Archives For CCSS

Perplexed: adj.

1. bewildered; puzzled.
2. complicated; involved; entangled.

(o _ 0 )  ?

I am perplexed as to why this word is on the EngageNY first grade vocabulary list, and again perplexed when I review the first grade units for English Language Arts (ELA) on this website. I am perplexed because I can see that several units in our current grade five curriculum (Early Settlers and the American Revolution) and our entire grade six curriculum (Ancient World History) have  been bundled into a series of units that will be taught in first grade.Did I mention that EngageNY complicates these areas of study with content area lessons on the human body and astronomy in first grade?

All these complications have me even more perplexed as to why so many people are recommending that educators visit and use EngageNY resources. In two separate incidents over the past two weeks, I have heard educators from the State of Connecticut recommend the site. One recommendation was made directly to the Commissioner in the State Department of Education, Stephan Pryor, during a roll-out of the state’s Common Core website. I hope he does not take these recommendations seriously.

Remember that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were supposed to guide teachers to teach less and focus more. The CCSS were promoted as a means to stop instruction that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The CCSS were promoted to allow teachers to select their own materials, an opportunity to move away from scripted programs, stating,”Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.”

Engage NY curriculum contrasts with these both of these goals; it is both staggering in its breadth and it is highly scripted.

A look at the Grade One English Language Arts curriculum in the “Listening and Learning Strand” demonstrates the breadth in a curriculum that is organized into 11 separate content area Domains. An examination into Domain 4, titled “Early World Civilizations” shows a unit that is 21 days in length for 6 year-old students using  a Tell It Again! Read-Aloud Anthology. Engage NY explains that this unit:

“….for Early World Civilizations contains background information and resources that the teacher will need to implement Domain 4, including an alignment chart for the domain to the Common Core State Standards; an introduction to the domain including necessary background information for teachers, a list of domain components, a core vocabulary list for the domain, and planning aids and resources; 16 lessons including objectives, read-alouds, discussion questions, and extension activities; a Pausing Point; a domain review; a domain assessment; culminating activities; and teacher resources.”

A further examination of Domain 4 means reviewing its 81 student objectives. That number is not as intimidating as the language in the content area objectives. The first ten objectives state that “by the end of this unit, students will be able to….”:
  1. Locate the area known as Mesopotamia on a world map or globe and identify it as part of Asia;
  2. Explain the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the use of canals to support farming and the development of the city of Babylon;
  3. Describe the city of Babylon and the Hanging Gardens;
  4. Identify cuneiform as the system of writing used in Mesopotamia;
  5. Explain why a written language is important to the development of a civilization;
  6. Explain the significance of the Code of Hammurabi;
  7. Explain why rules and laws are important to the development of a civilization;
  8. Explain the ways in which a leader is important to the development of a civilization;
  9. Explain the significance of gods/goddesses, ziggurats, temples, and priests in Mesopotamia;
  10. Describe key components of a civilization…
Consider the readiness for first graders to meet these content objectives, and consider their readiness in meeting  other content area objectives in this unit including:
#16 Explain the significance of gods/goddesses in ancient Egypt;
#26 Define monotheism as the belief in one God….

The problem with these content area objectives is that the response, (and remember this is a six year old’s response), is limited to a shallow or cursory understanding to any of these larger questions. Entire courses at higher grade levels, middle and high school, have been developed around these objectives, and many of these objectives will be repeated again in these higher grade levels.

Next, consider that the unit that follows Domain 5-Early American Civilizations, is dedicated to a study of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan societies. These first 10 objectives for Domain 5 state that “the student will be able to….”

  1. Explain that a shift occurred from hunting and gathering to farming among early peoples; compare and contrast hunter-gatherer societies and Mayan society;
  2. Explain the importance of extended family to the Maya;
  3. Identify the areas in which the Maya/Aztec/Inca lived;
  4. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca farmed;
  5. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca developed large cities or population centers, or empires, many, many years ago;
  6. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca had leaders (kings or emperors); identify by name the emperor of the Aztec, Moctezuma;
  7. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca each had a religion;
  8. Describe the significance of the stars and planets to the Maya;
  9. Explain the significance of the Mayan calendar;
  10. Identify the Aztec capital as Tenochtitlan; identify that Machu Picchu is an Incan city…
There are 32 more objectives for students in Domain 5, and there are nine other domains with an equally daunting number of “the student will” objectives in the Listening and Learning strands. There are more objectives, with overlap, in the Skill strands for each of remaining nine Domains. According to the curriculum in EngageNY, a first grader would be expected to have a basic understanding of Early World Civilizations and Early American Civilizations as well as these remaining nine domains:

Domain #1: Fables and Stories
Domain #2: The Human Body
Domain #3: Different Lands/Similar Stories
Domain #6: Astronomy
Domain #7: The History of the Earth
Domain #8: Animals and Habitats
Domain #9: Fairy Tales
Domain #10: A New Nation: American Independence
Domain #11: Frontier Explorers

The most striking characteristic of this list of domains is the breadth of content area material that a first grader (remember, these are 6 year-olds), is required to “explain” or “identify” or “describe.” These are at best low level comprehension skills in Bloom’s taxonomy. This list clashes with the CCSS objective to become “more focused and coherent” especially when this list of domains does not appear to be connected by any central theme; their inclusion appears random.

All this content will be important to developing a student’s background knowledge over the course of several years, but how critically important is this material at the first grade level when instruction time is at a premium? Practice in reading and writing should be a priority, and the content used for in the development of reading and writing skills should not overwhelm students, but rather complement student cognitive ability.

Nevertheless, EngageNY provides equally dense ELA curriculum at each grade level. Students often “revisit” content that they may not have understood earlier, an enterprise that could be unnecessary given the cursory treatment that may given a topic at an earlier grade level (example: studying War of 1812 in grade 2).

Like any other website with lessons aligned to the CCSS, teachers may find value in some resources on EngageNY. A cautionary note, however, is that these are not “teacher-tested” lessons, but highly scripted lessons from the juggernaut of publishing and testing, the UK based Pearson. This raises a frightening scenario of having the creators of student achievement tests (Pearson) hold teachers and students accountable for the content they (Pearson) have also created in the lessons.

Connecticut’s adoption of the CCSS should remain true to its stated goals of allowing teachers to select their own materials in the development of focused curriculum at each grade level. The damage may already be done, however, since the website Pryor was offering in the state rollout of the Common Core already contains numerous links to EngageNY resources.

Which brings me to another 1st grade word on the EngageNY vocabulary list.
Apoplexy.

While there are whirlwind changes in education such as new evaluation programs, digital devices in school, or flipped classrooms, one element remains constant: vocabulary. In order for students to succeed, they must understand the content area vocabulary in each subject area.

“Vocabulary knowledge is fundamental to reading comprehension;
one cannot understand text without knowing what most of the words mean.”
(Nagy, 1988)

The Common Core Literacy Standards have dedicated an anchor standard to the acquisition to vocabulary: 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

So what strategies work best? While there are familiar ways to teach vocabulary such as flashcards and word lists, every now and then there are the vocabulary lessons that are so effective, that they must be shared…like this political campaign using biology terms.

All month the 10th grade biology teacher centered a political campaign on vocabulary. The campaign immersed the entire school in domain specific words on the parts of a cell.  Teams of students were assigned to promote each part of the cell (EX: nucleus, endomembrane  system, chloroplasts, mitochondria)  for a political election designed to let students determine the most important member of the cell. Students made posters that hung in the hallways, and each poster featured characteristics and functions of the cell’s “candidate.” The posters were filled with content area vocabulary; there were explanations with diagrams or pictures.

For the first week, the campaign posters for different parts of the cell were explanatory in nature:

  • Do you enjoy moving, growing, breathing? Vote for the Mitochondria!
  • Chloroplast: Makes your green last! Carry out Photosynthesis!
  • Let’s assemble or die! Vote for Ribosomes or go home!

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The final week was dedicated to a “smear” campaign. Additional information was added to posters; opposing candidates countered the claims on posters with even more content area vocabulary:

  • Algae blooms? They are caused by pollution! Look in the mirror! It’s not the chloroplast’s fault
  • Don’t vote for the mitochondria: They cause heart disease, diabetes, and cancer? Why vote for something that is bad?
  • Ribosome: Subject to mutation and damage that can cause illness
  • The Nucleus: if coded improperly can cause all sorts of defects
  • The mitochondria causes stupidity and mental disorders. The nucleus knows you’re smart and will support you through everything.

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Wall space became a premium.  Attack ads increased the amount of information and featured even more content-area vocabulary. The stairwell going down to the middle school wing was a cluttered word wall.

Finally, election day arrived. To ensure there would be no favoritism, the students in 7th grade were selected to vote on their choice of the most important part of the cell. They had read the posters and become familiar with each of the candidates. They knew the strengths of each part of the cell. They knew the weaknesses of each part of the cell. They knew how each candidate functioned in the cell. They could separate the facts and the hype. The 10th grade waited to hear the results of their campaign.

Who did they vote for?
The Chloroplast.
Why?
Because of its contributions to plant life?
Because of photosynthesis?
Because it synthesizes fatty acids?


Buggin-out-green-sparkle

No….Because, “The poster had green glitter that was pretty.”
Apparently, campaigns for the most important member of the cell do not differ that much from real political campaigns.

Even with all that domain specific language…bling wins.

The year 2013 provided one of the best examples of real life detective work as well as real-life application of the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standard #7:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP7 Look for and make use of structure.

The investigation was initiated because of structures and patterns, specifically the writing patterns of the author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. This mathematical practice standard MP#7 calls for students to “look closely to discern a pattern or structure,” and noticing a pattern was exactly what a computer program did in unmasking Rowling as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. The mystery novel, had been published under the name Robert Gailbraith, and the novel had begun to generate some critical acclaim. Only there was no Robert Gailbraith; Gailbraith was the pseudonym Rowling had chosen for her new foray into the mystery genre.

The ruse did not last long. In true detective fashion, two university professors, acting on a anonymous tip, wrote a computer code that used algorithms to compare patterns in the writing from The Cuckoo’s Calling with titles from Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the works of other mystery writers. The algorithms targeted several possible mystery writers, but Rowling’s name came up most consistently with language patterns that matched word length, 100 most common words, pairs of words, and the patterns of letters, spaces and grammatical marks known as “four character strings.”

The steps to identifying were outlined in an article in Popular Science, “How Computer Algorithms Uncovered J.K. Rowling’s Pseudonymous Novel.” Writer Francie Diep explained that, “Some of the individual tests found authors other than Rowling were the best match. Nevertheless, Rowling came up the most consistently.” 

The methods of the professors investigating Rowling belong to a practice known as the digital humanities, a field of study that “aims at developing and using the digital resources and tools for solving the research questions in the Humanities.”— Takafumi Suzuki (For other definitions check out whatisdigitalhumanities.com)

As texts become available digitally, they can be deconstructed into parts in order to answer research questions such as word origins (etymology), locating primary sources, and determining authorship. In the journal A Companion to Digital Humanities an article titled “Stylistic Analysis and Authorship Studies” author Hugh Craig points out that,

“There are enough successes to suggest that computational stylistics and non-traditional attribution have become essential tools, the first places one looks to for answers on very large questions of text patterning, and on difficult authorship problems.”

Yet, these patterns can do more than identify authorship. Patterns can be used to support an author’s purpose. For example, in the play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, the character Marc Anthony, a wily politician, deepens the character Brutus’s involvement with the murder of Julius Caesar through the use of the phrase “honorable.” Here, the actor Marlon Brando plays Marc Anthony and recites the speech (1951 film):

The famous speech begins “Friends, Romans, Countrymen; Lend me your ears..” (3.2.) and Shakespeare employs the rhetorical device, an antistrophe or repetition of the same word phrase at the end of successive clauses, repeating “that Brutus is an honorable man.” In the opening 30 lines of the speech, Marc Anthony also connects “ambition” with the death of Julius Caesar.  Four times, Marc Anthony refers to Brutus “an honorable man,” but links each mention of honor with an “ambitious man”. By the end of his oration, Marc Anthony’s rhetorical accusations have inferred Brutus’s less than honorable behavior was an ambitious grab for power, and an incensed mob storms the streets of Rome seeking revenge. A final analysis reveals that Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric, a textual pattern, provided the tool that Marc Anthony used to attack Brutus very publicly for political gain.

Employing a pattern of repetition can serve an author’s purpose, and understanding this purpose requires the stylistic analysis that is embedded in the English Language Arts Literacy Reading Standard 4 where students “interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.” Patterns reveal the author’s craft; patterns also reveal author’s purpose.

images (1)You can find a textual pattern in any one of seven basic sentence types. You can find a textual pattern on any one of the seven days of the week on any one of the seven continents. Using Mathematical Practice Standard #7, helps find the purpose of a text or find the author of a text…like J.K. Rowling, who wrote seven books in the Harry Potter series. Coincidence? No. Pattern.

I admit that I am the first to have heart palpitations the moment I hear a problem begin, “Say, a train leaves a station 500 miles east of the city traveling at 60 m.p.h…..”.

Yet, given time, I am confident I can calculate the answer to a word problem, in part because my early teaching career included two years in a grade 8 pre-algebra class. At that time, I feared my expertise in English/Language Arts was not helpful for covering the math curriculum, so I taught as close to the textbook as anyone can imagine. I depended on worksheets. I was inflexible in my methods. I did exactly what the book suggested I do.

Several weeks into the pre-algebra class, I told a fellow faculty member that I was concerned I could be doing more harm then good. Ms. C had graduate degrees in math, and she was responsible for the more advanced math classes.

keep-calm-and-persevere-13“Nonsense,” she advised, “just make sure they know their math facts; students who do not know their multiplication tables will never succeed in higher math.”
I nodded.
Multiplication tables…I could do that.
“That, and never, ever let them give up.” She was firm, “all problems have a solution.” 

Ms. C was right. I could never let them give up, which meant that I could never give up either. Her prescience about the Common Core State Standards, adopted some 20 years later, is reflected in Mathematic Practice Standard #1:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

I now understand that this standard should not be not limited to applications in math classes; I believe this standard should be shared with multiple academic disciplines.  As evidence, I offer a “retranslation” of this standard’s descriptors, explained on the Common Core Website, that I use in every lesson everyday:

Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution.

If you drop the word “mathematically”, this standard measures any student’s ability to comprehend a problem, or question, in any subject area, and encourages students to be self-selective on determining the best way to solve a problem. In the English/Language Arts class, this “entry point for a solution” could be anything from selecting an independent book to read, to choosing a thesis for a research paper, or to picking a presentation software for an oral report to name a few examples.

Mathematically proficient students analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.

In the English Language Arts classrooms, I teach students to analyze literary texts, fiction and non-fiction, for givens and constraints crafted by an author; to analyze the relationships between characters or author and audience; and to evaluate the goals these characters or authors achieve or fail to achieve.

Mathematically proficient students monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary.

In the English/Language Arts classrooms, a student often begins writing with one idea or thesis, but by the end of the paper, the idea has changed; the thesis must be re-written. Students must monitor the progression of their ideas, and when the ideas cannot be supported or expressed, then they must change course in their writing.

Mathematically proficient students can explain correspondences between equations, verbal descriptions, tables, and graphs or draw diagrams of important features and relationships, graph data, and search for regularity or trends.

In the English Language Arts classroom, students should be able to explain the correspondence created with parts of speech in each sentence construction; they should understand the features and relationships created with punctuation; they should look for patterns in rhetoric; and they should be able to recognize the purpose of a selected genre used to communicate.

Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, “Does this make sense?”

English Language Arts students must read their writing and the writings of others while keeping in mind the question, “Does this make sense?”For the record, I add the question, “So what?” as well.

The particulars in the MP#1 standard are not limited to mathematics as demonstrated in this almost line by line interpretation. All academic disciplines incorporate the ideas in this standard which, when combined, are the tools of perseverance. Teaching students to persevere is the ultimate goal of MP#1, and there are plenty of opportunities to practice perseverance in the classroom. The incorporation of technology in lessons at any grade level and in any subject can be such an opportunity.

My school has a B.Y.O.D. (Bring Your Own Digital Device) policy for grades 9-12. Our grading system is online, assignments are visible to stakeholders, and almost all of my lessons incorporate some technology during the class period. I have learned first hand, however, that the use of any technology in the classroom requires perseverance because no matter how well a lesson is planned, SOMETHING WILL GO WRONG!

For example: a link on a web page will not work; a platform selected by a student might need Java, which is not available on every device; another student will forget a password; or the network becomes overloaded when 30 students try and access a program at the same time.

I think of the MP#1 when I work on these problems everyday, and I know I am modeling perseverance for my students when I persevere and deal with each problem. I cannot give up and blame technology; I cannot blame the Internet. I must model how to problem solve, how to look for solutions, and show how I regularly ask myself if what I am doing “makes sense.”

“Use a different browser,” I suggest when a link does not work.
“Let’s reset your password,” I advise a student.
“OK, Row 3? You will have to wait a minute before trying to log on…we can’t all access this site at once,” I might recommend.
Sometimes I discover the problem is simply the power supply,
“Wait….is this even plugged in?”

Every day, I consider what Ms. C told me years ago as I model the MP#1 standard in my English/Language Arts classroom. From her words to the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standard #1: “Never, ever let them give up. All problems have a solution.”

In the spirit of all end of the year reviews, I have condensed the year 2013 by offering month by month posts from this blog that illustrated the best student (and subsequently, teacher) learning:

January 2013: A Freshman’s Modern Odyssey in the Style of Homer

"Dawn spread her rosy fingers..."

“Dawn spread her rosy fingers…”

The Freshmen final project after reading The Odyssey is a narrative that students complete called “The Wamogossey: A Day in the Life of a Freshman at Wamogo High School.” Writing narratives are once again favored in  Common Core State Standards, and this post explained how students made their own attempt at an epic adventure.

February 2013:  Spilling Over the Corners of a Six Word Text

Short Story in 6 words

Short Story in 6 words

This exercise proves that keeping students “within the four corners of the text” is impossible, even when the text, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is only six words long. This post also serves as evidence that that admonitions on best practices should be limited to those with actual classroom experience, not to the “architects of the Common Core.”

March 2013 If You Want to Watch the Cow Give Birth

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Yes, “If you want to watch the cow give birth, turn on U-stream now!” was an announcement over the PA system. Normally, I am irritated by interruptions to class time, but this announcement cued students about opportunity watch the birth of a calf in the Agricultural Science wing of our high school. The combination of technology in broadcasting and recording the birth of the newest member of the agricultural program with old-fashioned “hands on” physical labor illustrates 21st Century authentic learning.

April 2013 You Never Forget Your First Hamlet

Members of the senior class were fortunate enough to see Paul Giamatti’s “Hamlet” at Yale Repertory Theatre. I’ll let their words speak for the experience:

The performance was a wonderful experience, especially since it was my first time to see Shakespeare.

I wouldn’t mind going to another because it was so enjoyable that I didn’t even realize the 4 hours passing by.

I like the way that a play has a certain kind of vibe. It’s like a live concert, where there’s a certain kind of energy.

It was like seeing a live performance of a film. I would especially like to see another Shakespeare because it is the way that he intended his works to be portrayed.

After seeing Hamlet so well done, it would definitely be worth going to see another one whether it be Shakespeare or a different kind of performance.

May 2013 Kinesthetic Greek and Latin Roots

Spelling "exo"=outside

Spelling “exo”=outside

Understanding Greek and Latin roots is critical to decoding vocabulary, so when the freshman had a long list of roots to memorize, we tried a kinesthetic approach. The students used their fingers to spell out Greek roots: ant (against), tech (skill), exo (outside).  They twisted their bodies into letters and spread out against the wall spelling out xen (foreign), phob (fear). They also scored very well on the quizzes as a result!

June 2013 Superteachers!

Superteacher!

Superteacher!

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, teachers rose to a “friendship and respect” challenge to make a video. With a little help from a green screen, 27 members of the faculty representing a wide variety of disciplines jumped into the nearby closet wearing the big “W” (for Wamogo). Students in the video production class watched and filmed in amazement as, bearing some artifact from a particular subject area, each teacher donned a flowing red cape.

July 2013 Library Book Sales: Three Bags Full!

The original purpose of this blog was to show how I filled classroom libraries with gently used books. The Friends of the C.H. Booth Library Book Sale in Newtown, Connecticut, is one of the premier books sales in the state: well-organized tables filled with excellent quality used books, lots of attentive check-out staff, and great prices. This year, I added three large bags of books to our classroom libraries for $152.00, a discount of 90% off retail!

August 2013 Picture Books Are not for Kindergarten Any More!Cat in Hat book cover

At used book sales, I am always looking for picture books I can use in high school classrooms. For example, I use The Cat in the Hat to explain Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Superego . Thing #1 and Thing #2 represent Id, and that righteous fish? The Superego. Yes, Dr. Seuss is great for psychological literary criticism, but he is not the only picture book in my repertoire of children’s literature used in high school. This post features a few of my favorite picture books to use and why.

September 2013 Close Reading with Saki and the Sophomores

Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course in which our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS). After a “close reading” the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS:  figurative language, the ironic wish, and multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man versus the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? The ensuing discussion forced the class to consider other positions.

October 2013 Close Reading Art

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire

After “close reading” short stories, the sophomores were asked to use the same skills to “close read” several paintings that thematically connected to the Industrial Revolution. They studied a Constable pastoral painting, before J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire. While some called attention to the the dirty smoke stack, others saw the energetic paddling as a sign of progress. They noticed the ghost-like ship hovering in the background, the light created by the sunset which gave the painting “warmth”or “light extinguishing”. When they were asked to use these elements as evidence to determine the artist’s message, there were some succinct responses to the painting’s “text.”

November 2013 Thanks for the NCTE Conference

Five members of the English Department attended the conference and selected from over 700 sessions at the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on English Leadership.  District support for such great professional development is truly appreciated. We are also grateful that four of our proposals were chosen to share as presentations for other educators. The explanations of our presentations with links to these presentations are included in this post.

December 2013 Drama Class Holiday Miracle

Cast photo!

Cast photo!

An ice storm two weeks before performance caused a car pile-up, and the drama club teacher was left with a concussion. She could not be in school; the students were on their own, and I was left to supervise their performances of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at three local elementary schools.

Their “dress rehearsal” was a disaster, but, as the adage says, “The show must go on!” and once they arrived at the elementary schools, the students were anxious to do well. They naturally changed their staging moving from gym floor to library floor, the Evil Queen tossed her hair with anger, and the Prince strode onto the stage with more confidence. The dwarves were a source of comic relief, intentionally or not. I watched the holiday miracle of 2013 repeated three times that day. The students in drama class at each school were applauded, with congratulatory e-mails from the principals that offered praise.

End of the year note:

I am grateful to be an educator and to have the privilege to work with students that I learn from everyday. In this retrospective, I can state unequivocally that 2013 was a memorable year… as you can see from many of the reasons listed above.

Welcome to 2014! May this coming year be even more productive!

If nothing else, the Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) contribution to the academic lexicon will be the renaming of the genre known as non-fiction to a larger genre of informational texts. This renaming expanded the genre to include many forms of reading: textbooks, letters, speeches, maps, brochures, memoirs, biographies, and news articles, to name a few.

So where to find these informational texts? What is appetizing enough to make middle school students want to read a story, and then, answer the questions to check their understanding? What kind of high interest texts appeal to high school students who prefer to “Google” or “Sparknote” answers rather than read a text closely? What multi-media elements could be added to make an informational text palatable enough to be consumed by all levels of readers?

Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 6.30.17 PM

The 2:12 video for accompanies the story

Well, teachers should look no further than the October 1, 2013, New York Times‘ feature article dedicated to Doritos Tortilla Chip titled That Nacho Dorito Taste. This short feature article combined photography and graphics;  a short video: and even shorter text that combined to provide an explanation on how this particular food is engineered so that “you can’t eat just one.”

The article is timely since the CCSS  requires that the student diet of reading should be 70% informational texts and 30% fiction by the time they graduate from high school.  The Literacy Standards specifically address reading in math, science, social studies, and the technical areas and recommends the increase in reading informational texts be completed in these classes. One of the technical areas content area classes could be a culinary arts class, a marketing class, or a health science class, but consider this particular informational text as scrumptious for any class.

In organizing this story, New York Times reporter Michael Moss, who also narrates the embedded video, interviewed food scientist Steven A. Witherly, author of “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” in order to better understand how all of the chemical elements combine in the Nacho Cheese Doritos chip to make it alluring to our taste buds.  According to Witherly, the mixing of flavors on this particular chip is purposeful:

 “What these are trying to do is excite every stinking taste bud receptor you have in your mouth.”

The graphics for the article by Alicia DeSantis and Jennifer Daniel are cleverly combined with photographs by Fred R. Conrad, also from the The New York Times. A separate page layout with the graphic/photo mix delivers tidbits of information about the Dorito chip. Each detail is organized by topic, as this example shows:

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 9.46.47 PM

A teacher does not even have to work at organizing questions for students to answer since the New York Time Learning Network, a free educational blog offered by the paper, organized an entire lesson plan on this article. The lesson is titled 6 Q’s About the News | The Science Behind Your Craving for Doritos, organized by Katherine Schulten. The questions on the blog include:

WHAT is psychobiology?
WHAT is “dynamic contrast”?
HOW do the acids in Doritos work on the brain?

WHAT is “sensory-specific satiety”?

WHERE do half the calories in Doritos come from, and, according to the graphic, HOW does that work on the brain?

WHY is “forgettable flavor” so important to Doritos’ success?

The higher order questions invite students to consider:

Now that you know the formula behind Doritos, are you more likely to eat more or less of them? WHY?
HOW many processed foods do you eat a day?
WHAT might a graphic explaining the effects of this food look like?

So go ahead. Read the Nacho Cheese Doritos article. See how irresistible an informational text can be. Once you read one this good, you will be searching to find another!

Open House: OMG!

September 15, 2013 — 1 Comment

September is Open House Month, and the welcoming speech from a teacher could sound like this:

“Welcome, Parents! Let me show you how to access my website on the SMARTboard where you can see how the CCSS are aligned with our curriculum. You can monitor your child’s AYP by accessing our SIS system, Powerschool. In addition, all of our assignments are on the class wiki that you can access 24/7.  As we are a BYOD school, your child will need a digital device with a 7″ screen to use in class.”

OMG!

How parents may feel during Open House listening to education acronyms

The result of such a speech is that parents may feel like students all over again. The same people who sat in desks, perhaps only a few years ago, now are on another side of the classroom experience, and the rapid changes caused by the use of technology in education necessitate a need for education primer, a list of important terms to know. While attending the Open House, parents can observe that there are still bulletin boards showcasing student work. They can note how small the desks appear now, if there are desks. Perhaps the lunch lady is the same individual who doled out applesauce and tater tots onto their school lunch trays.  Yet, listening to how instruction is delivered, monitored, and accessed may make parents feel that they are in some alien experience with instructors and administrators spouting a foreign language. Just what is a wiki? they may wonder, and what does BYOD stand for?

So, let’s begin with some of the acronyms.  At Open House, educators may casually throw around some of the following terms to explain what they teach or how they measure what they teach:

  • PBL (Project Based Learning) a hands-on lesson;
  • SIS (Student Information System);
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy: a sequence of learning based on complication of task and level of critical thinking which is being replaced by the DOK;
  • DOK (Depths of Knowledge) complication of task and level of critical thinking required
  • ESL (English as a Second Language);
  • AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress);
  • WIKI: a web application which allows people to add, modify, or delete content in a collaboration with others; and
  • SMARTboard: interactive white board

Subject area names may also seem unfamiliar since they now reflect a different focus on areas in education. English is now ELA (English/Language Arts) while science and math have merged like the Transformers into the mighty STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The old PE class may now bear the moniker Physical Activity and Health (PAH), but  History has already dealt with the shift to the more inclusive term Social Studies coined in the 1970s.

Assessment (testing) brings about another page in the list of education acronyms that parents may hear on Open House, including these few examples:

DRP (Degrees of Reading Power) reading engagement, oral reading fluency, and comprehension younger elementary students;
DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) reading engagement, oral reading fluency, and comprehension in elementary and middle grade students;
STAR: new skills-based test items, and new in-depth reports for screening, instructional planning, progress monitoring;
PSAT/SAT/ACT:designed to assess student academic readiness for college 

Parents, however, should be aware that they are not alone in their confusion. Educators often deal with acronym duplication, and  state by state the abbreviations may change. In Connecticut, some students have IEPs (Individual Education Plans), but all students have SSP (Student Success Profiles) which shares the same acronym with the SSP (Strategic School Profile). Connecticut introduced the teacher evaluation program SEED known as the System for Educator Evaluation and Development, which is an acronym not to be confused with SEED, a partnership with urban communities to provide educational opportunities that prepare underserved students for success in college and career.

Federal programs only add to the list of abbreviations. Since 1975, students have been taught while IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) has been implemented. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) has been the dominating force in education for the length of the Class of 14’s time in school, along with its partner SSA (Student Success Act) which is similar to, but not exactly like, the SSP mentioned earlier. The latest initiative to enter the list of reform movements that parents should know  is known as the CCSS the Common Core State Standards.

The CCSS are academic standards developed in 2009 and adopted by 45 states in order to provide “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” Many of the concepts in the CCSS will be familiar to parents, however, the grade level at which they are introduced may be a surprise. Just as their parents may have been surprised to find the periodic tables in their 5th grade science textbooks, there are many concepts in math (algebra) and English (schema) that are being introduced as early as Kindergarten.

So when a student leaves in the morning with a digital device for school, BYOD or BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) and sends a “text” that they will be staying late for extra help or extra-curricular activities, parents should embrace the enhanced communication that this Brave New World of technology in education is using. If at Open House a parent needs a quick explanation of the terms being used by a teacher, he should raise his hand;  in spite of all these newfangled terms and devices, that action still signals a question.

Above all, parents should get to know the most important people in the building: the school secretary (sorry, the Office Coordinator) and the school custodian (sorry, FMP: Facility Maintenance Personnel). They know where your child left her backpack.

No common coreOne of the underlying problems in educational reform today is that so few reformers have any hands-on classroom experience. Reading about teaching is academic and informative, but the hands-on experience of standing in front of a class of 9, 14, 24, or (heaven forbid!) 31 students at any grade level is irreplaceable. Developing lesson plans is an academic exercise, however monitoring and adjusting that lesson plan for real time problems (fire drill, student absences, material shortage, technology glitch) during instruction is irreplaceable. Reading assessment data is an academic enterprise, but understanding that data in the context of the classroom with all the personalities, abilities, disabilities, and socio-economic influences is irreplaceable. Hands-on experience should be a major factor in education reform, but the education reform efforts in the  Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have little to no classroom credibility.

A recent entry on Twitter from Randi Weingarten, current president of the American Federation of Teachers, was an attempt to address the classroom experience of the creators of the CCSS. Weingarten herself does have hands-on experience in the classroom, but that experience is spotty.  From 1991 until 1997, and with the exception of a six month full time teaching load in the fall of 1994, Weingarten taught on per diem basis (substitute?) at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, NY. Total experience? Six years, but this short experience is six more than many of the educational reformers who participated in the creation of the CCSS.

Weingarten tweeted the following on June 29, 2013:

Teachers were part of the development of #CCSS from the beginning http://youtu.be/y1DlNpaKW38

She was posting a link that was supposed to demonstrate that teachers, real classroom teachers with hands-on experience, had been involved in the standards from the beginning. The link led to a YouTube video featuring an ELL classroom teacher Lisa Fretzin who reflects how she “…was part of the review process starting in August looking at the the first draft”:

While Ms. Fretzin certainly has classroom credibility necessary for developing the CCSS, her participation was not exactly at the “beginning” of this process. According to her statement on the video, she was not present at the creation; she was asked to “review” which is different than “from the beginning”. Furthermore, her name is not on the list of participants who did create the CCSS for English Language Arts (or feedback group) which clearly identifies only four of the 50 participants (8%) as “teachers”. The remaining 46 participants (92%) are identified with titles such as: “author”, “consultant”, “specialist”, “professor”,  “supervisor”, “director” or “senior fellow.” In all fairness, perhaps many of these participants had worked in the classroom before moving into higher ranking positions as one would hope, but their hands-on classroom work experience is unclear.

The most glaring examples of classroom incredibility are the lead authors for the CCSS, Susan Pimentel and David Coleman; their collective classroom experience is zero. Pimentel has a law degree and a B.S in Early Childhood Education from Cornell University. Coleman’s, (termed “Architect of the Common Core”) classroom experience is limited to tutoring selected students in a summer program at Yale. He later founded Student Achievement Partners and is currently serving as the President of the College Board.

Weingarten must also know that classroom teachers for PreK-Grade 3 and grade level experts were not included in the creation of the CCSS at all. Many of these educators have express concerns that students are not cognatively ready for many of the standards in math and reading. Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post put up an editorial (1/29/13) “A Tough Critique of Common Core on Early Childhood Education” by Edward Miller, teacher and co-author of Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, and Nancy Carlsson-Paige is Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and author of Taking Back Childhood. They note that when the standards were first revealed in March 2010, “many early childhood educators and researchers were shocked. “

The promoters of the standards claim they are based in research. They are not. There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. Two recent studies show that direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning. At best, the standards reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.

Miller and Carlsson-Paige also include links to the Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative and summarize their statement:

 We have grave concerns about the core standards for young children…. The proposed standards conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades….

At all grade levels, therefore, there are concerns about how inclusive the creators of the CCSS were in engaging classroom teachers. The entire initiative, by its own admission, began politically, coming from the nation’s governors and education commissioners, “through their representative organizations the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).”

Weingarten’s tweet was more than a little disingenuous when she indicated that “teachers were part of the development” when, to the contrary, there is much more evidence to prove that the ratio of teachers to individuals bearing education titles was disproportionate in favor of reformers and academics without classroom experience.

Real teachers, those with hands-on experience gained in the classroom, have had a limited say in the CCSS that they will be implementing day in and day out in their classrooms at every grade level. Excluding this important faction is why there has been pushback from teachers who recognize the difficulties in implementing many of the standards. Furthermore, there are growing concerns about the level of accountability for teachers in having students meet these same standards.

Ultimately, Weingarten should not tweet out misinformation about teachers developing the CCSS, especially when the evidence demonstrates that teachers were a only a tiny percentage in creating these standards. Weingarten must know that for any educational initiative to succeed, teachers must be engaged from the very beginning.

In these days of education reform, classroom credibility counts.

“Want to know the shortest poem in the world?” I asked my Advanced Placement students when they were overwhelmed with the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton. I wanted to use a related poem to demonstrate a close reading, one of the skills students should have in according to the Common Core Standards for English/Language Arts, but they needed a little fun.

“It’s called Fleas.”

I wrote the poem on the board:

Fleas

Adam
had’em

That’s it. Three words…actually two if you consider the contraction “had’em” as one word.

The poem attribution is generally given to Ogden Nash (1902-1971) although there are some who credit Shel Silverstein (1931-1999). An article by Eric Shackle, however, found the originator of the poem was Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954). The article notes:

“At last, after searching dozens of websites, we discovered the identity of the mystery poet. It was revealed on a US National Park Service website describing Mount Rainer National Park, in west-central Washington state. The Mt Rainier Nature News Notes of July 1, 1927 contained this brief item, tucked away as an end-of-column filler:

‘THE SHORTEST POEM
We like poetry but we cannot stand it in too large doses. The following, which according to its author, Strickland Gillilan, is the shortest poem existing, deals with the antiquity of “bugs”. It runs thus: Adam had em!'”

Authorship clarified, I asked my students, “So, what could you write about this poem?”

They stared at me. Surely I was joking…what kind of discussion or essay could a poem of this length generate?

After several minutes, however, here is what they came up with structurally:

  • iambic (duet?)
  • rhyming couplet
  • rhyme (am/em)
  • perfect internal rhyme (ad)
  • there is contraction
  • no punctuation
  • uneven number of letters; shorter first line

Here is what they came up on the topic of fleas:

    • Scientists have discovered that fleas probably fed on dinosaurs
    • Fleas feed on warm vertebrates’ blood
    • Fleas need Adam; Adam does not need fleas

Here is what they came up with figuratively:

  • the name in the first line establishes context
  • literary allusion: Adam from the Bible, the first man in literature
  • Eve was not mentioned, so the setting may be earlier than Genesis 2:20
  • the tone is casual and comical
  • the mood is humorous
  • Adam has fleas; the fleas don’t have Adam
  • the title is critical to the understanding of the message

Unanswered questions they had on the poem:

  • Could there have ever been just one flea?
  • Does Adam bathe?
  • Is the past tense verb “had” mean that he has cleaned up his act?

adam

Their conclusion?

  • Close reading three words yields a fun discussion;
  • Concise poetry captures the relationship between ancient man and an ancient insect pest.

Fleas– the world’s shortest poem!

Here is an educational policy riddle: How much background knowledge does a student need to read a historical text?

According to New York Engage website: None.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are being implemented state by state, and there is an emphasis from teaching students background knowledge to teaching students skills, specifically the skill of close reading.

The pedegogy is explained by The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011)

There are many lessons that strongly advocate the use of close reading in teaching historical texts on the EngageNY.com website, including a set of exemplar lessons for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address promoted by CCSS contributor and now College Board President, David Coleman. The lesson’s introduction states:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading–that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Photo of Lincoln delivering Gettysburg Address- (www.wikipedia.org)

Photo of Lincoln delivering
Gettysburg Address- (www.wikipedia.org)

The lesson plan is organized in three sections. In the first, students are handed a copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and perform several “cold” readings, to themselves and then with the class.

Lesson Plan SECTION 1 What’s at stake: a nation as a place and as an idea

Students silently read, then the teacher reads aloud the text of the Gettysburg Address while students follow along.

  • Students translate into their own words the first and second paragraph. 
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the first two paragraphs

Please note, there is no mention of any historical context for the speech. Students will come to this 273-word speech without the background knowledge that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, and this battle is considered the most important engagement of the American Civil War. They will not know that the battle resulted in “Union casualties of 23,000, while the Confederates had lost some 28,000 men–more than a third of Lee’s army” (History.com). They will not know how the Army of Northern Virginia achieved an apex into Union territory with “Pickett’s Charge,” a failed attempt by General George Pickett  to break through the Union line in South Central Pennsylvania, and that the charge resulted in the death of thousands of rebel soldiers. They will not know how the newly appointed Major General George Gordon Meade of the Army of the Potomac met the challenges of General Robert E. Lee by ordering responses to skirmishes on Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and in the Devil’s Den. They will not know that Meade would then be replaced by General Ulysses S. Grant in part because Meade did not pursue Lee’s troops in their retreat to Virginia.

Instead of referencing any of this historical background, the guding questions in the lesson’s outline imagine the students as blank slates and mention another historical event:

A. When was “four score and seven years ago”? B. What important thing happened in 1776?

The guiding responses for teachers seem to begrudge an acknowledgement that keeping students bound to the four corners of a text is impossible, and that, yes, a little prior knowledge of history is helpful when reading a historical text:

This question, of course, goes beyond the text to explore students’ prior knowledge and associations. Students may or may not know that the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, but they will likely know it is a very important date – one that they themselves have heard before. Something very important happened on that date.  It’s OK to mention the Declaration, but the next step is to discover what students can infer about 1776 from Lincoln’s own words now in front of them.

In addition, there are admonishments in Appendix A of the lesson not to ask questions such as, “Why did the North fight the civil war?”

Answering these sorts of questions require students to go outside the text, and indeed in this particular instance asking them these questions actually undermine what Lincoln is trying to say. Lincoln nowhere in the Gettysburg Address distinguishes between the North and South (or northern versus southern soldiers for that matter). Answering such questions take the student away from the actual point Lincoln is making in the text of the speech regarding equality and self-government.

The lesson plan continues:

Lesson Plan SECTION 2  From funeral to new birth

  • Students are re-acquainted with the first two paragraphs of the speech.
  • Students translate the third and final paragraph into their own words.
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address.

Please note this does not provide the context of the speech that was given that crisp morning of November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery on a damp battlefield that only months before had been dampened red with the blood of tens of thousands of soldiers from either side. The students would be unaware that Lincoln had taken the train from Washington the day before and was feeling slightly feverish on the day of the speech. There is some speculation that he may have been suffering from the early stages of smallpox when he delivered the speech reading from a single piece of paper in a high clear voice. The students would not know that Lincoln’s scheduled time at the podium followed a two hour (memorized) speech by Edward Everett, who later wrote to Lincoln stating, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” The students would not know that many of the 15,000 crowd members did not hear Lincoln’s two minute speech; the 10 sentences were over before many audience members realized Lincoln had been speaking. The students would not know that this speech marked Lincoln’s first public statement about principles of equality, and they would not know that he considered the speech to be a failure.

Lesson Plan SECTION 3  Dedication as national identity and personal devotion

  • Students trace the accumulated meaning of the word “dedicate” through the text
  • Students write a brief essay on the structure of Lincoln’s argument

The lesson provides links to the five handwritten copies of the text, in the “Additional ELA Task #1: Comparison of the drafts of the speech” so that students can see drafts of the speech and the inclusion of “under God” in the latter three versions. There is also an additional Social Studies task that incorporates the position of respected historian Gary Wills from his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Worlds that Remade America. This activity suggests students use excerpts from Wills’s book and an editorial from the Chicago Times (November 23, 1863) to debate “Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution”. One excerpt from Wills’s book includes the statement,”The stakes of the three days’ butchery are made intellectual, with abstract truths being vindicated.” Finally, here is information about the battle itself; the battle lasted three days and soldiers died.

The enterprise of reading the Gettysburg Address without context defeats PARRC’s stated objective of having the students “arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole”. The irony is that in forwarding their own interpretation of the speech, David Coleman and the lesson plan developers have missed Lincoln’s purpose entirely; Lincoln directs the audience to forget the words of the speech, but never to forget the sacrifices made by the soldiers during that brutal conflict:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address to remind his audience “that these dead shall not have died in vain”. Analyzing the language of the address isolated from the Civil War context that created the tone and message is a hollow academic exercise. Instead, students must be taught the historical context so that they fully understand Lincoln’s purpose in praising those who, “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

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