Thursday, June 5, 2014

Does Handwriting Tell Us About a Person?

With the decreased emphasis on handwriting that is happening in schools as a result of the Common Core State Standards (resulting from the need/plan to assess kids online via the PARCC or SB tests), some teachers decry the lost art of handwriting. Many believe handwriting can tell us so much more than the information which is actually written down. According to graphologists, many personality traits can be identified through handwriting analysis.

Here's a great presentation from BuzzFeed of some of those theories:

Certainly, there is a cognitive development and skill associated with manual writing. And it will certainly be a loss if handwriting instruction and cursive writing goes by the way-side in the name of standardized assessments.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

More Vocabulary Instruction

Prior knowledge and a broad vocabulary are the keys to effective reading and English skills.  As a result, the role of vocabulary acquisition cannot be underestimated in the English classroom, from kindergarten to graduate school.  Some studies estimate that lower income children enter school with a word recognition vocabulary that can be as much as 10,000 fewer words than middle and upper income kids.  Realistically, on a usage level middle and upper income kids use know and use 3000-5000 more words than others.  And that is a huge part of the story of the achievement gap.

Now, as the Common Core approaches, and literacy moves to the top of the agenda with its added - and necessary - emphasis in the content areas like social studies, science, and the arts, the role of vocabulary instruction is of paramount importance.  A new round of studies indicate "Students Must Learn More Words" in order to be successful in school.  This is certainly not news to people like E.D. Hirsch or Dan Willingham of the Core Knowledge movement.  They know - and can support with decades of research - that "the more you know, the more you can learn."  From word walls to word games to sophisticated literary offerings, lessons designed around vocabulary acquisition are integral to a successful education and any intent to close the achievement gap.

A plethora of vocabulary instruction manuals are out there these days, but Word Nerds, a new offering from Stenhouse Publishing might be worth looking at.  Any new ideas on improving vocabulary for an increasingly dys-fluent population are to be appreciated and developed.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Creepiness Factor in Brave New World

Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World is one of the most significant and alluded to literary works of the contemporary era.  Huxley's satire of a technology and consumerism is a powerful reminder of the fragile nature of individuality in a world of increasing control by both business and government.  As such it is commonly taught in many high schools, and it remains a popular work with teachers and with students.  However, it is a creepy novel to say the least, and teachers should make certain to handle it delicately and professionally with an eye for potentially uncomfortable situations in the classroom.

The most obvious and potentially creepiest component of the novel is the hyper-sexualized nature of the World State. With a society containing such standards as "erotic play" for young children and an "Orgy-Porgy" of sexual hysteria at the culmination of the society's "religious" service, teachers must prepare students for these potentially awkward and confusing references.  Arguably, this book is more well suited for the high school level, and most aptly at the upper levels.  However, my school has taught this work at the honors freshman level for years with little conflict.  The key is preparation.

Contemporary teens are not aloof to the hypersexualized nature of their own world, and thus can most likely handle Huxley's satirizing of it.  But it doesn't hurt to prepare them for it.  In doing so, I spend the  introductory day telling the kids "this is a creepy novel."  In referencing it as satire, I introduce the terms horation and juvenalian to prepare them for the dark sinister side of satire.  It's helpful to give them some examples of a dark satire - I like explaining some elements of the movie Fight Club.  The scene where Tyler Durden explains making soap from the fat in a liposuction clinic is a pretty vidid one, and they get it.  Students should also know the terms "erotic play" and "Orgy-Porgy" before they encounter them in the text.

Brave New World is undoubtedly a great piece of literature and a significant one for any study of literature.  But it is creepy, and students need to be prepared for that.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Classic Literature and Literacy Skills

What should high school students read?  And what should high school teachers teach?

The struggle in high school classrooms is vast.  Teachers face the challenges of offering students a rigorous curriculum that will prepare them for college and life and developing basic literacy skills by engaging them with material they can handle.  However, it doesn't have to be an either or decision.

Two great instructional texts for teachers to craft their English classroom model are Carol Jago's Classics in the Classroom and Denver-area teacher Cris Tovani's I Read It But I Don't Get It.  Both women are renowned English teachers who have decades of experience promoting literacy and refining the best practices for the English classroom.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Graphic Novels in the English Classroom

Several years ago, I listened as a colleague presented a graphic novel version of Beowulf to our department coordinator, hoping to incorporate the text into our college prep classes.  The catch was that she wanted to replace the Burton Raffel translation of the epic poem, and use the graphic novel in place of the original text, which many believe is just too complex and overwhelming for the average reader.  The department had to say no, of course, as the substitution of "a comic book" for the thousand year old classic poem simply wouldn't fly with our community.  However, there is not necessarily anything wrong with a supplement.  It could be used in addition to the text - though costs can prohibit such luxury.  That wasn't the only time graphic novels came up in regards to the traditional high school curriculum.  A colleague mentioned a graphic novel as an addition to our AP Language and Composition class.  It was similarly dismissed by more veteran teachers who worry that the strict expectations of the curriculum and the "Lang exam" precluded such innovative and multi-genre approaches to literature - and literacy.  That concern, however, may be changing.

With the rise of the common core standards, teachers are finding it easier to expand the definition of literacy.  The graphic novel is becoming an accepted - even a respected - genre, and that may enable it to work its way into the curricula of English departments across the country.  Certainly, there is something admirable and viable about the art form of graphic novels.  While the truly pedantic and elitist will continue to dismiss its significance, others who opened up the the literary nature of popular culture years ago have come to accept its place.  Certainly, as my department noted years ago, the graphic novel should not replace the novel or poem or play.  But it can take its place aside the classic forms.  Graphic novels can be truly insightful and intricate in the way they blend the oral, written, and visual.  And we should not dismiss their ability to engage reluctant readers in great narratives.  They do require a skill in appreciating the message and the medium, and they can be analyzed critically.

So, it's not a bad thing for the English classrooms to "embrace the graphic novel as a learning tool."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Break Means Break

On Winter Break - or Fall Break and Spring Break for that matter - I do not give my students homework.  That means nothing, zilcho, zip.  It is called "break" for a reason, and I do not feel the overwhelming need to burden the kids with busy work during the holidays.  This puts me in a minority among teachers, but I can't quite figure out why.

We break for winter two weeks before the end of first semester and final exams, and many students claim they spend the entire break studying for final exams.  Now, I don't believe that at all, but I do sympathize with kids who have an extra book to read or a final review packet to complete or pages of calculations or research papers to complete.  There should be enough time during the normal thirty six weeks of school for teachers to accomplish all they need to accomplish.  If not, they are probably erring on the side of forcing too much "content" into their lessons.

The issue of content is a contentious one, as teachers revere their content and can't imagine their students missing out on one fact or name or equation or definition or connection.  But this point of view too easily veers into rote memorization of trivial content or, worse, busy work.  As an English teacher and supporter of core knowledge approaches, I completely support the intention to build within students a vast store of background knowledge which they can and must use to access new information.  But nothing is so serious or monumental that it can't be accomplished during the standard schedule.  There is nothing wrong with students continuing to read and learn during time off school.  But that's a long way from believing that the extra "vacation packet" is going to solve the ills of gaps in student knowledge.

So, this break, take a break.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Big Praise for John Green and The Fault in Our Stars

Young adults and English teachers have been avidly following the career of John Green for some years now.  And Looking for Alaska has been on our Top Ten lists of Must Reads for a while.  Now, with the publication of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, it looks like the rest of the world and popular culture is catching up.  In a year-end wrap up of the bests of the year, Time Magazine has cited Green's The Fault in Our Stars as one of the year's best.  Giving it the caveat that "yes, it is a young adult novel," Time praises Green's literary chops and deeply human story of a young girl struggling with incurable cancer, and the editors at Time saw fit to call Green's novel "one of the year's best reads."  This is high praise, and it is highly deserved.  Green's authentic, insightful, and wickedly funny voice brings the poignant topic of childhood cancer to us in a richly rewarding narrative that is neither idealistic, nor preachy.  It is simply good literature, and it's one that will and should be popping up on high school reading lists in the near future.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Common Core 70% Mandate Is Not the End of Literature

The Common Core recommendations on the use of informational texts in the classroom has created a situation akin to Scout's frantic cry "Atticus, the sky is falling" in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Papers from the Washington Post to the Telegraph in London have declared the end of literature in the classroom after the Common Core "mandated" that 70% of the reading students do should be informational texts.  Sardonic jokes have been flying about teachers exchanging Huckleberry Finn for instructional manuals and satirical columnist Joel Stein of Time Magazine has lauded his ascension to literary status greater than Shakespeare.

Alas, it's simply not true.  And the most troublesome lesson is that superintendents and principals and teachers - including English teachers - can't even "read" the standards.

As Catherine Gewertz attempts to clarify in her recent posting for EdWeek, the Common Core has not mandated that 70% of the reading done "in English classes" is informational - or non-fiction - text.  In fact, it's quite to the contrary.  The Common Core has recommended an increase in the attention paid to non-fiction - a significant genre long underserved in elementary and high school.  The reading of all sorts of informational texts should begin at the earliest grades and increase until 70% of the reading high school students do is non-fiction informational text.  And this makes sense because English classes usually account for about one-sixth of any high school student's daily load.  Thus, in math and science and social studies and health and any number of electives and fine arts, the students should be reading informational texts.

English classes are the place where literature remains the content.  The problem, of course, may be with other content area teachers who realize that as part of the "critical thinking" they allegedly teach, they will need to be teaching "critical thinking" about "informational text."

Hopefully, that's not too difficult.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Is School Killing Creativity? Thoughts on Ken Robinson

If you're a teacher who pays attention to anything in the world of staff development and critical analysis of school reform efforts, then you've certainly heard - probably numerous times - Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talks presentation about how "schools are killing creativity."  It is embedded below.  You may have even seen a shortened, but very clever visual interpretation of Sir Ken Robinson's ideas as presented by RSA Animate - which is a great site and organization unto itself.

However, Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, offers an interesting follow up to Sir Ken Robinson's assertions.  Perhaps, as Rosenberg asserts, schools aren't killing creativity, but instead "society is killing the ability of schools to encourage creativity."  Critics of the obsessive standardized test culture - reflective of only left-brain thinking - would certainlhy agree.

Certainly, there is little to criticize about Ken Robinson's ideas regarding creativity.  It is, as Rosenberg notes, difficult to argue against the idea of creativity in schools.  And, I firmly believe we have weakened our schools and society as a whole with a single-minded approach to education that is based on a factory model of creating workers.  For this reason, I have attempted to modify and "enrich" my English classroom with lessons such as "multi-genre research papers" and even "interpretive dance" while studying poetry.  I've also tried to embrace right-brain thinking with my senior before they graduate by using Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind as one of our texts.

There is little doubt that the left brain skills and standardized testing of them have served to provide a stability and continuity in education.  And that stability is important.  But schools are remiss if they don't pursue, vigorously, the addition of more right-brained approaches to education - at the same time pursuing and guaranteeing basic skills of literacy

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.