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.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Beverly Cleary Still Rules the Junior Fiction World

If you want to kick start a love of reading among young children, you can still do what parents, teachers, and librarians have been doing for sixty-two years now - hand the kids a copy of anything by Beverly Cleary.  The young adult/junior fiction raconteur has been weaving entertaining and readable stories for children for decades, and her stories still ring true with young people.  For narrative content to remain fresh and engaging for decades, it has to be something truly magical.  And magical - with deference to JK Rowling - is what Beverly Clearly has been for a long, long time.

My two children are ages seven and ten, and both are avid readers who are as entertained with the stories of Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, Ellen Tebbits, and more as I was thirty-five years ago.  In fact, I am still amazed and amused by the staying power of these stories of children who lived in a truly different era.  How can such simple stories of growing up in an era before pop culture and technological explosion still resonate?  It's because they are stories of the "human condition" which makes them nearly timeless.  Cleary has said she sought to write the types of stories that she would want to read if she were scanning the library shelves.  And in her words, they were simply "funny stories about her neighborhood and the sort of children she knew."

If you are an educator - or a parent with an educational interest - Beverly Cleary's website is a great resource for ideas about how to use her books in the classroom.  Beyond that, the entire site can be a fun and safe source of online information for kids who are fans of the books.  Beverly Cleary's books represent childhood in all its splendor - from the struggle and uncertainty of coming of age to the magic and joy in simply being a child.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Teach Literacy and Subject Knowledge

A somewhat cold and undeclared war seems to be boiling in the English community, specifically, and the education world at large regarding the teaching of literacy.  Basically, the divide is happening between subject knowledge and the practice of basic literacy and the teaching of reading strategies.  While people like Cris Tovani have argued passionately for the teaching of reading strategies all the way through high school, core knowledge people like Dan Willingham have expressed concern that teaching strategies has no impact on actual learning.  The war isn't actually as serious as it has been hyped.  For Tovani's camp is certainly teaching the importance of core knowledge - as one of their foundational strategies is that "effective readers use existing knowledge to make sense of new information."  And from the Willingham/Hirsch side, there is no evidence that they are outright dismissing the teaching of literacy strategies.

Ultimately, the solution is found - not surprisingly - in a balanced approach.

Anthony Palumbo, a literacy professor, examines and explains this idea quite well in a recent piece of commentary published in Education Week.  The key concepts of reading strategies - such as basic phonemic awareness - are the foundation of accessing text.  But they do not automatically lead to comprehension.  A student can pronounce the words in his head, even as he fails to understand what he's seeing.  It's called "fake reading."  And, the data reveals that students' comprehension of complex information is declining, even as schools seem focused on ramping up literacy instruction.  Clearly, the gap is evident at the earliest level, but it becomes a foundational issue by grade four when "schools begin to emphasize the measurement of subject-matter knowledge and de-emphasize the measurement of basic literacy skills."  Schools find this most frustrating in the subject areas outside of English class where the science and social studies text simply baffle many average teenagers.  They shut down and fail to engage with the text.

The problem often can be traced to the overall lack of "knowledge-based literacy," meaning kids simply do not know enough to access texts on information they don't know.  And, worse, they lack the self-awareness and meta-cognitive abilities to even understand when and why they do or do not understand a text.

And, that is the nature of our burden.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sage of the Stage to Guide on the Side

While I am not generally a fan of "education-ese," I've reached the point in the year with my Honors English 9 freshman where I tell them it is time they leave the nest.  After being the "Sage on the Stage" through numerous novels and units this year, I will now turn the study of a the last novel over to them.  They are pretty much "on their own" as they work their way through Hemingway's classic The Old Man and the Sea.

After teaching them all year about heroes - tragic, epic, and how existential code - as well as allusions, allegory, symbolism, motifs, and all the other components of a general survey lit course, I expect them to apply their knowledge to a scholarly analysis of the novel.  They will work in groups, they will lead the discussion, they will interpret the text.  And, hopefully, I tell them, all the information they glean from their study will coincidentally be all the information that I put on the test.

It's always an exciting time - as they head off on this quest.  And it is always fruitful.  They never fail to disappoint me.  And by the end of the unit they are quite proud to be experts on this work of literature.  They are on their way to becoming "people on whom nothing is lost."

Monday, April 2, 2012

Whole Language Still a Fraud and a Fools Game

Thanks to Darren at RotheLC for bringing to my awareness this story on a continuing problematic trend in education - that part of the problem in literacy education is that the whole language movement is still rearing its ugly and seemingly irrational head.

It's not worth rehashing the whole history here, but it's worth commenting on the continued use of this flawed model of literacy instruction. While in isolated cases, whole language is speculated to have a positive impact on certain struggling populations who might lack background in the basics, the foundational concept of literacy is and has always been phonics.

Sure, phonics isn't necessarily as fun or easy to teach as "whole word," but that's because it actually requires teaching. It requires knowledge of literacy and the ability to engage groups of young children in the instruction of reading.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Analysis - What Is It?

An interesting question during a conversation with a colleague today - what do we mean by analysis in the English classroom?

As a goal this year, I am seeking some common understanding of how style analysis is taught, implemented, and evaluated at the ninth and tenth grade level. My motivation is the position of AP Language and Composition at our junior level. Lang essays are either argumentation or style analysis. And, many students who are arrive in Lang are blind-sided when they are given their first style analysis essay. This means an essay that asks them to read a passage and write a well-developed essay in which they:

Analyze how the author uses language to convey attitude and/or achieve his purpose?

There are countless variations of this including specific directions about the "conventions of English" or the "stylistic devices" or "rhetorical strategies" or "diction/syntax/tone/imagery" or others. As English teachers, we need to have a common vocabulary when we analyze language. Is there a difference between style analysis and rhetorical analysis? What about literary analysis? Is it different when talking about conveying theme or establishing mood? Do we talk about the use of punctuation such as dashes for interupters? What about intentional capitalization or de-capitalization? Quotes and italics?

What exactly should we be doing with "the conventions of language?"