Archives For 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…

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…

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…

I was talking to the author Penny Kittle for several hours the other night…in my head.

Admittedly, it was a bit one-sided…she and her co-author, Kelly Gallagher were doing most of the talking. I was listening, agreeing with head nods and an occasional audible “yes” as I flipped through the pages of their recently published book 180 Days. Their new book features cross-collaborations in classrooms using book clubs and independent reading. Our conversation was one of a series that I have been having with them individually for years, beginning with Write Beside Them (Kittle), Readicide (Gallagher), through Book Love (Kittle, again), and now with 180 Days.

I have had practice in conversing with authors since I first learned to read. My leisurely discussions with Louisa May Alcott or Madeline L’Engle gave rise to exchanges, arguments, or small talk with other kinds of writers: poets, historians, journalists, biographers, researchers.

I still return to engage in a chat with Mary Shelley or to mutter a sidebar to Shakespeare. But neither of them was exiting the ladies room last Saturday at The Early Literacy Conference ….and Penny Kittle was.

Which explains why I began a conversation in media res.

“I think the daily schedules in the book are very concrete,” I commented to her, ” I know the teachers in my school appreciated seeing them.”

Penny seemed to understand. I am (hopefully? probably?) not the only educator who has greeted her in this fashion…but I didn’t stop there. In the minutes that followed, I blabbed on trying to provide a snapshot of how I was still reading and planned to use her book with other teachers.

I think I commented on teacher interest for independent reading. I remember something like “teacher buy-in.” I know I mentioned a video conference with a student on American Sniper (YouTube: What If I Haven’t Read the Book?) and heard “the movie came out later.”

The rest of the conversation is a blur, except that when it ended, I ran to my car to grab my copy of 180 Days. Finding her again, I thrust my copy for her signature; she obliged.

It is during reading when an author gets to play with your empathy neurons…how she turns a phrase, how he crafts an idea.  So meeting that author in real life is meeting someone who has shared your personal brain space.

The experience can be inspirational…OR substitute any of the following synonyms: affecting, animating, emboldening, exciting, galvanizing, heartening, impressing, motivating, provoking, spurring, stirring, swaying, touching.

AND.. awkward.

Let’s not even get started that during the conference there was an additional interaction with author/educator Bob Probst (Notice and Note, Disruptive Thinking both co-authored with Kylene Beers) who spoke about the power of a text to change a life.

Now, I do know several authors, and I am fortunate when I can spend time speaking with them or listening to them talk about their books or sharing topics outside their work.

But, to be honest, that first face-to-face experience with an author has the unfortunate effect of reducing one to fan-girl status, something generally associated with Beyonce.

The luncheon during the conference also offered time for a teacher-to-teacher tribute. Student teachers-to-be at Central Connecticut State University took time to recognize the real-life teachers who inspired them. Their personal, heartfelt recognitions were then followed by Kittle’s powerful keynote on how matching a kid with the right book can make a reader.

The only conclusion the audience could make in return is:

Educators own a brand of rock-star.

 

I have returned to reading 180 Days. I have picked up on the page where I had left off, and this time, the conversation in my head is one in which I am infinitely more poised and articulate. Penny and Kelly are setting off neurons as they explain their purposeful choices in their cross-country collaboration, and I am nodding (again) in agreement. It’s not awkward at all.

Style is that “identifiable quality that varies from author to author.” That seems a simple idea.

The wording in the Common Core Anchor Standard for style seems simple:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Teaching style, however, is not simple. Our high school students who spend hours creating their own style-selecting music stylings, stylizing phone cases, following YouTube fashion stylists-go blank when asked to assess or identify the style of a text.

One stumbling block could be in the selections of texts for examples. Style is often subtle or nuanced, which means that if style is described as the voice of the author, then some authors speak in whispers.

Until September 2016.

That’s when Bruce Springsteen used his authorial voice to tell his life story in his autobiography Born to Run.

His voice is not a whisper…His voice is LOUD!

His…voice…stutters…with…ellipses.

His voice is hyphen-heavy, word-binding; it is a tete-a-tete with the reader.

His voice lists, lists, lists, all of the emotions, locations, events, memories, friends, and objects he has collected over his career.

And he is direct; he knows why he wanted to be a songwriter:

“I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in. So I knew in 1972 that to do this I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before.”

 He writes well. He writes individually. He writes with style. This is 508 pages of The Boss talking to you, the reader.

While some of his language choices in the autobiography may limit a few examples for classroom use, most selections of this text could be used for analysis. There is also the opportunity to compare and contrast the autobiography with song lyrics. In both genres, Springsteen offers examples for practice to identify and to assess style through his word choice, his tone, and his syntax:

  • word choice: “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap.” (Born to Run lyrics)
  • tone (sad): “No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/No flowers no wedding dress.” (The River lyrics)
  • syntax: “Then . . . if you want to take it all the way out to the end of the night, a furious fire in the hole that just . . . don’t . . . quit . . . burning.” (Born to Run-Autobiography)

The evidence for an identifiable Springsteen style begins on page one of Born to Run, where the prose in the story of his life is mirrored in his earlier song lyrics:

 “I am alienating, alienated and socially homeless . . . I am seven years old” (1).

That line sounds suspiciously like the list in his song lyrics:

“I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man” (Rosalita).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with lists.

In his autobiography, Springsteen’s voice in reflects on his hometown:

 “Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. Let the service begin”(7).

This hyper-hyphenating in the autobiography is not very different from Springsteen’s lists of the same Jersey locations in the song lyrics for  Born to Run:

“Sprung from cages on Highway 9,
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected
And steppin’ out over the line.”

Conclusion:  Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with hyphenated word combinations.
Then, read on a few more pages and you become aware of Springsteen’s extensive use of CAPITAL LETTERS, such this reflection on Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show:

“Somewhere in between the mundane variety acts on a routine Sunday night in the year of our Lord 1956 . . . THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN TELEVISED!!” (39)

That same style choice is chosen for other musical force in his life, The Beatles:

The album cover, the greatest album cover of all time (tied with Highway 61 Revisited). All it said was Meet the Beatles. That was exactly what I wanted to do. Those four half-shadowed faces, rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore, and . . . THE HAIR . . . THE HAIR. What did it mean? It was a surprise, a shock. You couldn’t see them on the radio. It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of . . . THE HAIR” (50).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s prose in the autobiography is filled with CAPITAL LETTERS, a style choice he makes to emphasize the IMPORTANT MOMENTS of REALIZATION. His lyrics probably don’t need to be capitalized; he can sing those LOUD for emphasis.

Finally, in both song lyrics and in prose, Springsteen serves up multiple examples of motifs he uses to communicate ideas. In writing about his upbringing and religion:

“In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward” (17).

A similar idea is expressed in the lyrics to Land of Hope and Dreams.

“Dreams will not be thwarted.
This train…
Faith will be rewarded.”

Of course, if we are talking about faith, here is yet another take on faith that Springsteen placed into a rhyming couplet for the lyrics of  Thunder Road:

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night;
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right.

That tone…those blunt, coarse, tender words…the casual-just-you-and-me attitude….the style of the voice that sang 508 pages of his life into my head….I hold the lighter up and beg for an encore: BRUUUCCCE!

It’s not you.

It’s the text.

It’s moving on…to another grade level.

“I just don’t understand why….” you catch your breath, “it’s been the only book I liked …no, I loved… to teach.”  

You pause, ‘Why does it have to leave?”

After all, you and the book have been together for school years. You have bonded during the pre-teaching stage, the author bio, and the background vocabulary. You were always excited to share the best part of the story with students, and they were engaged by your passion. But, the relationship is coming to an end. The book is leaving for any one of the following reasons:

 

  •  curriculum revisions with different texts
  • a move to a different grade level
  • to make way for new materials
  • replacement copies are not available 

You will have to clean out the banks of questions carefully organized by chapter, or the files stuffed with activities to go with the text. Your long ago plans for the bulletin board will need to change.

You have been told, “It’s about teaching the skills, not the content.”  But that seems a cold appraisal of a text that is more than content to you. Whether the book could be Lois Lowry’s historical novel Number the Stars or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, you have seen (and felt) how these texts have generated powerful connections for you and for the students.

At this low moment, however, you might consider that this break-up could be a good thing.

Frankly, you know too much.  and there is the slight possibility that you have been teaching YOUR version of the text. After all, you have done all the research. You have all the materials. You have all the answers.

Even more reasons as to why it is time to move on.

It’s time to remember how you fell in love with the book. That sense of discovery in learning the characters, rereading their experiences, delighting in the words. And while the thought of starting over can be overwhelming, there can also be a twinge of anticipation….a chance for discovery.

It’s time.

It’s time to start new, and in starting new you can give your students the opportunity to let the students do the research. Let the students find the materials. Let the student provide the answers.

There are new texts just waiting to be discovered: Wolf Hollow, Fish in a Tree, The March Trilogy. Maybe there are other classic characters just waiting to be introduced: Stone Fox, Guy Montag, Ponyboy.

You will be able to guide your students’ inquiry on any text you have not taught because you already know how to develop a relationship with a book. You can guide students as they discover how an author can engage and sustain their interest.  You can offer a chance for discovery to your students, and for yourself as well.

You remember how you fell in love with a book.

Now, use your breakup to show your students how to fall in love with a book on their own.

My school district recently purchased a class set of the March Trilogy, the graphic novel memoir that recounts the experiences of Congressman John Lewis (5th District, Georgia) in America’s struggle for civil rights including the marches from Selma to Montgomery. The comic book-style illustrations are engaging and some may mistake the memoir as something for children. Lewis’s experiences in the 1950-60s, however, were marked by violence, so the memoir is recommended for more mature audiences (grades 8-12).

The publisher, Top Shelf Productions, prepares audiences about the violence and language in the memoir by stating:

“…in its accurate depiction of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, March contains several instances of racist language and other potentially offensive epithets. As with any text used in schools that may contain sensitivities, Top Shelf urges you to preview the text carefully and, as needed, to alert parents and guardians in advance as to the type of language as well as the authentic learning objectives that it supports.”

The March Trilogy is the collaboration between Congressman Lewis, his Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and the comic book artist, Nate Powell. Their collaboration project began in 2008 after Congressman Lewis described the powerful impact a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on people like himself who were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. The comic book has been reissued by the original publisher, Fellowship of Reconciliation with a new editorIsrael Escamilla.

Cover of the comic book that inspired John Lewis’s “March”

The 1957 comic book is also available as a PDF by clicking on a link available on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans (CRMV) website. The About page on this site has the following purpose statement in bold:

 This website is created by Veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement (1951-1968). It is where we tell it like it was, the way we lived it, the way we saw it, the way we still see it.

Under this explanation is the blunt statement: “We ain’t neutral.”

The decision to publish the Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as a comic book in the late 1950s is a bit surprising.  At that time the genre of comic books in America had come under scrutiny. A psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, made public his criticisms that comic books promoted deviant behavior. That claim in 1954 led to the creation of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency along with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). That Authority drafted the self-censorship Comics Code that year, which required all comic books to go through a process of approval.

In 1958, the Friends of Reconciliation published the 16-page comic book as a challenge to CCA restrictions. An artist from the Al Capp Studios, creators of Li’l Abner, donated time to illustrate the book. Benton Resnick, a blacklisted writer, wrote the text. He concluded with a promotion for the “thousands of members throughout the world [who] attempt to practice the things that Jesus taught about overcoming evil with good.” The Friends of Reconciliation’s religious message passed the scrutiny of Senate Subcommittee.

The comic book also received Dr. King’s approval who called it “an excellent piece of work” that did a “marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement.”

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was distributed through churches, universities, social justice organizations and labor unions during the Civil Rights Movement. Now in reproduction, the comic book has been widely circulated to support international struggles for civil rights, including Egypt’s Tahrir’s Square.

Teachers can use this primary source comic book as a way to explain how nonviolent protests held throughout the South contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the first frames in the book holds a proclamation:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, 50,000 Negroes found a new way to work for freedom, without violence and without hating.”

Several frames later, there are illustrations showing Rosa Parks’s arrest when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. These events are narrated by a fictional character named “Jones”. His role is to introduce the reader to the 29-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, a preacher from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. King will become the charismatic leader who planned the bus boycotts in Montgomery.

In the comic book, several frames show how protesters rehearsed for confrontations during protests. King wanted protesters to practice the tenets of non-violence the same way that Mahatma Gandhi had used non-violence in liberating India from the British Empire.

The “Montgomery Method” that Dr. King promotes in the strip is based on religion; God is referenced as the motivating force.  An explanation of the different steps to follow the method of non-violence begins with the statement that God “says you are important. He needs you to change things.”

In the concluding pages, the comic book also has suggestions for activists that were used to guide those who worked for civil rights in the 1950s -1960s. Some of these suggestions are remarkably timely, and they could be used in class discussions:

Be sure you know the facts about the situation. Don’t act on the basis of rumors, or half-truths, find out;

Where you can, talk to the people concerned and try to explain how you feel and why you feel as you do. Don’t argue; just tell them your side and listen to others. Sometimes you may be surprised to find friends among those you thought were enemies.

This comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story can be used to prepare students for the graphic novel memoir by Congressman Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. While he is not directly named in the 1957 comic book, he participated in many of the events and his memoir March provides another point of view to major events.

In Lewis’s recounting, March: Book I is set up as a flashback in which he remembers the brutality of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.  The second book, March: Book 2 (2015) highlights the Freedom Bus Rides and Governor George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech.  The final book, March: Book 3 (2016) includes the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marchesMarch: Book 3 received multiple awards including 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, the 2017 Printz Award Winner, and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner.

In receiving these awards, Lewis restated his purpose that his memoir was directed toward young people, saying:

“It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”

He could just as well have been speaking about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They may belong to the genre of comic books, but they also are serious records of our history.