Archives For Education

At first glance, Teachers Pay Teachers, a monetized lesson plan site, appears to be a win-win offering. There are lesson plans and educational materials marketed by vendors (teachers) who make a small profit on the sale.

The first win is for the teachers selling the plans. Many teachers could use extra income from selling their lesson plans on monetized sites. Perhaps that extra income may even be put back into the classroom in the form of resources for students.

The other win might be in the time “saved.” With a few clicks, a hit on the Paypal or credit card, there can be a complete set of prepared materials delivered to a teacher’s inbox.

From this perspective, a monetized lesson plan site could be compared to a fast food restaurant, a solution for teachers who did not have the time to prepare lessons. And just as there are different kinds of fast food restaurants, there are menus of grade level prepared lessons in multiple content areas that can be fed to students at minimal cost.

These purchases offer immediate gratification.  A solution with little to no effort. No mess to clean up.  Problem solved. ..(and fries are delicious!)

 

But too much fast food is bad for you. That is a fact.
Fast foods are high in calories, fat, salt, and sugar.  Fast food is linked to health risks (Type 2 diabetes, heart disease). Fast food is associated with weight gain and obesity.

Curricula Weight Gain

A similar weight gain is happening in classrooms.

If a teacher feels there is not enough time to prepare lessons or materials, the option of a complete take-out lesson can be appealing…and that’s how these materials are marketed:

  • “…requires NO PREP!”
  • “A lot of time and effort went into this product!”
  • “Exhausted by prep?”
  • “Tired of spending nights and weekends reinventing the curriculum wheel?”

Creating good lessons takes time, and the promise of reduced planning time is enticing. Emergencies happen. Substitute teachers need direction. The computer lab is not available. For realistic reasons, an occasional stop into the lesson take-out market is tempting. Such a purchase can have a mental health side effect in reducing teacher stress.

But for those school districts that already provide grade-level curricula or a scripted program to teachers, those materials purchased on monetized websites have the potential to increase the full helpings in a curriculum by adding more…bell-ringers, task cards, handouts, packets and worksheets, worksheets, worksheets. Each stop in the lesson take-out lane can contribute to a glut of activities.

Ironically, the grade level curriculum is not the only thing getting fat from these extra helpings. Adding materials increases a teacher’s workload: finding, downloading, copying, preparing, and distributing. That pile of handouts will result in a pile of student work to correct and grade. Even when teachers use these activities as a timesaver, they might require more time to correct.

Then there are the other questions: Should any purchased material carry the same weight in assessment as the materials that a school district provides in a curriculum? Are these materials providing valuable data on student performance that can inform instruction? Are materials differentiated for student ability? OR are they busy work, empty calories collecting in unit binders?

Sadly, for under-resourced schools with few materials, the stuff on a monetized website might be the curriculum.

“Why remake the wheel?”

Teachers have always shared materials. But the reality is that the person doing the lesson planning is the person who understands how the lesson will work in the classroom in meeting the needs of the students. One purchased lesson plan may not fit all student needs.

In addition, there is also no oversight or quality control of the materials online. While a lesson plan shared with the teacher next door may carry credibility, the user reviews on a website from buyers can be suspect. There is no quality control or regulation on the seller’s platform.

Plagiarism and Knock-offs

Regulation might stop the level of plagiarism on monetized websites that border on copyright infringement. For example, the TPT platform claims:

“Teachers Pay Teachers is an online marketplace where teachers buy and sell original educational materials.”

Some of what is for sale, however, is not original.

For example, there are links to teachers offering materials that are “based” on the materials in the reading or writing kits from Heinemann’s Units of Study. These kits were developed by Lucy Calkins and other educators. Heinemann’s grade level workbooks and unit sessions (not lessons) explain the purpose of reading and writing workshops in narrative form. Unit guides in each kit detail the assessments, rubrics, and learning progressions. Teachers who read the materials and use the resources provided in the kit should have little need for additional worksheets, slides, or packets.

But there are vendors who offer reduced versions of this material.  According to one vendor, “because reading through the narrative from Lucy Calkins in each session can be time-consuming” or from another vendor “you know it can be difficult to grasp everything to teach from the manual.” Given the popularity of academic shortcuts such as Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, or Schmoop, perhaps this kind of offering was inevitable. Nevermind that reading the narrative from the books in the Heinemann kits are what best prepares the teacher to implement the sessions, even if it is hard to grasp.

Then there is the language used to market for these products. One such promotional tag line: “Will have you teaching the Lucy Calkins Curriculum with sniper precision and silky smoothness.” Sniper precision?  Silky smoothness?  One wonders if vendors understand that the materials are used to improve reading and writing skills, not for something more ominous.

Finally, there are expanded versions of the Units of Study with supplemental materials. Some vendors promote “entire years worth of powerpoint slides” and “extra grammar lessons for writing workshop” neither of which were included by the original designers, probably for a reason. Expansion kits offer extra vocabulary cards, journal prompts, interactive notebooks, and, yes, more worksheets.

The sheer number of these Units of Study knock-offs (2,677 results under a “Lucy Calkin” search on TPT) represent thousands of links to unvetted materials. As a result, school districts that have approved and adopted the Lucy Calkins Units of Study might now have a modified  “lite version” or the “fattened version” of the original kits taught in their classrooms.

Heinemann takes notice

Most recently (12/10/18), Heinemann has taken notice.  Duplicating their published materials is plagiarism, a practice that should be shunned by any academic enterprise. There is a statement on the publisher’s blog:

“Lifting text, illustrations, and/or charts directly from a published author’s work can be considered intellectual property infringement, as can some adaptations….Although the seller simply intends to offer fellow teachers something ready-made to save time, the material is sometimes downloaded and used by teachers who do not have the original material and will therefore lose sight of the related purpose, intention, and research basis.”

Ironically, there are even Units of Study knockoffs that  claim “All rights reserved by the author” including one bold vendor whose repackaged Units of Study bears the warning:

“This product may not be distributed or displayed digitally for public view. Failure to comply is a copyright infringement and a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).”

Unfortunately, Heinemann’s Units of Study are not the only copyrighted materials that have been reproduced or repackaged for resale. Searches for other licensed literacy programs on the TPT website yield the following:

  • Wordly Wise (4,018 results)
  • Words Their Way172,010 results)
  • Sadlier Vocabulary (489 results)
  • Handwriting Without Tears (872 results)
  • Fundations (2,669 results)
  • Patterns of Power (2,672 results )

There may be some original material in those numbers, but there are many knock-offs. Some of these copied materials are as expensive as the licensed originals!

The lesson plan marketplaces were created to support a teacher exchange, putting original ideas out for a small fee.  There are vendors who are abiding by this exchange. Many sellers offer creative materials that can enhance a station, center, or activity; bulletin boards have never looked better! Some of these items for sale might spark new ideas that can help novice and veteran teachers alike.  But there are also pages and pages of mediocre material that can pack on the pounds and clog the arteries of curricula and ultimately block the delivery of the vetted materials.

Like the tempting commercials of sizzling hamburgers, cheesy stuffed burritos, or frosty mugs of bubbling colas that can be had in minutes, the monetized lesson plan site offers the consumer the promise of a quick, easy serving, especially when the time is limited. But a steady diet of fast food calories is not healthy for the body or for the unit binder. Before investing, teachers should decide if these lessons and materials are just packing on the pounds of busy work.  Will these timesavers demand additional attention or correcting? Do they serve the needs of the students?

While there are resources on monetized websites that may make lesson planning easier, there is no guarantee that these resources make lessons better. And while fries may be delicious, if they are consumed regularly over time, they are a health risk.

Know your audience!

This is what marketers and educators have in common, especially as they both are focused on Generation Z (Gen Z) students, children born 1997-to the present. The one defining characteristic of Gen Z? These students (K-12)  have never known a world without the internet or cell phones (mostly smartphones). For them, Google and Wi-Fi have always existed. They are wired, and their connection to a continuous flow of information means that traditional approaches to teaching information must change.

kids-buying-a-carEducators are in the business of developing skills in speaking, listening, reading, writing, and mathematics to Generation Z students, from pre-school to post high school. Educators are also traditional, often teaching the way they were taught. In targeting the needs of Gen Z students, they need to figure out which instructional strategies will be successful for this audience.

Advertisers target Generation Z  students with messages of empowerment to develop brand loyalty on behalf of clients, starting with the youngest consumers. They are continuously testing marketing strategies to see what works with children who are not as brand conscious as the Millenials before them.

As evidence, consider the TV commercials suggesting that children are capable of “making the choice” in the purchase of the family car:

  • Honda Ad: A young daughter knows exactly what her parents want. After she lists off her requirements, the salesperson suggests to her the Honda CR-V.
  • Hyundai: A salesman offers the Elantra and Sonata as great options, but dad has to check in with his daughter.  She says “we’ll take both” with a smile.

The family car is not the only traditionally adult purchase receiving this attention:

  • A little girl promotes an Internet subscription service by finishing all of the salesman’s sentences explaining pricing and savings. After he admits she’s good, she moonwalks away stating, “I’m just getting started,”
  • A father distressed about a dent in his front bumper is comforted by his young daughter who says “Don’t worry, you have ___” and names an insurance company.

And the economic data shows that adults are listening to their Generation Z children. Barclays Bank reports,

In the US, Gen Z currently have $200 billion in direct buying power but $1 trillion in indirect spending power by influencing household spending.”

Gen Z has a sense of “self”

Four years ago (2015), the children of Gen Z spent between six and nine hours a day absorbing media (survey Common Sense Media). Most of this time was spent on mobile devices so they could access social media or other digital experiences.  A series of infographics offered by Vision Critical, a Customer intelligence (CI) firm, explain Gen Z as “the always on” generation who are not passive consumers. They help create and shape content because of their familiarity with technology.

Gen Z students are empowered, connected, empathetic self-starters that want to stand out and make a difference in the world.

The same conclusions were reached in a 2015 study offered in the Information Systems Education Journal (ISEDJ) titled Reaching and Retaining the Next Generation: Adapting to the Expectations of Gen Z in the Classroom. Gen Z has been raised with technology at an everyday level unlike that of any prior generation. They have a strong sense of “self” and are capable of being self-aware, self-learners, self-reliant and entrepreneurial (self-sufficient).

Empowered Students

Those school-aged children who watch orchestrated situations in TV  car commercials where their peers negotiate as adults receive a message of empowerment. Children are in charge; children make the choice.

This form of empowerment has an impact on the classroom where past choices have been up to the teacher, particularly at the middle and secondary levels. For example,  teachers may reach for novels which have worked with Generation X (students born 1966-1976) and Generation Y (students born 1977-1997). Teachers may justify their choice of a whole-class read by saying, “My students learn so much when we read _____ as a whole class” or “They need to read this kind of complex text to be ready for (state test, college).”

But this is a new generation of students, and what has worked in the past may not work today.

Teachers should review the conclusions of a 2017 report from IBM titled Uniquely Generation Z: What brands should know about today’s youngest consumers. The report notes that “Generation Z, the latest cohort of shoppers, wields enormous economic power and is key to consumer products and retail companies’ success.”

Among IBM’s recommendations to marketing agencies are six that apply to the classroom:

“Let Gen Zers shape their own experiences.

Don’t make them wait.

Foster a safe [online] environment built on trust.

Give Gen Zers control.

Value their opinions and let them help.

Don’t dictate to or imposed on them.”

Teaching Generation Z

In selecting instructional strategies, teachers may want to review the IBM recommendations for the Gen Z audience in their classroom. Students want to shape their own educational experiences. They do not want to wait to use their skills. They want to be trusted. They want control and their opinions valued. And, they do not want to be dictated to…or lectured at.

That means student choice in the materials or books they want to study, choice in the assignments they complete, and choice in peer collaboration.

Strategies that let Gen Z student determine their educational experiences are those that:

  • provide opportunities for student inquiry;
  • brainstorm what they want to know about a topic;
  • use inquiry to teach research and presentation skills;
  • use feedback quizzes or exit slips or polls to gather student opinions;
  • allow for project choice;
  • offer flexible seating;
  • commit to choice in reading;
  • allocate time to make connections to topics;
  • require less teacher talk;
  • create more hands-on centers, stations, or activities;
  • include self-grading;
  • build in self-reflection. 

Discovering what works with Gen Z- the empowered self-aware entrepreneurs- will take some adjustment for both students and teachers alike. Figuring out the balance in providing what students want and what students need will take some experimenting…and there will be failures. Moreover, there is also an ominous tone in a 2018 analysis by the Pew Research Center that noted:

“Recent research has shown dramatic shifts in youth behaviors, attitudes and lifestyles – both positive and concerning – for those who came of age in this era.”

Positive? Gen Z students are self-reliant.

Concerning? Gen Z students are stressed. According to the American Psychology Association, 91% of Gen Z students feel stress.

Of course, the same could be said for their teachers.
Teaching Generation Z is going to cause stress.

#WhyIWrite

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What better way to start the National Day of Writing than by writing a blog post while traveling on a train to a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project 95th Saturday Reunion in NYC?
In a few hours, the writer Kate DiCamillo will give the morning keynote address titled “Home Again- Finding Our Way Through Stories.” I have written about Kate before, and I have admired her ability to combine unusual elements in a story, for example, a squirrel, a vacuum, and poetry in her Newbery winning children’s book Flora and Ulysses.
In triangulating three such different elements, DiCamillo did have to find a way through her story exactly the way the preposition through is defined:

“moving in one side and going out the other side of”

Reading through a story means moving into one side of the story -its setting, conflict, and character’s point-of-view, and going out the other see of the story arc and resolution of conflict. Reading “through” a story is enjoyable.
Getting “through” a story is not as pleasurable.
Yet, I often hear the phrase, “have to get through” as if through means having to endure or having to struggle or trudge.
I have been guilty in the past of stating how I have to get “through” a literature unit, feeling like I am dragging students “through” a novel, a test of their endurance and of mine. Now, when I hear teachers expressing a desire to get “through” a unit, I cringe.

I am certain no author intended that experience for the reader.

What an author wants is what is expressed by readers who are engaging in The Great American Read.
I have been following The Great American Read, an 18-part-series on PBS that features 100 of the best-loved novels read in America as rated in a national survey (see checklist).
These novels represent many different genres and are not limited to novels written by American (a point of contention for the misnomer “America’s novel”)
This is a book popularity contest, and anyone can vote daily on their choice of book. The television episodes feature interviews with readers including some celebrities or literary critics.
(Full disclosure: I vote regularly for E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.)
What I am struck by, is the number of people who begin to discuss a favorite book by saying, “I must have read this book…” and then proceed to give a number: a dozen times, 25 times, even 100 times.
These readers are not trying to “get through” a novel;. They are wallowing, lingering, and finding something new in their rereads. Their “through” experience is one worth repeating.
Of course, this means that those teachers who discourage students from rereading a book should take note and reconsider. In The Great American Read, the practice of rereading a favorite novel is celebrated.
The Great American Read concludes this coming week (10/23/18) when the number one book will be announced. Selecting a “winner” by popular acclaim will certainly disappoint some viewers who will have, as Kate’s speech promises, found their way through a story.
Which means (as I approach NYC) that I have also triangulated on this National Day of Writing: the preposition “through,” The Great American Read, and Kate DiCamillo.
That is the answer to the question in the hashtag #whyIwrite ?
I write to make connections.
Happy National Day of Writing, 2018!

 

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!

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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.

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