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The first 10 days in the National Day Calendar of May 2015 have been crowded with days of tributes and appreciation. A few of the more notable days include:Screenshot 2015-05-10 14.59.14

While several of these day are associated with historical events: (May Day, Cinco de Mayo, VE WWII Day) or other worthwhile causes (World Press Freedom, National Day of Prayer, World Red Cross/Red Crescent) many of the other days have been designated as tribute those who occupy professions dedicated to serving others.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary,  the word “service” originates from the verb “to serve” (v.) in the late 12th Century originating from the Old French verb servir meaning “minister, give aid, give help,” and from the Latin servus “to do duty toward” or “show devotion to.” This verb took on a sense of “be useful, be beneficial, be suitable for a purpose or function” before shifting to that sense of “take the place or meet the needs of, be equal to the task” during the 14th Century.

By the mid-13th Century, the noun service meant the “state of being bound to undertake tasks for someone or at someone’s direction; labor performed or undertaken for another” which eventually led to its association with military service. In keeping with this theme of service, please note the May 9th calendar date above dedicated to appreciating military spouses.public-service

Today’s definition of service as a verb is “to provide (someone) with something that is needed or wanted,” or as a noun, “the occupation or function of serving.” This definition of service is at the heart of the efforts of teachers, nurses, and those in the military. Everyday, men and women in these professions “give aid” or “help”; everyday they provide what is needed in “labor performed or undertaken for another.”

Teacher DayAs as teacher, I am pleased that there was an entire week for Teacher Appreciation (May 3-9th) with National Teacher’s Day on May 5th. May 6th of this week was designated as National Nurses Day, including school nurses, celebrated during National Nurses Week (May 6-12).   Perhaps it is not so strange that these weeks should have overlapped in paying tribute to those who help or serve others. I am often reminded by how much the fields of education and nursing attract people drawn to similar service, and as an example, I offer the following story.

Several years ago, when my two sons were attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, my husband and I took a number of midshipmen out to dinner. There were 13 young men and women seated around us that night, and the conversation turned to what their parents did for a living.

“What does your mother do?” I asked one of the midshipmen.
“She’s a nurse,” he replied.
“So is mine,” added the young women next to him; she seemed surprised.
“Mine is in education, a special ed teacher,” stated the young man opposite me.

And so it went around the dinner table: “a nurse’s aide” or “a teacher” or “a teacher’s aide” or “a nurse.” Out of the 13 young men and women who would be entering the military service (US Navy or United States Marine Corps) after graduating the Naval Academy, all 13 had mothers who were either in nursing or education. I am convinced that 13 for 13 is not coincidence, but rather an illustration of how one life dedicated to public service in nursing or in education influences other lives to enter public service.

The informal survey taken around the dinner table that night also illustrated the influence of mothers, and so it should come as no surprise that paying tribute to those who serve during the month of May would culminate in the ultimate day of appreciation to the paramount profession of service called Mother’s Day. Literally and figuratively, mothers are those who have served in “labor performed or undertaken for another”!Screenshot 2015-05-10 14.56.40

While National Holiday Calendar sets up days to appreciate the indispensable efforts of teachers, nurses, and mothers in the first weeks of May, it also had designated May 4th as National Star Wars Day.

How fitting that we take time to celebrate the efforts of teachers, of nurses, and of mothers everywhere….May the Fourth be with them all throughout the year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s official.

The chocolate milk debate  as a test writing prompt is dead in Connecticut to all grade levels.choclate-milk

Yes, that old stalwart, “Should there be chocolate milk in schools?” offered to students as a standardized writing prompt was made null and void with one stroke from Governor Malloy’s pen. According to Hartford Courant, (6/12/14) Malloy Veto Keeps Chocolate Milk On School Lunch Menus,

“to the vast relief of school kids, nutritionists, milk producers and lawmakers, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy used his veto power Thursday to kill a bill that would have banned chocolate milk sales in Connecticut schools.” 

Apparently, the same nutritional charts, editorials, and endorsements from dairy groups organized in packets and given to students from grades 3-11 to teach how to incorporate evidence in a fake persuasive argument under testing conditions was convincing enough to have real CT residents make a persuasive argument for legislators. To show his solidarity with the people, Governor Malloy quaffed down a container of chocolate milk before vetoing a bill that would have banned the sale of chocolate milk in schools.

Standardly, the writing prompt is addressed in English/Language Arts (ELA) class in elementary schools, but in middle and high schools, a persuasive essay is often the responsibility of the social studies teacher. The assumption here is that the skill of persuasion requires research and the incorporation of evidence, both taught in social studies classes. In contrast, ELA classes are dedicated to the analysis of literature through essays using a range of skills: identifying author’s craft, identifying author’s purpose, editing, and revising. The responsibilities for the writing portion of an exam are divided between the ELA classes for the literary analysis essay and the social studies classes for the persuasive essay. This design is intended to promote an interdisciplinary effort, but it is an intellectually dishonest division of labor.

ELA teachers have choices to prepare students for standardized tests using ELA content (literature and grammar) to improve skills. Math and science teachers are also tied to their disciplines’ content in order for their students to be prepared.  Social studies is the only core discipline with the test-prompt disconnect.

So, what topics might test creators design to replace the infamous chocolate milk debate prompt? Before test creators start manufacturing new and silly debates, there is a window of opportunity where attention could be brought to this disconnect between content and testing in writing. Here is the moment where social studies teachers should point out to test creators the topics from their curriculum that could be developed into writing prompts. Here is a foot in the door for the National Council for the Social Studies to introduce writing prompts that complement their content. For example, there could be prompts about Egyptian culture, prompts on the American Revolution, or prompts about trade routes and river based communities. Too often, social studies teachers must devote class time to topics unrelated to curriculum.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Field Test given this past spring (2014) to 11th graders was about the use of social media by journalists. When they took the test, I overheard the following exchange:

“Of course they use social media,” grumbled one student, “who is going to stop them?”
“Do they think they are ‘cool’ because they mentioned Twitter?” countered another.

Previous standardized test writing prompts (in Connecticut, the CMT and CAPT) for high school and middle school have been devoted to asking students to write persuasively on the age students should be able to drive; whether wolves should be allowed in Yellowstone National Park or not; whether to permit the random drug testing of high school students; and whether there should be uniforms required in schools.

Please notice that none of these aforementioned prompts are directly related to the content in any social studies curricula. Furthermore, the sources prepared as a database for students to use as evidence in responding to these are packets with newspaper opinion columns or polls, and statistical charts; there is no serious research required.

Here is the moment when social studies teachers and curriculum leaders need to point out how academically dishonest the writing prompt is on a standardized test as a measure of their instruction in their discipline. No longer should the content of social studies be abandoned for inauthentic debate.

The glass in Connecticut is half-full now that students can have chocolate milk in schools. Time for test creators to empty out the silly writing prompts that have maddened social studies teachers for years.

Time to choose content over chocolate.


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.



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



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?


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.