Archives For 82nd Saturday Reunion at Teachers College

Every generation of readers has one. That book. The book with racy passages. The book with the “reputation”. The naughty book.

The proliferation of  Fifty Shades of Grey-that book- means that is entirely possible that at least one of my high school students will bring in copy as an  independent choice reading text. Of course I will require the student choose something more age- appropriate if this particular book is being read for class credit, but there are many books that teeter on acceptable boundaries.  I have had middle school students bring in copies of Twilight, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn; a series built on heart-pounding sexual teasing for three prolonged book lengths. I have seen a 10th grade student engrossed in reading Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and although I was aware of the steamy material, I saw no such reaction from the student who was being deeply exposed to Swedish misogyny. Popular culture books, particularly steamy popular culture books, are passing fads in literature.

Naughty book popularity rises and falls with readers. Every year there is some student who could be sneaking  “for mature audience” materials. When I was growing up, the paperback copies of The Godfather opened automatically, like Lucy for Sonny, on page 18. Yes, Mario Puzo’s bestseller was full of quivering and pulsing, when it wasn’t violently establishing the dominance of the Corleone family.  Coffee, Tea or Me? , which detailed the escapades of stewardesses during the sexual revolutionwas the other “naughty” text that I remember the adults keeping out of my reach. No matter. I “borrowed” my aunt’s copy during Thanksgiving dinner and read furiously in an upstairs hallway. Hiding from the relatives celebrating the holiday, I wasn’t missed, probably because I had been seated at the “kid’s table” with at least a dozen cousins.

I also know other adults have had brief flings with inappropriate literature in their youth. I know this also, because Pamela Munoz Ryan, author of the award winning  children’s book  Esperanza Rising, discussed her naughty book adventure at a keynote address at the 82nd Saturday Reunion at Columbia Teacher’s College in March 2012. Opening her remarks, Ryan claimed, “to read because it’s safe and to write because it’s dangerous.” She explained how her love of stories made her choose to write, and then she shared her own “naughty book” story.

When Ryan was young, she discovered racy romance novels in the home library shelves of a Coca-Cola addicted neighbor. Ryan would return those empty soda bottles for candy money, while at the same time, she would “borrow” a copy of a torrid romance novel. She recalled one specific incident, however, involving The Valley of the Dolls, a steamy best-selling fictional account of the rich and famous. She snuck the book out of her neighbor’s house in the back waistband of her pants. At the time, she explained, the only “safe” place for reading was the town public library, and Ryan was soon holed up in a little used aisle of books pouring through the Valley of the Dolls. There, she was approached by the town librarian.

“I could not help notice how engrossed you are in reading,” said the librarian while Ryan desperately tried to hide the title of the book, “and I wondered if  you ever read this book?” In her hand the librarian held a copy of Anne of Green Gables.

Ryan said she had not read the book and feeling obliged, checked it out.

“I rode home on my bike that day,” says Ryan, “with a copy of Valley of the Dolls tucked in my waistband, and a copy of Anne of Green Gables  in my bicycle basket.” She paused for a moment with the recollection, “You know,” she stated to a congregation of teachers, “I have read the Valley of the Dolls only once, but I have read, reread, and revisited Anne of Green Gables many times.”

Teachers too know that a student will at some point in his or her life be exposed to reading materials that may be too mature, or too salacious, for his or her age. We can counter these sensational texts because we know what books will last, what books will transcend the effects of time, and what memorable characters will help our students as they mature and grow into adults. Students should read because, as Ryan stated, “it is safe”, and we need to encourage their reading as much as possible. We should be ready to help them make good choices, such as the classics Little Women or  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. We should be ready to recommend a contemporary Esperanza Rising, The Book Thief  or Dairy Queen. We must allow students a choice in their reading but look for the opportunity to suggest a more appropriate title, because we know that the Fifty Shades of Grey tucked in the backpack ,or in their waistband, is a passing fad. Great literature endures, and fortunately, Anne of Green Gables will be there for the reader.

Lucy Calkins

The difference between reading an article or a book by Lucy Calkins and hearing her speak in person is a difference that cannot be measured in nuances; the difference is measured in hearing the decibles of her passion.

On Saturday (3/24/12), at the 82nd Saturday Reunion held at the Teachers College at Columbia University in NYC, Calkins stood before a packed house of elementary and middle school teachers in the Nave at the Riverside Church to deliver her closing session, “Walking Courageously Forward in Today’s Common Core World: Literacy Instruction, School Reform and Visions of Tomorrow”.  Hours before the keynote address by children’s author Pamela Munoz Ryan, Calkins had been energetically wandering with a microphone to periodically announce the location of a second keynote address for K-1 teachers or explain a new voucher system for lunches to speed up the notoriously overcrowded lunch lines. She waved for  people to make room in the pews for others and directed her aides to circulate with pads of paper to gather e-mails of participants. (NOTE: Please, Ms. Calkins; get a Twitter account or just have us send our e-mails to a web address!)

According to the jam packed schedule of workshops, she then presented at 10 AM: “An Introduction to the Project’s Thinking About Common Core-Aligned Upper Grade Reading”. At 11AM she presented the workshop, “In the Complicated World of Today, What’s Changed and What’s Stayed the Same About the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Ideas on Teaching Writing?”, and she was spotted checking in on other presentations during her “spare time”.  All this before delivering her final address back in the church at 1PM.  Calkins is already a one person educational seismic wave, which made her opening, a lifting of the lyric from a Carole King’s song, “I feel the earth move under my feet”, much more than metaphoric.

Lucy Calkins is the Founding Director of the Reading and Writing Project LLC and the  Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as well as the Robinson Professor in Children’s Literature at Teachers College where she co-directs the Literacy Specialist Program. She has authored several books about teaching writing, and she has recently co-authored a book, Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement.

Much of the speech was directly lifted from her article, “Explore the Common Core” where she advocates for teachers to embrace the Common Core to be a “a co-constructor of the future of instruction and curriculum, and indeed, of public education across America.” She writes,

“As challenging as it must have been to write and finesse the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, that accomplishment is nothing compared to the work of teaching in ways that bring all  students to these ambitious expectations.The goal is clear.The pathway is not.”

In confronting one of the possible pathways, Calkins leveled her most serious criticism. She called attention to two of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) authors who have emerged very publicly as spokespersons, David Coleman (Student Achievement Partners) and Susan Pimentel (Education First), and reminded the attendees that neither has been a classroom teacher. “What is alarming is that they feel empowered to continue to write the Common Core,” she declared. There are a growing number of CCSS support websites that illustrate her frustration, for example, Coleman’s well-documented lesson plans on the study of informational texts such as The Gettysburg Address with his explanations on videos are found at  Ironically, while most historians praise Lincoln for the brevity of this address and the precision of its language,  Coleman’s lesson design would have students spend six to eight sessions in a close reading of the speech. Calkins complained that  extended close readings like Coleman’s are “text dependent activities” and that there are “no questions that transfer to another piece” as well as the unreasonable commitment of time to one common text.

Her frustration also stems from the New York State’s Department of Education’s adoption of many of Coleman’s additions to the original CCSS in providing models for curriculum development. She sounded a loud chord of caution against Coleman and others who write “around the standards” in presenting their curriculum models. She rhetorically challenged Coleman, “Where is the evidence do you have,  David Coleman, that your method works? Where is the evidence that the close reading you describe is improving literacy?”

She then modeled a quick lesson on the poem “To a Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pasten, where she effectively refuted Coleman’s tedious approach of laboriously parsing every word in a text. She dismissed the notion that the discussion of any piece “ends at the four corners of the text,” adding that “one cannot infer or understand a metaphor without drawing from [one’s self].” Instead she recommended “sticking as CLOSELY to the text as possible, and in a response, have the student respond to the question ‘how do you know?'”.

Calkins also expressed concerns that in order to meet  CCSS “they [administrators] will add more…informational texts, more close reading. That will not work” she concluded emphatically.  Instead, “The problem facing schools is fragmentation and overload;” adding more to the teacher’s curriculum requirements will not be effective. Chiefly, she explained, the CCSS is, “not about a curriculum of compliance. This is about accelerating students, ramping up student achievement;” the CCSS is a “call for school reform.”

Because of CCSS, however, there will be enormous amounts of money spent on developing curriculum, resource materials, and testing. Authors of the CCSS, educational consultants, publishers, testing services are all looking to develop materials in order to help school systems meet the CCSS.  CCSS has spawned a new industry. Calkins detailed the anticipated expense of implementing the CCSS as $15.8 billion with $7 billion of the expense committed to technology so that students can complete testing online. When the “number one reason preventing student achievement is poverty”, in a time of shrinking budgets, Calkins described her discomfort with implementing  such costly programs and the inevitable auxiliary expenses that will be spent school district by school district in trying to meet the CCSS.

How can educators meet the CCSS in specific ways? “Students should have clear goals so they have a sense what is expected by gathering performance data,” Calkins advised, “Note what has changed with the student and [note] what changes are we expecting. A school should be able to identify [exemplars] what is expected at each grade level.” She also urged teachers to “embrace the call to nonfiction literacy” in order to build knowledge. “Change is hard,” she noted, “but research shows that fear will not make people change; the only effective way to change is through is support groups” suggesting that teachers need to collaborate in support groups to meet the CCSS.

Listening to Calkins was a more than a pep talk. Her reasoned approach to the CCSS was not born solely in the ivory towers of academia nor at a table of educational policy wonks. Her advice to read the CCSS as “gold” comes from her ongoing commitment to improving education coupled with her experience with  students and the teachers she supervises.

Had the audience the opportunity to respond to Lucy Calkin’s line of verse from the song “I Feel the Earth Move”, they could have easily chose another title from  from Carole King’s Tapestry album…”Where You Lead, I Will Follow.”