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Act III in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is known for the funeral speeches given by the characters of Brutus and Marc Anthony. The speeches are so notable that this year, to teach argument and rhetorical devices, we added the play to begin the American Literature unit.

Obviously, the play is not American, and historically, Shakespeare took liberties with the assassination of Caesar in this 400+-year-old play. But the different rhetorical devices Shakespeare used in these funeral speeches allow the English teachers a means to highlight how well the characters demonstrate their rhetorical skills of persuasion using the appeals of ethos, logos, pathos.  These rhetorical elements form a rhetorical triangle and were first defined by Aristotle:

  • Ethos: the speaker appeals to the audience as credible (or not).
  • Logos: the speaker appeals to the audience’s rational or logical thinking.
  • Pathos: the speaker appeals to the audience’s emotions.

Understanding these elements will help students later when they analyze the American speeches that are in the curriculum such as Jonathan Edward’s sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, or William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.

In the play, the first up to eulogize Caesar is Brutus who makes use of rhetorical device antithesis:

“Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?”(3.2.22–24)

Brutus uses rhetorical questions:

“Who is here so base that would be a bondman?…
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman?…
Who is here so vile that will not love his country?”
(3.2.30-35)

He appeals to the crowd’s ethos as he tells them, “Believe me for mine honor.” 

He appeals to the crowd’s logos as he argues, “Would you rather that Caesar be alive and you be slaves?”

And he appeals to the crowd’s pathos as he states, “I did love Caesar, but I loved Rome more.”

Soon after, Marc Anthony takes the stage, and he appeals to the crowd’s ethos with his opening line, “Friends, Romans and countrymen…”
Not only does he show the crowd that he is “one of them” (common person) but he starts his speech in a memorable pattern, an example of the “rule of 3s” in speech.

Antony appeals to the crowd’s logos by offering “proof” that Caesar was a war hero, who “thrice refused the crown.”

In a final bow to the crowd’s pathos, Antony shows his own emotion, saying:

 Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
(3.2.115–117)

Antony’s repeated use of the phrase ”but Brutus is an honorable man” cleverly implies an opposite meaning, stated just before he shows the people Caesar’s bloody corpse and connects the stab marks with conspirators.

Shakespeare’s Act III scene ii’s “speech-off” ends with a fired-up rabble of Romans ready to riot, as the blunt honesty of Brutus’s prose is upended by the poetic craftiness of Marc Anthony’s rhetorical style.

1700 years later, the context for comparing and contrasting the McCain eulogies could not be more different. These speeches, given in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., were not part of a political contest but given as a tribute to an American icon, Senator John McCain, when a malignant brain tumor caused his death on August 25, 2018.

McCain was a Vietnam War hero who twice lost a chance to be President of the United States. He lost the 2000 Republican presidential nomination to George W. Bush, who then won the White House. He lost the 2008 presidential race, running as a Republican against the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. 

The only similarities between the eulogies for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to the larger-than-life McCain is that both that both sets of speeches have excellent examples of rhetorical elements and both sets of speeches were publically delivered in the same venue by political rivals.

It was McCain’s rivals, former presidents, Barack Obama (Democrat) and George W. Bush (Republican), who addressed a crowd gathered at his funeral on September 1, 2018.

The transcripts of these speeches are available on numerous websites including the CBS News website or the NYTimes website along with videos of the speeches (Obama 19:26 and Bush 7:53).

These videos and transcripts can give teachers an opportunity to have students analyze the speeches for the elements from the rhetorical triangle that these politicians used in paying tribute to an American icon.

For example, students may note how Obama, who spoke first, described McCain by using the rule of thirds, “a warrior, a statesman, a patriot.”

They can call attention to Obama’s appeal to ethos, as he explained how McCain authorized him to speak at this occasion.

“So for someone like John to ask you, while he’s still alive, to stand and speak of him when he’s gone, is a precious and singular honor.”

And they may note how Obama used an antithesis in his tribute saying,

“It’s not based on where our parents or grandparents came from, or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed: That all of us are created equal.”

Then, in Bush’s speech, students may notice an appeal to ethos,

 “He [McCain] was honest, no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared.”

They may notice Bush also used repetition stating:

“If we are ever tempted to forget who we are, to grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this.”

Or Bush’s use of a rhetorical question, “Where did such strength of conviction come from?”

Giving students copies of the transcripts of these speeches lets them find the evidence where the speaker:

  • uses an emotional appeal?-pathos
  • uses an appeal to reason?-logos
  • establishes his credibility?-ethos
  • uses a rhetorical question?
  • uses humor?
  • uses repetition?
  • uses antithesis?

After finding the evidence, students could be asked to analyze each eulogy, before judging how well  Obama and Bush used the elements of ethos, logos, and pathos.

In this example, students go as far back to the definitions of Aristotle and the examples of Shakespeare to study rhetoric. Then they can go back and analyze the speeches of two former Presidents of the United States of America.

But even the best of these literary tributes to John McCain fall short.  History has already portrayed him as a man who only spoke “right on”, and one who let his actions speak louder than any rhetoric used to define him.

With apologies to William Shakespeare*:

Parents, Teachers, and Curriculum Writers:

I come to bury packets, not to praise them.

The evil that packets do lives after them,

No good is offered when they are sent home.

So let’s be done with packets.

Say Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT)

Hath packets sold far beyond numerous.

If it were so, theirs is a grievous fault,

And grievously will students answer for it.

As under Google searches lies desperate belief

That instruction by purchase may be best.

(“Look, word banks, matching vocab…a question treasure chest!”)

Yea, packet writers may be an honorable group,

As all packet creators may be honor-intended. So teachers troop

Those stacks of packets to be collated, copied, stapled.

Lined answer blanks and fancy clip art that do the student backpacks fill.

Do these packets make instruction more auspicious?

What makes this form so expeditious?

Whilst parents cry, “It’s homework… fill in the packet!”

As students have wept.

Learning should be made of more curious stuff.

Yes, that weekly packet may be repetitious,

but their creators aren’t malicious.

You see how quiet students sit and fill in blanks?

No writing. they match columns up and down.

Yes, packets may be repetitious, and

Their creators aren’t malicious,

But might this form of learning be fictitious?

I write not to disprove a packet’s use by subs,

But here to speak what students should know:

Engaging teachers who build minds for learning

Without reaching for a preprinted form.

What cause you to think packets be for learning? I say

O judgment!

Thou art crazed! Grading page after page of worksheets

Buried under piles of preprinted forms as teachable moments

stapled to death,

Are stuffed in wastebins, a fill of recyclable defeat.

Real learning paused by a packet factory.

 

 

Continue Reading…

September 8th is International Literacy Day, a date supported by the United Nations Educational, Societal, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with a global aim “to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities, and societies.”

Their efforts at UNESCO are paying off. Worldwide, steady progress has been made in literacy with the increase in the adult literacy rate (15+ years) from 81% in 2000 to 86% in 2016.

Locally, here in West Haven, Connecticut, a small city along the coast of Connecticut, we are engaging in our own efforts to improving literacy. Here, we are fortunate to have Read to Grow, an organization that has donated over 1.7 million books to families, child-care providers, teachers, doctors, health-care groups, library programs.

Our school system has directly benefitted from the generosity of Read to Grow whose mission statement is

Every family — regardless of income and primary language — will understand the critical importance of early childhood literacy and will take an active role in their child’s reading development. All children in Connecticut will have books of their own.

This past June, Read to Grow was an essential collaborator to our summer reading program organized at one Title 1 school, Forest Elementary School by the school’s reading consultant, Heather Mazzone. We have sought to prevent a loss of reading skills during the summer months, a loss commonly known as the “summer slide.” We had discussed different ways to engage students during the summer. We found our inspiration in a study completed by faculty members Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Their research led them to conclude that academic loss can be made worse because of a lack of reading materials at home; no books in a home meant lost opportunities to read.

According to Allington:

“What we know is that children who do not read in the summer lose two to three months of reading development while kids who do read tend to gain a month of reading proficiency. This creates a three to four month gap every year. Every two or three years the kids who don’t read in the summer fall a year behind the kids who do.”

In designing their three-year study, Allington and McGill-Franzen gave students books for the summer. In one test group, they allowed students to choose their books, explaining that “research has demonstrated that choice makes a very important contribution to achievement.” For this test group, the study found that summer reading is just as effective, if not more so, as summer school.

We were convinced.

We wanted to try….but, we needed books.

That’s where Connecticut’s Read to Grow stepped in to help. With our collaboration with Read to Grow through the Books for Kids Co-Coordinator, Linda Sylvester, we were able to obtain over 4,300 books for students in Pre-K through fourth grade. There were boxes and boxes of new and gently used books, collected through donations and book drives.

Forest School literacy aides then organized the sets of books into different grade levels. In late June, just before the start of summer vacation, each Forest student had the opportunity to select two books from a wide assortment of texts.  In addition to these two books, each student also received a “Mystery Bag” that contained eight (8) additional books. That meant each student left school with 10 books to keep and read over the summer!

In addition, inside each mystery bag was a notebook, a “Forest School Summer Writing Journal 2018,” for students to jot down any thoughts they wanted to share, questions that they had while reading, or any connections they wanted to make. Students were told that those who turned in their the “Forest School Summer Writing Journal 2018” at the beginning of the new school year would receive another free book.

Finally, parents received a note in the bag explaining how reading can stop the academic summer slide and how to encourage their child to practice reading.

Forest Elementary is not the only West Haven School to benefit from Read to Grow. This organization has helped the all of the schools in the West Haven Public School system, K-12. For example, this past week, I was able to select 309 books to add to the independent reading book closet at the high school for students to choose and take home to read.

According to its website, the Books for Kids program distributes over 145,000 books annually. Since it began, Books for Kids has delivered more than 1.2 million new and gently used books.

Like the international efforts of UNESCO to improve literacy, Read to Grow works locally to improve literacy. Both organizations recognize the importance of starting literacy at an early age to create life-long readers. Both organizations also recognize the importance of literacy to local and national economies.  Multiple studies have already shown a correlation between more education and higher earnings, and between higher educational scores and higher earnings. Literacy has a pay off…literally!

Now that we are back to school, we look forward to reading what students thought about the 10 books they read.

We are hopeful that the 10 books they read over the summer have helped to improve literacy.

And, we are fortunate that we have a partnership with Read to Grow and their Books for Kids program that helps us to slow the summer slide…10 books at a time. Continue Reading…

The Unit 1 pre-assessment question from Teachers College Reading units of Study Grade 4 asks:

How did the [character] change from the beginning to the end of the story and why?                                                                      (Unit 1 -“Papa’s Parrot” by Cynthia Rylant.)

In previous posts, I questioned this kind of assessment that asks about character change in a story.

I have argued in these posts that in texts for the 3rd grade -and even in more sophisticated texts up through Grade 12- there may not be a character change.

In this assessment, the character in Rylant’s story does not change. His character is the same, but once he learns about the parrot, he experiences a change in his feelings towards his father…and the parrot.

The character change question above may have been generated by a misread of the ELA Common Core State Standards. The Reading Literature Standard 6.4 (grade 6) states that students in grade 6 should be able to:

Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

It should be noted that the question asked above is not even part of a Grade 4 standard, nor does the question ask how a character responds.

The question also does not directly ask if the opinions or viewpoint of the character have evolved during the story. Readers may see such changes in the character’s sentiment or fortune or direction or purpose. Even in the most predictable book series for grade 4 readers, there could also be a change of mind, or stripes, or tune, or ways.

But a change in character?

Students in 4th grade will have several years to go before they meet the kinds of characters (usually British) who are radically altered by circumstance in the plot. They will have years before they meet Golding’s Jack (Lord of the Flies), Huxley’s John (Brave New World), and Milton’s Lucifer (Paradise Lost). They have more to read before they encounter the long list of Shakespeare’s radical transformations in the characters of Juliet, Macbeth, Richard III, Henry IV, etc.

And even with evidence of change on these heavy hitters, there are literary scholars who could still argue that the character is not so much changed but that character is revealed over the length of the text.

Perhaps the reason for any confusion on the subject of character change in stories comes the lack of understanding of what changes can happen in the character of real human counterparts. There have been numerous studies that try to answer the question, “Do people change?”

A report from Eileen K. Graham, et al. in 2017 (A Coordinated Analysis of Big-Five Trait Change Across 16 Longitudinal Samples) reviewed data on almost 50,000 people in the hopes of answering that question on changes in human personality. This meta-analysis looked for the common ground, between the belief in the 1970s that “personality is unstable for nearly everyone” (Mischel,1969, 1977) and the belief in the 1980-90’s that “personality is stable for nearly everyone”(Costa &McCrae, 1986; Costa & McCrae, 1980).

While sudden dramatic changes in personality are rare, Graham et al. found in the analysis that studies did reveal a change in certain aspects of human personality. These changes in people took time, over a course pf years or decades, not days or weeks.

“We conclude from our study that neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness go down over time, while agreeableness remains relatively stable.”

In other words, the study noted that agreeableness (or a lack of) in humans remains a constant personality trait. In humans, the other changes in personality traits-moodiness, sociability, carefulness, and tolerance- are measured as a loss.

This finding is contrary to what happens to characters in literature. In literature, characters experience some kind of gain, good or bad. Characters make a discovery, an anagnorisis, literally the Greek word for discovery. Anagnorisis is the transition in which a character may gain wisdom, knowledge, or maybe enlightenment.  Even when the cost of experience results in punishment or in tragedy,  the character gains a new understanding.

The character learns something.

So, back to the 4th grade to the question of about character change which has caused so much concern.

Texts that students can (or choose) to read independently at that grade level do not contain any character change. They can point to the popular Dork Diaries, Origami Yoda, Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid as examples.

While there is no change in character in any of these series, (the characters remain immature, sometimes shallow) these characters do learn important life lessons. These life lessons are intentionally directed at students who are themselves are learning as they move from innocence or ignorance to experience and knowledge.

The more sophisticated stories taught at the fourth-grade level, such as Tuck Everlasting or Hatchet, echo similar messages. In these novels, “You are good as you are” seems counter to the idea of character change, especially when coupled with a cautionary “learn from others” or “learn from your mistakes.”

The difference between “character change” and “what a character learns” can be a direct route to helping a student determine the book’s theme. The story’s theme is always tied to a character’s discovery (the anagnorisis), for example:

  • Frindle (Andrew Clements) that language is flexible.
  • Matilda (Roald Dahl) that adults don’t know everything.
  • Esperanza Rising (Pam Munoz Ryan) that families who stick together can survive.

In each of these stories, it is not the character that changes, but the character’s thinking or feeling. Since the question of character change itself needs to change, the revised question for grade four students is:

“What does the character learn from the beginning to the end of the story, and why is this significant?”

Rephrasing the question to what the character learned can help students discover the message of a story, connecting how an author creates a character’s change of heart or a change of sides to the theme or message of the story.

Change may be good, but not in character questions.

Page one of the US Constitution

On September 17, 1787,  41 delegates to the Constitutional Congress signed their names to the  Constitution of the United States, and our government was born. In 2004, to honor this achievement, September 17th was named Constitution Day. This date offers an opportunity to meet a legislative requirement. According to the U.S. Department of Education:

Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year is required to hold an educational program about the U.S. Constitution for its students.

There are activities for September 17th or for other extended periods on a Constitution Day website,  The extended activities allow students to have multiple exposures to this founding document.which can be a difficult read. An objective review based on vocabulary and sentence complexity shows the readability the document is at the 14.7-grade level, which means that most middle and high school students cannot read it independently without some support.

One way to support students before or during reading is to use a program called Word Sift which was designed to “help teachers manage the demands of vocabulary and academic language in their text materials.”

A teacher can copy and paste sections of the Constitution onto the Word Sift site to create a word cloud that identifies specific words that are repeated in the text. For example, pasting the language from the Preamble of the Constitution creates a word cloud (with 25/52 words) as seen below:

This word cloud visualizes how three frequently repeated words emphasize or clarify the main idea that is contained in the Preamble: “Establish United States.”

The same Word Sift can also sort the words alphabetically, and distinguish which words are found on a general academic vocabulary list (highlighted blue):

A visual analysis of word frequency of the first ten articles of the Constitution shows the word “states” used the most frequently -76 times in 45 sentences.  The Word Sift of these articles below also shows the frequency of the word “united,” and highlights in bold other repeated words “right” (ten times), “law”(nine times) and “power” (eight times).

Selected Text of US Constitution, Articles 1-10, visualized in Word Sift

Using the Word Sift, teachers can prepare students for reading the sections of the Constitution by reviewing the content-specific vocabulary (president, electors, impeachment, judicial) in advance and by showing the connection between repeated language and the document’s purpose/message.

While word cloud programs are common on the Internet, the Word Sift program offers a feature that identifies and sorts lists of words according to academic discipline (math, science, ELA, and social studies).

Also, the words from any document pasted into the program can be sorted for English learners (EL) according to the New General Service List (NGSL). The words on the NGSL are the most important high-frequency words of the English language. There are 2800 words on the NGSL list and knowing these words will give EL students familiarity with more than 90% of most texts in English.

A teacher that uses a Word Sift of the Constitution can identify 28 words from the 2800 words of the NGSL (ex: may, enter, necessary, receive). These words are highlighted in bright blue in the illustration below:

Word Sift of the US Constitution that identifies words on the NGSL for EL students

In addition to targeting language by discipline or by academic word list, another Word Sift feature is an embedded Visual Thesaurus® with a limited image-search feature. The Word Sift site explains that a “Visual Thesaurus word web” is displayed when the cursor hovers over a highlighted word in the word cloud.  For example, a screenshot of the Visual Thesaurus illustration of the word “UNITED ” is below (NOTE: visualization of selected word is interactive only on the Word Sift site):

The word “united” visualized as a thesaurus word web (or daisy)

This Visual Thesaurus feature can quickly show different meanings of the same word as well as antonyms.

Teachers may also want to use Word Sift in a review of the letter that George Washington wrote as he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. His  Letter from George Washington to the Confederation Congress, accompanying the Constitution, September 17, 1787, expresses his support of the document. In the letter, he reflects on the compromises that were made in creating the Constitution, and his sentiments could be used in discussing current Constitutional issues as a WWGD? (What Would George Do?). He writes:

“It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be preserved; and, on the present occasion, the difficulty was increased by a difference among the several States as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests…”

Difficulty? Surrendered? Differences? Interests? The language of Washington’s letter can remind students of how the US Constitution has been used to address the divisive problems of the past and consider how the document guides the controversies of the present.

Using the program Word Sift to familiarize students with the vocabulary of the Constitution-or any other primary source document- can better prepare students for reading and exploring the text independently. The creators of Word Sift note:

We would be happy if you think of it playfully – as a toy in a linguistic playground that is available to instantly capture and display the vocabulary structure of texts, and to help create an opportunity to talk and explore the richness and wonders of language!

Continue Reading…

When students return to school in August, there will be more than one teacher who assigns the worn question, “What I did during my summer vacation.”

While most students do want to share what they did, the results can be mixed; not all summer vacations are alike. Plus, how does a student respond to such a broad topic?

Instead, a teacher could use art as a prompt to get students to write about a vacation. The illustration on the cover for The New Yorker, (August 6 & 8, 2018) by Tom Gauld is the most recent take on one summer’s day.

Tom Gauld’s “On The Beach” cover illustration August 6 & 13, 2018, New Yorker Magazine.

The four panels are stacked to allow the viewers to compare the actions of a crowd of one-dimensional figures. The first has them coming to the beach. The second has the figures lounging on the sand. The third has the figures swimming in the water, and the fourth shows them leaving to return home. The active figures in the first three panels are drawn as more subdued in the last panel, implying that the figures are tired after a day of fun in the sun.

In an interview by Françoise Mouly July 30, 2018, Gauld explains that his inspiration for the cover illustration was a 1940 photograph by Weegee of beachgoers on Coney Island.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Coney Island Beach” by Weegee, gelatin silver print, 20.6 x 25.4 cm (8 1/8 x 10 in.), 1940. Accession Number: 1987.1100.252. © Weegee / International Center of Photography.

The huge crowd, immortalized in one moment, illustrates the popularity of the beach, but there is no comparison photo of the same crowd later in the day.

The use of panels in Gauld’s magazine’s cover could be compared to another magazine cover, specifically the panels in an illustration by Norman Rockwell.  The illustration titled Coming and Going graced the 1947 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell also stacked his panels to juxtapose characters traveling to and from Bennington Lake.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Going and Coming, 1947. Oil on canvas, 16″ x 31 1/2″. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, August 30, 1947. Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, 1973.

In the illustration, Rockwell’s realistic and fleshy characters are active in the top panel. Two boys hang out of the car in anticipation in the first panel. Those same characters appear exhausted in the second panel inferring a day of physical and energetic activity.

Like Gauld, Rockwell also drew his inspiration from another piece of art. According to a page on the Norman Rockwell Museum website, George W. Wright’s painting of Going to and Returning from the Seashore served as the inspiration for Going and Coming.

Wright’s painting is a side by side comparison of a family on a train preparing for a day of fun by the sea. The alert and smiling children in the first panel are slumped and asleep in the next, with their collection of shells strewn below them. The parents behind them offer glazed stares.

Wright, George. Going to the Seashore and Return from the Seashore. 0126.2265. early 20th century. Tulsa: Gilcrease Museum, https://collections.gilcrease.org/object/01262265 (02/14/2017).

All of these works of art can be used to teach students to note how the details in a text contribute to the theme or central idea. Reading these paintings addresses a critical Common Core Literacy Standard:

 CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

For example, in summarizing the key supporting details, students may call attention to the dogs in both the Gauld and Rockwell illustrations. Both of the dogs are dynamic in the first panels, one at a full trot and the other enthusiastically enjoying the breeze by hanging out of a wood-paneled station wagon:

Gauld: dog coming to the beach

Rockwell: Dog coming to the beach

In contrast, both the dogs appear tired in the final panels, one with four feet on the ground and the other seated.

Going home

Going home

The covers and photo all can be used to generate talk about what is good about a day off in summer or a day spent in fun with family and friends. Students at every grade level can describe how the artist in each piece uses physical details in the “before” and “after” to create an emotional tone. These prompts show students how these details combine to represent one day, a snapshot of a summer vacation.

Instead of a tired written prompt to generate a student response, teachers could use these visual prompts. Student responses to summer vacation responses can be imitated or elaborated in a drawing as well. Such prompts are engaging and can be enjoyed by all students, whether the students can read or not.

With apologies to Shakespeare:

Shall we compare these to a summer’s day?
This art is lively with panels to interpret
The fun that shakes the characters displayed
A summer’s lease captured in these portraits.

All students should be familiar with our nation’s founding documents, but the 18th-century writing style of these primary sources can be a difficult read for many students. Take for example The Declaration of Independence. While Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece is only 1337 words, the content specific vocabulary (tyranny, usurpation) can be unfamiliar. One way to prepare students before or during reading is to use a free digital program called Word Sift which was designed to  “help teachers manage the demands of vocabulary and academic language in their text materials.”

The entire text of the Declaration of Independence can be pasted onto a page on WordSift.org in order to quickly identify selected words that are repeated in the text. These words can appear alphabetically or as a word cloud:

A WordSift.org word cloud of the Declaration of Independence (see above) visualizes how frequently Thomas Jefferson repeated words to emphasize or clarify an idea. While he used the word “people” ten times, the Word Sift program contextualized “people” as “person”, which clearly amplifies the focus on individual rights   The next most frequent words highlighted words, “right” (ten times), “law” (nine times) and “power” (eight times), are part of the legal claim for the American colonies to separate from England.  Teachers can prepare students for reading the Declaration of Independence by reviewing the vocabulary in advance and by showing the connection between a message and repeated language.

While word cloud programs are common on the Internet, theWordSift.org program offers a feature to identify and sort different lists of words according to academic discipline (math, science, ELA, and social studies). In addition, the words from any document can be sorted for English learners according to the New General Service List (NGSL). The words on the NGSL are most important high-frequency words of the English language, and knowing the 2800 words on the NGSL list will give more than 90% coverage for learners trying to read general texts of English.

A word sift of the Declaration of Independence identifies 57 words from the 2800 words of the NGSL (ex: injury, declare, purpose, circumstance). These words are highlighted in blue in the illustration below:

 

For all learners, anotherWordSift.org feature is an embedded Visual Thesaurus® with a limited image-search feature. TheWordSift.org site explains that the “most frequent word in the text is displayed under the Visual Thesaurus word web.” For example, a screenshot of the Visual Thesaurus illustration of the word “right” is below (NOTE: visualization of selected word is interactive only on the WordSift.org site):

The Visual Thesaurus can quickly show different meanings of the same word. The program also provides relevant examples from the selected text.

Once the students are introduced to the language of the Declaration, they could review the similarities between Jefferson’s structure and the five-paragraph essay. Most students are already familiar with this structure.

The introduction of the Declaration of Independence is 71 words, a paragraph of only one sentence, which addresses the audience (King George, colonists) and presents his purpose in a thesis of separation:

“… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”


The second section or Preamble is 272 words. This first body paragraph details Jefferson’s central claim about equal rights:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The third section indicts King George III in a paragraph that lists the (27) complaints against the monarch. This extended list begins:

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The fourth section is a one paragraph accusation against the British people who did not respond to petitions for help from their American countrymen:

“Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren.”

The 159-word conclusion, the fifth section, restates the thesis: “…That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” and details the next steps (answering the “so what?”):

“…and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”

As students review the organization of the Declaration of Independence, they can also consider the complexity of the sentence construction. There are nine colons, eight semicolons, and 98 commas, roughly one for every 13 words, that force the reader to stop and pause, to consider Jefferson’s lists and supporting details.

Using the program WordSift.org to introduce the vocabulary of any primary source document prepares students for reading and exploring the text independently.  The creators of WordSift.org note:

We would be happy if you think of it playfully – as a toy in a linguistic playground that is available to instantly capture and display the vocabulary structure of texts, and to help create an opportunity to talk and explore the richness and wonders of language!

WordSift.org allows teachers to target instruction so that students understand 18th-century documents like the Declaration of Independence. This 21st-century tool helps students to explore “the richness and wonders of language” of our Founding Fathers in the document that made them citizens of the United States of America.

Continue Reading…

Binge-watching became possible in 2013 when Netflix and other television streaming services began to release all episodes of a show simultaneously.

Binge reading, however, has been around for over 100 years. Kids have been hooked on the episodes in series books since the late 19th century with the release of the Bobbsey Twins (1904).

Binge watching a television series means sitting through five episodes or more within seven days of starting the series. In binge-watching, viewers grow increasingly familiar with the characters. They claim to enjoy the slow character development, noting the changes that mark a character’s complexity, that builds with each plot twist.

Binge reading a book series may take longer. For example, the first set of Nancy Drew books (56 total) were released between 1930 and 1979.  Binge reading the original Goosebumps series (1992 to 1997) would mean reading 62 books.

Binge reading from series to series can take a student from their first days of primary grade favorites Frog and Toad to The Clique in high school.

As students learn to binge read in the early grades, they can benefit from meeting characters that are static and predictable.

  • Pinkalicious will always want the color pink;
  • Peter Hatcher will always be frustrated by the antics of his younger brother Fudge;
  • Harold, the dog, will remain convinced that the bunny rabbit (Bunnicula) is actually a vampire.
  • Pippi Longstocking will always be adventurous, unpredictable, and able to lift her horse one-handed.

Being familiar with a character also allows younger students the opportunity to make predictions. They can anticipate how the character they have come to know will interact with plot and setting. This reading practice can improve their overall accuracy and fluency.

As they get older, students can binge on other book series that deal with mature subject matter in the themes of isolation, prejudice, love, or death. They may prefer characters who are tested in perilous situations such as Katniss (The Hunger Games Trilogy); Bella (Twilight Trilogy); or Thomas (The Maze Runner).

Students may even choose to binge read a series that (literally) follows a character as he or she grows up. The best example of a series with such character development and plot twists is J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series. Readers who are initially attracted to the fantasy of a parallel wizard world can develop a relationship with Harry, reading about the successively dark problems he faces in the hope that good will triumph over evil.

There are series books for every age group, and there is evidence that students should be encouraged to binge read a series for fun if they choose.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compared the reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) using survey information that students volunteered about their reading habits.

The 2015 survey included the following questions about the frequency of reading for fun:

  • About how many books are there in your home?
  • How often do you talk with your friends or family about something you have read?
  • Reading is one of my favorite activities (with response options: this is not like me, this is a little like me, and this is a lot like me)

This data shows that the more frequently that students read, the higher their NAEP scores were. This data confirmed there is a link between vocabulary and reading achievement in all age groups, where the students with the highest average vocabulary scores were also in the top 75th percentile of reading comprehension. By contrast, students with the lowest vocabulary scores were those at or below the 25th percentile in reading comprehension.

These recent findings by NAEP also confirmed earlier research in vocabulary acquisition, that determined students who read widely learned more words and word meanings. (Armbruster, Lehr & Osborn, 2001; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Reutzel et al., 2012).

One undisputed seminal study (Anderson & Nagy, 1992) estimated that children learn an average of 4,000 to 12,000 new words per year as a result of book reading, Encouraging encouraging students to read independently, to read for fun, promotes vocabulary growth without direct instruction.

There are critics who fear that series books are not enough to improve reading. They have expressed reservations that the series books lack depth or the literary qualities that are found in other hallowed texts from the canon.

But reading for fun does not need to be literary. An objective measure based on vocabulary and sentence complexity, the Lexile measure, does show some surprising differences and similarities that can be made when comparing “classic” literary works and book series:

  • SERIES: LEGO Ninjago Chapter Book Series 550L-710 Lexile
  • CANON: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men 660Lexile
  • SERIES: Veronica Roth’s  Divergent700Lexile
  • SERIES: Suzanne Powers’ The Hunger Games 810Lexile
  • SERIES: The Magic Tree House Fact Finder 880Lexile
  • CANON: Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried 880Lexile
  • CANON: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 890Lexile 
  • SERIES: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket1000 – 1370Lexile
  • CANON: F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby 1010Lexile
  • SERIES: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet 1020Lexile

To be clear, the series books listed above are not equal in literary quality to the literature they are compared to from the canon. But, the practice students can have with series books that are objectively similar in vocabulary and sentence complexity can help them to get enough reading practice to drive substantial growth. Series books are what prepare students for the canon.

So go ahead and encourage students who choose to binge read a series.

It’s good for reading practice…and like the streaming services…it’s commercial free!

In a previous post, I questioned a question:

“How did [the character] change? What caused this change?”

This question is part of an assessment in Teacher College Reading Units of Study in Grade 3. But many of the elementary texts that students can read independently at that grade level do not contain a character change at all. Why ask this question as an assessment if the ELA Common Core State Standards do not address character change until grade 6?

By definition, change denotes a making or becoming distinctly different and implies a radical transmutation of character. In literary terms, those characters that do change are called dynamic characters.

A dynamic character undergoes substantial internal changes as a result of one or more plot developments. The dynamic character’s change can be extreme or subtle, as long as his or her development is important to the book’s plot or themes.

Of course, the language in this literary definition of a dynamic character is too high for elementary students K-3. There are also few characters that students encounter in reading grade level texts with “substantial” internal changes, subtle or otherwise.

But what many elementary texts, especially picture books, do show are characters that learn. The novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) has commented on creating characters that “increase in wisdom”:

“There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters.” 

Readers of his novel A Clockwork Orange would credit Burgess as a master in crafting a character (Alex) who undergoes a moral transformation.  But his suggestion that a character can have “an increase in wisdom” is a good explanation of what younger students should look for in the elementary texts they can read.

For example, there is an increase in wisdom seen in Alexander in Alexander and the TerribleHorrible, No Good, Very Bad Day who concludes that there are just bad days…even in Australia. Many picture books serve as examples where the chief character experiences an increase in wisdom:

In some stories, this increase in wisdom is made obvious by a shift in a character’s feelings or opinion. This may seem to be a matter of semantics, whether a change in feelings or opinion is the same as an increase in wisdom. For example, the character “Sam-I- am” character reverses his deeply held opinion after (finally) tasting Green Eggs and Ham. But is he wiser? One could argue that his change in opinion about a food choice is just a change in opinion, not an internal change in his character.  (Of course, the same could be said for Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Her character does not change, but her opinion of Mr. Darcy is far more favorable after she visits Pemberley!)

A direct question about what lesson was learned will also prevent students from confusing a physical change in a character with a character change.  For example, when Camilla’s love of lima beans in A Bad Case of Stripes is revealed as the cause of her colorful outward appearance, she (eventually) gains the wisdom to care less about what others think. In another physical change, the donkey Sylvester’s transformation into a rock in  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble could be read as a commentary on fate or chance because, as a rock or not, he remains Sylvester who loves his family. Students should understand that the physical changes that some characters undergo are not character changes.

There are some examples at the elementary level where the moral transformation is inferred, simplified, without “substantial internal” deliberations. The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, convert from being dangerous highwaymen to generous stepfathers when the little girl Tiffany asks what will they do with their ill-gotten gains. On one page, they are bad, and on the next page, they are good. The radical change in their thinking is inferred, and the evidence of their moral transformation is in their actions, adopting unwanted children.

As students move from picture books, chapter books, and series books, they will encounter other examples of moral transformation of a character with the kind of evidence that shows “substantial internal” deliberation that Burgess referenced. Jerry Spinelli’s Crash and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy each feature a protagonist who undergoes a moral change in character.

But it also should also be noted that in the literary canon, not every novel features characters who undergo moral transformative change. Which characters really experience this kind of change in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or Catcher in the Rye? 

Ultimately, asking students “How did [the character] change? What caused this change?” in the elementary grades without laying the literary groundwork can muddy their understanding when they tackle more complex texts. Asking students a question about an increase in wisdom or “what the character learns” instead can be a better way to begin to build their understanding of what character change is, or isn’t, in the texts they can read independently not only in Grades K-3 but in Grade 4 and Grade 5 as well.  Students should be encouraged to look for a shift in a character’s feelings or opinion as evidence for an increase in wisdom. They can learn to make inferences about a character’s increase in wisdom, such as what Duncan learns about creativity in The Day the Crayons Quit.

Then, by Grade 6, they will be prepared to respond to an assessment question that is based on the CCSS standard “…describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution. (RL.6.3)”

There is, however, a bonus to discussing the shifts in a character’s feelings with K-3 elementary texts that is not always available in the upper grades. Students in elementary grades can use the illustrations in a text as evidence to support information on the differences a character may feel.  And what better evidence is there for showing all the different shifts in a character’s feelings than through the expressive illustrations of Mo Willems’ Pigeon?

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Is there evidence for a change in the Pigeon’s feelings? Certainly. But, an increase in Pigeon’s wisdom? Well, maybe.

One of the first literary elements that students understand as they begin to read is character.  They learn that a character is a person, animal, being, or thing moving the story along a plot line. Many of the characters in books they can read independently have recognizable traits:

  • The Pigeon in Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is always stubborn and demanding;
  • Horrible Harry of the Horrible Harry Series is always rebellious.
  • Jack Smith of The Magic Treehouse Series is always smart and courageous.
  • Judy Moody of the Judy Moody Series is always determined and…well, moody.

The characters in series books at these elementary grade levels (K-3) are predictable. Students are able to practice reading because they are familiar with characters such as Ramona, Dog Man, Nate the Great, Captain Underpants, Amelia Bedelia, and Frog and Toad.

These characters’ thoughts and feelings may shift when they react to different problems or conflicts. But these characters do not change. They are static; they are not complex characters.

The dominance of static characters in the elementary grades can be an issue when students are faced with an assessment question:

“How did [the character] change? What caused this change?”

This particular question comes from the Teacher’s College Grade 3 Reading Units of Study, but other literacy programs also ask about character change.

It is important to understand that the word “change” is synonymous with a radical, transformative process. The etymology of the word change (c.1300) is “to undergo alteration, become different.” The Collins dictionary defines change as:

1. to put or take (a thing) in place of something else; substitute for, replace with, or transfer to another of a similar kind
2.  to give and receive reciprocally; exchange; switch
3. a. to cause to become different; alter; transform; convert 
    b. to undergo a variation of

The kind of change in character that matches this transformative meaning is difficult to find at the lower reading levels. A well-crafted character who “converts” or “alters” in a low-level text is unusual for any combination of reasons including choices in brevity, vocabulary, and text structure.

For most students who are reading at or below a Grade 3 reading level, there are few complex texts that they can independently read to determine a character change. Instead, the characters in the book series that are favored by students such as  Geronimo StiltonThe Boxcar Children, or Ivy and Bean, are intentionally crafted by authors so the characters remain the same while the plot or the settings change.

There are exceptions, of course. The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s classic story (not film) The Grinch that Stole Christmas undergoes a transformational character change, but at the Lexile 731/level P,  the book is most often used in the classroom as a read-aloud. There are few mentor texts like the Grinch that can give students the opportunity to practice for an assessment on character change.

The limited number of stories with complex characters at the lower grade levels means that students do not have enough independent practice on their own with this concept. The leap from the predictable characters in a series (Babymouse, Henry& Mudge, Little House on the Prairie) to the kind of complex character change that is found in Maddie in Eleanor Estes The Hundred Dresses or in Jonas in Lois Lowrey’s The Giver can be a high bar for many elementary or even intermediate readers.

So, why ask students at the lower elementary levels about character change at all? The phrase “character change” does not appear in the ELA Common Core State Standards (CCSS) until Grade 6 when students should:

“…describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution. (RL.6.3)”

Instead, the CCSS states students in grades 3-5 should be able to:

  • describe characters (traits, motivations, or feelings) and “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events” (RL.3.3 )
  • describe character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text ( a character’s thoughts, words, or actions (RL.4.3)
  • compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (RL.5.3)

Maybe the intent of asking students at the lower elementary levels about character change is to prepare students for the complex texts they will read in the upper grades. If this is the case, there should be some consideration of what resources could be used to support this kind of character study, especially as most books in elementary reading libraries feature characters that are purposefully crafted to be static. The characters are designed to be familiar to allow students to practice fluency and accuracy. Asking students to find evidence to show a character change when there is no change is an inauthentic exercise.

There is also a danger in assessing a student’s understanding of character change too soon in their literary lives. Teachers also should be careful not to elevate what is a shift in a character’s attitude to be equal to a  change in character. Guiding elementary students to answer “character change” by using evidence that shows how a character may think or feel differently can muddy a later understanding of what character change really means.

Students should not have to answer assessment questions that ask for evidence of character change where there is none. Instead, at the lower grade levels, students should be ready to answer assessment questions that draw attention to the differences in a character’s attitude, thoughts or feelings:

  • “How did the character react to the problem?”
  • “What caused the character’s reaction?”
  • “What are the character’s thoughts and feelings now?”
  • “Does this character have a different attitude?”

Most of the books in elementary school libraries can support these kinds of questions, which are closely aligned to the ELA CCSS for grades K-5. Finding the evidence that shows a difference in a character’s attitude, thoughts, or feelings is a task that elementary students can do in both mentor texts and in their leveled reading.

Identifying a character’s shift in attitude can also help students better understand the theme or message of the book, for example:

“Yes, this is where I want to be! The Circus is the place for me.” –Put Me in the Zoo. 

“Pete, you don’t need magic sunglasses to see things in a new way! Just remember to see the good in everyday!” Pete the Cat and the Magic Sunglasses

“And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”-The Story of Ferdinand

Of course, there are those iconic characters who have been designed to be so static that a question about a difference in attitude, thoughts or feelings is pointless. Just ask Max of Where the Wild Things Are.  He is still in his wolf suit when he returns home “where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.” Continue Reading…