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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a previous post, I questioned a question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The teacher was clearing the piles of books on a back counter and a young student was helping her. No other students were in the room, and their conversation was lively, animated.

I had stopped by unannounced, to briefly touch on a curriculum matter, so I waited for a few minutes. When the teacher paused to speak to me, the girl continued the work, but she soon made it clear that I was an intruder.

“Miss?” the girl focused all her attention on the teacher.
“Miss?” she insisted, interrupting our conversation. The teacher tried to hold her off, first with a head nod….then, with a hand held up.
“Miss?” the girl persisted.

I recognized the student had no question, really.
What she was telling me was, “This is MY time with the teacher…Go away!”
I had interrupted something valuable.
I knew I had to leave.

In retrospect, I considered that what I had just witnessed may have been that student’s most important lesson of the day, an exercise that was helping to build a positive teacher/student relationship.

The research on the importance of positive teacher/student relationships is clear. Teachers and students spend 1200 hours (average 6.64 hours X 180 days) together in school annually. Every day there is an informal blend of academic and social-emotional learning. And while the time for academic learning is clearly spelled out in prescribed blocks or periods (ex: English period 2, 9:40-10:30), the time designated for developing the social-emotional learning is less so.

There are the formal strategies for developing a teacher/student relationship at any grade level, for example, conferencing with a student or using small groups. Then there are the informal ways, such the minutes spent while a teacher and her student work together and talk as they clear a counter of books. And data show those minutes pay off.

John Hattie, researcher and author of Visible Learning, analyzed the results of multiple studies. He used the results from meta-analyses to calculate a “pooled estimate” or measure of an effect on student learning. He then ranked 195 of the results according to the size of the effect.

His conclusion?  The number one influencer for student achievement is a “teacher estimates of achievement” an effect that he calculated at four times (1,62) the effect of the average influencer. Average influencers, in this case, include inquiry-based instruction (,35), computer-assisted instruction (,45), or school size (,27)

Hattie’s statement:

“It is teachers who have created positive teacher student relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement.”

The studies that Hattie used in his analysis indicate that the teacher’s knowledge of students in his or her classes can determine the kinds of classroom activities and materials used as well as the difficulty of the tasks assigned. The effect of a teacher’s estimate on student achievement could be felt in the student groupings used in class, as well as the kinds of questions or instructional strategies selected.

Of course, the inverse could also be true if a teacher developed a negative teacher/student relationship. A negative relationship could likely have a disproportionately negative effect on student achievement.

Should that teacher/student relationship be based on low expectations, socially or academically, the year’s 1200 school hours would yield less positive results. While it is important to state that negative teacher/student are rarely born in malice, all teachers should be made aware of the potential damage to student achievement in setting low expectations by claiming that “students can’t”.

“Can’t,” however, was not what I witnessed in the exchange between the teacher and her student, unless it was the message “you can’t interrupt.”

Teachers who consider Hattie’s findings and use the 1200 hours available in every school year to develop positive teacher/student relationships, academically and socio-emotionally, in and outside of the classroom, will see a result in something more than an estimate, a result in actual achievement.

Just be aware that there are times when you can’t interrupt.

If there is a new software for use in the classroom, I am likely to register for a quick trial. On occasion, I have been assigned a username and password, a combination of numbers and letters, for use during length of the trial period.

Last month, on the confirmation email, was a password that was the BEST I had ever received. It read:

“Magenta-Pilgrim-Carbon-Goat”

Such a combination of nouns was clearly a sign from the poetry gods….I needed to write a poem with these words!

Moreover, Poetry Friday is being hosted this week (on 1/5/16) by my dear friend and poet Catherine Flynn who writes on her blog Reading to the Core.

I considered what story could be told using these nouns, and I thought about the word magenta in the password.  The color magenta reminded me of an incident in a local school about 15 years ago. A female student came to high school with her hair dyed a shocking bright magenta color. For this effrontery, she was immediately suspended. Of course, the incident went national, and for a brief time, the local high school was ground zero for dress code politics. Eventually, she was allowed back to school, and the school board revised the dress code.

Today, such a hair dye controversy seems very tame.

Once I knew what story I would use, I had to choose a form of poetry that could feature these four nouns. I rejected quite a few. Sestinas require six nouns for the scheme. Haikus are too short. A sonnet would not feature the words as well. Villanelles only have three rhymes.

So, I settled on a pantoum. A pantoum has a set pattern of repetitive lines:

Pantoum definition: the pattern in each stanza is where the second and fourth line of each verse is repeated as the first and third of the next. The pattern changes though for the last stanza to the first and third line are the second and fourth of the stanza above (penultimate). The last line is a repeat of the first starting line of the poem and the third line of the first is the second of the last.

In the end, I did modify the pantoum a little to fit the story…but that is poetic license!

“Magenta Agenda”

Her hand on hip stance toughens her agenda
She is no stranger to the office; not a Pilgrim.
Her gutsy toss of hair dyed bright Magenta
She counter argues charges of expulsion.

No stranger to the office; she’s no Pilgrim.
They will not use her as their scapegoat
As she challenges charges of expulsion
And argues counter to the rules they wrote.

She flatly states “I’m not your scapegoat,”
And shrugs off rules xeroxed in black carbon.
Challenges the paper charges for expulsion
She won’t back down, and she won’t bargain.

“Review your rules in lines of black ink carbon;
You’ll read no language banning bright magenta!”
Her charge is right, AND more than they had bargained.
“Revise dress code” (*they sigh*) on their next agenda.

Since no language there to ban magenta
No expulsion for hair dyed bright Magenta.
Expect a future challenge to their agenda
That hand on hip stance toughens her agenda.

 

 

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Every November the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) gathers for an annual conference.

Last November (2016), emotions were tense…raw. Distressed elementary and intermediate grade teachers muttered about the language and actions of candidates, and how leaders were setting a bad example by engaging in behaviors that would not be tolerated in a classroom.

Frustrated middle and high school teachers grumbled about the inability of their students to judge facts for accuracy, completeness, timeliness, and relevance given the barrage of information coming from social media. College educators were stymied on what adjustments needed to be made to teacher preparation programs.

The 2016 conference was one of collective incredulity.  In response to the brutal political season that polarized the school year, what guidance would this national organization offer?

Sadly, the response from NCTE Conference was inaudible. Hushed.

In representing the profession, one that centers on the ability to confront all forms of text, the leadership provided few words. To be fair, the timing was perhaps too soon, and few in leadership could have anticipated the depth of polarization that had created the divides in schools and classrooms across the nation.

And so, at this year’s (2017) conference the leadership of NCTE needed to make some critical choices.

The name of the conference, “The First Chapter”, was one choice that promised a new beginning.

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Another choice was the location of this conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the city of Michael Brown and the 2014 riots. A city already dealing with large equity gaps in education. According to a study by Washington University in St. Louis, there has been a continued “disparity in St. Louis schools caused by an allocation of resources.”

An article in the WUPR newsletter by Victoria Johnson in March 2016 detailed the ratio of students attending unaccredited schools as 44% black students to 4% percent of white students. Her observation was that:

“Five miles is the difference between receiving one of the best educations in Missouri and attending one of the worst schools in the entire country.”

So far, this latest 2017 NCTE Conference had a promising title, “The First Chapter”.
So far, the conference had a significant setting, St. Louis.

So who would be the characters to move the plot?
Who would address the central conflict?

The writers.
Writers drove the plot of the 2017 conference.
Writers did what writers do best in responding to the rawness, the hurt, the confusion, the rifts, and the arrogance of the past…the past 12 months…still reverbing from the past 12 decades.

The writers speaking at NCTE confronted all conflicts head-on. They did not mince words. They used their outsider lenses that get to the inside of minds.

If they wrote books for students, they spoke about themselves as students.

“We don’t want to lose the boys. Don’t call them reluctant readers.”
Jon Scieszka (Knucklehead, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs)

“The cornerstone of culture is language. Don’t tell me my culture is wrong.”
AND “Our fear of discomfort makes us less safe. We need to be less faithful to our fears and more faithful to our future.”

-Jason Reynolds (YA author Ghost, Long Way Down)

If they wrote books for teachers,  the writers spoke about themselves as teachers.

 “When you read fiction, you go into the author’s world. When you read nonfiction, it comes into your world, and you have to decide if you stand with it or stand against it.” AND  “The world is tough. No one taught you how to teach after a gunman has killed people in a church, school, concert…. but the kids are looking at you.”
Kylene Beers (Notice and Note, Reading Nonfiction)

“We aren’t here to raise a score, we are here to raise a human.”
~Lester Laminack (Writers are Readers)

“Community is about diversity. Let’s make listening instruction something that brings people together.”
Lucy Calkins (Reading Units of Study, Writing Units of Study, Pathways to the Common Core)

“We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?”
Pernille Ripp (Passionate Readers)

 

And as storytellers, they chastised teachers into action:

“Now more than ever we live in a time when resistance matters….Teaching to resist. Writing to resist.”
-Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, Locomotion, Another Brooklyn)

“In my book, I don’t shy away from racism and language because that’s what our young people are dealing with. And teachers, I need you not to shy away from it either.”
Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give)

The writers came to the NCTE to share with educators their  process, their craft, and their message that stories teach students to:

Read. Write. Think.*

The writers whispered, they cajoled, they teased, they argued, they humored, and they demanded. They sounded their “barbaric yawp”:

In separate and in panel sessions, the writers inspired…their words both provoked and soothed.

Then we all went back home…to our schools and classrooms…to our students.

So now what?
The NCTE 2017 in St. Louis was “The First Chapter,” and as readers, we already know that a first chapter can deceive. We may not have gotten to the page (as in page 17) when the real reason for the story is revealed.  Moreover, a happy ending is not yet in sight; education is complicated and messy with plot twists.

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For the next chapter (2018), NCTE leadership has selected the title “Raising Student Voice”  and placed the setting in Houston, Texas. Given the havoc created by Hurricane Harvey, this may prove a significant choice as well.
The writers have spoken. Now, let us see what that first chapter really began.
Get ready for the students!

Continue Reading…

#PoetryFriday: Pole Dancers

November 23, 2017 — 11 Comments

The fall of 2017 in Connecticut was one of the warmest on record. That unusual warmth allowed for long evening walks on the beaches of the Long Island Sound shoreline. One night, I witnessed a fabulous illusion which resulted in this poem.

While I am not a regular contributor to the #PoetryFriday posts, I did want to record that moment, and poetry was the best way. Writing this also affirmed the statement by poet Amy Ludwig Vandewater (recently featured at the National Council of Teachers of English) that in order to “write stuff you have to do stuff.”

 

Poetry Friday is being hosted by Carol at Carol’s Corner. Check out the poetry postings!

Here is a dramatic reenactment of writing in schools (with translations) taken from the esteemed writing teacher Donald M. Murray‘s 1982 essay The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts:

STUDENT: “It’s done!” (*phew*).”

TEACHER: “Did you revise?” (translation: “Did your ideas emerge and evolve? Did you clarify your meaning?”)

STUDENT: “I finished it!” (translation: “Just give me a grade! I’m done.”)

TEACHER: (*sigh*) “Hand it in…it’s due” (translation: “Need to move on.”)

In his essay, Murray explained, “When students complete a first draft, they consider the job of writing done – and their teachers too often agree.”

Murray contrasts these attitudes with the attitudes of professional writers who after completing a first draft, “usually feel that they are at the start of the writing process.” He quotes the writer Roald Dahl as saying:

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

Murray’s point was that in the professional writer’s world, or the real world, writers have time… or they find time… in order to make time for revision.

That kind of dedicated time for revision that exists in the real world does not exist in schools. Classroom periods are organized most often in chunks of 42, 60, or 84 minutes. The result is that the authentic revision on a piece of writing will take more time than the scheduled school day offer (after all, “there is a curriculum to cover!”)

Complicating the need for dedicated time is the demand for student writing to grade in order to meet assessment schedules: progress reports, quarters, mid-terms, trimesters, etc. That need to grade everything a student writes-drafts, rewrites, final product- is the least authentic part of the writing process.

Just check with Mark Edmundson in his book Why Write?  In the 30 chapters Edmundson uses to answer his question Why Write? the one reason missing is To Get a Grade. In other words, the major reason that students write in school is the one reason missing from the long list of reasons a writer gives for writing.

Murray also noted that students see revision “as an indication that they have failed to do it right the first time,” and to be honest, many teachers have not worked to disavow their students of this belief.

So how to improve teacher and student attitudes towards revision? When to find the time?

Why not start on National Writing Day?

National Writing Day is based on George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write” and is celebrated annually in October.  Orwell understood the difficulty in writing (“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle”) to edit out the “purple prose” or those “sentences without meaning.” Orwell saw revision as necessary for good writing.

So, on this National Writing Day, (10/20/17) you may decide that students do not need to start something new in response to the suggested “Why I Write.” But if they do, they could practice revising their reason(s) why they write.

Lesson Suggestions for National Writing Day

Teachers can take this opportunity to promote revision, and here are several suggestions for highlighting the importance of revision on National Writing Day:

Share famous author revisions to show how they revise. Some suggestions include:

  1. Use the audio and images” in “An Explanation of The Westing Game Manuscript Materials” that show the revisions made by YA author Ellen Raskin for The Westing Game.

     

  2. Share the well-circulated image of JKRowling’s revision process for Harry Potter’s Order of the Phoenix.
  3. Share Kate DiCamillo’s drafts of the first chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie that also has her entertaining comments on each of the five revisions.
  4. Share (with mature audiences only) the author John Green’s YouTube video explanation on “Why First Drafts Suck!” as he takes on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)
  5. Prepare for Halloween with the greatest horror story ever told by experiencing the chilling revisions on the draft of the opening lines of Chapter 7 of Frankenstein. There in Mary Shelley’s handwritten text  contains the spark of life for the Monster, “It breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
  6. Extend an invitation to social studies teachers to share historical revisions such as FDR’s speech delivered on December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Notable is the revision of the phrase “A day that will live in world history” for the iconic “infamy.”
  7. Include science teachers and share drafts from the prolific science writer (astronomer, astrophysicist) Carl Sagan from the website of the Library of Congress Manuscript Divison. There are twenty full drafts of his works in the archive including 355 pages of the first draft of his novel Contact,  with revisions, in entirety.
  8. Contrast E.B.White’s opening line “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” in Chapter 1 of Charlotte’s Web with his draft #2…and see which students prefer.
  9. Model your own revisions in your writing!

Other suggestions include:

1.Use the entire class period to let students revise a piece they have already written…. (and no grading!)

2. Have students respond to quotes about revision made by authors:

  • James McBride (The Color of Water): “Writing is the act of failing at something all the time.”
  • Ernest Hemingway: “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times before I was satisfied.”
  • Georgia Heard (poet): “Students need to be reminded that revision isn’t merely making a few cosmetic changes. Revision is seeing and then reseeing our words and practicing strategies that make a difference in our writing.”
  • Pearl S. BuckI(“The Big Wave”) “If you start to revise before you’ve reached the end, you’re likely to begin dawdling with the revisions and putting off the difficult task of writing.”

 3. Build a lesson on the synonyms for revision; have students discuss the differences in their meanings in order to answer the question, “Why I Revise”:

  • emendation
  • editing
  • updating
  • correction
  • change
  • review
  • amendment
  • modification
  • alteration

National Day of Writing: Friday, October 20th (#whyiwrite)

Whatever you choose to do with students, engaging them in the practice of revision IS engaging them in the practice of writing. Revision is the authentic writing that students need to do, so that they will, as Murray explained, grow to understand that “each word has the potential to ignite new meaning.”

For this 9th Annual National Writing Day, the question “Why I Write” could be answered with “in order to have something to revise,” as all writing is rewriting. This could give students and teachers just a little more time as Donald Murray had hoped, for revision, for “time for just another run at it, perhaps then…”

(This post? A total of 16  17  18 revisions over four days…”perhaps then” indeed!)