Susan Ohanian is my new hero.

ImageWow.  I just read the most amazing post by Susan Ohanian.  Passion.  Research.  And simply fine writing.  Wow.  My heart is racing.

My last two posts were on similar topics, angry with both  David Coleman and the Common Core’s clarification of literature standards, but I got really truly angry at this part of Susan’s post:

A national movement of parents opting their children out of standardized testing started when Professor Tim Slekar and his wife went with their son Luke to a school conference to learn why Luke’s grades were slipping. The teacher showed them a sample paper, with a test-prep writing prompt: Write about the two most exciting times you have had with your family. Luke’s response, started, “Whoo-hoo! Let me tell you about my great family vacation trip to the Adirondacks.”

The teacher stopped Luke and asked him to explain to his parents why this opening was unacceptable. “Whoo-hoo! isn’t a sentence,” he acknowledged, adding that the first sentence to a writing prompt must begin by restating the prompt. The teacher said that according to standards, Luke’s response would have been scored a zero, and her obligation was to prepare children to pass the state test. Feeling that education shouldn’t be about preparing students to write answers in a format low-paid temp workers can score, the Slekars decided to opt Luke out of future standardized testing. “We would not allow our son to provide data to a system that was designed to prove that he, the teacher, the system, and the community were failing.” Tim found people of like mind– Peggy Robertson, Morna McDermmott, Ceresta Smith, Shaun Johnson and Laurie Murphy–and together they founded United Opt Out, a national movement to opt students out of standardized testing. Its endorsers include John Kuhn, an outspoken Texas school superintendent, who says, “Parents and students have the power to say when enough is enough.”

I am sick and sad.  Voice, creativity, and choice in writing… I strive to teach those, to nurture them.  Whoo-hoo is the perfect sentence.  The perfect start.

I also love how Susan says that some of the pieces on education read like satire.  When she mentioned this young author, I couldn’t help think back on what the NYT Times said in my post on computer grading.  Satire indeed.

So whoo-ooo, Susan.  Giddyup!

Defending Captain Underpants Against David Coleman

In exploring for my last post,  I came across a Diane Ravitch post examining David Coleman, and David Coleman posted a response to her comments.  The part that caught my attention is this:

To clarify, when we say there is an increased focus on “informational text” which I agree is not the most beautiful word, we mean that in elementary there is more time for history, science and the arts – along with a rich exploration of literature in those grades. In later grades, a great deal of informational text is explored in classrooms in history, social studies, science and technical subjects. In 6-12 grade ELA, the only change is that there is more room for literary non-fiction, although the classroom remains focused on literature.

Now here is the irony:  Mr. Coleman is now president of the College Board, creator of Advanced Placement, and I am going to use my AP Lang teacher skills to dissect his words.

ImageWhen Mr. Coleman states that there is “more time” at the elementary school for “history, science, and the arts,” please note two things: one is that the arts he is referring to are not opportunities to paint, dance, or sing, as the testing movement curtailed those significantly, but rather proposed reading about those activities; and two is that there are no time turners in elementary schools, except in the pages of Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban.  There is no “more time for X” without there being “less time for y.”   What gets sacrificed to read those informational texts?

In both the Ravitch post and the NYT article, David Coleman’s opposition of literature is pointed out.  This opposition is further echoed by others in the movement (see my last post). 

In some ways I do not object.  I watch my children, 8 and 10, get intrigued by many non-fiction books, though I wonder if a favorite, Poop Happened, would ever make the Common Core’s recommendations list.

But I think about this week when I helped my son’s Cub Scout meeting learn about libraries and genres of books.  Each child had to bring his favorite book and we did a tally of books according to genre and then a culminating post-it note chart of genres.  In the end, fantasy books had 8 “votes”, realistic fiction had one, and informational text had one.  Strange that when kids choose favorite books, no one brought the Common Core’s recommended books about whales or senses of Ben Franklin.

ImageKids fall in love with reading with Captain Underpants, a book held up by one boy.  They love the oddities in My Wierd School.  And the super readers catch fire with Harry Potter.

Kids love fiction.  They fall in love with reading because of stories.  Sports stories (fictional and informational). Ghost stories.  Animal stories.   Literature matters, as this great argument in makes.

In the end, I agree with Eric Ferencs as posted in a comment here, when he asserts there is a more important bottom line.  All we should really be concentrating on is teaching kids to love reading:

As an English teacher, I have found a strong connection between student writing and students’ reading for pleasure. Students who read because of a love of reading perform better on written assessments that their non-reading counterparts. We must teach students to love to read. It does not matter if we focus upon literature or informational texts. Such categorization may sound professional and appropriate in a government report, but it fails to recognize the most difficult and pertinent of hurdles: teaching a student to love to read.

We may lambast the common core. We may embrace it. But, we must prioritize. This article reeks of bureaucratic language that only alienates teachers, parents, and students alike. You want results? Teach them to love reading. That’s the truth.           


Not Buying The Common Core Clarifications on Literature

Yes, the clarifications are baloney, and we can see through them.  Photo courtesy of MollyPop on Flickr

Recently there has been some public statements  (and here) by Common Core English Language Standards writers asserting that the widespread interpretation that Common Core compliance requires English teachers sacrificing quality literature in the forms of novels, plays, poetry, and short stories is mistaken.  I say, “Baloney.”

First, I find it intriguing that these statements redefining the role of literature don’t appear in media until December of 2012, when, according to Wikipedia, the standards themselves were released June 2, 2010.  Yes, Common Core.  Please do allow the perception that literature is less valuable to spin for 18 months before correcting it.  That delay does speak of your sincerity. 

And while Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Thomas B Fordham’s foray into the argument defending the Common Core lit standards asserts that “the document immediately clarifies—no fewer than three times!—” the fact that  the common core assumes that there is informational text inside and outside the English classroom, that fact does not negate that there has been real and fairly universal pressure put to demote and devalue literature itself.  

Rather, I agree with bwsmith, a commenter on the Susan Pimentel/ David Coleman* article:  “The difficulties many people seem to have in interpreting the standards proficiently are troubling; but if so many educators have become misled in these first attempts, the fault must lie with the writers, not the readers.”    I further hold with Colette Marie Bennett, author of Used Books blog, when she questions why a significant clarification of literature/ informational is held in a footnote.

And I have yet one more reason.  Those linked with the Common Core sneer at and devalue literature publicly.

One of the reasons that my school, and seemingly the entire state of Wisconsin’s school administrators, adhere to Bill Daggett  (see previous posts one and two on Bill Daggett) is his close proximity to the Common Core and the Next Generation tests the Core has spawned.  Bill Daggett argues that he and the products he peddles  and recommends will know the test and help us prepare.  He gives the impression that he is aligned with the Core, no doubts involved, full throttle ahead.

So when he sneered during his presentation that English teachers have the lowest expectations of students, I listened up.  He asserted that the hardest readings are the technical readings, such a manuals on how to operate equipment or program computer.  I do not disagree with him there; I often struggle to understand details as I try to figure out how to problem-solve glitches in programs or equipments through technical manuals.

He went further, though, in outlining the complexity of texts, extolling the difficulty of science text, for instance, and castigating English and our lexile level.  I disagree with that assertion.  I question the subtext.  

But most of all, if I see a connection between Bill Daggett and his International Center for Leadership in Educational and his model schools conference and the Common Core and The Next Generation Tests, then his sneering at English teachers and his criticism of literature is a sneering that suits the Common Core founders and the Next Generation advocates.  His sneers regarding literature, his assertion that literature is unworthy, implicates the Common Core.  

So, no, Common Core non-questioners and blind adopters, I do not buy the “we really didn’t mean that you should dismiss your literature” 18 months after the trend started.  

I do not buy the “really, we, too value literature” when some of those at the development table sneer and deride the qualities of literature, and, according to reports (look through Diane Ravitch’s comments), Bill Daggett isn’t the only one.   

*If you haven’t read the Diane Ravitch post looking more deeply at David Coleman, the principal architect of the Common Core English Language standards, you need to.

Bill Daggett is wrong on computers grading writing

Yes, it may be among the greatest texts shared with America, but it only scores a 2. Taken from Gettysburg Address from

Among the most offensive moments in Bill Daggett’s presentation, which, again, I admit I came to prepared to be skeptical, were related to English teachers. But again, I am biased: I am an English teacher.

Bill Daggett stated that students should write at least a page a day.  I agree with that, believing that writing often will assist growth, and firmly believing that writing is thinking made visible.

The problem is  Daggett’s suggestion that we should simply hire out the scoring of writing to automatic scanners.  Daggett asserted that computer scoring is so much more effective than human scoring, as computers catch more errors.  This debate  is not new, but it overlooks much.

First, when Daggett is talking about scorers, he is talking about scorers in a testing situation, each of which get little time to read an essay.  According to a NYT article, “the Pearson education company expects readers to spend no more than two to three minutes per essay.”  Two to three minutes gives an overview score of the writing; it doesn’t truly analyze or teach.

Now some would argue that is the point: teaching writing is laborious and the grading is just too much.  If we could remove labor, well, then life would be great.

But I disagree.  I concur completely with Doug Hesse, Executive Director of Writing at the University of Denver when he states, “I see responding to student writing as teaching, in fact, as the most important element of teaching writing.”  I do not score student writing.  I coach it.  That requires far more than 2 to 3 minutes a paper, and  the comments  matter, not the score. (Or at least that is my earnest hope.)

Then there is simply how ludicrous computer scoring currently is.  While scoring may very well improve to where electronics can tell fact from fiction and style from mistake, it simply isn’t there yet.  An NPR article revealed that “of the 12 errors noted in one essay, 11 were incorrect,” and The Gettysburg Address (!!The Gettysburg Address!!) would score as a 2 on a 1-6 scale.

Nothing, however, shows the craziness like the NYT article:

“E-Rater. . . does not like short sentences.

Or short paragraphs.

Or sentences that begin with “or.” And sentences that start with “and.” Nor sentence fragments.

However, he said, e-Rater likes connectors, like “however,” which serve as programming proxies for complex thinking. Moreover, “moreover” is good, too.

Gargantuan words are indemnified because e-Rater interprets them as a sign of lexical complexity. “Whenever possible,” Mr. Perelman advises, “use a big word. ‘Egregious’ is better than ‘bad.’ ‘”

So, Mr. Bill Daggett, the answer to education is not computer grading of writing.  It is not to sneer at English teachers, implying we haven’t been following this technology or this debate.

The answer to education, as always, is in relationships.  It is in keeping class size low enough that I can reasonably coach writing.  It is in dedicated professionals with stable, compensated employment that provides opportunities to grow.  It is in daily hard work.

The work so many of my colleagues do to perfection year after year.

Other sources used to prepare for this post include an Inside Higher Ed article; A Sherman Dorn blog post where there is a good idea: what if teacher required students to run their essays through robograder until it was a B or better and then coached from there, minor errors now taken care of; a Wired article; and a Slate article.

Biased before I heard Bill Daggett thanks to press and Ray McNulty

When Bill Daggett was hired to speak to our district, I did my research.  I looked at his websites, read about his participation in the model Common Core, and prowled the web.

And so I was ready to hear him, but I admit I was biased against him.  First, the “mainstream” media alludes to controversies about Bill Dagget.  Iowa’s Cedar Valley’s WCF Courier published a piece, “Controversial to the core: As Senate debates curriculum mandates, few know the enigmatic father of many of their key concepts,” which, while projecting Iowa’s then (2008) confidence they were on the right path, also raises questions about Daggett’s credibility, with Mark Draper, director Iowa High School Project, acknowledging “there may be inconsistent statements (Daggett) has made.”

Gerald Bracey, Fellow at the Education Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University, had also chimed in about Daggett’s false statements. Scott McLeod has collected Bracey’s posts in his own post at Dangerously Irrelevant, and there is a breakdown of questions on Bill Daggett’s character from 2000.

So there was ample fodder to question Bill Daggett, but let’s assume  all of us get a bit carried away with simplifications and misstatements and cut Daggett some grace.  Even then I would have walked into the presentation prepared to disagree.  Here is why.

Bill Daggett and Ray McNulty from their website

Previous to the presentation in our own PAC, I was required to listen to one of International Center for Educational Leadership speakers, Ray McNulty.  In his presentation, he was advocating the need for education to think differently and to allocate resources accordingly.  The example he shared was this:

When he was leaving a conference, an administrator asked him for advice.  The administrator said that with the new budget realities, the school needed to cut a language, and which one out of Spanish, Latin, French, and German should they cut?

Ray McNulty stated that he should cut all of them and hire the Rosetta Stone, just like the military did.  McNulty praised the decision and the future of technology, and told this administrator to follow the military’s example.

Let’s just think about false comparison.  Are soldiers about to be deployed in life and death situations equivalent to high school boys more worried about Friday’s game?   Is the motive of a serviceman about to be housed in a different culture with a different language the same as a sophomore girl just filling her schedule?

Five Soldiers (image from and Five High School Boys (image from Mike Baird on Flickr)

No.  And the idea is absurd.  Completely absurd.

And here is the real irony: this amazing development our military was smart enough to invest in, according to McNulty, the Rosetta Stone, has been discontinued by the military.  (Now, I think the fall 2011 contract change date means that Ray McNulty should not have been using it as an example in 2012, but that is another matter.) It seems the military itself has “designated that all language learning needs will be done through the Defense Language Institute.”  Hmm.  Maybe because personal relationships and quality face-to-face education prove more effective even with those whose motivations may be high.


Infographics: Engaging in Research and Communication

Increasingly, Infographics come across my Diigo and Twitter feeds.

I love them… art, words, and numbers working together to convey an idea.  Here is one on what are the six skills we need to teach learners, and here is one on types of learners.   There are infographics for every interest.

From EyeOnEducation
From EyeOnEducation

Mostly I love infographics because they help teach kids to make ideas and numbers relatable to the audience, like this one, which explains why “Mrs. Robinson” is played so often on the radio, not that I am complaining.  But I have to admit that I also worry: all ideas are nuanced and complicated, and we do not do enough in our schools to teach mathematical thinking and critical skepticism.

But here is a question:  how can I integrate infographics into my curriculum?

First. get to know them.  Here is a great dictionary of infographics, some of which have me roll with laughter and others make me shake with anger.

Then, start to listen to the advice around them. Here is a site from ASCD that overviews the skills…and here is one that showcases some free tools, and another with some advice.

Then, be flexible. While tech would be great, I think we could make low tech ones as well…

So… looking forward to getting more infographics into my curriculum!