Monday, May 19, 2014

The value of books

Hello all!  It's been along time, but I am back and have a story to share.  I've been sitting on this for a couple of weeks, turning it over in my mind and finally have to just let it out of its cage. (All identifying information has been removed to protect the guilty.)

A good friend is married to a teacher who is a complete bibliophile. She loves books, loves getting her students excited about books, and looks forward every year to the state's new book list, the Sunshine State Young Reader's Awards.  So when the list came out for next school year, he hopped online and ordered all fifteen titles for her as a gift. He was so proud of the gift that he mentioned it at lunch with his collegues the next day. One of the administrators at the elementary school where he works, upon hearing him tell about the gift, made the following comment: "That's like getting her a vacuum cleaner!"

Now, besides the obvious (this administrator has never met the wife, so how would she know better than the husband who has known his wife for twenty years?), this points to a bigger issue in my mind. By comparing the gift of book to a vacuum cleaner, this school administrator has basically implied that reading is a chore. Not a pleasure, not a gift, but something that one simply must do because it is required, much like cleaning a house.

In my experience as a teacher, I have seen how important the attitude coming from the top (administration) is in setting the tone of the school itself.  If this is how that particular administrator feels about books and reading, then what are her words and actions telling her teachers and the students of the school?  Do her eyes light up when she talks about reading?  Probably not. Does she read books and share them with those around her?  Probably not. Applegate & Applegate (2004) discuss the Peter Effect (you cannot give what you do not have) in relationship to motivation to read. Although the research indicates that this applies to teachers and thier ability to motivate their students to read, I wonder - how does this translate to administration's impact on the reading motivation of students in the school.  How do the choices of an amotivated reader in an administrative position differ from those of a motivated reader? 



Applegate, A.J., & Applegate, M.K. (2004). The peter effect: Reading habits and attitudes of preservice teachers. The Reading Teacher, 57(6), 554-563.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What Students Are Reading Now

Renaissance Learning recently released the results of their fifth annual survey/study of "What Kids Are Reading," which is summarized in this graphic. As I have been reading a great deal about the new CCSS and the focus of Standard 10 on text complexity, I was curious to see, in particular, the  differences in what was required reading just over a century ago and how the top 3 has changed over the years. Of the Top 3 in 1907, all are still represented in modern required reading lists, but have fallen in popularity. Even the top 3 from last year have fallen from favor a little, with one dropping to a current ranking of 16th. And, according to their report, the complexity of the required high school reading has dropped since 1907, a finding that has been echoed in much of the research that I have read recently.

Renaissance Learning also notes that some texts that have been used as exemplars within the CCSS in English/Language Arts & Literacy have seen an increase in readership, opening up the possibility that the standards are already beginning to have an effect on curriculum decisions. This would make sense to me, as the exemplars, instead of serving as a starting place for guidance in choosing texts, may serve as a dictate for teachers who are either told by "higher authorities" they must use these texts or who are simply not trained to take the examples from these exemplars and apply them to analysis of other texts that could be more appropriate for their students.

On the CCSS web site, there are a host of resources for helping teachers gauge the complexity of any given text, whether informational or literary.  But without awareness of these tools, training on how to use them, and time to collaborate in implementing these tools, the exemplar texts may become a national reading list for students in the U.S.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Policy brief preview

So, here it is...a preview of my (nearly complete but still in-progress) policy brief on the CCSS and Text Complexity.  Enjoy!

Friday, May 31, 2013

CCSS and Informational Text

Last night I had the opportunity to take part in a free webinar about the CCSS and informational texts sponsored by The Text Project, featuring presenter Nell Duke. It was very interesting for a variety of reasons, but one of the points she made that stuck with me goes back to one of my own concerns with the CCSS: that people will make assumptions about what the standards mean and will begin making policy "based" on the standards without having fully read them. (As you can tell from my previous post, I am really concerned about the aliteracy of our policy makers.)

This point is relevant to middle & high school language arts/English/reading teachers (which is a group close to my heart, as I retired from their ranks), and to content area teachers at these same levels. It concerns the amount of informational text students are to be reading according to the standards and, most importantly, where they should be reading these texts. Yes, by 8th grade, 55% of the texts students read should be informational texts, according to the CCSS. Yes, this is included in a document with a title that begins "Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts." But the possible "pitfall" identified by Dukes, which I have already seen some evidence of in schools I have visited, is that the rest of that document's title, as well as the actual text within, will be ignored, putting an imbalanced onus on language arts/English teachers while also negatively affecting the students in their classes. The rest of that title reads "& Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects." And if one keeps reading below that handy chart on page 5, one will see some very important statements, including this one:

"Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes..."

Yes, folks - all those informational texts are not supposed to be crammed into the ELA class.  ELA classes are still predominantly literature classes, even under the CCSS. Students should be reading in other classes.  Yes, it would be wonderful if you could pull in texts other than the textbook for this purpose; in fact, it would be beneficial in a variety of ways! How about some news articles about the latest in scientific breakthroughs?  A magazine article about the new discoveries at an ancient ruin and what those discoveries tell us about a long-dead culture?  How about, instead of just showing students how to make their next project, you give them a how-to guide to read and discuss it with them?

This is, of course, only one of the possible issues that could arise with the CCSS. As with most ideas, the CCSS look good on paper (at least, it does to me); it's once humans get involved in implementation, interpreting and misinterpreting, that the true problems will begin.  Can we all just sit down, read closely (like we want the students to do) and try to get this thing right?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Making Policy Without Reading It?

I've been stewing on this one for a few days. Last summer the Hernando County School Board voted on a number of district policies, making changes based on recommendations from a committee. And now that some have realized what was actually in some of those changes, there is some general unhappiness. This part doesn't surprise me - anytime you make a change, there will be some people who dislike it for one reason or another. The change that is making waves this time is the elimination of valedictorian and salutatorian designations for high school classes beginning with the class of 2016. I know that this is an idea that has been floating around for a while, and some places have already made this move. Again, no matter which way this goes, someone will be unhappy.

Here's the part that really, really, REALLY blows me away. The school board members hadn't read the changes they unanimously voted to approve! They weren't even aware they had done away with vals & sals! Even the superintendent didn't realize that was included in the changes being voted on. What?! *deep breath* I decided to give these good people the benefit of a doubt. So, I went back to the board agendas for last summer and looked over the information that is publicly available on the county web site. What did I find? June 19, 2012 Workshop minutes with plenty of documents attached.

This one gives an overview of all the changes being made to the High School Procedures handbook. (Yep, there it is..."Added language related to change in the designation for valedictorian and salutatorian for the class of 2016 (students entering 9th grade in 2012-13)." In case they were curious about what exactly this change included, they could have looked here (page H69 to be precise) to see that this change was included. The full handbook is again attached to the agenda for the July 31 school board meeting, when it was voted on and approved.

But they didn’t read it.  Not even, apparently, the single page overview of the changes made.  No discussion of any aspect of the high school handbook was ever discussed according to the minutes of either meeting, although the topic of whether cursive is still taught in elementary school was a hot topic at the June workshop. And now, in typical style, time will be spent to change the change…to try and make the voters happy and to save some face.  And really, wouldn’t it have been easier to read the document in the first place?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Policy messages: the texts versus the talk

In my reading for a multicultural education class, I came across an article by Michele Kahn (2008).  In response to a quote from President G.W. Bush about NCLB reforms having the mission to "build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America," she asked a question that I immediately wanted to put on a billboard:

"How do schools build the mind and character of, for example, gay and lesbian children, ethnic minority children and children with disabilities, when the people who decide what their minds and character should be judge the end result with standardized testing?" (Kahn, 2008, p. 531).

How indeed!  Despite the message being delivered by Bush (and many presidents since), we are still limiting our way of assessing student learning to a single measure; the great and mighty standardized test. How can we assess so many individuals with their own challenges, skills, and backgrounds with a single measure?  How can we label those who don't have the needed background knowledge (a la Florida's FCAT Writes camel prompt debacle) as unsuccessful when we've damned them before even putting the assessment in front of them?  Why don't we give all these kids raised in the Florida sunshine a prompt about a snowball fight or skiing in Colorado while we're at it? 

In a world where the tools we can use to express ourselves are changing and expanding, why are we still using a single measure to gauge the success of all?  And since when does putting this same measure on a computer (computer based testing, anyone?) count as authentically integrating technology?

Article Citation:
Kahn, Michele(2008). Multicultural education in the United States: Reflections. Intercultural Education,19:6,527 — 536.

Thoughts & Reflections: So Much Reform, So Little Change by Charles M. Payne

This book gave me (and the other members of my group) a lot of food for thought and inspired a lot of thoughtful discussion, both in our book club meetings and in the whole class discussion we facilitated.

In So Much Reform, So Little Change, by Charles M. Payne, he clearly articulates the reasons for the failure of reform in urban schools. To begin, he notes the demoralization of urban schools, faculties, administrators, and teachers. In addition to demoralization, urban schools and those who work in them often exhibit organizational irrationality.

As evidence of organizational irrationality, novice teachers, with weak skills are often placed in the most difficult schools. This is something I experienced in my first year as a teacher, not just in terms of the school in which I found myself, but also with the students who were assigned to me; I was assigned the students that the other, more experienced, teachers did not want in their classes.  A “degraded professional culture” permeates underperforming urban schools, where teachers frequently work in isolation, have low expectations for achievement, and …When considering many children who enter low performing urban schools, Lee & Burkam state, “…They start out behind, and then we systematically undermine them with poor schools. Poor children start their school careers in much lower-quality schools where they will be in larger classes, with less well-prepared teachers who have a weaker sense of collective responsibility and professional community than the teachers of more advantaged children”  (p.70-74).

Furthermore, urban school reform has not succeeded in many instances due to fixed mindsets, which focus on stereotypes, self-efficacy, and a lack of connectedness to a larger, more successful society.  
Bureaucracy and fragmentation further complicate the needs of urban schools. Bureaucracy often leads to shifts in leadership at the school and district levels, and teachers lack the confidence to use professional judgment when various reform agendas are shared. Therefore, lack of stability in personnel, as well as curriculum, leads to more instability.

There is a significant disconnect between policymakers/reformers and realities of the every day world of urban schools, including toxic urban school environments, cultures of failure, distrust, leadership issues, personalities, communication, and unstable staffs. Much of the support offered to schools when new programs are introduced is often superficial, and there is a lack of trust between the providers of the support and school faculty. Too often, programs are introduced, attempted, and abandoned long before implementation can prove successful, for educators or students. The fast food mentality that we can drive through, select a program, and implement it quickly is a major impediment to successful reform. Plant posits, “…programs have been oversold and under-thought-out, adopted with exaggerated hopes, expanded at unrealistic rates, and then jettisoned …The politics which drove that process are still operative, now strengthened by top-down government mandates” (p. 168-169). Again, this instant gratification mentality is one that I have seen played out in the schools where I have worked, with a new program intriduced nearly every year because the previous one (used for a year) did not show the dramatic growth so desperately hoped for.

Payne concludes the text by elucidating the pitfalls of conservative and progressive ideology. He asks, “…do we balance urgency with complexity?” (p.199).  He also notes that educators and reformers should advocate for parents to be a part of the solution seeking team focused on changing urban schools.

Considerations for success in urban schools should include time, a more reasonable pace, scale, community, politics, parents, teacher opt-in, follow through, sustainability, and perceptions of stakeholders. Examination should include school culture, attitudes of those trying to reform, strategy sessions with school leaders, and past experience. Plans should be made in advance to foster authentic collaboration, adapt to local contexts, develop guidelines for data collection, and strategies for examining multiple outcome measures. Perhaps his next book will elucidate how to make these things happen!

Finally, in the epilogue, Payne quotes a former teacher and principal. He states the educators had two main goals. “…to make the school so attractive that the children were happy to be there” and “…to make the school a sort of community center” (p. 208). Perhaps, if we aspired to these goals that appear to focus on children, rather than accountability, urban schools would change.

 Payne, C.M. (2008) . So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools.  
     Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


 Below are artifacts from the class presentation/discussion on the book.  We started out with a Wordle that contained words we saw often repeated within the text.


Wordle Link:

 The presentation continued with a slide of quotes we found to be especially thought-provoking. One that I found to be pertainent to my own experiences is the one in the bottom left corner, regarding teacher skepticism.  I agree that many teachers are skeptical when faced with the latest "research based" curriculum or strategy, but I also see that many long-time teachers have seen so many educational fads come and go that they are jaded by this merry-go-round of education's greatest hits being repackaged into shiny new cellophane.

I really enjoyed the chance to see how my classmates defined the problems facing education in urban schools. The wheel activity was a fabulous way to facilitate this discussion.

We closed with this quote, which is sad but also true to my own experiences, not just with bureaucracy, but with educational struggles in general.  There's nothing like coming into a struggling school with ideas and being told to do whatever because you can't make it any worse.