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boringMany educators use Twitter to communicate as part of personal learning networks (PLN). I appreciate the means to share messages with other educators, but I am sometimes alarmed by some of the tweets I read. The brevity of 140 characters does not allow for nuances. The tweet is, by design, blunt.
Example #1: Most teachers do not share a professional language. And they don’t share prof lang with students. 
I wonder, “Really? Is there evidence to support this claim?”
Example #2: Freedom—for educators and parents—is necessary, but not sufficient, for excellent schools
I think, “Define Freedom. Define sufficient. Define excellent.”
These tweets are made of some sentiment that begins an argument, but they are so brief and banal that they cut off debate.
Such was the case this week when prominent author and educator Dr. Tony Wagner paraphrased a statement made by Education Secretary Arne Duncan (week May 21, 2013) in a response on his twitter feed.  Wagner is the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard; he is a former high school teacher, K-8 principal, and a university professor in teacher education. Wagner’s tweet read:

“‘Too many high school students are dropping out, not because school is too hard, but because it’s too easy @arneduncan’ Wrong! It’s boring!” @DrTonyWagner.

While I disagree with Duncan’s generalization that schools are too easy, I was even more disturbed by Wagner’s response, about school, “It’s boring!”
I hear this complaint enough from students before they read the class novel or before we start the unit. I did not expect to hear it from Wagner.
Students say “this is boring” so much that I will not let them use the word “boring” any more.
But, is school boring?
Is it?
I take issue with Wagner’s claim. I would like to debate this.
As someone who attended Mr. Orontias’s History and Geography class in 1970, I can confidently say I have experienced boring. His 45 minute lecture delivered in a monotone right after lunch was not in a time space continuum; the clock hands did not move.
I know boring.
In contrast, my students’ high school today is not boring. As examples, I offer the following:
  • We have a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) initiative;
  • We employ student driven learning with choice on reading, topics, and presentation;
  • We include project based assessments and encourage reflection on tests.
We do, however, require that students do schoolwork. They practice math problems. They do research. They must complete reading assignments. They have deadlines. Some of this work is repetitious; some of this work is tedious. Some rote learning may be necessary to develop background knowledge before students can engage in active participation or collaboration.
So, when I hear from students that they are “bored” with school, often what they are saying is “schoolwork is not fun.”
This is not unexpected. A great deal of time is spent everyday in “not fun” activities inside school, just as a number of “not fun” activities are required in the real world.
I sympathize, but the reality is that not every lesson in school is fun. Education objectives require students to work rather than have the teachers be the engine of the classroom.
Wagner is one of the innovative educators who promotes education to incorporate more real world problems, reforming education to prepare students with 21st Century skills in order to engage students in meaningful enterprises. Whatever innovations are developed by education reformers like Wagner, students will experience frustrations, and experience failures. There will be efforts expended by teachers and students successfully and unsuccessfully. Work will be necessary, and some of that work will not be fun. If the goal of schools is to prepare students to learn the value of work, to prepare students for the workforce, work should be applauded, even if the work is not fun, or if the work is “boring.”
Arne Duncan’s statement that high school students are dropping out because schools are too easy is a gross overstatement. How easy will the real world be for those high school dropouts?
Similarly, Wagner’s accusation that high school is boring is infuriatingly terse, using only 20 out of Twitter’s 140 characters. How bored will students be if they drop out and cannot find fulfilling employment?
There are isolated cases of students who may write code for some fabulous new social media or video game that goes viral, but those are isolated. A high school diploma is necessary for even the most menial employment.
Today’s schools are not boring. Today’s schools are preparing students for work environments just like schools have done in decades past. Historically, teachers do not predict the job market, instead they prepare students with the fundamentals so that their students may create the job market. Some of that preparation is not fun; it is work, and in student lingo, it is boring.
Stating this needs more than a pithy remark that negates the efforts of teachers who are engaging students with 21st Century skills, with active rather than passive instruction.
Education has come a long way since my experience in the 1970s because of the efforts of education reformers like Dr. Wagner. Forty years ago, education came in primarily in the form of direct instruction. We sat in rows and listened to lectures, and yes, that was boring.
Except for the day that Mr. Orontias stepped into the wastebasket.
That was not boring at all.

Spoiler alertEnter the spoiler alert. Because the number of ways people hear about stories is increasing, spoiler alerts for books and films are offered as a “heads-up”, a means to prevent plot details from becoming public.  Knowing the end of a story might mean that the strategy of “predicting” a story has been compromised, however, there are genres of stories that absolutely count on predictability, for example, Nancy Drew will always solve a mystery with her best friend, Bess and George, while on TV, predictability has a time limit; the shipwrecked crew will never leave Gilligan’s Island (30 mins) and House will solve a medical mystery (60 mins).

Predictability means to state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge, and students are taught at an early age that making predictions can help them to determine what will happen in a story.

I noticed how predictions are important even if the end has already been decided when my six-year-old niece was watching the Disney film Running Brave. This was her favorite film, and she watched the VHS tape every afternoon. On one such afternoon, I noticed she was drifting asleep, so I made a move to turn off the video.

“Wait,” she cried out, “I think….I think he’s going to win again.”

From her perspective, the outcome of the race was still in doubt. The cinematic elements, the tight editing of shots , and a triumphant soundtrack created suspense where the viewer might doubt the inevitable. Krista had seen the movie hundreds of times, but she still was “testing” her prediction.

I admit that I have felt the same way watching Miracle, holding my breath for the final seconds wondering if the US ice hockey team would still win the Olympic medal. Krista’s experience is also mirrored in the classes where students often choose books based on a movie that they have seen.

In the independent reading allowed in our curriculum, the 9th graders can choose contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and many of the titles have movies in circulation, for example:

Some students purposefully choose these books because they know the endings, and in knowing how the book ends allows the reader to pay more attention to the craft of the author in bringing all the plot points together in a conclusion. Take for example, the Harry Potter series. Most readers predicted with certainty that Harry Potter would finally face his nemesis, Voldemort. The how and when, however, were still very much in the air, and J.K.Rowling’s crafting of the series’s magical settings and character development kept readers in a willing suspension of disbelief for the length of seven volumes. The final conclusion was satisfying to her fans who knew all along that Harry would prevail, after all, Good’s triumph over Evil is a predictable plot. Readers and filmgoers were not disappointed in following the story of a boy with the scar on his forehead because in each volume and subsequent film release, they correctly predicted that “I think…I think he will win again.”

So when I teach a whole class novel, I know there are some students who already know the ending. They may have reached the conclusion before others, or been informed by older students who notoriously share their opinions and critical information with younger students. In this case, my role is to impress on students that knowing the outcome will not destroy a well-told story, and to focus their attention on the other elements. This was the case with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“I heard this is a sad book,” one student said when I assigned the first chapter, “One guy kills another guy.”
Other students looked up for my confirmation.
“Yes, this is a sad book, but the reason for the sadness is really about caring. We will grow to care for these characters.”
“I already don’t care if I already know what happens,” was his reply.
Four weeks later, this student refused to watch the final scene in the film version.
“I know what happens, and I cannot watch,” he said sadly as he walked out into the hall.

The same sentiments are expressed at the beginning of our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Guess what? They die,” said a student as I passed out the books.
“Yes, they die,” I kept passing out the copies.
“So why are reading this?” another asked.
“Because this is a great story,” I responded, “and the story’s ending will mean more after we finish because we will have read how Shakespeare writes about these ‘star-cross’d lovers’.”
“But we already know how it ends!” they whined.

Now that we are in Act III, no one cares that they know the end, instead, they are recognizing how Shakespeare creates the tragedy. They notice the “hints”: Juliet seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb”, Friar Lawrence’s herbs of “Violent delights”, and “Love devouring death”.

This discovery of an author’s details makes students more appreciative of the craft in writing as they still try to predict. They notice Shakespeare’s allusions: “Such a wagoner/As Phaeton would whip you to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately” (3.2.2-4), because we had studied the Phaeton myth earlier in the year.

“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” I heard one say, “Romeo’s gonna crash and burn like Phaeton.”

That kind of analysis is exactly what the English Language Arts Common Core would like to see in a close reading of a text. How interesting that students who already know “what happens” may be better at picking up on an author’s craft that a close reading generates.

Spoiler alerts do warn those readers or viewers who want to be surprised, but knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the reading or viewing experience. Want to experiment? Here are 50 plot spoilers for 50 novels. I predict that each novel will not disappoint, even if you already know the ending.

Tuesday nights are #edchat nights on Twitter, and educators across the country, even across the globe, discuss topics of general interest for an hour. Last night (5/7) the topic was posted: What is BIG Shift in ed that everyone is looking for? Is there 1 idea that can positively affect education? While I was surfing the column of tweets that piling up, I was alarmed by one of the “tweets” in one of the sidebar discussions that break out between tweeters.The topic began with a comment about high school teachers by one tweeter”

Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?

The response to this question caught my eye and made me a little concerned: 

 HS Ts need not be content experts, but rather good directors and literate within their subject.

The brevity in Twitter-language communication often makes the tone in tweets sound dogmatic; many read like proclamations, and this was a proclamation I found startling. Yes, teachers need to be good directors, but the standard for literate is “being able to  know how to read and write” in a subject area? That definition sets a low bar for teachers.  My own experience in school guided my response; I tweeted back:

I respectfully disagree; my best HS teachers were content experts. Made me want to know what they knew.

The return tweet by was unsettling:

Good T[teachers] facilitate learning & help S[students] engage. With tech, a content-expert is less imp. 

Captured in the dialogue above is a contemporary problem in education, a growing separation between skills or content created by the exponential growth of information.  For example, in 2011, The Telegraph published “Welcome to the Information Age – 174 Newspapers a Day” which began:

The growth in the internet, 24-hour television and mobile phones means that we now receive five times as much information every day as we did in 1986.

The article written by Richard Alleyne, illustrated the explosion in the increase of information using a variety of statistics:

  • Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase. 
  • We now each have the equivalent of 600,000 books stored in computers, microchips and even the strip on the back of a credit card.
  • In 1986 we received around 40 newspapers full of information every day- this rocketed to 174 in 2007.
  • The ability to process all this information with computers has doubled every 18 months.

Today’s information overload is the major reason that many educators are promoting 21st Century skills; there is little hope that any human could manage the amount of information available. Instead there is every reason to believe that developing the necessary skills to access information is critical in education. However, to declare that teachers do not need to be content experts is a step in the wrong direction. 

Would anyone want a doctor or lawyer who was skilled but lacked content knowledge? Would anyone want a business manager or a craftsman who had content knowledge but no skills?  Why then do respected educators suggest that there should be a preference for skills over content in the teaching profession ? The problem appears to be that many people, educators included, connect content knowledge in the classroom with “lecture”. This association is evidenced by another tweeter who continued the conversation:

Content I agree, but just trying to focus away from “content expert” = lecturer. That’s not best role.

Really? For thousands of years, information was passed from one generation to another through the lecture format. Each subsequent generation added more knowledge in lecture formats, preparing the next generation for an undefined future. So did the Socratic method (5th C BCE) which encouraged debate and inquiry between teacher and students in order to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. Instructors used dialectic methods, arguments to persuade and inform. Now, suddenly, because there is an over-abundance of information, the lecture is dead?

Well, certainly the long and dry lecture delivered to students without their participation has always been deadening. Contemporary educators have adapted and improved the lecture by delivering content through different strategies to accomodate different learning styles.  Successful instruction is not delivered from the podium, but delivered in mini-lessons, project-based assessments, literature circles, reading and writing workshops, and labs. Yet, there was one more concern about the teacher as content expert, a concern about teacher control:

T[teachers]s direct content. S[students]s don’t have total control, but the emphasis needs to shift to the S[students]s.

While this tweet sounded blunt, the reality is that teachers do direct a great deal of content in delivering content knowledge as outlined in curriculum, and that content could be lost in turning control over to the students. There are many ways students can be offered choice in content: choice in independent reading, choice in research, choice in project presentation. Students must first have some content to make decisions and to take control of their learning. This sentiment was reflected in one of the last tweets in the conversation:

I agree content experts are important, but not as important as allowing S[students}s to access and struggle to understand.

I added my final comment:

Sure, if they [teachers] give them [students] the answers all the time. But a content expert knows questions-what to ask & where to help guide.

That struggle for understanding is exactly what has happened for millenium, from instructor to student. This Twitter conversation had come full circle, a full Socratic circle. Through Twitter’s #edchat, educators discussed the teacher as content expert or as a skilled instructor. We were participating in reasoned debate from our different points of view about a subject in order to establish a truth.

balanceThe sidebar conversation on #edchat had begun with the question, “Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?” This answer to this question is not a choice between content knowledge or being “great” with skill. Furthermore, the skill to dispense knowledge is enhanced not replaced by technology.

In determining what makes a teacher great, on #edchat or in any other forum, there is no “or”…the balanced combination of content and skills is what makes a teacher great.

The Twitter English Chat (#engchat) last night (5/6/13) was on vocabulary, and I was too late to join the conversation. There was, however, one tweet went by that I would like to answer. Shawn White (@swpax) posted:

Does anyone have fun, effective ways to teach/learn Latin & Greek roots?

Yes. Try a kinesthetic approach.

This past January, I posted two sets of Greek Root vocabulary words on Quizlet. This free software allows anyone to “study anything” or “find or create what you need to learn.” I found two sets of Greek roots that were already posted. Quizlet allows teachers to share materials, so I copied the words and posted them to an account that students could access.

Set I:http://quizlet.com/14668765/greek-root-list-i-flash-cards/

Set II: http://quizlet.com/14668889/greek-root-list-iii-flash-cards/

Quizlet also posts the lists to Twitter so students can access the lists. There are a variety of ways that students and teachers can use Quizlet. The flashcard mode has an audio mode which is really helpful for students to hear the correct pronunciation.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 8.32.41 PM

After the 9th graders had the lists, we practiced the words and their meanings kinesthetically. The students used their fingers to spell out Greek roots: ant (against), tech (skill), exo (outside).

TECH-(Skill)

TECH-Skill

ANT-against

ANT-against

ORTH-Correct

ORTH-Correct

EXO- Outside

EXO- Outside

They twisted their bodies into letters and spread out against the wall spelling out xen (foreign), phob (fear).

This was fun. (Sorry you cannot see their smiles)

This was also effective. The class average was  96% on Set I and 87% on Set II.

Greek roots are difficult to memorize, but they are essential to decoding other vocabulary words. Between 5-25% of English words are derived from the Greek. The Greek roots are particularly important in understanding today’s vocabulary in science and medicine.

How fitting, then, that kinesthetic is a synonym for biomechanics. And guess what the etymology of biomechanics is? Greek, of course!  Bios (living organism) + mechane, (machine).

This connection between my activity and the root might just be Greek fate…. but that’s another lesson!

PHOB-Fear

PHOB-Fear

XEN-Foreign

XEN-Foreign

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.”

Continue Reading…

Six years ago, the video “Shift Happens” (2007) was featured at our school’s professional development day. I clearly remember one take-away:

We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist using technologies that do not exist in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.

The video was created by Karl Fisch, and modified by Scott McLeod. The slides provided statistics on the rapid exponential growth in population and in information, highlighting the differences between the present and what was successful in the past, specifically England’s position on the world stage in 1900. Several slides are alarming in calling attention to the building tsunami of information available to students with examples such as ” there is more information in a week’s worth of the The New York Times than what an average person knew in the 1700s”. Since 2007, there have been several updated versions of “Shift Happens” uploaded to YouTube; there have also been many imitations.

I thought of this video this week when I drove past a sign on a large office building: Strategic Information Technologies.

“What does that mean?” I asked my friend Catherine, “Is the technology stategic because of geography? Strategic because of a choice of software or hardware?” I continued, “I don’t know what a ‘strategic information technologist’ does…Is this one of the unknown new jobs were are ‘preparing’ our 21st Century students to take?” I referenced the video.

“That’s ridiculous!” Catherine responded, “The people who ‘prepared’ us for the 21st Century were not worried about what new jobs would be available in our future. In fact,” she continued, “they taught us what they knew…what they thought we should know, and we are doing just fine.”

I was startled. Could a “Shift Happens” video place a misguided emphasis on adjusting skills and content in order to prepare students for the unidentified problems they don’t even know are problems yet?

“After all,” she continued, “We are the generation that created these new technologies that we didn’t know would exist today.”

When I reflect on her statement I think about how my favorite teachers in grades K-12  (Sister Ella, Mrs. Rowland, Miss Montessi) were not obsessed with preparing me for some unidentified job in the future. Instead, their collective obsession was to prepare me with basic skills and content so that I could be a productive member of society  I was taught to think, to read well, write well, speak well, know math, appreciate history, recognize science, and, since I attended Catholic school, recite my Catechism.

Perhaps, educators cannot predict the future for their students, but educators can address trends. For example, in 1957, the American public began to reconsider how the role of public education may contribute to winning the Space Race with the Soviets once Sputnik had been released. The investments in education made as a consequence resulted in increased scientific advancements and many spin-off technologies. In contrast, however, predictions such as those at the 1964 NY World’s Fair of a future with flying cars, jet packs, vacation trips to Mars and beyond, underwater cities, and robot laborers have never came to fruition.

Similarly, Karl Fisch’s video alerted educators to the rapid changes in education and the global implications in preparing students for the real world. He wrote:

“…it’s a different world out there. A world whereanyone’s ideas can quickly spread if they happen to strike a chord.”
This was certainly true of the “Shift Happens” video which had great success without “a large company or a huge public relations effort to make an impact.” Fisch continued:
This is just one of the reasons that I believe our schools need to change. They need to change to reflect this new world, this flatter world, this information-abundant, globally connected, rapidly changing, technology super-charged world that they are going to spend the rest of their lives in.

Fisch made no silly “predictions” like those at the NY World’s Fair. Instead, his video served to bring attention to trends that require an increase in the skills of  communication and sharing information.

In order to communicate and to share, students from grades K-12 must think, read well, write well, and speak well regardless as to what predictions are being made about new industries or technologies. In trying to anticipate the future, educators must not discount how the generations of students who learned these important skills became the graduates who are now responsible for evolving changes of the present.

Shift is not an entirely new enterprise on the world stage, for example,  the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution are all examples of global “shifts”. In the six short years since the “Shift Happens” video, Facebook has replaced MySpace as the world’s most formidable social network; Twitter has evolved into a powerful communication tool. The role of educators is not  to predict the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or company that will spawn new jobs or dominate an industry or the next “shift”. Instead, the role of educators must be to continue to teach those skills of thinking, reading, writing, and speaking well that contributed to the “shift” that is happening for our students.

There is no surprise that “Shift Happens”, and the students who are prepared to think, to read well, to write well, and to speak well will not be surprised either.

As the Connecticut State Standardized tests fade into the sunset, teachers are learning to say “Good-bye” to all those questions that ask the reader to make a personal connection to a story. The incoming  English Language Arts Common Core Standards (ELA- CCSS) are eradicating the writing of responses that begin with, “This story reminds me of…..” Those text to self, text to text, and text to world connections that students have made at each grade level are being jettisoned. The newly designed state assessment tests will tolerate no more fluff; evidence based responses only, please.

sunsetPerhaps this hard line attitude towards literacy is necessary correction. Many literacy experts had promoted connections to increase a reader’s engagement with a text. For example,

 “Tell about the connections that you made while reading the book. Tell how it reminds you of yourself, of people you know, or of something that happened in your life. It might remind you of other books, especially the characters, the events, or the setting” (Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3-6, Fountas and Pinnell) 

Unfortunately, the question became over-used, asked for almost every book at each grade level. Of course, many students did not have similar personal experiences to make a connection with each and every text. (Note: Given some of the dark literature-vampies, zombies- that adolescents favor, not having personal experience may be a good sign!) Other students did not have enough reading experience or the sophistication to see how the themes in one text were similar to themes in another text.  Some of the state assessment exemplars revealed how students often made limited or literal connections, for example:”The story has a dog; I have a dog.”

The requirement to make a connection to each and every story eventually led to intellectual dishonesty.  Students who were unable to call to mind an authentic connection faked a relationship or an experience. Some students claimed they were encouraged by their teachers to “pretend” they knew someone just like a character they read about. “Imagine a friend had the same problem,” they were told.   Compounding this problem was the inclusion of this connection question on the state standardized tests, the CAPT (grade 10) and the CMT (grades 3-8). So, some  students traded story for story in their responses, and they became amazingly creative in answering this question. I mentioned this in a previous post when a student told me that the sick relative he had written about in a response didn’t really exist. “Don’t worry,” he said brightly after I offered my condolences, “I made that up!”

Last week, our 9th grade students took a practice standardized test with the “make a connection question” as a prompt. They still need to practice since there is one more year of this prompt before ELA CCSS assessments are in place. The students wrote their responses to a story where the relationship between a mother and daughter is very strained. One of the students wrote about her deteriorating and very difficult relationship with her mother. I was surprised to read how this student had become so depressed and upset about her relationship with her mother. I was even more surprised that afternoon when that same mother called to discuss her daughter’s grade. I hesitated a little, but I decided to share what was written in the essay as a possible explanation. The next day, I received the following e-mail,

“I told M___that I read the practice test where she said I didn’t have time to talk and other things were more important. She just laughed and said that she had nothing in common with the girl in the story so she just made that up because she had to write something. We had a good laugh over that and I felt so relieved that she didn’t feel that way.”

After reading so many student “make a connection” essays, I should have seen that coming!

Good-bye, “Make a Connection” question. Ours was an inauthentic relationship; you were just faking it.

There are many great reasons to teach at the high school level: no outdoor recess duty, college level content, plus, a teacher never has to choose a “line leader”. Best of all, there are no bulletin board requirements.

While most elementary school classroom walls are crammed with colorful thematic cut-outs (apples, shamrocks, stars), high school walls are monochromatic. While middle school classrooms have student work displayed regularly, an essay hung in September will curl and fade on the wall of a high school classroom twisting in the air like an ancient leaf of papyrus.

Generally speaking, high school teachers do not spend a lot of time decorating the classroom. Subject content or motivational posters are the wall covering of choice, unchanged for the requisite 181 days of instruction. Perhaps it is inevitable that teachers who share classrooms do not personalize classrooms.

However, for one brief part of the 3rd grading quarter, Read Across America Week (February 25-March 1st) changed the decorating habits of the faculty at Wamogo Middle/High School.

English teacher door...a wide rang of reading complete with motivational poster!

English teacher door…a wide rang of reading complete with motivational poster!

In a collective effort to demonstrate the importance of reading to students, teachers from every discipline decorated their classroom doors with materials they have read or are currently reading.

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When sharing a door meant less space, this resource room teacher used a poster.

Social Studies (Gr 7) had this door and the side wall as well!

Social Studies (Gr 7) had this door and the side wall as well! The genre range (politics-humor-sports) was astounding!

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The Art teacher door centered around the command “READ”.

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Health and Physical Ed teacher revealed a “retro” fondness for the books that contributed to her growing up including Erich Segal’s “Love Story”

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Alternative education students had to walk through a double door display! Students selected the books they read as well in this display.

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The resource room mixed decorative flowers with John Wooden “On :Leadership”

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One Social Studies teacher took the assignment to heart by hanging what he reads, quite literally, onto the door and walls….He was considered the “winner!”

Admittedly, when the “Doors of Wamogo” was announced, there was a little hesitation. What would go on the door? When was this “due”?

Finally, a few brave souls stepped up. First, there was the Social Studies teacher, an Army Reserve Colonel, who started by hanging “classified” documents on his door. His display was followed by the Business and Career Department teacher, also a basketball coach, who hung sports magazines and the cover of a Bobby Knight memoir.

The English Department members, the Literary Specialist, and the media center Librarian displayed a range of the reading, from Where the Wild Things Are to Great Expectations.

As the week went on, the competition became a little more intense. Finally,  the Grade 8 Social Studies teacher simply emptied out his bookshelf and placed all his favorite texts alongside the door in addition to the door.

Side shot of the "Classified" materials read by a Social Studies teacher

Side shot of the “Classified” materials read by a Social Studies teacher

Perhaps one of the more interesting outcomes was the sharing of titles between faculty and staff. “Oh, I loved that book!” one teacher would say to another. “This is a hard book, but well worth the effort,” said one teacher. “Yes, we read this in our ‘book club’!” exclaimed another. “Who is the Jody Picoult freak?” questions a science fiction reader. “How much Stephen King can you read?” was the retort.

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Math teacher places “Put Me in the Zoo” on his door; hopefully. this says more about his new baby daughter than the classes!

Students had a chance to look at all the titles: assigned reading from high school that they currently are reading (Romeo and Juliet, Animal Farm), political/history books, and sports memoirs. There were magazine covers, newspaper mastheads, and comic strips. Blogger, WordPress, Twitter, Facebook logos were prominent, social media as informational texts.

So what the “Doors of Wamogo”  created for Read Across America Day in our small rural school was a very large window. The doors provided a window into the lives of our faculty, a window for our students to see us as readers, and for our students to see what books made us successful.

These doors illustrate how reading gave each teacher and staff member a chance to at the window of opportunity; reading = individual success.

We had so much fun, we might try decorating again next year!

Happy Read Across America Day, 2013!

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Taking the playfulness of a Dr. Seuss motif to heart with replicas of books shared by students.

test

Standardized testing in Connecticut begins next month. The 10th grade students who are taking a reading comprehension practice test all look like they are engaged. Their heads are bent down; they are marking the papers.  I am trying to duplicate test taking conditions to prepare them for these exams. I also want to compare the scores from this assessment to one taken earlier in the year to note their progress.

Next month, these these students will sit in the same seats, for the same amount of time, perhaps using the same pen or pencil, but they are not the “same”. That is because they are adolescents. They are going through physical changes. They are going through emotional changes. They are are going through a period of social adjustment. Outwardly, they may look calm, but the turbulence inside is palpable.

I imagine if I could tune into their inner monologues, the cacophony would be deafening:

  • “…missed the bus!!!! No time for breakfast this morning…”
  • “…this is the biggest zit I have ever had!…”
  • “…not ready for the math test tomorrow…”
  • “….did I make the team?…”
  • “…why didn’t I get that part in the play?…”
  • “…I forgot the science homework!..”
  • “…When this test was over, I’ve got to find out who he is taking to the dance!..”
  • “…what am I going to do when I grow up?..”
  • “…should I get ride home or should I take the late bus?…”
  • “…Is she wearing the same shirt as me?…”

These students take the practice assessment like other classes of students before them. Unlike generations of students before them, however, social media makes a significant contribution to their behavior. Their access to social media updates with Facebook posts, tweets, or text messages exacerbates the turmoil and creates a social, emotional, hormonal slurry that changes hourly. 

And very soon, in one of those hours, these students will take a real state standardized test.

These factors may explain why the highs and lows of my data collection for several students bear a closer resemblance to an EKG rather than a successful corporate stock report. I may not want to count the results of an assessment for a student because I know what may have gone wrong on that day. However, the anecdotal information I have for a given student on a given day student is not recorded in the collection of numbers; measuring student performance is exclusively the number of items right vs. the number of items wrong.

Yet, there is still truth in the data. When the individual student results are combined as a class, student A’s bad day is mitigated by Student B’s good day. The reverse may be true the following week. Averaging Student A’s results with all the other members of the class, neutralizes many of the individual emotional or hormonal influences. Collectively, the effects of adolescence are qualified, and I can analyze a group score that measures understanding. Ultimately, the data averaged class by class, or averaging a student’s ups and downs, is more reliable in providing general information about growth over time.

Although I try to provide the ideal circumstances in order to optimize test scores, I can never exclude that social, emotional, hormonal slurry swirling in each of their heads. I know that the data collected on any given day might be unreliable in determining an individual student’s progress. I cannot predict the day or hour when a student should take a test to measure understanding.

How unfortunate that this is exacty what happens when students take a state standardized test on a predetermined date during an assigned hour, regardless of what turmoil might be going on in their lives. How unfortunate when that the advocates of standardized testing are never in the classroom to hear the voices in the adolescent students’ internal monologues:“….I am so tired!…..When will this be over?…Does this test really show what I know?”

College Application Essay topics for 2013-2014 have been posted, and SURPRISE! Every prompt requires a narrative!

storyA recent news release by the Common Application, a non-profit widely used for college admissions by high school seniors at nearly 500 colleges and universities, explains the changes in essay prompts for 2013-14. The option to write about a topic of “your choice” has been dropped; the essay topics are:

  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The irony of this decision should not be lost on anyone who remembers a blunt statement made by David Coleman, the current President of the College Board. In April of 2011 at a NY State Department of Education presentation on the Common Core, Coleman said, “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think.”

Well, apparently the College Application Board does care. Their prompts specifically ask college bound students what they feel or what they think. In fact, the College Application Board cares so much that they will allow students to expand their storytelling by an additional 150 words, increasing the word count from 500 to 650.

The decision by the College Application Board really is not that surprising.  on the Buffer blog called attention to research on reaction of the  the human brain to stories. He summarized a number of brain studies that indicate that the best learning comes from storytelling. One study by Uri Hasson from Princeton was published in an article titled “Speaker–Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article discussed how subjects under study create empathetic bonds with listeners by using stories:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized.  When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

College bound seniors should take note of this research when they write; apparently a compelling story can be quite convincing. Luckily, they will have  plenty of practice with the narrative writing genre which is now back in favor with the adoption of the Common Core Literacy Standards. Anchor Writing Standard #3 for grades K-12 reads:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Curiously enough, one of the architects of the Common Core Literacy Standards was David Coleman before he took his position at the College Board.

Now the revised College Application Board form for 2013-14 states: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story”

A word of caution, though. Don’t expect College Board President Coleman to care.