Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why One Teacher Opposes the PARCC Exam

Mary Ellen Redmond is a veteran teacher in Massachusetts, home of the most highly rated schools in the nation. Schools in the state will begin to administer the PARCC test this spring, even as the number of states supporting PARCC has dwindled from 26 several years ago to only 10 now. And Ms. Redmond would certainly support a withdrawal of her state, as she "cannot support the PARCC exam" and encourages others to voice their concern. To understand her reticence, she explains the serious concerns and criticisms she has of this new test:

In the literary analysis section of the sixth-grade sample test online, students have to read two excerpts: one from “Boy’s Life” by Robert McCammon, and “Emancipation: A Life Fable.” The final task is an essay: “Write an essay that identifi es a similar theme in eachtext and compares and contrasts the approaches each text uses to develop this theme. Be sure to support your response with evidence from both texts.” Say what? This is a multilevel task requiring very high levels of synthesizing and analyzing.
Sixth-graders are just beginning to extract theme from a text and put it into a statement. To compare and contrast two texts is a cumbersome task that takes time to plan and organize. The wording is not kid-friendly: “to contrast and compare the approaches,” I can hear the questions in my students’ minds: What’s an approach? How do I compare an approach? This question doesn’t even allow the struggling ELA student to enter the testing arena.
Furthermore, the thirdsection of the test is the narrative section. In the sample test, students read an excerpt from a story. In this case, it is “Magic Elizabeth,” by Norma Kassirer. Here is the task: “In the passage from ‘Magic Elizabeth,’ the author creates a vivid setting and two distinct characters, Mrs. Chipley and Sally. Write an original story about what happens when Sally arrives at Aunt Sarah’s house. In your story, be sure to use what you have learned about the setting and the characters as you tell what happens next.”
Students need to glean details from setting and character development and then continue them in an original story. This task requires a broad subset of skills. It would take four to six weeks to teach,review and practice these skills for students to approach this task with confidence. But why is this task on this test? Does this prepare students for college or a career? No: It is a specialized subset of skills for a writer.
I recall criticism about the MCAS long composition. PARCC supporters said that no boss was going to ask her employee to write a personal essay about their summer vacation. Well, no boss is going to require this narrative task, either. The narrative writing task has no place on a high-stakes test. Should I teach short story writing in my classroom? Absolutely. But don’t set my students up for failure using this as a part of statewide assessment.

These are legitimate and serious concerns. And, all concerned parties, from parents to educators to the legislators making the rules, should go online and scrutinize these exams. People should take practice tests themselves, and they should sit with their children as they try to navigate the assessment. It may - and should - change some minds.

English Teachers Should Oppose On-line Testing

The Common Core and PARCC/SmarterBalanced testing have raised the ire of many parents and educators during the past year or so. However, most of the criticism of the new "standards" and the associated tests and homework has been in the subject area of math. Math teachers disagree on the value of the standards, but there is little doubt that kids and parents are frustrated by the "new way of doing math." There has been less coverage and criticism of the language arts standards - though many people are troubled by the inanity of the CCSS committee that decided to name them English Language Arts standards, which leads to the acronym ELA - an already established term for non-native speakers.

However, with the coming of new standardized tests like PARCC and SB, which will be administered online, English teachers have a significant reason to oppose CCSS. Despite the passivity of younger language arts teachers who have grown up more accustomed to online reading, "E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities." True English teachers know that interacting with the text is a primary focus of language analysis, and that includes annotating, skimming, close reading, etc. These skills and techniques are associated with having a physical text in front of the reader. While e-readers are becoming more adapted to note-taking - and people are more adept at using them - there is still no substitute for physical texts. In fact, research shows that e-readers negatively impact comprehension. How, in good conscience, can any English teacher support that system?

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to take sample online questions for PARCC, and the format of the test convinced me of the problematic and harmful nature of the testing format. The idea of scrolling up and down between two screens - one with the passage and the other with the questions - absolutely unnerved me. And nothing in my knowledge of how people read and learn indicated that the online format is a positive development for education. It may be more efficient for state test writers and coordinators. And it may be a great revenue source for companies like Microsoft and Pearson. But this is not good pedagogy and not good instructional practice.

Thus, when my nine-year-old daughter came home from school, having learned that she would have to "write her state test essays on the computer," she announced, "I'm not doing it."

And I support her in that decision.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Stephen King's "On Writing" is a Useful Classroom Guide

If you're an English teacher, and you haven't read Stephen King's memoir On Writing, you might just be missing out, or, like me, you might have had an original elitist refusal to taking advice from the writer of thrillers and supermarket paperbacks. That's probably a position you should reconsider. Jess Lahey, an English educator and education writer for The Atlantic, has a great piece in Business Insider where she interviews King about the value of his book and his thoughts on teaching English. Both King and Lahey have a lot of great  insights about English education.

Lahey: When people ask me to name my favorite books, I have to ask them to narrow their request: to read or to teach? You provide a fantastic list of books to read at the end of "On Writing," but what were your favorite books to teach, and why?
King: When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language. I had good success with The Lord of the Flies and short stories like“Big Blonde” and “The Lottery.” (They argued the shit out of that one—I’m smiling just thinking about it.) No one puts a grammar book on their list of riveting reads, but "The Elements of Style" is still a good handbook. The kids accept it.
Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?
King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learndoesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.
Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?
King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.
Lahey: In the introduction to Strunk and White’s "The Elements of Style," E.B. White recounts William Strunk’s instruction to “omit needless words.” While your books are voluminous, your writing remains concise. How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?
King: It’s what you hear in your head, but it’s never right the first time. So you have to rewrite it and revise it. My rule of thumb is that a short story of 3,000 words should be rewritten down to 2,500. It’s not always true, but mostly it is. You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!

Read more:

Twist - A Great Breckenridge Restaurant

While we're in the heart of winter, yesterday felt so summer-y in the shadows of the Rockies, that it reminded me the summer season is coming soon to the High Country, and all the hikers and bikers and anglers will be heading to the mountains to enjoy some fresh air and escape the oppressive heat that will soon descend on the Front Range. And as we head into the mud season when many of the resort town restaurants close down for a break, the summer vacationers will be looking for some tasty places to relax and dine. In the perfect mountain town of Breckenridge, the restaurant Twist is a prime choice for dinner or happy hour. The restaurant which sub-bills itself as a "Twist on classic comfort food" is classic resort restaurant in a beautifully renovated mountain Victorian home which truly is "Comfort food re{de}fined."

Food Image

On a trip to our favorite place in the Rockies last fall, we took in a delicious happy hour at Twist, which we've been meaning to try for a while, and were forced to make that decision after our planned dining at our favorite Breck establishment Modis, was closed at the time for the mud season. It was a fortuitous event, as we grabbed a table in pleasantly shaded patio area as the sun began to set. A nice and refreshing pinot noir on the Happy Hour menu for only $5 accented the slight chill in the evening air. And it led in to some great "twists" such as the homemade chips and onion dip made with caramelized onions. This isn't your grocery story fare, to be sure. So rich and creamy, the chips and dip could be a meal.

We also dined on sweet potato tater tots with a mustard aioli with fresh cheese curds. They were like candy and quite addictive. But we had to leave room for the pork shoulder tacos and the spinach-artichoke mac-n-cheese. The tacos were so rich yet fun, we had to order a second round. Even the kids could not get enough. We might have stayed longer and stretched Happy Hour into dinner and more drinks, but we had to get up and on to what came next: a walk around town and a stop at Clint's Bakery - the best bakery in the High Country, and probably in all of Colorado.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Le Mot Juste - Diction and the Three-Word Poem

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening - Mark Twain

Ol' Sam Clemens' "words" of wisdom regarding diction are a great bit of insight to share with students when teaching them to edit and think carefully about word choice.  Far too often, students will stick with the obvious word - the first word to pop into their head - rather than expanding their vocabulary.  Either that, or they will immediately head to the dictionary and resort to the grand mistake of putting five dollar words in two dollar sentences.  As a colleague once told me, the thesaurus is where you go to meet old friends, not pick up new ones.  To that end, I am committed to increasing my students' command of language through better word choice.  And, a great exercise regarding this came to me from another colleague years ago:

The three-word poem.

Each year I begin second semester of my AP Lang & Comp class by introducing the French phrase le mot juste - the right word.  I share with them Mark Twain's quote and we discuss different examples they can generate regarding effective word choice.  And then I assign them an exercise in diction - the three word poem.  The requirements for the three-word poem are that they must have at least three drafts, and their final draft must include a short paragraph explanation of their editing decisions.  We actually take a couple days for this - with other activities intertwined - as I require them to get some peer advice/feedback.  I also share with them one of the best examples I've encountered:


Years ago a student presented this poem, and gave an excellent analysis and explanation.  He began the poem by writing "I Hate Algebra."  He then chose to eliminate the word "I," as it detracts from the poems emphasis which is algebra.  And putting himself as the first word de-emphasized his subject.  Thus, his next draft was "Algebra Really Sucks."  It was certainly an improvement, as the word "sucks" clearly expresses his feelings.  And, I've found that when the word is used judiciously, it has great effect.  However, the student realized the word "really" is a truly weak and almost meaningless modifier, and it weakens the poem.  Thus, he arrived at "Algebra Sucks Bad."  The use of the adjective  - and the artistic license of mis-using the adjective - enhances the effect of the poem.  It truly speaks to the angst the speaker has regarding algebra.  (No offense to math teachers :-) ).

This little exercise is a great way to start the year and kick off a discussion of word choice.  I appreciate the effort the kids put into this, and it really establishes a student's effort, creativity, and willingness to play with language.  Some kids really run with it - others just get by.  But it makes for a nice intro to "diction."  And, of course, I require the students to "perform" their poem.  Each student goes to the front of the classroom and reads his poem.  Then, after a pause for effect, the students goes through his thought process.  It's a great intro activity to the idea of ...

Le mot juste.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Breckenridge vs. Estes Park?

A while ago a friend from the Midwest asked for advice on where to go as she plans a summer vacation to the Rocky Mountain State.  She and the family are driving out, hoping to do some camping and hiking, but they would also like to do a couple days of nice resort-style living.  Some friends told her Estes Park "all the way," while others threw out a few resort town names, especially those in the central mountain corridor.  It's a tough call, but really it's all about what you're looking for.

If they're looking to camp and hike, Estes Park is the classic national park camping experience.  Located at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park has countless campgrounds, hikes, and outdoor activities from fishing to rafting.  Many people favor it for the YMCA of the Rockies locations, and its definitely the place in Colorado that tourists are most likely to see wildlife. Moose, elk, deer, fox, and even wolves are prominent, even in the actual town of Estes Park.  In fact, that's one of the treats - a literal treat right out of the opening scenes of the 90s show Northern Exposure.  The town is touristy in a common man sort of way.  Of course, the downside is it being isolated from the rest of the Colorado resorts, and it's potentially a little less ... upscale than the resort areas.  Some people call it rustic; others would say a little less refined.

The other main options are the I-70 corridor - mainly Summit County - with the run of ski resort areas that transition to summer activities.  In that regard, Breckenridge is the perfect mountain town to me. Of course, it is a little more ... refined, with better restaurants, shopping, and amenities.  The proximity to other resorts is also key, as you can hit Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Frisco, Lake Dillon, the Continental Divide, and other key spots all within driving distance.  Obviously, the resorts are not the spot for camping.  But the fishing, rafting, hiking, biking, and dining are pretty great.  I'm also a fan of Crested Butte to the south, especially in the summer.  With the Fat Tire Mountain Bike Festival followed by the Wildflower Festival followed by a great 4th of July, CB is a great place. And, of course, you're closer to Aspen as well as the southwest corner areas such as Durango and Telluride, which are a whole other story.

It's a tough call.  But I'd take the area around Breckenridge for the true Colorado experience.

Coehlo's The Alchemist & The Alchemist Project

Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist is the perfect "self-help" book for high school students because it comes in the form of a readable parable, and the narrative helps to disguise the preachy nature of many books designed to help teens find themselves and find their way in the world.  However, it's not enough to simply read and discuss the book - teachers need to craft activities and tasks around the ideas of the book which engage the students in their own journey and quest for their personal legend.  Thus, in continuing my explanation of my "Alchemist Project," I always show a truly engaging TED talk, featuring Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs."

Rowe has some fascinating bits of advice and insight for students.  Most importantly, he ponders the idea that "following your passion" might be the worst advice he ever got.  That fits well with my previous story of Sarah Marshall - the girl from The Ambitious Generation who was adept at getting into college, but not so adept at figuring out why she was going in the first place.  I advise my students that in Rowe's view "Some people should follow their passion, some should follow their skills, and some should just follow the market."  This video always has a significant impact on students.  And I ask them to journal and comment on Rowe's ideas in relation to their own search.

Other ideas come from David Brooks and his op-ed on institutional thinking called "What Life Asks of Us."  I ask students to honestly answer some tough questions meant to elicit some serious self-examination, for the goal of this book and this project is for students to figure out, not what they want to do, but who they really are.  I ask them to journal again after reading another Robert Fulghum essay about a girl who was "sitting on her ticket."  It always has a way of motivating them to think critically.  And, perhaps the most interesting and engaging of the tasks is for students to complete an extensive analysis of their "Imaginary Lives."  It gives them a chance to dream and wonder, and ultimately try to see themselves in a future.

I always conclude our unit by showing them a short clip of Randy Pausch, the man known for his Last Lecture.  The book and entire video are great - but if you want to limit the time, he gave a great short version of his speech on Oprah.  It is definitely worth the discussion and coincides well with the story of The Alchemist.  While Coehlo's book says "The universe conspires to help you achieve your personal legend," Randy Pausch posits "If you are living correctly, your dreams will come to you."

Ultimately, The Alchemist is a meaningful book for high school juniors or seniors.  I think any year before that is too young and too early.  Students sometimes dismiss the book as a little cheesy - and it probably is.  But even the most hardened student finds something useful in our Alchemist Project.

Keystone Resort Lodge & Spa ... Aahhhh

There's nothing better than a summer in Summit County, Colorado.

When the late summer heat arrives in Denver, it's time to head to the High Country, and the Resort at Keystone is the perfect way to ride out July. Located right along the Snake River and offering easy access to all the best that Summit County has to offer, Keystone Resort has provided my family with a nearly perfect, relaxing summer holiday for years. For lodging we prefer to stay in a beautiful condo near Keystone Lake at the Keystone Lodge and Spa. This location provides us all the access and amenities we need. The Lodge and Spa provides a huge outdoor, heated pool and two hot tubs that provide endless hours of relaxing fun. Whether we're swimming laps or playing beach ball baseball or simply lounging around with the pool noodles, the spa is a perfectly relaxing scene surrounded by great mountain views. We go back and forth between the pool, the two hot tubs, the scented steam, and the dry sauna, and we always finish the day showering in the large locker room before heading out for a walk around town, if not out to dinner.

The Keystone Lodge and Spa is directly along the Snake River which provides immediate and easy access to fishing or simply sitting in the shallows watching the water roll by on its way to Lake Dillon. There is plenty of action for fly fishers up and down the river - and even a novice like me can pull out the occasional rainbow trout with a rod and reel. The river is bordered by a beautiful biking and walking trail that heads up to River Run or all the way down to Dillion. You could even head up and over Swan Mountain Road and into Breckenridge or Frisco. A great way to spend the evening - after a day on the river or at the pool - is to stroll over to Keystone Lake for dinner at Pizza on the Plaza. The kids will enjoy feeding the plentiful fish and ducks at the lake, or even taking a quick spin on the paddleboats. Happy Hour for Pizza on the Plaza offers discounts on drinks and $1.50 slices of pizza, and this pizza is quite tasty. It's only bested by the calzones - which are certainly worth staying for dinner. And for a beverage, I always go with the Backcountry Wheat, which is brewed and now bottled in Frisco - make sure to ask for a slice of orange. Basking on the plaza and watching the sun go down over the beautiful Keystone Valley is the perfect end to a perfect mountain day.

For other great recreational opportunities, consider scheduling some hikes such as the easy and accessible climbs on the Tenderfoot Trail or up to Lily Pad Lake.  These hikes are doable for even families with young kids, and the views are truly breathtaking.  On Fridays, it's worth taking a free gondola ride up to Keystone Summit - though prepare to stay a while if the summer monsoon storms move in. Nothing like enjoying a beverage while watching the fire on the mountain. Fridays offer live music and plenty of lawn games, and it's always fun watching the hard-core mountain bikers take off down through Keystone's bike park adventure. One of these days I will challenge myself on one of the green runs - and anyone can ride down on the dirt roads that wind around the mountain. Of course, simply strolling around the resort on the trails is great fun as well. The views of the valley are worth the time - and my time in Keystone is literally my most relaxing week of the year.

The Keystone Lodge and Spa is also a popular place for conferences, and we see plenty of people on working vacations each year. I know if I had to attend a conference in the middle of the summer, Keystone Conference Center is one place I'd like to do it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Being Quiet - the Power of Introverts

"You're quite the loner, aren't you?"

At the age of seventeen, I had no idea how true those words were. And, these days, few of my students would ever believe that I could be reserved or shy or introverted or anti-social. Yet, it is true. I am an outgoing and friendly introvert who is most comfortable by myself on a bike ride or a walk. It seems so strange, really. But there is much to be said for solitude. And that is the brilliance of the message found in Susan Cain's work on the "power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking." When the book first came out, I smiled at the simple truth of it all, but I hesitated to read what I knew to be true. Yet, in this day and age - a world truly awash in noise and information - there is much to be gleaned from Quiet: The Power of Introverts.

Being quiet is a good thing. And, I knew that I found my soul mate, best friend, and wife when I met the girl I "could be quiet with."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Some Thoughts on Teacher Accountability

The question is: "Is our children learning?"

Accountability for teachers and schools is behind the push for increased standardized testing in the era of No Child Left Behind. Edu-reformers have vigorously pushed standardized methods for identifying "good/bad" schools as a way for parents and taxpayers to know if they are getting their money's worth. Yet, in stirring analysis from education researcher Marc Tucker, we can conclude that a decade of testing has only produced ...

"... Very low teacher morale, plummeting applications to schools of education, the need to recruit too many of our teachers from the lowest levels of high school graduates, a testing regime that has narrowed the curriculum for millions of students to a handful of subjects and a very low level of aspiration. There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance, much less the improved performance of the very low- income and minority students for which it was in the first instance created."

Denver-area teacher Mark Sass shared Tucker's sentiment and more in a recent piece for Colorado Chalkbeat where he offered his conclusions on "How to Make Standardized Tests More Useful for Teachers."

To use the standardized tests, I have to trust them. The onus to that build trust rests on the testing companies. Teachers should be involved in writing the questions and they need to release the actual test questions. I realize this is a difficult demand. Releasing test items is expensive, since every question made public would need to be replaced. In addition, many testing companies also claim intellectual rights to the questions. But the Colorado State Department of Education can write contracts with testing companies that require these companies to release exam items and to require them to involve practitioners in writing these exams.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Do Standardized Tests Measure Anything that Matters?

As the legislative sessions begin across the country and in Washington, standardized testing as related to NCLB and PARCC will be on the minds and on the debate floor. There is much debate about decreasing the burden - and signficance - of state and national standardized tests, and even Chief Educator (who has never actually taught) Arne Duncan is talking about lessening the mandated testing regimen.

In Colorado, the State Board of Education took the unique step of offering waivers to district to opt out, or not administer, part of the PARCC test. This news was great relief to many schools and students, as PARCC will take days rather than hours. Alas, the waiver is too good to be true, as, strangely, critics have argued that the State Board has "no authority" to grant such waivers. This, of course, poses the question - What exactly can the Board do, and why does Colorado have one without any authority?

Testing proponents immediately jumped to the defense of PARCC - especially as a state task force recommended less testing and clear rules on how parents can "opt out." In response, one of PARCC's and test-based reform's biggest advocates, the Denver Post editorial board, touted the value of PARCC, as it dissed the vote by the State Board to lessen testing. Writer Alicia Caldwell argued that Common Core and PARCC will "expose deficiencies" in the education system.

Well, that's one opinion.

Of course, veteran educator and education writer, Marion Brady has this to say:

"Even if standardized tests didn’t cost billions, even if they yielded something that teachers didn’t already know, even if they hadn’t narrowed the curriculum down to joke level, even if they weren’t the main generators of educational drivel, even if they weren’t driving the best teachers out of the profession, they should be abandoned because they measure the wrong thing." - Marion Brady

Standardized tests can't measure creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, collaboration, charisma, insight, wisdom, maturity, tolerance, ... or really anything else that matters.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Spelling Bees - What's the Point? Really?

I never liked the spelling bee.

When I was in school, I was a good student who had no problems with reading and writing. And, on paper I was a pretty effective speller from the earliest grades. But ask me to spell something out loud, and I could quickly be at a loss for the word. That's why I was never very good at "parent code" either - because when my wife spelled a word that we didn't want the kids to know, I was at as much a loss as the kids. So, the thought of spelling words out loud in front of a group - for a competition - was simply annoying for me. As it was for Brian Regan:

I actually did that - failed "the Bee" on purpose in the early rounds. And I still can't figure out what our national fascination is with this contest. Spelling out loud from memory? What a completely worthless and pointless "skill." There is no marketable or useful quality in the ability to spell from memory on stage. Yet, it's a national fascination, and there is serious prize money associated with it. Why is Scripps still so committed to forking out cash for the ability to recite "e-r-y-t-h-r-o-m-y-c-i-n" from memory? What a colossal waste of time and money?

Why not award the kids for engineering feats? Or creative writing? Best poems? Even a memorized poem with dramatic interpretation? But spelling? It's nothing like "Math Counts" - now that is a school competition that has some value. But how is it that the prize for the Scripps Spelling Bee is $30,000, which is more than Math Counts? A kid who can do complex math in seconds is worth serious cash and college scholarships, and a kid who can spell ... is a kid who can spell.

Seriously. This Spelling Bee thing has to stop.