort and confidence to share that book with their class.

Trainee teachers reported they were using children’s books of all genres as a form of escapism from the stresses and strains of teaching in the primary classrooms. Researchers concluded that trainee teachers were using the book as a form of bibliotherapy, a therapy “increasingly moving away from its original medical model– whereby practitioners ‘prescribed’ self-help books to patients suffering from depression or eating disorders.” While the teacher trainees had to read the children’s literature selections as part of their professional development, they also found the experience pleasurable:

We have also found that trainee teachers often don’t read purely for pleasure, citing time constraints as the reason. Our blog project forced them to read as part of their professional development, and because they wanted to improve their subject knowledge. Wellbeing was secondary, but nonetheless became part of the project, almost by default. One of our students summed it up nicely: “Books are like best friends during stressful times.”

So, go ahead and pick up that copy of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub and chant loudy the refrain “…and he won’t get out!”
Listen to the poetic wisdom of a small mouse who notes that everyone has a gift to bring in Leo Lionni’s Fredrick.
Or, share a red, ripe strawberry in The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear and The Red Ripe Stawberry.

king Fredrick mouse

You will be reading for pleasure. You will be reading quickly, and you will probably feel better, things Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne may not do for you.

References according to The Guardian:

Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis are senior lecturers in primary education at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Follow them on Twitter: @Jo_Bowersand @drsuzyw. Reflecting on Teacher Wellbeing – Issues and Changing Perceptions conference will be held at Cardiff Metropolitan University on Wednesday 4 December 2013. For further information please contact:cseenterprise@cardiffmet.ac.uk.

 

JaneEyre-300x253

Jane Eyre audio offered by SYNC YA

This summer I have been visiting the family estate at Gateshead, the harsh boarding school Lowood, and the Gothic mansion called Thornfield Hall through the audio download of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre courtesy of SYNC YA. This free audiobook uses Overdrive software which is on both my computer and my mobile phone. As the recording of Jane Eyre is about eight hours long, the ability to move from device to device has proved most helpful in finishing the book.

This is not my first experience with this novel. I read the book when I was a teenager, and, like Jane, I fell in love with Mr. Rochester. Years later, I taught the book later to Advanced Placement students and marveled at Jane’s independence, her morality, and her ability to emphatically say “No” to the persistently persuasive Rochester.  Now, I am struck by Jane’s role as a governess and how Bronte characterizes attitudes towards that profession in Victorian England.

At one of Rochester’s soirees, Bronte has the spoiled but beautiful Blanche Ingram recount how she and her brother and sister, tormented their governesses and tutors as as they grew up. The incident begins when Blanche’s mother, Mrs. Ingram, calls the guests’ attention to Jane, isolated in a corner of the room. “I have just one word to say of the whole tribe,” whispers Blanche’s mother loud enough for Jane to hear, “they are a nuisance.”

Blanche cheerfully counters:

Not that I ever suffered much from them; I took care to turn the tables. What tricks Theodore and I used to play on our Miss Wilsons, and Mrs. Greys, and Madame Jouberts! Mary was always too sleepy to join in a plot with spirit. The best fun was with Madame Joubert: Miss Wilson was a poor sickly thing, lachrymose and low-spirited, not worth the trouble of vanquishing, in short; and Mrs. Grey was coarse and insensible; no blow took effect on her.

Not satisfied with those affronts to those poor teachers, Bronte has Blanche continue the list the indignities inflicted on one particular governess who was subjected to especially bad behavior from the Ingram children:

But poor Madame Joubert! I see her yet in her raging passions, when we had driven her to extremities–spilt our tea, crumbled our bread and butter, tossed our books up to the ceiling, and played a charivari with the ruler and desk, the fender and fire-irons. Theodore, do you remember those merry days?”

Blanche’s condemnation of those who tried to educate her backfires; Bronte’s desire to have the reader dislike this rival for Rochester’s affection is deliberate. Jane’s quiet moral intelligence wins out in the end.

Listening to the story, I considered that Bronte was making a case for the importance of education as a means to rise out of poverty. Jane’s education at the Lowood Institute, a boarding school, was hazardous and purchased at a terrible price. Her classmate, Helen, dies because of the stark conditions at Lowood, mirroring the real-life death of Bronte’s sister, Maria, who died from tuberculosis contracted because of hunger, cold, and privation at Cowan Bridge School. Despite the treacherous conditions, however, Bronte revisits the theme of education’s importance as it provided the character Jane with an independent profession. She is hired to teach Rochester’s ward Adele, and she proves to be a successful governess.

The conflict between Bronte’s belief that education was one way for a young woman to earn a small income, to have a marketable profession, clashes with the upper classes’s view of the teaching profession in 1847. Therefore, how disappointing to read polls (2009-2012) about contemporary economics of the teaching profession that demonstrate that a century and a half later, not much has changed. According to The Economix blog on the NYTimes, “Does it Pay to Become a Teacher?”, salary  may reduce attracting high quality graduates to the teaching profession:

The average primary-school teacher in the United States earns about 67 percent of the salary of a average college-educated worker in the United States. The comparable figure is 82 percent across the overall Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.). For teachers in lower secondary school (roughly the years Americans would call middle school), the ratio in the United States is 69 percent, compared to 85 percent across the O.E.C.D. The average upper secondary teacher earns 72 percent of the salary for the average college-educated worker in the United States, compared to 90 percent for the overall O.E.C.D.

The findings also point out that teachers in the USA teach over 1000 hours annually, an amount well over the hours of their international peers. That number does not include time for preparation, training, or assessing. The article concludes:

Given the opportunity costs of becoming a teacher instead of using your college degree to enter another, more remunerative field, are the psychic rewards of teaching great enough to convince America’s best and brightest to become educators?

Bronte was one of England’s best and brightest who advocated education, but Bronte knew that teaching was not an economically successful profession. Jane Eyre only becomes financially independent when a relative leaves her a fortune; she only becomes wealthy when she confesses, “Reader, I married him.”

Over 150 years after Charlotte Bronte’s novel, the teaching profession still has its critics; there are real life Mrs. Ingrams and Blanches who hold the profession in contempt. There are also economic drawbacks to choosing the profession, as demonstrated in the O.E.C.D poll.

In the 21st Century, the teaching profession should be desirable to those who aspire to teach, but who, like Jane, want to be financially independent. Teachers should not have to wait for a Mr. Rochester in order to prosper.

Poetry Friday: Invictus

July 19, 2013 — 4 Comments

The film Invictus tells the story of how in 1995 Nelson Mandela enlisted the help of South Africa’s National Rugby team in order to unite the country and end prejudices associated with Apartheid. The film stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as South African rugby star Francois Pienaar, but this is more than a sports film. One mise-en-scene features a visit to the real Robben’s Island Prison, where Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 27 years.

The film footage shows the cell where Mandela served his sentence before his release in February 1990. As the camera pans around the prison, the voice of Freeman recites William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I am familiar enough with the poem that I do not need to look it up or “cut and paste” the text.
I can recite this poem cold.
So can the grade 12 seniors at Brookfield High School in CT (my tenure 1999-2008) who traditionally memorized the poem and recited its 16 lines for an English grade.

The “Invictus Day” tradition was begun to honor an English teacher who had passed away; the tradition was sustained by her colleague, Carole Smith, who would prepare “Invictus” sheets for students to carry with them to practice. A rubric was on the back that provided selected teachers a rubric to grade the quality of the recitation: A for a spectacular recitation (with feeling; no errors); B for a good recitation (one error allowed); C for an average recitation (errors allowed). A student had only one shot for an A; a teacher would sign off on the quality, but if there was a single flub, the highest grade that could be achieved was a B. Fortunately, the weight of the “Invictus” grade was nominal, however, the honor of getting an A for recitation was an achievement regardless of weight.

“Invictus Day” was an unannounced event held usually in late October or early November. Members of the faculty wore black, and seniors went scurrying to their lockers for their sheets. In Harry Potter-esque fashion, teachers would point at a senior with a finger and command, “INVICTUS”! The senior would be required to drop everything, hand over the sheet, and begin reciting, “Out of the night that covers me…”

There was a great deal of cowering, creeping, lurking,  prowling, skulking, and stalking on “Invictus Day”…on the part of both students and faculty. Some students took full advantage of the dramatic encounters by shouting the poem at the top of their lungs or climbing on tables or desks to recite for a crowd of delighted underclassmen. Others clung together to recite chorally, while the more timid seniors were given the opportunity to pull a teacher aside to recite and “get this over with!” Every year, a student would sing the poem to a familiar tune; one year, a student had a completely original melody with back-up singers. Once a student was graded, or “invicted”, he or she could show the sheet as a pass. Once invicted, a student could not be forced to recite again.

My favorite story of “Invictus Day” was of a one student who advertised his plans for presenting the poem. He prepared to recite the poem holding a heavy plaster skull, a la Hamlet. Hearing this, I convinced the members of the faculty not to invict him. The idea that he would carry the skull for several days was amusing to the faculty and to the student body. November came and went, and so did December and January. By late March, the student was pleading for someone to “invict me” so that he could rid himself of the skull he had been toting for months. Fortunately, he had been cast as a lead in the school musical. One warm April night, at the end of the final night’s production, he ran forward to take his well-deserved bow. As he stood up, I stepped out from the wings and onto the stage and cried, “Invictus!” There was a split second of shock in his eyes, but he bounded backstage and seconds later reappeared with the skull to recite the poem to a full house. There was a standing ovation; his performance for both the musical and the poem deserved the audience’s applause.

The obvious message of the poem is the control of one’s fate, and that makes the poem perfectly suited for seniors who will be steering their own destinies once they graduate. They may go to colleges, training schools, the military, or they make seek their futures in other pursuits, but who they will be after the thirteen years of mandated education is largely up to them. Holding the poem’s message in their heads, and in their hearts, can serve to guide them through rough waters of adulthood.

Mandela The same could be said for the use of the poem in the film Invictus. Four years after his release from his 27 years in Robben Island’s prison, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. He had made great sacrifices in bringing the horrors of Apartheid to an end, but his belief in a united South Africa had prevailed.

This past Thursday, July 18, 2013, Mandela turned 95 years old.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mandela, your life story is affirmation of Henley’s message:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Progress Report for 2012  (“Nation’s Report Card”) provides an overview on the progress made by specific age groups in public and private schools in reading and in mathematics since the early 1970s. The gain in reading scores after spending billions of dollars, countless hours and effort was a measly 2% rise in scores for 17-year-olds. After 41 years of testing, the data on the graphs show a minimal 2% growth. After 41 years, Einstein’s statement, “Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results,” is a confirmation that efforts in developing effective reading programs have left the education system insane.

The rather depressing news from NAEP in reading scores (detailed in a previous blog) could be offset, however, by information included in additional statistics in the report. These statistics measure the impact of “reading for fun” on student test scores. Not surprisingly, the students who read more independently, scored higher. NAEP states:

Results from previous NAEP reading assessments show students who read for fun more frequently had higher average scores. Results from the 2012 long-term trend assessment also reflect this pattern. At all three ages, students who reported reading for fun almost daily or once or twice a week scored higher than did students who reported reading for fun a few times a year or less

The irony is that reading for fun is not measured in levels or for specific standards as they are in the standardized tests. For example, the responses in standardized tests are measured accordingly:

High Level readers:

  • Extend the information in a short historical passage to provide comparisons (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Provide a text-based description of the key steps in a process (CR)
  • Make an inference to recognize a non-explicit cause in an expository passage (MC – age 13)
  • Provide a description that includes the key aspects of a passage topic (CR – ages 9 and 13)

Mid Range Readers:

  • Read a highly detailed schedule to locate specific information (MC – age 13)
  • Provide a description that reflects the main idea of a science passage (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Infer the meaning of a supporting idea in a biographical sketch (MC – ages 9 and 13)
  • Use understanding of a poem to recognize the best description of the poem’s speaker (MC)

Low Level Readers:

  • Summarize the main ideas in an expository passage to provide a description (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Support an opinion about a story using details (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Recognize an explicitly stated reason in a highly detailed description (MC)
  • Recognize a character’s feeling in a short narrative passage (MC – age 13)

(CR Constructed-response question /MC Multiple-choice question)

Independent reading, in contrast, is deliberately void of any assessment. Students may choose to participate in a discussion or keep a log on their own, but that is their choice.  The only measurement is a student’s willingness to volunteer the frequency of their reading, a form of anecdotal data.

According to the graph below (age 17 only), students who volunteered that they read less frequently were in the low to mid-level ranges in reading. Students who volunteered that they read everyday met the standards at the top of the reading scale.

Graph showing that 17-year-olds who read for fun score higher on standardized tests

#1 Graph showing that 17-year-olds who read for fun score higher on standardized tests

Sadly, this NAEP data recorded a decline in reading for fun over the last 17 years-exactly the age of those students who have demonstrated only a 2% increase in reading ability. The high number of independent readers (“reading for fun”) was in 1994 at 30%.

Steady decline  in the number of 17- year-old students who say that they  "read for fun."

#2 Steady decline in the number of 17- year-old students who say that they “read for fun.”

So what happened the following years, in 1995 and 1996, to cause the drop in students who read voluntarily? What has happened to facilitate the steady decline?

In 1995 there were many voices advocating independent reading: Richard Allington, Stephen Krashen, and Robert Marzano. The value of independent reading had been researched and was being recommended to all districts.

Profit for testing companies or publishing companies, however, is not the motive in independent reading programs.There are no “scripted” or packaged or leveled programs to offer when students choose to “read for fun”, and there is no test that can be developed in order to report a score on an independent read. The numerical correlation of reading independently and higher test scores (ex: read 150 pages=3 points) is not individually measurable; and districts, parents, and even students are conditioned to receiving a score. Could the increase of reading programs from educational publishers with leveled reading box sets or reading software, all implemented in the early 1990s, be a factor?

Or perhaps the controversy on whole language vs. phonics, a controversy that raged during the 1990s, was a factor? Whole language was increasingly controversial, and reading instructional strategies were being revised to either remove whole language entirely or blend instruction with the more traditional phonics approach.

The sad truth is that there was plenty of research by 1995 to support a focus on independent “reading for fun” in a balanced literacy program, for example:

Yet seventeen years later, as detailed in the NAEP report of 2012, the scores for 17-year-old students who read independently for fun dropped to the lowest level of 19%. (chart #2)

While the scores from standardized testing over 41 years according to the NAEP report show only 2% growth in reading, the no cost independent “reading for fun” factor has proven to have a benefit on improving reading scores. Chart #1 shows a difference of 30 points out of a standardized test score of 500 or a 6% difference in scores between students who do not read to those who read daily. Based on the data in NAEP’s report, reading programs have been costly and yielded abysmal results, but letting students choose to “read for fun” has been far less costly and reflects a gain in reading scores.

The solution to breaking this cycle is given by the authors of The Nation’s Report Card. Ironically, these authors are assessment experts, data collectors, who have INCLUDED a strategy that is largely anecdotal, a strategy that can only be measured by students volunteering information about how often they read.

The choice to include the solution of “reading for fun” is up to all stakeholders-districts, educators, parents, students. If “reading for fun” has yielded the positive outcomes, then this solution should take priority in all reading programs. If not, then we are as insane as Einstein said; in trying to raise reading scores through the continued use of reading programs that have proven to be unsuccessful, we are “doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.”

The students at Wamogo Middle/High School in Litchfield, CT, have been making “friendship and respect” videos this year at each grade level. These music video are shown at school assemblies and have become very popular with the students.

At the last assembly, one of the emcees tossed out a challenge, “Maybe the teachers will make a video next time!?”

Well, we did.

With a little help from a green screen, 27 members of the faculty representing a wide variety of disciplines jumped into the nearby closet wearing the big “W” (for Wamogo). Students in the video production class watched and filmed in amazement as, bearing some artifact from a particular subject area, each teacher donned a flowing red cape.

These teachers bravely risked their dignity, and their secret identities, in order to bring you the following video:

Next year? The other half of the faculty!

 I hear the chatter from elementary school teachers: 
  • They can’t wait for reading!
  • Oh, they love to read!
  • When we have to cancel reading, they are so disappointed.

Yet, what happens when I get the ninth graders in my class? I hear:

  • Reading is so boring.
  • I hate to read.
  • I don’t like reading.

What caused the change in students’ attitude towards reading?

97%

Reading Speed Limit?

I have been attending graduate courses on reading instruction for pre-K-6 in order to find out the reason for the shift in attitudes. One of the textbooks used was Guiding Readers and Writers (Grades 3-6), a 672 page tome packed with information written by authors Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. The 2001 edition reflected the ideal reading and writing workshop schedule; 3.5 hours of uninterrupted reading and writing daily.So, how did the instructional strategies for elementary students in the Fountas and Pinnell book prepare students for grades 7-12 ?

The Fountas and Pinnell strategies use a Benchmark Assessment System that allowed for leveled literacy intervention for very early readers. Texts were rated (A to K) on their difficulty for the reader in fluency and comprehension at instructional or independent levels. Each level suggests a percentage of accuracy that a student should achieve before moving to the next level, for example:

 For levels A to K, a text read at 90%-94% accuracy (with satisfactory or excellent comprehension) is considered an instructional level text. That means that the student can read it effectively with teacher help–a good introduction, prompting, and discussion).

For levels A to K, a text read at 95%-100% accuracy (with satisfactory or excellent comprehension) is considered to be an independent level text. That means that the student can read it without help. Reading at the independent level is extremely valuable because the reader gains fluency, reading “mileage,” new vocabulary, and experience thinking about what texts mean (comprehension).

Fountas and Pinnel are very clear that these percentages should not be fixed, stating:

We wouldn’t want anyone to interpret these percentages in a rigid way, of course. A child might read one text at 91% and then experience a few tricky words in the next book and read it with 89%.

They also note that reading broadly increases a student’s vocabulary, and they suggest that schools could mandate their own policies in insuring that students reading smoothly and easily with satisfactory accuracy and comprehension before moving to the next level.

I heard, however, a number of literacy specialists/instructors from elementary schools in my classes representing different districts in the state explaining, “We hold students to a 97% accuracy rate before moving them on” or “I would not move a student who isn’t reading at a 95%-97% accuracy rate.” Are these literacy specialists/instructors misreading the Fountas and Pinnell book? Furthermore, is a district’s adherence to this 97% accuracy rule hurting students as they transition to the higher grade levels? If a student is directed to read only those books that can be read at 97% or even a 91% or 89% accuracy, what happens when he or she is handed a required text that is above his or her reading level?

The problems in reading accuracy are clearly evident in when students enter middle school, and they are handed textbooks and whole class novels from the literary canon. Richard Allington, a past president of the International Reading Association and the National Reading Conference, wrote an article that directly addressed the problem of difficult texts for the journal Voices from the Middle (May 2007, NCTE) titled, “Intervention All Day Long: New Hope for Struggling Readers “ In this article, Allington makes the argument that districts should not mandate the same grade level texts for readers of varying ability:

This means that districts cannot continue to rely on one-size-fits-all curriculum plans and a single-period, daily supplemental intervention to accelerate struggling readers’ academic development. Districts cannot simply purchase grade-level sets of materials—literature anthologies, science books, social studies books—and hope to accelerate the academic development of students who struggle with schooling. There is no scientific evi- dence that distributing 25 copies of a grade-level text to all students will result in anything other than many students being left behind.

He argues for an extension of the 97% accuracy rate using easier texts and explains that the more difficult texts at the middle and high school levels will have many more words per page than the texts in elementary school. He notes that in a book of 250 and 300 running words on each page, 97% accuracy would mean 7–9 words will be misread or unreadable on every page:

 In a 20-page chapter, the student would encounter 140–180 words he or she cannot read. And typical middle school textbooks have twice as many words per page, creating the possibility that a reader reading at 97% accuracy would be unable to correctly read 14–20 words per page or 250–400 words per chapter.

As a result, Allington argues that struggling readers will not be helped by reading these texts, regardless as to the amount of support.
The very texts that are supposed to be a resource for a discipline’s content, “won’t help them learn to read.”  Many upper grade level texts are  textbooks are  heavy, difficult to read with all the subject specific vocabulary embedded in passages; the different fonts, pictures, and information boxes may confuse a poor reader.

I am, however, a little skeptical about Allington’s point regarding students who miss words in texts. I am not sure that the multiplication factor Allington uses to calculate the number of words missed since words are repeated in a novel.  Yes, a student may miss “purloined” on page 12, and on page 17, but should that word be counted twice? There is a context that eventually brings about an understanding; by the third “purloined” a student may have a better understanding of the word because of that context. As an additional concern, requiring a 97% accuracy rate would stop most middle/high school literature programs that use whole class texts. For example, we teach Romeo and Juliet to our 9th graders, and the accuracy rate for Shakespeare, even for teachers with Master degrees in English, is about 80%. Yet, year after year, as we read the play aloud, students do understand generally what is going on. Perhaps some literature is as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Poetry communicates before it is understood.”

On the other hand, Allington has every reason to be concerned that students entering middle school and high school will encounter texts that are complex with high exile levels.  These texts will not be modified to accommodate struggling readers, instead the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are moving in the opposite direction with Lexile levels being raised at all grade levels. Allington’s concerns are not the concerns for publishers who want to meet the CCSS in order to sell as many textbooks as possible. Ultimately, a 97% accuracy rate is not realistic with the materials in each subject area at the middle school and high school levels.

The students who have been swimming in the shallow end of the reading pool throughout their elementary school experience are suddenly tossed into the deep end of literature and informational texts when they hit middle school. The aforementioned elementary literacy specialists/instructor’s adherence to the 97% accuracy with Fountas and Pinnell benchmark assessments limit students to highly filtered reading experiences as opposed to challenging students to develop their own strategies when they encounter difficult texts. More practice with difficult reading materials should be part of an elementary school literacy regimen, just like a batter at the plate who must learn how to swing at a number of different kinds of pitches; not every pitch comes in the strike zone over the plate, and not every book is at a prescribed accuracy rate.

Requiring every student read at a 97% accuracy rate was not the intention of the Fountas and Pinnell directives, but the directives of others may be contributing to the comments I hear from my grade 9 students that “Reading is so boring” or “I hate to read.” A steady diet of the same level of reading caused by requirements to achieve a 97% (or A+) accuracy may hem in or deaden a student’s independent nature or curiosity. Furthermore, when a student gets to middle school, the requirement to read at 97%, or any literacy rate, is not enforced in all disciplines; students who have been spoon-fed reading materials may feel betrayed. Their 97% or A+ reading excellence is suddenly plunged to lower percentiles, which ultimately results in much lower grades. Any confidence or trust a struggling reader may have developed with purified texts is quickly lost, and “I hate to read” is the result.

Maybe they don’t hate to read; maybe with years of preparation at 97%, they are unprepared for any other speed.

boringMany educators use Twitter to communicate as part of personal learning networks (PLN). I appreciate the means to share messages with other educators, but I am sometimes alarmed by some of the tweets I read. The brevity of 140 characters does not allow for nuances. The tweet is, by design, blunt.
Example #1: Most teachers do not share a professional language. And they don’t share prof lang with students. 
I wonder, “Really? Is there evidence to support this claim?”
Example #2: Freedom—for educators and parents—is necessary, but not sufficient, for excellent schools
I think, “Define Freedom. Define sufficient. Define excellent.”
These tweets are made of some sentiment that begins an argument, but they are so brief and banal that they cut off debate.
Such was the case this week when prominent author and educator Dr. Tony Wagner paraphrased a statement made by Education Secretary Arne Duncan (week May 21, 2013) in a response on his twitter feed.  Wagner is the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard; he is a former high school teacher, K-8 principal, and a university professor in teacher education. Wagner’s tweet read:

“‘Too many high school students are dropping out, not because school is too hard, but because it’s too easy @arneduncan’ Wrong! It’s boring!” @DrTonyWagner.

While I disagree with Duncan’s generalization that schools are too easy, I was even more disturbed by Wagner’s response, about school, “It’s boring!”
I hear this complaint enough from students before they read the class novel or before we start the unit. I did not expect to hear it from Wagner.
Students say “this is boring” so much that I will not let them use the word “boring” any more.
But, is school boring?
Is it?
I take issue with Wagner’s claim. I would like to debate this.
As someone who attended Mr. Orontias’s History and Geography class in 1970, I can confidently say I have experienced boring. His 45 minute lecture delivered in a monotone right after lunch was not in a time space continuum; the clock hands did not move.
I know boring.
In contrast, my students’ high school today is not boring. As examples, I offer the following:
  • We have a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) initiative;
  • We employ student driven learning with choice on reading, topics, and presentation;
  • We include project based assessments and encourage reflection on tests.
We do, however, require that students do schoolwork. They practice math problems. They do research. They must complete reading assignments. They have deadlines. Some of this work is repetitious; some of this work is tedious. Some rote learning may be necessary to develop background knowledge before students can engage in active participation or collaboration.
So, when I hear from students that they are “bored” with school, often what they are saying is “schoolwork is not fun.”
This is not unexpected. A great deal of time is spent everyday in “not fun” activities inside school, just as a number of “not fun” activities are required in the real world.
I sympathize, but the reality is that not every lesson in school is fun. Education objectives require students to work rather than have the teachers be the engine of the classroom.
Wagner is one of the innovative educators who promotes education to incorporate more real world problems, reforming education to prepare students with 21st Century skills in order to engage students in meaningful enterprises. Whatever innovations are developed by education reformers like Wagner, students will experience frustrations, and experience failures. There will be efforts expended by teachers and students successfully and unsuccessfully. Work will be necessary, and some of that work will not be fun. If the goal of schools is to prepare students to learn the value of work, to prepare students for the workforce, work should be applauded, even if the work is not fun, or if the work is “boring.”
Arne Duncan’s statement that high school students are dropping out because schools are too easy is a gross overstatement. How easy will the real world be for those high school dropouts?
Similarly, Wagner’s accusation that high school is boring is infuriatingly terse, using only 20 out of Twitter’s 140 characters. How bored will students be if they drop out and cannot find fulfilling employment?
There are isolated cases of students who may write code for some fabulous new social media or video game that goes viral, but those are isolated. A high school diploma is necessary for even the most menial employment.
Today’s schools are not boring. Today’s schools are preparing students for work environments just like schools have done in decades past. Historically, teachers do not predict the job market, instead they prepare students with the fundamentals so that their students may create the job market. Some of that preparation is not fun; it is work, and in student lingo, it is boring.
Stating this needs more than a pithy remark that negates the efforts of teachers who are engaging students with 21st Century skills, with active rather than passive instruction.
Education has come a long way since my experience in the 1970s because of the efforts of education reformers like Dr. Wagner. Forty years ago, education came in primarily in the form of direct instruction. We sat in rows and listened to lectures, and yes, that was boring.
Except for the day that Mr. Orontias stepped into the wastebasket.
That was not boring at all.

Spoiler alertEnter the spoiler alert. Because the number of ways people hear about stories is increasing, spoiler alerts for books and films are offered as a “heads-up”, a means to prevent plot details from becoming public.  Knowing the end of a story might mean that the strategy of “predicting” a story has been compromised, however, there are genres of stories that absolutely count on predictability, for example, Nancy Drew will always solve a mystery with her best friend, Bess and George, while on TV, predictability has a time limit; the shipwrecked crew will never leave Gilligan’s Island (30 mins) and House will solve a medical mystery (60 mins).

Predictability means to state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge, and students are taught at an early age that making predictions can help them to determine what will happen in a story.

I noticed how predictions are important even if the end has already been decided when my six-year-old niece was watching the Disney film Running Brave. This was her favorite film, and she watched the VHS tape every afternoon. On one such afternoon, I noticed she was drifting asleep, so I made a move to turn off the video.

“Wait,” she cried out, “I think….I think he’s going to win again.”

From her perspective, the outcome of the race was still in doubt. The cinematic elements, the tight editing of shots , and a triumphant soundtrack created suspense where the viewer might doubt the inevitable. Krista had seen the movie hundreds of times, but she still was “testing” her prediction.

I admit that I have felt the same way watching Miracle, holding my breath for the final seconds wondering if the US ice hockey team would still win the Olympic medal. Krista’s experience is also mirrored in the classes where students often choose books based on a movie that they have seen.

In the independent reading allowed in our curriculum, the 9th graders can choose contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and many of the titles have movies in circulation, for example:

Some students purposefully choose these books because they know the endings, and in knowing how the book ends allows the reader to pay more attention to the craft of the author in bringing all the plot points together in a conclusion. Take for example, the Harry Potter series. Most readers predicted with certainty that Harry Potter would finally face his nemesis, Voldemort. The how and when, however, were still very much in the air, and J.K.Rowling’s crafting of the series’s magical settings and character development kept readers in a willing suspension of disbelief for the length of seven volumes. The final conclusion was satisfying to her fans who knew all along that Harry would prevail, after all, Good’s triumph over Evil is a predictable plot. Readers and filmgoers were not disappointed in following the story of a boy with the scar on his forehead because in each volume and subsequent film release, they correctly predicted that “I think…I think he will win again.”

So when I teach a whole class novel, I know there are some students who already know the ending. They may have reached the conclusion before others, or been informed by older students who notoriously share their opinions and critical information with younger students. In this case, my role is to impress on students that knowing the outcome will not destroy a well-told story, and to focus their attention on the other elements. This was the case with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“I heard this is a sad book,” one student said when I assigned the first chapter, “One guy kills another guy.”
Other students looked up for my confirmation.
“Yes, this is a sad book, but the reason for the sadness is really about caring. We will grow to care for these characters.”
“I already don’t care if I already know what happens,” was his reply.
Four weeks later, this student refused to watch the final scene in the film version.
“I know what happens, and I cannot watch,” he said sadly as he walked out into the hall.

The same sentiments are expressed at the beginning of our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Guess what? They die,” said a student as I passed out the books.
“Yes, they die,” I kept passing out the copies.
“So why are reading this?” another asked.
“Because this is a great story,” I responded, “and the story’s ending will mean more after we finish because we will have read how Shakespeare writes about these ‘star-cross’d lovers’.”
“But we already know how it ends!” they whined.

Now that we are in Act III, no one cares that they know the end, instead, they are recognizing how Shakespeare creates the tragedy. They notice the “hints”: Juliet seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb”, Friar Lawrence’s herbs of “Violent delights”, and “Love devouring death”.

This discovery of an author’s details makes students more appreciative of the craft in writing as they still try to predict. They notice Shakespeare’s allusions: “Such a wagoner/As Phaeton would whip you to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately” (3.2.2-4), because we had studied the Phaeton myth earlier in the year.

“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” I heard one say, “Romeo’s gonna crash and burn like Phaeton.”

That kind of analysis is exactly what the English Language Arts Common Core would like to see in a close reading of a text. How interesting that students who already know “what happens” may be better at picking up on an author’s craft that a close reading generates.

Spoiler alerts do warn those readers or viewers who want to be surprised, but knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the reading or viewing experience. Want to experiment? Here are 50 plot spoilers for 50 novels. I predict that each novel will not disappoint, even if you already know the ending.

Tuesday nights are #edchat nights on Twitter, and educators across the country, even across the globe, discuss topics of general interest for an hour. Last night (5/7) the topic was posted: What is BIG Shift in ed that everyone is looking for? Is there 1 idea that can positively affect education? While I was surfing the column of tweets that piling up, I was alarmed by one of the “tweets” in one of the sidebar discussions that break out between tweeters.The topic began with a comment about high school teachers by one tweeter”

Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?

The response to this question caught my eye and made me a little concerned: 

 HS Ts need not be content experts, but rather good directors and literate within their subject.

The brevity in Twitter-language communication often makes the tone in tweets sound dogmatic; many read like proclamations, and this was a proclamation I found startling. Yes, teachers need to be good directors, but the standard for literate is “being able to  know how to read and write” in a subject area? That definition sets a low bar for teachers.  My own experience in school guided my response; I tweeted back:

I respectfully disagree; my best HS teachers were content experts. Made me want to know what they knew.

The return tweet by was unsettling:

Good T[teachers] facilitate learning & help S[students] engage. With tech, a content-expert is less imp. 

Captured in the dialogue above is a contemporary problem in education, a growing separation between skills or content created by the exponential growth of information.  For example, in 2011, The Telegraph published “Welcome to the Information Age – 174 Newspapers a Day” which began:

The growth in the internet, 24-hour television and mobile phones means that we now receive five times as much information every day as we did in 1986.

The article written by Richard Alleyne, illustrated the explosion in the increase of information using a variety of statistics:

  • Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase. 
  • We now each have the equivalent of 600,000 books stored in computers, microchips and even the strip on the back of a credit card.
  • In 1986 we received around 40 newspapers full of information every day- this rocketed to 174 in 2007.
  • The ability to process all this information with computers has doubled every 18 months.

Today’s information overload is the major reason that many educators are promoting 21st Century skills; there is little hope that any human could manage the amount of information available. Instead there is every reason to believe that developing the necessary skills to access information is critical in education. However, to declare that teachers do not need to be content experts is a step in the wrong direction. 

Would anyone want a doctor or lawyer who was skilled but lacked content knowledge? Would anyone want a business manager or a craftsman who had content knowledge but no skills?  Why then do respected educators suggest that there should be a preference for skills over content in the teaching profession ? The problem appears to be that many people, educators included, connect content knowledge in the classroom with “lecture”. This association is evidenced by another tweeter who continued the conversation:

Content I agree, but just trying to focus away from “content expert” = lecturer. That’s not best role.

Really? For thousands of years, information was passed from one generation to another through the lecture format. Each subsequent generation added more knowledge in lecture formats, preparing the next generation for an undefined future. So did the Socratic method (5th C BCE) which encouraged debate and inquiry between teacher and students in order to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. Instructors used dialectic methods, arguments to persuade and inform. Now, suddenly, because there is an over-abundance of information, the lecture is dead?

Well, certainly the long and dry lecture delivered to students without their participation has always been deadening. Contemporary educators have adapted and improved the lecture by delivering content through different strategies to accomodate different learning styles.  Successful instruction is not delivered from the podium, but delivered in mini-lessons, project-based assessments, literature circles, reading and writing workshops, and labs. Yet, there was one more concern about the teacher as content expert, a concern about teacher control:

T[teachers]s direct content. S[students]s don’t have total control, but the emphasis needs to shift to the S[students]s.

While this tweet sounded blunt, the reality is that teachers do direct a great deal of content in delivering content knowledge as outlined in curriculum, and that content could be lost in turning control over to the students. There are many ways students can be offered choice in content: choice in independent reading, choice in research, choice in project presentation. Students must first have some content to make decisions and to take control of their learning. This sentiment was reflected in one of the last tweets in the conversation:

I agree content experts are important, but not as important as allowing S[students}s to access and struggle to understand.

I added my final comment:

Sure, if they [teachers] give them [students] the answers all the time. But a content expert knows questions-what to ask & where to help guide.

That struggle for understanding is exactly what has happened for millenium, from instructor to student. This Twitter conversation had come full circle, a full Socratic circle. Through Twitter’s #edchat, educators discussed the teacher as content expert or as a skilled instructor. We were participating in reasoned debate from our different points of view about a subject in order to establish a truth.

balanceThe sidebar conversation on #edchat had begun with the question, “Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?” This answer to this question is not a choice between content knowledge or being “great” with skill. Furthermore, the skill to dispense knowledge is enhanced not replaced by technology.

In determining what makes a teacher great, on #edchat or in any other forum, there is no “or”…the balanced combination of content and skills is what makes a teacher great.