Archives For Kylene Beers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


And as storytellers, they chastised teachers into action:

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

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

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

Read. Write. Think.*

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

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

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

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

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

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During the 88th Saturday Reunion Weekend at Teacher’s College in NYC (3/28/15), author and educator Kylene Beers delivered three professional development sessions based on Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, a book she co-authored with Bob Probst. Each session was overflowing with standing room only crowds.Screenshot 2015-03-28 22.29.02

During the afternoon keynote in the Nave of Riverside Church, she delivered her beliefs, and every one of the 2,100 seats was filled.

Screenshot 2015-03-28 20.51.18She opened her address with a historical connection between literacy and power by referring first to the notion that years ago a signature was all that was necessary to prove a person literate. Exploiting this belief were those in power who prepared and wrote contracts, becoming wealthy at the expense of those who could only sign their names with an “X”.

“Literacy in this country has always been tied to wealth.” Beers explained adding, “With literacy comes power, and with power comes great privilege.”

This was the theme of her keynote, that in this age of communication and messaging, literacy equals power and privilege.

Moving to the present and the communication and messaging skills necessary for the 21st Century, Beers justified improving  literacy skills to operate on digital platforms as one way to empower students, but she called into question the practice of prevention by some school districts.

“When schools say they do not want to have students develop a digital footprint,” she cautioned, “they limit their students access to that kind of power.”

Continuing to argue for the empowered students, Beers directed the audience’s attention to making learning relevant for students remarking,  “There is a problem if everything is assigned by me!” By letting students choose what they want to read, she suggested that teachers can make learning relevant for the student. Employing choice to encourage more reading, however, contrasts to the recommendations of the Common Core State Standards that students read fewer texts in order to read “closer.”

“Why fewer?” she asked the crowd of educators, “when the single best predictor is of success is volume of reading. One book for six weeks will never be as helpful as six books in six weeks.”

Teachers must let the students choose what they want to read, Beers argued, raising her voice:

“Damn the Lexiles ! The best book is the one the kid chooses to read… [a student’s] ‘want-ability’ is more important than readability.”

And what should students read? Beers asked the crowd.


“In the 21st Century, the most important role that literature plays is in developing student values such as compassion and empathy,” she contended. “Brain research shows we get to that compassion best through the teaching of literature.”

Beers called attention to recent disturbing headline events that had students marginalize others: racist chants made by a fraternity, and a teenager’s suicide due to bullying.

It is the role of literature, she explained, to give the reader the experience being the outsider, the marginalized. Reading and learning from literature gives students an understanding of others and an opportunity to lead “literate lives measured by decency, civility, respect, compassion, and, at the very least, ethical behavior.”

Coming to the end of the keynote, Beers saved her scorn for the answer-driven test preparation and testing that dominates schools today:

“A curriculum built on test prep might raise scores, but it will fail to raise curiosity, creativity, and compassion.”

Beers castigated the limits of “bubbled” answers by pointing out that deep thinking never begins with an answer. In connecting back to the role of literature in education she added, “Ethics and compassion are not so easily bubbled.”

As a final invocation Beers reiterated her belief in teachers, those who have met the challenges in order to encourage all students and who never needed a mandate to leave no child behind:

“Success is not found in a test; great teachers are our best hope for a better tomorrow!”

The crowd erupted into applause paying tribute to Kylene Beers, an leader in education whose strong voice reverberated in the cathedral and whose equally strong beliefs reverberated with their own.

Opening speeches generally start with a “Welcome.”
Lucy Calkins started the 86th Saturday Reunion, March 22, 2014, at Teacher’s College with a conjunction.

“And this is the important thing” she addressed the crowd that was filling up the rows in the Riverside Cathedral, “the number of people who are attending has grown exponentially. This day is only possible with the goodwill of all.”

Grabbing the podium with both hands, and without waiting for the noise to die down, Calkins launched the day as if she was completing a thought she had from the last Saturday Reunion.

“We simply do not have the capacity to sign you up for workshops and check you in. We all have to be part of the solution.”

She was referring to the  workshops offered free of charge to educators by all Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) staff developers at Columbia University. This particular Saturday, there were over 125 workshops advertised on topic such as “argument writing, embedding historical fiction in nonfiction text sets, opinion writing for very young writers, managing workshop instruction, aligning instruction to the CCSS, using performance assessments and curriculum maps to ratchet up the level of teaching, state-of-the-art test prep, phonics, and guided reading.”

“First of all, ” she chided, “We cannot risk someone getting hit by a car.” Calkin’s concerns are an indication that the Saturday Reunion workshop program is a victim of its own success. The thousands of teachers disembarking from busses, cars, and taxis were directed by TCRWP minions to walk on sidewalks, wait at crosswalks, and “follow the balloons” to the Horace Mann building or Zankel Hall.

“Cross carefully,” she scolded in her teacher voice, “and be careful going into the sessions,” she continued, “the entrances to the larger workshops are the center doors, the exits are to the sides. We can’t have 800 people going in and out the same way.”

Safety talk over, Calkins turned her considerable energy to introducing a new collaborative venture, a website where educators can record their first hand experiences with the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.

And, as unbelievable as this sounds, Calkins admitted that, sometimes, “I get afraid to talk out.”
That is why, she explained, she has joined an all-star cast of educators (including Diane Ravitch, Kylene Beers, Grant Wiggins, Robert Marzano, Anthony Cody, Kathy Collins, Jay McTighe, David Pearson, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and others-see below) in organizing a website where the voices of educators with first hand experience with standardized testing can document their experiences. The site is called Testing Talk The site’s message on the home page states:

This site provides a space for you to share your observations of the new breed of standardized tests. What works? What doesn’t? Whether your district is piloting PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or its own test, we want to pass the microphone to you, the people closest to the students being tested. The world needs to hear your stories, insights, and suggestions. Our goal is collective accountability and responsiveness through a national, online conversation.

Screenshot 2014-03-31 21.56.01 Calkin’s promotion was directed to educators, “This will be a site for you to record your experience with testing, not to rant.” She noted that as schools “are spending billions, all feedback on testing should be open and transparent.” 

Winding down Calkins looked up from her notes. “You will all be engaged,” she promised. “Enter comments; sign your name,” she urged before closing with the final admonishment, “Be brave.”

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