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Monday, February 12, 2018

Diversity, Politics, and Education in 2018

As an educator, I cannot fathom how many times recently I've heard somebody on television,  on social media, and in my professional discussions utter the sentiment that politics do not belong in schools.  People who hold firm to this belief often fall into one of the following two camps:

1)  Some believe complex social issues should be completely avoided in school and replaced with less controversial topics like "should we serve ice cream in the cafeteria?" or "should we allow kids to listen to music" or the ever-popular-beaten-to-death topic that has been used so frequently, its essays can blanket the world:  "should we have uniforms in school?"

Unfortunately, focusing on superfluous topics like these have some major flaws:

  • Students don't really care about the trivial; they are smarter than we know.  They can spot a  teacher-crafted essay in their sleep.  They will never spend passion-filled hours searching schools that serve ice cream, completely outraged that some schools offer soft serve on alternating Fridays, when their school only offers Dilly bars.
  • Students can smell inauthenticity a mile away.  Let's say I attend a school where uniforms do not exist.  I am able to wear my torn jeans, Stranger Things hoodie, and Doc Martens every single day.  What are the odds, even if I were to craft a perfectly worded, logical response to the school uniform essay, that my school's policy would change?  Zilch.  Zero.  Zip.  Students will never be invested in a topic that they know is only for test prep, nor should they be.  Authentic writing tasks leads to engaged writers which leads to increased learning.  Just ask leading literacy experts Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, or Tom Romano and they'll gladly share the research with you if you don't believe me.
Let's remove these meaningless writing tasks from the table for a moment and consider the other argument that individuals often make when arguing that politics and schools should not mix.

2) Some believe teachers do not have the right to voice their political viewpoints in front of their students.  Thankfully, unlike the first scenario, students have the opportunity to discuss currently worldly issues that they care about with an adult steering the conversation.  Advocates of this camp believe teachers should impartially show both sides of an issue.  Additionally they believe we should provide instruction on critical reading skills and thinking skills, allowing to form their own opinion about what side of the issue they fall.  Up until a few years ago,  I probably would've agreed with these people vehemently that teachers personal opinions must never exist inside the four walls of a classroom.  In fact, even today, I would argue that it is not my role as an educator to create a roomful of like-minded individuals who see things the way I do.  I would also argue that this is not the job of the parents either.  However I now recognize that times exist where teachers must step in when these difficult conversations are had and if this behavior is perceived as being political, so be it.

Imagine, for example, that the teacher is leading a discussion on immigration policies.  The teacher's main objective, before all others, should be to provide a classroom environment where all students feel safe and welcome.  If students begin making comments when discussing immigration that can be perceived as derogatory or interfere with the sense well being of other students in the room, it is the teacher's duty to step in and remind students when comments do not align with the school's vision that all students are respected.  Is this a political decision?  Yes, and I would argue a necessary one.  Furthermore, when the actions, words, or decisions of people in the news infringe upon the inclusive belief systems of our public schools , educators must join the conversations and make it clear that these actions do not align with the core beliefs we have established as a school system.  We cannot allow marginalized voices to continue to be squelched.

One way to lend voice to those who have not had one in the past is by rethinking what we consider to be a "classic" piece of literature.  If I were to ask you to list a few literary "classics," which titles would you give to me?  Perhaps you would list off some works that you read years ago in school?  Works by artists like Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, or Whitman?  How many titles would you give me before a person of color or female made a list?  In a recent interview on "The View," thirteen-year-old Marley Emerson Dias discussed her experience with the classics in school, explaining how not being able to see oneself in the texts that were read can affect the self worth and identity of students everywhere.  

Although we are still worlds away from ensuring that all perspectives are equally represented and dignified in schools today, we are making progress.  Campaigns like We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices are aiding in the publishing world's quest to turn out literature that is reflective of the diverse population of readers across America.  Recently, Nic Stone, author of young adult title Dear Martin celebrated her success after visiting a school and serving as a role model to girls everywhere. The more we expose students to a myriad of voices and perspectives in the classroom, the better off we all will be.

In a recent article titled "No Longer Invisible:  How Diverse Literature Helps Children Find Themselves in Books, and Why It Matters" by the National Council of Teacher of English, we are reminded including diverse literature in schools is rewarding for all students because it enables students to learn about the backgrounds of those who are unlike them and develop empathy for their peers and for the world (p. 14).  Diversity is not just about skin color but also about "racial, ethnic, and cultural differences...disabilities, sexual orientation, and religious belief" (14). By providing a safe space where all cultures are explored and honored, teachers foster an environment of critical thinkers who are also empathetic about the experiences of others and the world improves as a result.

Ultimately, we cannot avoid political discussions in schools, nor should we.  In fact, I would argue that politics are just as involved in decisions to exclude content as it is to include it.  If we opt to discuss whether or not ice cream should be served in the school cafeteria in lieu of timely discussions regarding immigration policies, for example, we are making a political statement.  Do we really want to send the message to students that their views or worldly issues are unimportant or not worthy of time to explore them?  Do we want to avoid teaching kids how to analyze tough topics in our own nation with a critical eye? Do we want to raise a next generation of adults who are ignorant about the daily ongoings of society? Isn't that how we ended up here in the first place?

I leave you with a quote from Disruptive Thinking by Kyleen Beers and Robert Probst who remind us that reading helps build informed citizens: "We want to ask kids to be open to the possibility that a text might be disruptive, and it is that disruption that gives them the opportunity to learn and grow.  Reading should be disruptive"  (61).  

So skip the school uniform lesson and tackle the topics that kids are talking about anyway. Who knows?   You just might learn something along with them.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Help! My Kids Can't Find The Theme: One Way to Merge the Ideas of Beers, Probst, Kittle & Lehman

        As a literacy coach in a middle school, I read a lot of professional books and have found that most books I read have changed my thinking or practices in at least some way. However, few books have transformed the way I instruct as much as Notice and Note Strategies for Close Reading by Kyleen Beers & Robert Probst.  This book describes a systematic and scaffolded process to help students independently uncover the important pieces of the text and how they lead to character development, conflict, and theme.  Teachers in my district now use these Literary Signposts, as Beers & Probst have dubbed them, daily as a strategy to help students be able to master the Common Core standards.  We've been teaching them for a few years now and have even had the lucky experience of spending the day  with Beers & Probst to increase our capacity to use the strategies described in their books.

       Teachers follow the process with fidelity.  They teach each signpost within the context of a rigorous text, using the Fisher & Frey I-do, we-do, you-do with a partner, you-do independently approach.  They model how to locate the signpost, how to answer the anchor question, and how to annotate the text using the anchor question. They ask kids to review and discuss their annotations with the goal of determining the theme of the text.  For example, if the students are reading the short story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (a story where a citizen is stoned to death each June after an elaborate Lottery ritual is performed) the teacher would help the students how to use the again and again signpost on a second read, and  locate and analyze the places in the text where old ritualistic behaviors without purpose begin surfacing. Each time something with this idea would emerge, students would then be expected to answer the anchor question designed by Beers & Probst:  Why do I think this idea keeps popping up again and again?  Additionally, the Words to the Wiser Signpost also exists in "The Lottery" when Old Man Warner, the town's eldest citizen, speaks the infamous line: "Lottery in June, Corn Be Heavy Soon." Students are then instructed to analyze this piece of the text utilizing Beers & Probst's anchor question:  What is the life lesson and how might it affect the characters?  While students are often able to recognize the signpost and annotated with appropriate and insightful inferences, when it comes time to connect their thinking together and determine an overall theme of the text, many still falter.
           The issue of students struggling to determine a theme is not unique to the story "The Lottery."  I receive this same feedback from many English teachers in the district.  Students were having rich discussions but often falling short when it came time to determine a theme independently in the text.  At the same time that I was observing this data with students in classrooms and receiving similar feedback from teachers, I had just finished leading a book study on Penny Kittle's Book Love:  Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. 
The purpose of this book is probably the most important one any educator can attempt to explore:  how do you develop a passion for reading in your students?  Inside this discussion, Kittle describes an activity she did with students to get them started thinking about theme.  In her book, Kittle takes us through a modeling process of helping students ask questions that the authors are trying to get readers to think about as they read.  She tells students that "most books have questions at the center, and when we stop to think about them, we often understand more"  (99).  She then allows students to see her own thinking process as she writes with her students about the questions that the author expects readers to explore in the book Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt.
             After reflecting on this idea, a light bulb went off in my head. I started thinking about another book I had read, Falling In Love With Close Reading, by Christopher Lehman where he suggests asking students to examine patterns in text
evidence to determine a theme and central idea as opposed to having kids determine a theme first and then search blindly for evidence supporting their idea. These two books quickly merged together in my mind to provide the missing link between the signpost anchor question and developing the theme.  I  pulled a teacher into the conversation and shared my idea.  From there we created a flow map of steps for students to follow, and have been pleased with the results.

From SignPosts To Theme

Step One:  Teach The Signposts & Have Students Search For Patterns In Their Annotations
             The next time I taught a theme lesson with teachers, after having kids find the signposts and discuss the anchor questions, we asked kids to find patterns inside their annotations for a given signpost, Christopher Lehman style.  So, in "The Lottery" that I referenced earlier, students might recognize that their annotations about the lottery events all involve rituals or practices, that people don't know why they are doing the things they are doing, and that these practices were all determined years ago by earlier generations. 

Step Two:  Turn These Patterns Into Questions The Author Is Hoping Readers Will Consider

Now, using these patterns, they are then asked to use Penny Kittle's idea and come up with questions that the author might be asking them to consider about life.  I tell them that they should use some of the key words from the patterns they found in step one inside their questions. In the case of the lottery, these patterns lead to these questions:
  • Why do people follow practices from the past that they don't understand?
  • What are the problems that occur with an entire society following practices that are old and useless?
Step Three:  Answer These Questions Using Story Events
        Next, we ask students to answer these questions based on story events.  So, in "The Lottery,"  we revisit Ole Man Warner's Words of the Wiser and think about how a citizen, Tessie Hutchinson is stoned to death at the story's end.  These two events together help us to realize that following a ritual may have a bad outcome.  And because Old Man Warner talks about how there used to be a saying about having a plentiful crop if the lottery was performed, we can only guess that the town used to feel that human sacrifice once led to a good harvest.  But since nobody remembers this phrase or even why they are participating in the events of the lottery, an answer to the question might be something like this:

Step Four:  Turn Your Answer Into A Theme Statement

  • Following outdated traditions for the sake of traditions may lead to negative results.   

         And here lies the theme statement. 

     Admittedly , students will still need time and practice and scaffolding to be able to follow this process independently, but we have noticed that even our students who typically struggle with theme were immediately coming up with great questions as part of the process.
          So I would like to end by thanking Beers, Probst, Kittle, and Lehman for sharing their learning with the rest of us.  Together, we can get every kid there. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Let Students Read Independently - Part Two: My Response To Tim Shanahan's Rebuttal


         What's more controversial than the race for president these days?  Get a group of reading teachers together and you just might be surprised to learn that it's the topic of independent reading. If you have been following my blog, you know that recently I wrote an open letter to educational leader Tim Shanahan who had called a teacher "ineffective" in his recent post due to her desire to foster a love of reading via independent reading time.  His original letter where he argues that research does not support this practice can be found here and my response to his post where I argue that research (both quantitative and qualitative) does support independent reading can be found here.  Recently, Shanahan decided to respond to my open letter on his own blog
          Both blogs sparked quite an uproar on social media websites with passionate educators and literacy authors on both pedagogical sides engaged in thoughtful discussions about whether independent reading should stay or go.  Are we surprised?  I would argue that a large portion of reading teachers became teachers because they both love students and possess a solid passion for reading.  It only makes sense that we would want to ignite that same fire for the written word in all of our students, not just the ones that already come with the spark lit.  Passionate arguments and even disagreements about independent reading occur because we all, hopefully, have the same goal even when we disagree with how to get there:  to increase the literacy skills of our students so that they can become informed readers who not only enjoy reading but enter the world prepared to read and think with a critical eye. 
          After reading Shanahan's response , where I feel some of my ideas and arguments were misinterpreted, I debated about whether or not I should respond again.  Then, as I was  bombarded by emails and comments about my response, I considered the teacher who may only read his one blog post and felt obligated to respond and further clarify my original intent. Since we live in and breathe the Common Core these days, I've decided to utilize a few of the 8th grade informational text learning standards while analyzing the effectiveness of Shanahan's rebuttal.


Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core Standard 6?

       Shanahan is successful in relaying his purpose.  His purpose is clear.  His agenda is to stop educators from providing time for students to read independently in schools, a practice he purports to be wasteful.  
       Unfortunately, Common Core Standard 6 requires authors to "acknowledge and respond to conflicting viewpoints." Shanahan does not fully address conflicting evidence.  He claims that research does not support independent reading and that "studies in which DEAR time is provided to some kids but not to others have not found much payoff—even when the non-readers were doing no more than random worksheets."    He neglects to address the large body of research that suggests otherwise.  In a recent blog post, Stephen Krashen (Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California and author of over 250 articles and books on literacy and bilingual education) refutes several key points in Shanahan's original blog post with cited research studies.  Krashen's blog -- which can be read in its entirety here -- refutes Shanahan's claim that SSR does not benefit students by providing the results of a meta-analyses of several studies suggesting that, in fact, independent reading does achieve substantial results for students. He discusses studies that found students made substantial gains on the PIRLS after moving from no independent reading time to an almost daily practice.  
        In addition to the studies suggested by Krashen, other research supports the practice of independent reading.  The Research Journal of the American Association of School Librarians, for example, cites a research study by Ozburn (1995) that found an at-risk group of high school freshman who participated in sustained silent reading along with best practices to earn an average of 3.9 years growth on reading achievement scores. More studies like this one do, in fact, exist.
       Furthermore, in his blog response to my open letter,  Shanahan chooses to disregard the qualitative data I provide, the detailed stories of at-risk students who found their love of reading after being given time to read independently in school.  Because, really, how can you argue with stories of individual success?  
        By failing to present and refute the conflicting body of research presented by Krashen and others, Shanahan's argument falls short in mastering this Common Core standard. I would hope my eighth graders would come to the conclusion that disregarding significant pieces of opposing evidence makes his argument weaker. 
       Since the appearance of my first blog, I've had countless teachers  across the country share similar stories about students who have changed their minds about reading when given time to read quality titles independently. As I said in my first letter, not everything important can be measured by a pen and pencil test.
        The truth is that in education, where a number of variables outside of our control exist, research can be found to support and disprove almost any practice.   What we can't do is vehemently deny the other half of the research exists to suit our needs.  While some would like to believe that teaching is a pure science, I would argue that it is a delicate balance of science (using data and research to drive instructional practices) and art (building relationships with students --ie Hattie's research on visible learning-- while using creativity and passion to deliver lessons rooted in best practice).  

I've heard teachers argue that independent reading is wasted time -- a time for teachers to sit behind their desks and grade papers while students stare at the ceiling and daydream.  In this case, I would agree that the practice is ineffective.  Unless any practice is followed with fidelity and delivered in a well orchestrated and engaging way for students, we may  dismiss practice instead of choosing to reflect on the causes behind its failed success.

Common Core Target:

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core target 8?

 In Common Core Standard 8, students are expected to examine claims made by authors and analyze whether or not they've provided logical reasoning and sufficient evidence to support their claims.   In his response to my argument that independent reading practices lead to students who become life long readers (an idea supported by the research of Pilgreen and Krashen, 1993 as and Greaney and Clarke, 1975 as cited by Krashen), Shanahan writes that "if this practice so powerfully fosters 'a love of reading' among kids that lasts a lifetime, then why aren’t years of it lasting even until kids are 12?"   He seems to suggest here that if students independently read in middle grades, then that should be sufficient to continue their independent reading practices for the remainder of their lives without any kind of support of such practices by future teachers.  This argument falls short in the logic department required of this Common Core Standard.
      Let's say I have an elementary student who struggles with organization.  I may work with him to develop a system of organizing his locker in fifth grade and even check in with him every few weeks to see how his organizational progress is going.  Should I assume, then, that he will have a spotless locker for the remainder of his school career because I've spent time in elementary school developing this practice? Maintaining any practice -- reading including --  especially with students who are not intrinsically motivated by nature to read -- requires ongoing support and dedication by adult role models as well as peers.
Furthermore, to understand why students still need to be given choice of reading materials and the time to read them as they age, we need to consider the developing middle school brains.  Research by James Bjork as discussed by Emma S. McDonald in her article "A Quick Look Into the Middle School Brain" reveals that normal brain development leads teens to "seek activities and behaviors that either lead to a high level of excitement or require very little effort."  By giving students time to read in class, we are making pleasure reading an activity that requires "very little effort" on the part of the students. Once a student is immersed in a good book, he is much more likely on his own to take that book home and continue the story. How do I know this?  As recent as 2014, Scholastic coupled with YouGov conducted research by surveying a national sample of students and parents on their beliefs and practices on pleasure reading.  One of the findings from the study was that "factors that predict children ages 12–17 will be frequent readers include reading a book of choice independently in school, reading experiences, a large home library, having been told their reading level and having parents involved in their reading habits."  Although educators can't necessarily control the reading habits of parents or the size of students' home libraries, one thing we can control is providing students time to read in school.  Why wouldn't we want to give it a go?
       Shanahan is right that different students are motivated by different things.  Kelly Gallagher wrote an entire book about this called Reading Reasons.   The research of Gay Ivey has suggested over and over again, however, that student choice of reading materials is pivotal if we wish to motivate our students.  And again, as I noted in my first post, Dwek's research reminds us that motivation leads to engagement which translates into increased learning gains.  Many of us have experience with students who love to read during class but can't seem to find the time in their overly scheduled lives to read on their own. Other students, who are more intrinsically motivated by nature and may find the time to read outside of school even if they are not provided time in class, still need to be exposed to book-talks and exposure to quality titles that they may not know exist.  Different strokes for different folks.  Independent reading gives students power over their learning in a way many teacher-structured activities cannot.   

Common Core Target:

Craft and Structure:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core target 4?

         The second half of this Common Core Target requires students to take specific words and phrases and analyze how they impact the tone of the piece, thus ultimately affecting the meaning.  Shanahan refers to a specific word that I used in my letter to him, "visceral" and says, "I’d rather that teachers reacted intellectually rather than 'viscerally' to questions about instructional practices."  Here he is misconstruing my use of this word.  

       As a literacy coach in a middle school that has worked hard to earn its second National Blue Ribbon Award this year, I come from an environment where we live and breathe data to drive our instructional practices. Due to our implementation of best practices (included but certainly not limited to independent reading), eighty-five percent of our 8th grade students met or exceeded standards on the PARCC exam in 2015, the first year students were exposed to the new Common Core driven assessment. In fact, nearly one out of every three eighth grade students actually exceeded standards on this already rigorous exam. In my world, researched practices are held with the utmost regard, and I don't believe we'd see students surpassing the high levels of learning they do each day without utilization of best practices. I would never advocate for an instructional practice simply because I had a passion for it.

       My original comment, taken out of context, was that "Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece."  This statement suggests that I responded with deep-seeded emotion to the message he was sending educators about the value of independent reading and not that I was going to make my decisions on instruction based on emotion alone as Shanahan implies.  One need only to read my earlier explanations regarding the research supporting independent reading to see that although I feel strongly about fostering a love of reading in students, both quantitative and qualitative research exists to support the practice.

Additionally,  Shanahan analyzes the impact of tone in my own argument when he writes in his rebuttal that "There are many statements here evidently aimed at conveying the idea that I’m rude, that I don’t care about kids, and that I pay attention to numbers rather than stories. "   I think he unfairly misses the mark on this one. No text evidence (CCSS Standard 1) exists in my open letter that would allow a reader to infer that I do not think he cares about students. I would like to think that we can engage in thoughtful discourse with those who disagree with us without getting personal.  I said in my first post that I have the utmost respect for Mr. Shanahan and have used his arguments and ideas often in my own blog and in my professional development with teachers.  I stand by this sentiment and just wish he would reconsider his unwaveringly rigid stance on independent reading as he reaches a wide audience.  And to quote Spiderman's Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

Finally, if I were to ask my students to analyze the tone of Shanahan's original post to the teacher inquiring about independent reading practices, I would expect them to pull out specific words and phrases as the Common Core Standard Four demands to determine the implied tone in the piece.  Students would most likely find that even the very first line of Shanahan's piece  "I think you sound like a nice teacher, but perhaps an ineffective one" already begins to develop his tone. Suggesting that a teacher is "ineffective" is a bold statement to make especially with conflicting evidence in regards to independent reading.  As Shanahan moves through his claim, he continues to use a condescending tone by using phrases like "If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning" and "use reading to isolate kids."  Words like "isolate" and "sacrifice" have negative connotations and suggest that teachers choosing to independent reading are willingly damaging their students.  Shanahan concludes his piece by saying, "I hope you care so much that you’ll be willing to alter your methods to actually meet your very appropriate goals for them."  The use of the word "actually" in this sentence further develops a tone that one could argue is lofty, at least. I guess my visceral reaction to his first blog came from the message he was relaying (Common Core Standards 1-3) as well as the manner in which it was delivered (Common Core Standards 4-6).  My attempt to mimic his tone in my open letter response was not well received, but revealed an important point: I believe Mr. Shanahan experienced a visceral response.

I leave Mr. Shanahan with one important question:  If you do not advocate for independent reading in classrooms, what practices do you suggest to instill a love of reading in students? How, specifically, do we ensure that our students read for pleasure daily in a world full of distractions and commitments?

 I'm reminded every day as I watch the presidential election draw nearer that it is much easier to shoot down the opposition than it is to reveal a practical solution to the problem.  As a nation, I hope we continue to listen to all sides of an argument with open ears instead of simply waiting our turn to prove ourselves right.   I know that I've learned a lot myself during this dialogue as it has forced me to research more than I would have and ultimately conclude that more research supports the practice of independent reading than I had even originally thought. 

 And I have you, Mr. Shanahan, to thank for it.