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

Pushing Back on the United States of Pearson

Pearsonflag

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:

KatieKazooExcerpt

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.”

KatieKazooExcerpt2

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.

‘Tis the Season

 Earlier this month I received what seemed like a gift from a Secret Santa. Somehow, some way, through facebook posts and tweets, my post, “What Messages Are We Sending Students About Reading,” went viral, bringing over 1,000 readers to this blog in less than three full days.

Clearly it struck a chord in readers who treasure books and want to give children authentic and meaningful experiences as readers. And it struck a chord in those of us who sometimes fear that in our data-obsessed and -driven age, where logic and analysis seem to be valued over wonder and imagination, we risk losing what we most cherish.

I was both humbled and heartened to know how many of us are out there. And so in the spirit of gift-giving, I’d like to give something back to all of you who hold on to the dream of not only helping the students we work with be college- and career-ready, but become passionate readers and writers. Here are three texts that speak to those higher purposes and callings by three wise writers whose words seem more precious to me than frankincense, gold and myrrh. In each case I share an excerpt and a link, which will take you to the full piece where you may also want to poke around for more inspiration and solace.

The first piece is called “The Place of Books in Our Lives,” by the great children’s and young adult book author Julius Lester. In this essay, he looks at the origins of the words book, read, and knowledge, and he makes a powerful, persuasive case for letting children choose what to read without interference or judgment, while exploring what the written word gives us:

Books invite us into realms of the soul by asking us to imagine that we are someone other than who we are. Books require that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others. Books are the place where the possibility of blacks and whites and men and women experiencing each other is created. I am convinced that if I can bring you into my being through words, I create the possibility that you and I will see that we are more alike than we may have thought. When we can imagine the hurt and anger of another person, we have an understanding in the heart. When we understand in the heart, each of us is less alone.

The second is the preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel, one of the key developers of the 6-Trait model for writing instruction and assessment. Here she looks squarely at what assessments can and cannot give us, while urging us, as teachers, to hold on to and embrace what is most meaningful and significant about writing, not just what can be easily measured:

In this book, I touch on what I believe to be the most worthwhile goals of writing: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward, to be whole comfortable with the act and process of writing. These are all hard things to measure. Moreover, they take time. Significant time. Heavy emphasis on assessment can rob us of that precious time. It can also make us afraid.

The third is a poem called “Revolution for the Tested” by former teacher and award-winning author Kate Messner, which has been making its way around my corner of the cybersphere. It’s an impassioned call-to-arms for both students and teachers to resist the forces of standardization that threaten to rob us of the vital lifeblood of real reading and writing that I’ve been carrying with me every day I walk into a school. Here are two sample stanzas:

Read.

But don’t read what they tell you to.

Don’t read excerpts, half-poems,

Carefully selected for lexile content,

Or articles written for the sole purpose

Of testing your comprehension . . . .

Read for the world.

Read to solve its problems.

Read to separate reality from ranting

Possibility from false promise,

And leaders from snake oil peddlers.

Read so you can tell the difference,

Because an educated person is so much harder

To enslave.

Finally, whether you’re lighting candles on a menorah, reconnecting with the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, trading presents beside a tree, or just curling up with a good book, I wish you well this holiday season and hope that these offerings fill your heart and spirit with good tidings of comfort and joy.

Till next year . . . .