The Third Annual Celebration of Teacher Thinking

I know many teachers and students around the country are already back in their classrooms, but for the third year I’d like to mark what here in New York City is the start of the school year by sharing some of the incredibly inspiring and thoughtful comments that educators have left on this blog over the last twelve months. Those months have been marked with ongoing conflict about the Common Core Standards, the corporatization of public education, standardized testing and certain literacy practices. Yet, if the comments below are any indication, it’s also been a year in which teachers have increasingly found their voices and are using them to speak out with passion, knowledge, and the conviction that comes from experience about what students—and they, themselves—need in order to be successful. And if I see a trend in this year’s comments, one of the things teachers are speaking out about is the need for a vision of education that’s not straight and simple, but messy and complex.

As happened before, it’s been quite a challenge to choose a handful of comments from the nearly two hundred I received. So if you find yourself hungry for more, you can scroll down and click on the comment bubble that appears to the right of each blog post’s title—and/or go to each responder’s blog by clicking on their name. You can also see the post they’re responding to by clicking on the image that goes with the comment. And for those of you who would love to hear and meet other bloggers and To Make a Prairie readers in person, I’ll be chairing a session at NCTE this year with Mary Lee Hahn, Julieanne Harmatz, Fran McVeigh and Steve Peterson called “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading.”

And now, without any more ado and in no particular order, are some words to hold on to as we enter another year that I hope will be exciting for all:

Preparation of Life QuoteYes, it should be about the complexity of thought for our students. This is what they will carry with them into college and career—not a Lexile level. Spending time with a text and analyzing it through all those lenses to get the big picture should be our goal. I think many teachers are stuck on the standards, which to my mind is the old way of teaching. They want to create assessments for standards that they can easily grade and check off as ‘done’. We need to step back and think about how to teach our students to delve into a book and use multiple ways to explore the text, to come up with big ideas and original thinking. It begins with teaching them to love books and reading. We need to expose them to many kinds of texts with lots of opportunities to talk and write about what they’ve read. Not teach a skill, provide a worksheet, give an assessment and call it ‘done’. Annabel Hurlburt

Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Ital“I too wrestle with how much to scaffold for students, and for adult learners and for how long. It seems the sooner we can remove the scaffold, the better. Sending learners off to inquire and grow their theories and ideas on their own, and to find their own answers is certainly always the goal—independence! . . . Seems that teaching students and adults as well to ask the big questions is also important, letting us grapple with new concepts and ideas grows us as learners. Less scaffolding supports this type of inquiry.” Daywells

Word Choice Matters“Another subtle nuance to a word is when we refer to schools as ‘buildings.’ A school is much more holy than that, because that’s where learning happens that shapes the future of the world. We don’t call houses of worship ‘building.’ We call them by their true names: church, synagogue, temple, mosque. These indicate that something spiritual is happening in them. When we call school a building, unless we’re talking about the physical plan, we’re helping them in the battle in lowering the value in what we do. These word choices seep into our daily work and shape our daily work into something we don’t want it to be!” Tom Marshall

“A point that stood out especially is that the inquiry process is not straight and easy. It isPuzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem messy, and so we must let our students safely enter the muck. It can be difficult to know how much to intervene, especially when students seem to be veering far off course. The questioning you adapted from Jeff Wilhelm’s book seemed like a nice way to gently guide students toward considering more details before drawing conclusions, thus allowing them to arrive to more logical conclusions on their own. Anna Gratz Cockerille

Steering wheel of the ship“I would add that a culture of looking at many viewpoints from the earliest ages can add to the abilities of students when they arrive at the more sophisticated levels like you’ve shared. Even kindergarten students can begin to look at other points of view through mentor text stories and through problem solving in their classroom communities when students bring their own experiences into conversations. Part of this means that teachers must be open to NOT asking for the ‘one right answer,’ [and instead] inviting possibilities.” Linda Baie

Pinky and the Brain Pondering Critical Thinking2“‘Trainings’ operate with a limited vision of the competence and capabilities of teachers—and, in turn, support a model of education that operates with a limited vision of the competence and capabilities of children. Standing against that tendency means living in the tension between people desperately seeking simple answers to complicated questions and messy lived experience. I think that [the Opal School has] been siding with keeping it complicated, which seems to have the combined effect of deeply connecting with the learning of the educators who find us and limiting the number of people who do so. A real paradox! Matt Karlsen

And with these words in mind, let’s get messy! And here’s hoping that I get a chance to see some of you in D.C. this November!

NCTE Convention 2014

For the New Year: Some Signs of Hope

Crocus in the Snow

It was seven degrees outside when I started writing this, which, with the wind chill, feels like minus six. And while this kind of cold usually sends me into a state of despair, I’m finding myself handling it better than I might because I think I’m feeling heartened by signs that seem to point to a thaw or a shift in the discussion about so-called school reform that has for too long left real educators frozen out in the cold.

The new year, for instance, started out with a bang here in New York City as Bill de Blasio, our new mayor, appointed Carmen Farina as the city’s next School Chancellor. Two of former mayor Bloomberg’s appointees, Joel Klein and Cathy Black, had no experience in public education (beyond that the fact that Klein had attended New York City public schools as a child). But Carmen Farina is one of us. For four decades, she’s worked for the city’s public schools, spending 22 years as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn before Carmen Farinamoving on to become a principal, then a district superintendent, and the deputy chancellor for the DOE’s now defunct division of teaching and learning.

According to Chalkbeat New York, a great site for all city school news, she’s promised “to pursue a ‘progressive agenda’ that would reduce standardized test preparation in classrooms,” and in her own words she’s already talking about the “need to bring joy back” instead of more accountability and data. I know she may have her hands tied a bit by the State’s Education Commissioner John King (whose comments about parents expressing frustration with the State’s Common Core rollout at an Town Hall event rival Arne Duncan’s beyond belief remarks about white suburban soccer moms). But with a vision that she describes as “five Cs and an E“—collaboration, communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency— it’s my dearest hope that she’ll be able to shift the focus here from assessment and data to instruction and students, which is where it needs to be.

I was also excited to hear the news that Kate DiCamillo will become our next national ambassador for young people’s literature. Of course, the previous ambassadors—Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson and Walter Dean Myers—have all been great, but I feel a personal tie to DiCamillo. When my daughter was in fourth grade, the librarian at her school chose to read an unknown book by an unknown author to my daughter’s class based on nothing more than the first page. DiCamillo was the author and the book was Because of Winn Dixie, which my daughter and her friends fell in love with, as so many others after them have. In fact, they loved the book so much, they wrote a letter to DiCamillo and received a long and lovely hand-written reply saying that their letter was the very first piece of fan mail she had ever received.

KateDicamilloAs ambassador, DiCamillo has said that her mission will be “to get as many kids and as many adults together reading as [she] can” because she believes that “stories connect us.” I have to believe than anyone reading this passionately believes that, too, and several new studies have come out recently that demonstrate the quantifiable benefits in reading stories.  A New York Times article, for instance, called “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov” reports on a neurological study that found that people who read literary fiction “performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence,” than those who did not. And teacher Collette Bennett’s blog post on the National Assessment of Education Progress Report for 2012 shows that, across demographics, students who read for pleasure outperform those who don’t on standardized tests. Unfortunately, these studies haven’t managed to change certain Common Core-inspired practices, which include all but abandoning fiction for nonfiction, eliminating or cutting back on in-class independent reading, and giving students a steady diet of excerpts and short texts because that’s what’s on the test. My hope here is that, in her new position, Kate DiCamillo will become the perfect spokesperson for the lasting power of stories and real reading.

idea-and-creative-conceptFinally, I spent much too much time over the break reading blog posts by fellow educators, many by the nominators and nominees of this years Sunshine Awards, which celebrate educational bloggers. That meant I didn’t get any drawing done, but I did find another reason to hope that this year might bring some real change. The richness, diversity and depth of thought I encountered on those blogs is mind-boggling. And I believe that the fact that these educators are connecting with each other through blogs, twitter and websites not only qualifies them to teach 21st century literacy, but it makes them a force to be reckoned with. Additionally, virtually every post I read reflected the very same habits of mind, such as curiosity, openness, creativity and persistence, that the National Council of Teachers of English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Writing Project have identified as being needed for college. 

Like instruction and stories, these habits of mind have a taken a backseat in much of the current conversation about both readiness and schools—probably because no one has figured out yet how to quantify and test them. But these seem as important to me as the ability to analyze a text or write an argument. And given that we, as teachers, need to be who we want our students to be, these blogs also made me incredibly hopeful—despite the freezing cold!

Flower Field

Learning vs. Training: The Power of Real Professional Development

Pinky and the Brain Pondering Critical Thinking2Last Friday I had the honor of presenting at the annual fall conference of the University of New Hampshire’s Learning through Teaching Program, and as I looked out at the audience excitedly talking, I was reminded that it was exactly a year ago that I had sat in a room, not all that dissimilar from the one I was currently standing in, in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Last year I was the one listening as the teachers and pedogogistas from Reggio shared the utterly amazing work they were doing with children, and rarely a day passes that I don’t think back to the experience I had there as a learner.

As I wrote about on my return, seeing and hearing the work that both teachers and students were doing in Reggio made me question all sorts of things I had taken as givens, such as helping students build stamina in reading, creating charts to help students hold on to learning, and equating engagement with students being ‘on task.” For me it was the best sort of professional development, the kind that left me reflecting on my practice, questioning my assumptions and coming away with a vision of teaching and learning that I wanted to work toward—despite the fact that I didn’t fully know exactly how I’d get there.

What passes as professional development these days, however, is often simply training for the implementation of a program. That’s not to say that kind of PD is inherently bad; I’ve been trained in many things over the years that I’ve found some use in—from how to take a running record to how to do guided reading. And God only knows how many times I’ve been trained to use a particular rubric to evaluate everything from a standardized test essay to a complex text. But to use a distinction made by the educator and writer David Warlick in a wonderful blog post titled “Are They Students or Learners?“, I think I was a student in those training session, not an actual learner.

What Are You Measuring?As Warlick says students do, I came away equipped “with packaged knowledge and tools for recording packaged knowledge [through] prescribed and paced learning” rather than “with tools for exploring a variety of content, experimenting with that content, and discovering, concluding and constructing knowledge,” which is what learners do. And like students at the end of a lesson, the success of those training-like PD sessions could be assessed by “measuring what has been learned,” not by “measuring what the learner can do with what’s been learned,” which can only happen over time with much thought and often many mistakes.

a_whole_new_mindThis shift from professional development that invites teachers to discover and construct their own knowledge to PD that trains them to implement a program seems unfortunate in many, many ways. All the highest performing schools, for instance, from Finland to Ontario to Singapore, have invested in the very kind of PD that we seem not to value much here, where teachers are given time to explore and collaborate. And if David H. Pink, the author of the best-selling book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Futureis even half-way right, we need to be able to do much more than deliver a script. As he writes in the introduction to his book:

“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind—computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

Making meaning, recognizing patterns, and seeing the big picture were all on display in the work I did with the teachers in New Hampshire, where I designed what the teachers in Reggio would call a “context for learning.” Rather than training the group to teach the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I describe in What Readers Really Dowe read one of my favorite short stories together,”The Raft” by Peter Orner, which allowed them to experience and construct an understanding of both the story and the process of thinking that supported that.

Using the simplest and most adaptable of tools—a T-chart that kept track of what we each noticed and what we each made of that (i.e., a question, an inference, a hunch, a connection or an interpretation), we shared out our ideas and talked in a way that allowed us to do the following:

10.25.13 PowerPoint1

10.25.13 PowerPoint2

10.25.13 PowerPoint3

We then explored how we might engage students in the exact same process we’d experienced by setting them up to explore a text by attending to what they noticed and discovering what they could make from that. And to better understand the thinking that involved, we explored a number of texts to notice what kinds of problems they posed for readers and how a student could solve those. We then ended the day with the participants sharing out what they wanted to hold on to—which as you can see from the take-away charts below were as varied as the ideas they’d constructed about “The Raft”:

UNH chart 3

UNH Chart 4

Of course, the real measure of their learning will be what they discover as they explore and experiment with what they learned back in their own classrooms. And my hunch is that, just as with readers, that will depend on who they are, what they notice about themselves, their students and the texts they read, and how they fit those pieces together to create  a meaningful classroom.

And as for me, I learned something, too. As happens every time I’ve used “The Raft,” a few teachers made something from what they noticed that I’d never considered before, which expands and enriches my own understanding of this wonderful story. Also seeing the power of these take-away charts, I was reminded of the kind of pedagogical documentation I saw in the Reggio schools, where the walls were adorned not only with student products but with quotes that captured the students’ thinking as they engaged in the process. I want to work on that more this year, since quotes like these seem as much evidence of learning as any score on a rubric. In fact, I think I may have discovered the next step on my own learning journey.

And that’s the power of real professional development and real, authentic teaching: the teacher always discovers something, too, because she or he is a learner.

Rethinking Readiness

Are You Ready

The results of this year’s New York State assessments—the first to supposedly be aligned to the Common Core—were released the other week, and as expected scores plummeted. Only 26% of New York City students passed the English exam, which means that, in the parlance of the day, 74% of city students are off-track for being college and career ready. The results have rekindled the blame game that’s replaced real discussion about public education, and they’ve reopened all sorts of questions about the tests themselves. And for me, they’ve also raised questions about what it means to be ready and how to help students get there.

As most of us know, the Common Core Standards were designed by identifying the academic skills students would need to be ready for college and careers and then working back from there. We could see it, in a sense, as a large-scale example of backwards planning where, having determined the desired outcome, the Standards writers created a scope and sequence of skills for getting there. But as many early childhood experts have pointed out—such as those who signed a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” about the Standards when they were first unveiled—this backward planning process neglected to take into account a slew of cognitive, developmental and neuroscience research about how children learn.

College and Career Ready CartoonWith those concerns unheeded, a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit project Defending the Early Years shows that a whopping 85% of the public school pre-K to third grade teachers who responded believes that they’re being required to engage students in developmentally inappropriate activities. What seems ironic, if not tragic, to me is that while learning through the developmentally appropriate methods of exploration and play may not help children identify the setting of a story (as RL.K.3 requires), it actually lays the foundation for them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Or put another way, exploration and play may be a more effective path for becoming college and career ready than teaching young children to become pint-size literary critics through skills-based direct instruction.

From One Experience to AnotherIt probably comes as no surprise that I think older students learn best as well when they’re given opportunities to explore and solve problems. But several other issues impact readiness in reading, which I found myself thinking about during a shared reading demo I did with a class of seventh graders as part of an institute Dorothy Barnhouse and I facilitated in June. I’d chosen a short text, “Dozens of Roses: A Story for Voices” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, from the short story anthology From One Experience to AnotherAs you can see from the opening below, the text puts few demands on students at the vocabulary or syntax level—i.e., there aren’t many word or syntax problems a reader would need to solve. But beyond the play-like format, figuring out what’s going on and why requires a ton of complex thinking as the author never directly comes out and tells us what has happened.

Dozens of Roses

Some of you reading this might already have a hunch about where the story’s going—there’s abuse involved—but despite lots of great talk and great participation, none of the students could ‘see’ that. As I met with the teachers who’d been observing to think about the instructional implications of what we’d seen, we wondered whether part of the problem was that the possibility of abuse was something they couldn’t imagine. That is, it was a conclusion they weren’t yet ready to reach.

CrossroadAnd here we hit a crossroads: On the one hand, if we believe that one of the great gifts reading offers is the way it extends our understanding of human nature—and that seventh grade is an appropriate place for students to be aware of abuse—we head in one direction. On the other hand, isn’t there something to be said for those seventh graders who couldn’t imagine anyone inflicting harm on someone they supposedly love? Might not that be something to celebrate—just as we might celebrate the kind of imaginative or magical thinking young children are capable of, knowing that they’ll grow out of it quickly without us pushing them?


Illustration by Blanche Sims, from Fish Face by Patricia Reilly Giff

Aware that there were a handful of students who’d been circling the idea without quite getting there, we decided in this case to pursue the first course and design a small group lesson that might push their thinking. But rather than battering them with more prompts and loaded questions to pull the answer out, I took a path that might feel counter-intuitive to those who think that the way to prepare students to read complex texts is to have them read more complex texts: I gave them all copies of an easier text that posed the same kind of problem, an excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which I often use. And I asked them to consider this question: How can we figure out something that’s happened that the writer doesn’t tell us directly?

Without too much trouble the students figured out what the author hadn’t explicitly said—that Emily lied about her middle name in order to impress Dawn, whom she envied. And as they explained how they arrived at that conclusion, I turned their thinking into an equation, showing them how they’d added up various details from the text to come up with what hadn’t been said:

Emily admires/is envious of Dawn’s things

+ Emily wants to be Dawn’s friend

+ Emily also admires Dawn’s middle name

+ Emily doesn’t have a middle name but says it’s Tiffany to Dawn

= Emily lied to impress Dawn

And with that experience under their belts, they took a second look at “Dozens of Roses” and ‘saw’ what they hadn’t before—which led one student to exclaim, “Oh, that’s really creepy!”

This stepping-backwards-to-step-forward approach—with its emphasis on complex thinking, rather than on Lexile levels—seems, to me, like a better path to help students become ready. But here’s one last thought about readiness: Whenever I facilitate a reading experience with teachers, where we read and talk about a complex text together, I’m reminded of how often we don’t feel ready to make a claim about the author’s message—at least not right away. Instead we want to talk more and ponder in a way that seems akin to how the 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon defined the work of critical thinking:

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.”

This description of critical thinking seems almost diametrically opposed to how students are supposed to demonstrate readiness for college and careers, especially as gauged by standardized tests where speed and right answers rule. But I have to wonder whether we’d do better by giving students more time to doubt, consider, seek and meditate rather than rushing straight through to making claims. Granted, it would be a slower path, though it might be one that’s more durable. And while it would be harder to measure on a standardized test, maybe those tests aren’t really ready to assess readiness.

I'm just not yet ready

More Thoughts on Craft and Those Pesky Test Questions

CRAFTAfter reading my last post on craft, a friend and colleague emailed me saying how amused she was by the fact that I’d used the phrase ‘make no bones’ in the same sentence in which I’d compared close reading to a mouse dissection. I had, indeed, purposely chosen the simile to evoke the sense of desecration I think happens when we over-analyze a text. But the phrase ‘make no bones’ had just popped into my head, and I used it with no awareness that it echoed the lab mouse dissection until she’d pointed it out. Put another way, I didn’t consciously choose that phrase to create the effect she experienced, though I was tickled by what she’d noticed. And this reminded me of a quote from Samuel Johnson that speaks to the relationship between writers and readers: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

I think this is true for the simple reason that a writer’s words on a page are inert until a reader’s mind brings them to life. And while I do believe that writers make choices about words, details, images, and structure in order to convey what they’re trying to exploring, there’s also something intuitive and uncanny about the process, with writers making unconscious decisions as well as conscious ones as they craft a text. And that opens the door for readers to see even more than the writer might have intended and to come up with a range of interpretations about the words on the page.

Notice and NoteKylene Beers and Robert Probst address this very point in their new book Notice & Notewhere they share an anecdote about the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot. A literary critic who’d seen one of his plays thought the play director had misinterpreted Eliot’s meaning. Eliot agreed that the production conveyed something different than what he’d intended, but he wasn’t really troubled by that. “‘But if the two meanings are contradictory,'” the critic asked, “‘is  not one right and the other wrong. Must not the author be right?'” Eliot replied: “‘Not necessarily, do you think? Why is either wrong?'”

This anecdote suggests that, despite his connection with New Criticism, the literary theory behind the Common Core, Eliot believed that multiple interpretations can, indeed, co-exist and that in the end the writer’s intentions don’t necessarily carry more weight than a reader’s interpretation. And this raises some interesting questions about all those “Why did the author include X in line Y” multiple-choice questions on New York State’s tests.

More questions are raised by the memoirist Patricia Hampl who, in her essay “The Lax Habits of the Free Imagination,” looks at the fallacy and the presumption of those author purpose questions. In the essay she recounts the experience of having an excerpt of a memoir she wrote appear in a college anthology that she, herself, had used in classes. Initially delighted to be included, she had an unexpected and uncomfortable reaction when she received the new edition in which her excerpt appeared and saw the questions that accompanied the piece. “And there, at the end of the selection,” she writes,

in those shivery italic letters reserved for especially significant copy, were the study questions. There were several under the heading “Questions About Purpose.” One will do: “Why does Hampl establish her father’s significance to the family before she narrates the major incident?” Beats me, I thought.

I had no idea what Hampl’s purpose was. All the study questions looked quite mad to me.

These ‘quite mad’ questions are, of course, precisely the kind that appeared on this year’s tests, with four possible answers for students to choose from, only one of which was deemed right. And they’re also the kind of questions that appear on the new Teacher Performance Assessments that Pearson has developed for edTPA, the organization that will be testing pre-service candidates to see if “a new teacher is ready for the job.” Here’s the first paragraph of one of the passages from the sample literacy skills test online:

Gertrude Stein Passage

And here’s the kind of question that’s asked. As in Hampl’s case, one will do:

Gertrude Stein Question

Picasso Portrait of Gertrude SteinThe repetition of the phrase does suggest some intention on the part of the author, but none of those answers seemed ‘right’ to me–including B, which the answer link said was correct. None, for instance, captured my sense that in her own unique and unconventional way, Gertrude Stein had a well-rounded life that was full of friends that were like a family, which might only have been possible because her family was prosperous. And none were connected to other details I’d noticed about her father, which suggested to me that she was repeating in reverse the journey that he had made. And when I re-read the passage, as close readers are supposed to do, I found myself thinking that the repetition had less to do with Gertrude Stein than with the idea that’s embedded in the title: that we cannot predict or control the future because we live in a world that’s disordered, in which the unthinkable happens. But that wasn’t one of the options.

One thing for sure, though, the question and answers forced me to abandon all the thinking I was doing and instead try to guess what the test-makers were thinking. And at that point I stopped being a reader and became a test-taker instead.

This has all made me think that when it comes to craft we might do better by remembering that readers and writers are both engaged in fitting details together to build meaning, with the writer ‘crafting’ the story out of details and the reader then using the details the writer’s chosen to ‘craft’ an interpretation. Any interpretation should be considered valid as long as it’s supportable by the details of the text, even if it veers from the writer’s intention. Most writers I know would agree with that because they respect and value the magic that happens when the words they’ve written interact with the mind of a reader. But one has to wonder what edTPA wants when they think that what demonstrates a teaching candidate’s readiness to become a teacher is the ability to second-guess the test-makers’ interpretations, which is what those answers are. What students really need are teachers who know how to help them craft their own ideas from the details the writer’s crafted the text from.

Fitting Pieces Together

Pushing Back on the United States of Pearson


Last week I attended this year’s IRA Convention where every registered participant not associated with an exhibitor’s booth had to wear a name badge around their neck emblazoned with Pearson’s name and logo—which, in effect, made each and every one of us a walking advertisement for the corporate giant that seems to be taking over public education. Also last week third through eighth grade students throughout New York State were sitting at their desks with sharpened pencils, bubble sheets and test booklets published by Pearson, trying to make it through the three-day ordeal that was this year’s state ELA exam.

Subway Test PosterPearson created the tests as part of a $32 million five-year contract with New York State to design Common Core aligned assessments, and the word on the street was they were going to be hard. New York City had, in fact, already warned schools and parents to expect a dramatic drop in scores, and they spent $240,000 on what the New York Daily News called “a splashy ad campaign” explaining the drop to parents through posters that appeared in the subway and on ferries.

What all that money couldn’t buy, however, was any peace of mind, as reports from parents and teachers attest to on sites such as WNYC’s Schoolbook, the New York City Public School Parents blog, and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s “Responses to the NYS ELA Exam” page. There you’ll find stories of students in tears, vomiting and even soiling themselves as their stress and anxiety levels mounted. And you’ll hear many tales of students running out of time, which was in short supply. According to testing expert Fred Smith, whose piece on the New York State tests appeared in the Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet,” students had 7% less time per item than last year when the passages and questions weren’t as difficult. Not only does this make no sense, it’s also profoundly ironic: One of the Standards’ Six Instructional Shifts specifically tells teachers to be “patient [and] create more time in the curriculum for close and careful reading,” yet this year’s tests seemed to value speed over thoughtfulness and depth. And students had to waste what precious time they had on passages and questions that Pearson was field testing—that is, trying out for use on future tests—which served Pearson’s purposes, not students’.

As Smith says, such field testing “raises legal and ethical questions about forcing children to serve as subjects for commercial research purposes without their parents’ knowledge and informed consent.” And this wasn’t the only ethical question this year’s test brought up. As reported in the New York Post, At the Chalk Face and Diane Ravitch’s blog, several teachers noticed passages on the 6th and 8th grade tests that were in Pearson textbooks, giving students who’d read those texts in class an unfair advantage—and perhaps encouraging schools to buy additional Pearson products to up their students’ chances of scoring well.

Trademark SymbolThere were also reports of other kinds of product placement, with brand names, such as Nike, IBM and Mug Root Beer, appearing in many of the passages. Pearson has said this is an inevitable consequence of using ‘authentic’ texts. But while brand names do, of course, appear in lots of books and articles, you usually don’t see trademark symbols or footnotes such as the one that supposedly explained that “Mug Root Beer is the leading brand of Root Beer” beneath a passage that referred to the brand.

I say supposedly because the tests are kept under lock and key with teachers jeopardizing their careers by revealing specific details of the contents. This lack of transparency again raises questions about corporate versus citizens’ rights—though parents exercised their right to have their children ‘opt out’ of the test in record number this year, and a petition has started circulating online demanding that the State cancel its contract with Pearson.

The lack of transparency also means that parents and other taxpayers who have financed the tests cannot judge for themselves how well, or not, they lived up to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s claim:

“For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.”

ELA Test BookletThe full battery of what Duncan calls these “game-changer” tests are not due out until the 2014-15 school year, but New York State and Pearson have said that this year’s assessments are in line with what’s to come—and Pearson’s in a position to know. They’ve been deeply involved in developing test items for PARCC, one of the two consortia that have received $360 million in federal funds to create the new assessments. Yet according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, these ‘game-changer’ exams will be “only marginally better than current tests” and will waste an enormous amount of time and money for everyone except Pearson.

As for IRA, it was heartening to hear (at least in the sessions I attended) more emphasis placed on best practice than data and more talk about meeting the needs of students than the needs of the test. There was even a little insurrection going on with those Pearson name badges: My fellow presenter Mary Lee Hahn of the A Year of Reading blog bought some clear packing tape and used it cover Pearson’s logo with her own business card, and several people used magic markers and editing marks to change PEARSON to A PERSON.

All that and the volume of online chatter I discovered about New York’s tests once I got home made think that there might still be a chance to raise our voices, flex our muscles, and reclaim the conversation from Pearson about where education is going.

Barry Lane at IRA

Educator, author and songwriter Barry Lane pushing Pearson out of the way at the 2013 International Reading Association Convention

Just What Exactly Are Students Doing with Their Just Right Books?

Just Right Book StickerIt’s January, and in many schools around the country, teachers are assessing their students’ reading levels for the second or third time this year to monitor their students’ growth and determine their independent reading level. I’ve written before about what I see as the impact of over-emphasizing levels on a student’s identity as a reader. Yet here’s an additional problem. Administering these assessments is time-consuming, and many a teacher must put conferring and even instruction on hold for a while in order to complete them. But given how much time we devote to this, how much time do we actually spend seeing what students are doing with those books once we’ve determine their level?

That’s not to say that we don’t talk to students about their books when we confer. But usually we’re in teacher, not researcher, mode, talking to students just long enough to find an entry point for instruction—priding ourselves, in fact, on how quickly we can get in and out. Rarely do we take the time to thoroughly get a handle on a child’s thinking, especially on the kinds of thinking the Common Core is expecting students to engage in independently. Yet it seems to me just as important to know what students are doing when they’re reading that ‘just right’ book as it is to know what level basket to send them to in the library.

To this end, I’ve been recommending that we at least occasionally spend as much time researching what students are doing with their books as we do assessing their levels—and that we resist jumping into to teach until we’ve gotten a clearer picture of what’s going on in a student’s head. When I’ve done this with teachers, we often discover that for every student who’s doing some interesting thinking—paying attention to how characters are changing, for example, and developing hunches about why—another student is completely lost in a book that’s supposedly just right.

KatieKazooCoverTake the case of Meera, a fourth grade student I recently conferred with. Meera was reading Open Wide, a Level M book in the Katie Kazoo Switcheroo series by Nancy Krulik, which I hadn’t read. Rather than asking about the book—which often leads students to launch into a retelling I cannot possibly assess for accuracy—I began by asking her if there was anything in particular she was working on as a reader. This question sometimes perplexes students, but Meera immediately replied that she was trying to picture the story in her head, which made her teacher, who was observing me, smile. I acknowledged how important visualizing was then asked her to turn to the page she was currently on and read a bit from where she’d left off.

Meera turned to page 58, which was approximately three-quarters of the way through the book, and fluently read the following page out loud:


I followed along as Meera read, not to check for fluency or miscues, but to get a feel for the kinds of demands this page put on a reader in order to better assess how Meera was negotiating those. Here, for instance, the action is explained explicitly, with little inferring required, yet there seemed to be a disconnect between the words and the picture, with the dentist appearing in the illustration but not in the words. So explaining to Meera that I was a little confused because I hadn’t read the book, I asked her if she could tell me what was going on.

“They’re at the dentist,” Meera said, “and the dentist isn’t being very nice.”

“Can you tell me who’s at the dentist?” I asked.

KatieKazoo“Katie, Matthew and Emma,” she said. Then she turned to the picture. “That’s Emma,” she explained, pointing to the girl with the glasses. “And that’s the dentist, and that’s Matthew,” she added, pointing to the boy with the hose. Then she flipped back several pages to show me a picture of Katie.

Her reliance on the illustrations combined with my own uncertainty about what was really going on, made me suspect that something was not quite right here. And so I plunged on. “I definitely see the dentist in the picture, but I didn’t hear him mentioned as you read. Can you tell me how you know from the words that he’s there?”

Meera turned to the previous page to show me a line from the following passage, in which the dentist is mentioned. “Here,” she said, pointing to the line, “‘Dr. Sang! That’s not nice,’ she hissed.”


My eyes quickly scanned the sentences around this, and by following the dialogue, I was now quite sure that Meera had missed something significant. What I didn’t know, though, is whether what she’d missed had been stated explicitly or had to be inferred, which would suggest different instructional paths. And so rather than jumping in to teach with perhaps a reminder about monitoring comprehension, I told her how nicely she’d read the passage and then asked if I could borrow the book in order to get a better handle on why her comprehension had broken down in the first place.

Flipping back to the beginning, I found what I suspected: that Katie Kazoo wasn’t called Switcheroo for nothing. As the author explained explicitly on page 14, whenever Katie wished something, a magic wind would suddenly appear, “so strong, it could blow her right out of her body. . . and into someone else’s!“—in this case, Dr. Sang’s. And while the scene where the magic wind reappears to transform Katie into the dentist required a bit of inferring, there were lots of other explicit clues that pointed to the change.

Meera’s teacher and I mulled over the instructional implications of this in order to come up with a course of action. While Meera was ostensibly trying to visualize, she was missing all kinds of textual clues that would allow the movie she was constructing in her head to actually reflect the words on the page. So before she could monitor her comprehension, she needed to better experience how to build it by reading more attentively and actively. That would entail keeping track of what she was learning and what she was confused or wondering about in order to read forward with more purpose and connect one page to the next. And to help her do this more deliberately, we decided to put her in a small group so that she could verbalize what she was learning from a common text and what she was wondering about.

enfant consultation pédiatreIt’s important to note here is that this problem hadn’t shown up in her reading assessment, perhaps because the passage she’d read was so much shorter or didn’t involve something as improbable as a magic wind. It also wouldn’t show up in the data provided by other kinds of formative assessments—though it could be the root cause of whatever inabilities the data did reveal. It could only be discerned by a teacher who was trying to make a student’s thinking work visible by carefully listening, researching and probing before deciding what to teach.