Thursday, December 6, 2012

NAEP Data Exposes Vocabulary Gap

Vocabulary matters.

Ed Week reports this week on the release of the NAEP scores , and it's bit surprising that gaps in vocabulary skills persist among racial and ethnic minorities as well as students from lower socioeconomic status.  This is not surprising, as anyone who stays current on education knows that students from the lower end of the income strata tend to enter school trailing their middle class counterparts by as many as a thousand words.

These limits on vocabulary are going to be a drag on student achievement throughout their years in schools. And, it's almost a fact that the students simply won't catch up.  Vocabulary enrichment is foundational to student achievement, and any program of school reform must have literacy development as one of its key areas of emphasis.

However, measurement of vocabulary levels is always an "iffy" proposition, as vocabulary assessment can't be anything but arbitrary.  That discrepancy has always bothered me, especially when our students are taking state tests.  While there is no statewide vocabulary list, the Colorado Department of Education is not shy about making vocabulary identification as much as 17% of the testing at the high school level.  Should a high school student be expected to know the word "paltry"?  I don't know.  And knowing the word is probably a pretty good indicator of future academic success.  Still, I wonder about vocabulary assessment and indicators.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stop Bribing Students to Behave

Far too many teachers see classroom management as a burden that can only be controlled through a bribery-based incentive system.  In fact, the use of rewards for good behavior - which is really just how they should behave - has become accepted practice.  Not good, says Dr. Tracey Garrett who writes "Classroom Management: Not Just a Bag of Tricks."  There is too much research out there on effective strategies for managing a classroom for experienced professionals to continually cede control of their domain for a few skittles or worse.

The concept of reward-based discipline has always bugged me - though it's not surprising that people resort to it.  Certainly, a quick look around the community reveals that many adults parent this way as well.  But it doesn't have to be this way.  From early in my career, I knew the tools of classroom management, even as they were reinforced to my through a series of videos from Dr. Harry Wong.  The basics are always the same.  Effectively managed classrooms are, in fact, managed.  Systems and procedures must be in place with a level of expectation that is clear.  Basically, successful classroom management is grounded in:

  1. Organizing the physical environment
  2. Creating rules and routines
  3. Establishing caring relationships
  4. Planning and implementing engaging instruction
  5. Clearly addressing - not ignoring - discipline issues.

It is, uh, that simple.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Who's Teaching Writing?

Is it possible that nearly half of high school students in this country write less than a paragraph a month in classes?  If true, that would explain the abysmal writing skills - and scores - of American students on tests such as the NAEP, or in college classes whose professors are baffled by their incompetence.  As the Common Core focus on literacy focuses on redefining how we teach and measure reading scores, some schools have awoken to the equally significant task of teaching students how to write.  This "writing renaissance" documented in much education news is both refreshing news and a depressing commentary on the state of American classrooms.

Teachers may be focusing on the teaching of writing like few have done before - or in a while - but still a majority of teachers claim their education and training did little to teach them how to teach writing.  And, of course, this skill must be developed across all curricula.  For, if it has left up to the English teacher, as it far too often has been, writing skills will continue to stagnate.  The connection between reading and writing should be obvious, and students need to be regularly challenged to synthesize information they read and offer their analysis in written form.

Building arguments and analyses from their existing knowledge, as well as new texts, is foundational for critical thinking.  And, students need to be writing much more.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Students Buying Taylor-Made Essays On-line

In the ongoing battle for academic honesty against a rising tide of easy-to-access plagiarism opportunities, the arguments for a considerable amount of in-class writing just keep going up.  As a teacher of AP Language and Composition, I assign mostly in-class writing to prep my students for the exam.  In the course of roughly thirty in-class essays a year, I have a pretty thorough understanding of my students' styles and abilities.  Thus, if they turned in an out-of-class essay that didn't "sound like them," I would be pretty comfortable calling them out for academic dishonesty.  And, that is the issue in a fascinating feature in the Atlantic Monthly.  Richard Gunderman - in his article Write My Essay, Please - exposes a new addition to the essay-writing assistance that many teachers thought they had prevented with the arrival of

Now, students can purchase assignment-specific non-plagiarized essays which can be accessed in a very short time period.  Apparently, quite a few online sources are offering essays written-to-order for very reasonable prices.  And since they are crafted upon request, they are not plagiarized and will not be caught by the standard plagiarism sites.  While Gunderman approaches the situation philosophically, wondering what it says about students and our world that they would simply pay someone to do their work, I am looking at it more practically in terms of how I can continue to guarantee academic integrity.  In essence, the only way to do so is to assign a fair amount of in-class writing.  While some teachers are more hesitant to do so, it is really the only way to verify a student's skills.  Even longer research projects can be handled in class with a practice of a writing journal and incremental grades for drafts.  One of my colleagues assigns out of class research papers, but tracks students' progress via their journals.

Regardless, English teachers need to be aware of these new essay writing services.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Time to Edit & Revise Essays

Teaching Honors Freshman English as well as AP Language and Composition, I focus a great deal on in-class writing with my students.  The in-class essay is only one form of writing, but it is a significant one these days.  With the rising concerns about plagiarism - even in the era of - and the increased focus on AP classes, the ability to write in a timed setting is an important skill for students.  It certainly offers a truly authentic sample of a students ability to translate thoughts into writing.  However, the task of revision is every bit as important.  So, on some assignments I give my students a bit of a perk - and extended time.  Occasionally, I will start them on an in-class assignment, and then hand it back for a second day of revision.  Sometimes I tell them they will have two days, and on others I surprise them.  However, in between days I collect their work, so they aren't actually doing any work at home.  Today, however, I sprung a different format on the kids.  My freshman are writing final essays on Antigone today, and about halfway through class, I stopped them and offered fifteen minutes for peer editing.  They are also allowed to take the essay home and finish it.  However, it must be handwritten and I need to see both copies and any revisions.  The class was thrilled - for sometimes, they say, they just need a little guidance and feedback during the writing.  A quick tweak of the topic sentence or some advice on a helpful quote might be just the sort of editing a kid needs to get over that hump.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Teach Them to Write, Don't Just Assign It

The other day I was listening to a student lament how even though her AP Language and Composition class wasn't that hard and she did well in the class, she thought the exam was quite difficult and she only received a "three" on the exam.  Granted, her score is officially passing.  But from what I can glean from her other work, she should have received a higher score, as she's a bright girl with an affinity for English.  Thus, it became clear that this young woman simply hadn't been "taught" how to write.  She was bright enough to do reasonably well on the exam - an exam that my students' scores implied was on the easier side - but she hadn't really learned to write for the AP/college level.

Sad to say, the profession of English teachers seems to have become far too enamored of the ideas we love in the literature we read in class, all at the expense of literacy skills that need crafting and development.  While loving our rich discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird, we have forsaken the challenging, arduous, tedious, and incredibly important task of teaching kids how to write.  The problem is that English teachers are no longer composition teachers.  And, it's not really surprising - because it's hard.  However, it needs to be done.  The teaching of writing includes breaking student sentences down and editing for clarity.  It includes teaching them how to craft a thesis and how to develop strong topic sentences of arguable assertions.  It means breaking the news that a two-sentence paragraph really .... isn't.

Composition classes at the college are not effectively teaching the craft, and a generation of English teachers are arriving in the classroom unqualified to do half of their job.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Read Aloud is a Great Activity at Any Age

There is little doubt among educators, education researchers, school leaders, politicians, business people, and parents that reading is fundamental to the development of children.  Almost without fail, successful students tend to be readers, and the importance of reading to children at an early age is indisputable.  Even as a high school teacher, I know that reading aloud to kids is important.  And, the idea of read-alouds is significant to the adoption of the Common Core standards, as speaking and listening skills are a primary goal.  Children of all ages love to be read to, and I have made a habit of reading to my students regularly for as long as I have been a teacher.

One of my favorite activities to begin class is to read short pieces at the bell.  These pieces - helped by my strong voice - quickly engage kids in listening and often kick off some wonderful discussions to start the class.  One of my favorite sources is the work of Robert Fulghum whose classic work All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten kicked off a read-aloud habit among people and an interest in short essays nearly twenty-five years ago.  Fulghum's work begs to be read out loud, and his "uncommon thoughts on common things" are great discussion fodder.

One of the best resources for information on read-alouds is Jim Trelease whose Read Aloud Handbook has been positively contributing to parenting and education in this country for nearly twenty years.  Trelease offers a treasure trove of reasoning behind the read-aloud practice, and the book contains countless titles and recommendations.

Everyone loves to be read to - and there is no reason that it can't be part of any classroom.  In fact, it may be an imperative.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Music Friday, Not Cookie Friday

In an era of increasing concerns about health and wellness among young people, I am not a proponent of snacks and treats in the classroom.  At the elementary level, they seem to have cookie and doughnut parties on a weekly basis, followed by thirty birthday celebrations, and a class party for every holiday - or pseudo-holiday.  The worst example in my high school is the preponderance of "celebrations" like Cookie Friday.  Some kids have cookies or snacks in numerous classes, to the point they are practically nauseated by the end of the day.  However, everything doesn't have to be about food.

In my classes, I celebrate Music Friday, playing songs in between passing period.  It began last year when I first heard of the song "Friday" by Rebekah Black.  Friday is a song everyone loves to hate - but it's amazing how infectious it can be.  And it actually created kind of a festive atmosphere.  The next week I branched out with Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA," and it quickly became a tradition.  Students would pause while passing my class, quizzical looks on their faces.  But soon it was obvious they wanted to be in the class.  And, it's not like I changed any plans or the music interfered with the class.  At the bell, the music goes off and we get down to business.  But it's just enough of release that everyone is a little more energized.

Now, Music Friday is a standard, and many kids tell me that just walking past to hear which song is playing is a favorite part of their day.  It's amazing what a difference can be made with a little music.  Some days I even make it a Music-Video Friday, and I project the video from YouTube on the classroom screen. And it's all calorie-free.

Here are examples of Music Friday faves:

"Friday" - Rebekah Black

"Party in the USA" - Miley Cyrus

"It's the End of the World" - REM

"Dyn-omite" - Taio Cruz

"Barbie Girl" - Aqua

"Empire State of Mind" - Jay-Z

"Dream" - Nelly

"Where The Hell is Matt" - YouTube Video

"Call Me, Maybe" - Carly Rae (US Olympic Team video)

"Walking on Sunshine" - Katrina and the Waves

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In a World of "Text"-ing, Teach Kids How to Write

Walt Gardner opines in EdWeek that in a world obsessed with STEM skills, schools are neglecting to teach kids the important skills of reading and writing.  Making insightful observations about the gap between "grammar skills" and fluent writing, Gardner notes - and laments - the receding writing skills associated with kids immersed in a world of text messages.  This point was aptly addressed in a recent LA Times commentary.  The loss of writing skills is negatively impacting the business world and the ability to being to access the jobs and lives they desire.  Importantly, Gardner reminds us that being an effective writer is intrinsically linked to being an effective reader.  It's not enough to assign kids reading and writing.  English teachers at all levels - including college - need to teach kids "how to read" and "how to write."

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Literacy Advocate Cris Tovani Has Done It Again

Nearly ten years ago, Cris Tovani changed my life as an English teacher.  She didn't know this at the time - and probably still doesn't - because while I teach in her district, I've never met hear.  But I have read her work on improving literacy for all students, and it made me re-evaluate the way I taught.  Taking a staff development class on "Managing the Reading Classroom," I was looking for ways to promote more reading by my students.  I'd always given book talks, and talked about the act of  reading, but I was probably somewhat guilty of the worst sin for English teachers - assigning reading, rather than teaching it.  After taking the class and discovering Cris Tovani's first book I Read It, but I Don't Get It from Stenhouse Publishers, I was re-born.  Since then, I've kept an eye out for Tovani's work, and I was always pleased.

Now, Tovani is back with new insights, and she is taking on the challenging topic of assessment.  It's one of the most  important tasks of teachers, it's doubly challenging in the English classroom because of the ambiguity of assessing subjective skills such as  writing, and it is perhaps the most ignored and underdeveloped aspect of teacher education programs.  Colleges simply don't do a good job of teaching new teachers how to assess student work.  In fact, I've never met a young teacher  who felt  ready for the challenge.  And, of course, there are always staff development classes for this, and many veteran teachers are willing to share and mentor.  Many districts even practice peer grading and common assessment.  But, that doesn't reach the masses, and  many teachers are still feeling alone, in their classrooms, after school, with a stack of student work, and a sense of anxiety.

Tovani's latest work from Stenhouse - So What Do They Really Know: Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning - seeks to explain the options - and all the nuances - of assessment.  And Tovani's voice is always accessible and comforting.  In fact, it's quite inspiring because through the use of  narrative, she shares experiences from the classrooms.  And Tovani has always been comfortable talking about her  successes and her struggles, her accomplishments in the classroom and her approaches that taught her something valuable even when they didn't gel with the kids.  The nice thing about this book - and many offerings from Stenhouse - is that  you can preview the work on their site.  That is why I feel comfortable promoting this book even though I haven't bought it - yet.  In looking through the text, I am again pleased by Tovani's extensive  use of  examples.  She offers visual images of the very assignments she uses successfully in class.  And she narrates her thought process from inception to practice.  For this reason, Tovani's books are real assets, especially for beginning teachers.

Cris Tovani is an excellent teacher - both of students and of teachers.  I highly recommend taking a look at her work.