Thursday, February 26, 2015

Edu-reformers & PARCC-Rangers Get Equity Wrong

Common Core & PARCC testing have been promoted and sold to legislators as the panacea to cure all that ills public education, from equity and achievement gaps to America's students "trailing the world." And this is a problem. The primary issue is the belief that new standards and new tests can both lift our highest achievers and close a gap with our struggling learners. That naive, pie-in-the-sky thinking represents a deep naivete and a real laziness about the demands of educating a child. Basically, these critics want "a test" to singularly identify the struggles of students so they can quickly identify weak teachers and get rid of them in order to turn bad schools into good schools. And, even more simplistically, they want "a test" to sort "good/bad" schools. And, that's myopic at best.

I've run across this narrow-mindedness too much lately in the writings of people like Greg Harris of an organization called Students First. Harris claims he's "opting his child in to PARCC" because kids need the type of thinking it will measure. It's an artful bit of optimism, and "begging the question," as he simply declares, with no data or evidence, that PARCC is a quality test which will provide data to improve outcomes. Another PARCC-Ranger who offers un-supported praise of the quality and importance of testing as a barometer for educational outcomes is Lynnell Mickelsen, who took to her blog to dis "white suburban moms," of which she seems very clearly to be one. She's particularly upset over the opt out movement.  I don't know what kind of success "reformists" like Harris and Mickelsen have had in closing achievement gaps, or really even teaching struggling populations, because I've seen no evidence of either. But apparently they've read something about the ability of new, out-of-context, standardized tests to solve equity issues and close gaps. I'm waiting anxiously for the pilot test info that supports their claims. Or not.

On the other hand, we have a powerful and insightful alternative view from suburban mom and education advocate Ilana Spiegel who exposes the problems of test-based education reform by warning that we are "Operating at the Margins of Learning."

If we are truly concerned with providing equitable opportunities through improved schooling, we must acknowledge the challenges of these communities. Only then can we fully know how test-based accountability has not substantially improved schooling, and, in fact, denies enriched and equitable opportunities for children. With test-based reform, the question has become "are we doing testing right" rather than "does testing produce equitable outcomes for students?" When we talk about trimming one test or adding another, we only operate at the margins of learning. In fact, since 1997 when Colorado first administered CSAP, and since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, we have seen little if any gains on internationally benchmarked assessments such as National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The NEPC concludes that test-based accountability does not increase equitable opportunities through improved schooling. In fact, since the advent of "test and punish" accountability, resources in less privileged communities are focused on tests and increasing test scores, rather than increasing opportunities through smaller class sizes, quality school-year and summer programing, and enriched class offerings. Current policies use test scores as a gate-keeper to challenging secondary course work and a punishment for eight-year-olds who may struggle with reading. This approach ignores the opportunity gaps created by outside school forces. No one would argue that measuring outcomes alone enriches opportunities. When standardized tests are put on a pedestal as a magic bullet that gets students to "try harder," teachers to "teach smarter," and administrators to manage more effectively, we lose sight of many children's missed opportunities to learn.

Spiegel, despite the pejorative ignorance of people like Mickelsen, is one of those white suburban moms who is advocating for all populations, from her kids to those who look nothing like her. And her analysis is one of the most insightful pieces on the issues of testing and equity that I have seen. It's far beyond the rants of people like Harris and Mickelsen who may have good intentions, but are truly naive about the actual workings of schools. Unlike them, Spiegel has research on her side in the studies of the NEPC.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Middle Schoolers Display Math Prowess at Math Counts in Colorado

The world of competitive math doesn't always get the press and spotlight the way the nation obsesses over the spelling bee. But the students competing in the national Math Counts competition are every bit the exceptional students as top spellers, and probably more so. Math Counts is a national math competition sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers, and this month will see regional competitions in states across the country. In Colorado, there are eight regional competitions, and my son competed in the Denver Metro Regional where he and his teammates vied for a spot at the state finals in March and the national competition in Boston in May. Here's my story on the recent competition: Cherry Creek Middle Schoolers Succeed at Metro Math Counts.

They are called “mathletes.” And, while they may not run the 40-yard-dash in 4.5 seconds, they can certainly solve complex algorithms in that time. Their skills were on display at the University of Denver on February 7 in the annual Metro Area Math Counts Competition. The students were tasked with quickly answering questions such as “How many ordered triples (x, y, z) of positive integers have the property that x + y + z = 6?” and “What is the largest prime that divides both 20! + 14! and 20! − 14!?” Clearly, for those worrying about the math skills of Colorado students, there is much hope to be found in the world of Math Counts.

The winning team for this year’s Metro regional was the Cherry Creek Challenge School. The second place team was Campus Middle School, which had five of the top ten students in the Countdown, including the eventual individual champion, Austen Mazenko. Mazenko defeated one of last year’s state champions Anjalie Kini in an intense final round. Former Math Counts competitors Avi Swartz and Isani Singh of Cherry Creek High School were in the audience cheering on their former teammates, and they tensed up watching the final question. “When Avi and I saw that final question,” Isani said, “we just thought, ‘Oh, man, who’s going to get it first?” Because Mazenko and Kini are two of the top math students in the state, she knew it was simply a matter of speed. This year Mazenko had the faster buzzer.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Don't Let Students "Read" Shakespeare

There may be no worse sound in the world for an English teacher than to hear high school students struggle as they mangle, mishandle, and malign the words of the Bard after their teacher has asked them to "be the part of" Romeo or Hamlet or Macbeth or Brutus or any other of the brilliant characters brought to life by the greatest playwright of all time.  This sound is only worsened by the visual of a couple fifteen year old boys using their pens to "act out" the sword fight between Tybalt and Mercutio or Hamlet and Laertes. Needless to say, I am opposed to students "studying" Shakespeare by reading it aloud and acting it out in class.

After I finish a study of Hamlet with my AP juniors, I am always pleased with their understanding of the play and their knowledge that they have experienced the language as it was meant to be heard - from classically trained actors.  Thus, in the study of Shakespeare I make regular class use of CD/sound recordings, and occasionally well-done movie versions, so my students can appreciate Shakespeare the way it was meant to be.  In Hamlet, for example, I call upon the Arkangel version of the play, as it is an excellent, well-acted, comprehensive edition of the text.  And of course, there is no finer version of the texts than the Folger Library version of the plays.

I do not ask that the students read the plays alone or ahead of time - other than perhaps the scene summaries - because the work was not meant to be read silently.  It's drama.  It's a play for goodness sakes.  It's meant to be performed - heard and/or seen.  Thus, while I will analyze the text in a variety of ways - including some recitation (Hamlet's soliloquies, for example) - I do not expect students to go home and read and understand Shakespeare on their own.  It must be experienced in order to be appreciated, and it must be appreciated in order to be studied effectively. And it won't be studied or appreciated with a couple of untrained, ineffective, bored, or bumbling teenagers stumbling through the lines in front of class.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Teach Any Specific Book in School?

The arbitrary nature of content in the average high school English curriculum is one aspect of this career that frustrates me the most. To begin, specific titles are never mentioned in any state standard anywhere in the country. Thus, the conventional wisdom implies teachers can teach any book they so desire - as long as, I guess, it has some curricular merit. That ambiguity bothers me, though I am hesitant to declare there is any book that high school students "must read." In departments where I've worked, teachers adamantly argue there is "no sacred book," and then they rabidly fight to maintain their favorites. Additionally, while there are some common titles throughout the land, schools teach them at different levels, and that seems problematic as well.

English departments tend to set standards for curriculum along the lines of the number of novels taught each semester, and nearly all of them offer a blend of "required" and "optional" or "supplemental" texts. Yet, little annoys me more than a high school teacher asking around for a book to teach late in the year. It is as if they have no particular reason to teach the book other than to "teach a novel." That is nothing if not ridiculous, and it seems to be a real disservice to the profession. The key, of course, is that English teachers are "skill driven," and if the students are reading quality literature, they are developing skills of critical reading and critical thinking. And, certainly, there is a component of "character education" that comes with all classic literature. We teach Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies because we want students to have discussions that force them to question what they want their society to look like.

Thus, I am frustrated by the ambiguity of it all, but I am also uneasy about a national curriculum of mandated titles. For, as a colleague and I once reviewed plans by the state to encourage more "workplace oriented outcomes," she lamented, "What about catharsis and my students' emotional growth from the sacrifice and death of Sydney Carton?" I couldn't quite argue, but I also didn't mention that I managed to make it all the way to a Master's degree in Literature and a job as a highly successful AP Language teacher before I ever read A Tale of Two Cities.

So, I am left to ponder - why do we read what we read?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

MLB's New Rules to "Speed Up the Game"

Watching Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki bat is painful. It's not painful from the slumps that he regularly suffers, and it's not about the injuries that have plagued his career. It's painful because it is painfully, mind-numbingly boring. Troy Tulowitzki has helped slow the game down to an annoyingly turtle-like pace. And, MLB's new rules to "speed up the game," are not - despite complaints by players and purists - about "speeding up" the game. The new rules are designed to simply return it to the reasonable pace it had for a hundred years. And, the "new rule" that requires a batter to keep one foot in the batter's box between pitches (with exceptions) is not even new. It's just been so rarely enforced.

Watching Tulo at the plate - or actually backing off of it to readjust his batting gloves in some type of OCD-inspired ritual - is one of the more unpleasant parts of Colorado Rockies baseball (and there are plenty of others). After each swing of the bat, he walks around like he has all the time in the world, and there aren't thousands of people waiting for him to get his (oft-injured) butt in the box to do his job. It's a shame MLB had to act, but these prima donna players had done their best to alienate a generation of fans. In 1980, MLB games averaged two and a half hours. By 2014, the length had extended past three hours.

If the pitchers would stay on the mound and the batters would  stay in the box, the game would be much more enjoyable, with no real loss to the integrity of the game.

Kudos to the league for - finally - acting.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

PARCC Online Test Format - This Could be a Huge Problem

PARCC & Common Core were supposed to revolutionize everything, presenting common rigorous standards and a new computerized testing system that would streamline the collection and analysis of student work. And it's the "computerized" nature of the testing system that is perhaps the most problematic. Clearly, anyone who has bothered to check out the assessments online and dare to take a practice knows that the PARCC program is anything but user-friendly. And, if you are a teacher or a parent, and you haven't yet taken a look at the practice tests, you must do so in order to make an informed decision about the tests. In all honesty, this format absolutely guarantees that these test results will be anything but an accurate measurement of students' content knowledge and academic skills.

To be fair, years from now the nature of online tests might be the norm to the point that taking them is no different than the natural skills of any other school coursework. But right now, they are a new monster that we have yet to control. It will be literally years before the technical skills/savvy and familiarity of students will be to the point where the PARCC/online tests can provide an authentic measurement of ... anything. And, it's not enough to say that this generation of kids are "more comfortable" with computers and more adept at using them. The only people who say so are adults (ie., parents, grandparents, businesspeople, and politicians) who lack regular contact with kids. Kids know what they know in terms of their tech, but little more than that. What that means is: a kid may be familiar with how to use his cell phone or type something into Google. But they aren't so tech savvy that navigating new programs - like the PARCC mess - is in any way second nature. And that's the problem.

The necessary tech familiarity and skills kids will need to work seamlessly through the PARCC creates an immediate and serious equity issue. And, that's only one reason why schools and parents are balking at the idea that schools/students are ready for this type of test. By "ready" some schools - and the PARCC leadership - are simply claiming that the technology worked. And, some kids may have felt it was interesting to try out the new format online. But what of the data?  It has been years since Common Core was established and the PARCC consortium was formed. And it has been a year since schools across the country allegedly "piloted" the PARCC test. So, where are the results?  Where is the data that proves the test authentically identified kids who are lacking skills, proficient learners, or advanced? It's not enough to say that we've never taken this test, so they can't set proficiencies. How will they at any time?  There are students at all ages right now that we can reliably identify as trailing or proficient or advanced. Where is the data that shows PARCC authentically measured that?

Why pilot a test if you are not going to reveal results as proof of an authentic measurement? There is simply something wrong with this model, and the nature of these tests presents a huge problem. It's a problem for teachers, schools, administrators, parents, and kids. And, until we have some legitimate answers about authenticity, I can't imagine how we can, in good conscience, proceed with the PARCC test.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Teaching Reading at All Levels

Do you teach reading once kids are in middle and high school, or even college?

Of course you do. Or at least you should. One of the biggest problems in secondary instruction is the idea that we teach students to read in first or second grade, and for ever after that, we simply assign reading. Reading  - or the way we access text - is a skill that needs to be developed and refined continually based on the text or information.

So, how do you teach reading?

You go back to the books and you look into literacy instruction, as opposed to focusing more on literature and how to talk about stories. You don't look for a new book, but a new activity or angle in class. You model your own reading habits, and you develop open communication with the kids about theirs. And there are great resources out there in how to do this.

A great place to start is an excellent book and literacy guide called I Read It But I Don't Get It by Cris Tovani, and English teacher and literacy advocate in the Cherry Creek School District. Tovani - and her book - is one of best resources I've found. In fact, when I discovered her book years ago while taking a staff development class on reading comprehension - another good idea if your district supports it - it literally reignited my passion for teaching English. When I spoke to my coordinator about it, he smiled and said, "You've been reborn, haven't you." I had, and the experience kicked off a reading revolution for me. It was a tad infectious, too, as our principal bought copies for the entire department. Another exceptional text by Tovani that is specifically geared toward teachers in content areas is Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?

Nearly 50% of high school students are "dys-fluent," even when reading grade level and familiar text. That means they are literate, and their brains can identify and pronounce the words as their eyes run across them. However, they are "fake reading" at best, and that is why they comprehend and synthesize little of what they read. That is why they don't remember what they read. That is why they don't have much to say in class discussion. That is why they aren't connecting with the literature you are so passionate about. They can "read." They just aren't very good at it.

And that is the key to our education problems. And it is the burden of high school teachers.

The teaching of reading is far too often linked with primary grades, and is dismissed by middle school and high school teachers outright. However, what primary teachers focus on most is decoding and then moving to basic comprehension. Thus, as reading material becomes more complex, students need to access more tools of comprehension. They need regular instruction in how to deconstruct a text. They need guidance and focus in being meta-cognitive and retaining that which they read.

Thus, despite English teachers' love of and passion for their themes and general discussions of great literature, they need to focus on the basic techniques of reading. The problem of course is that young teachers do not come out of college with this as a focus. And they have very little in terms of ability to develop resources and engaging lessons on literacy. Ultimately, high school teachers do a lot of "assigning reading" and very little teaching of it. Sadly, when students don't comprehend and don't connect, teachers admonish them, telling them to read it again, or read it more slowly. And, that is practically useless.

So, stepping outside our narrow focus of the stories we love, schools need a commitment to return to the basics of literacy instruction ... at all grade levels. Ultimately, we must be teachers of literacy as much as we are teachers of literature or science or social studies. And that holds true whether we are teaching ELA and Essentials of English or College Prep English and AP Language and Literature.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Colorado Teacher's Naive Defense of PARCC - Test for Testing's Sake

As the discussion and debate about standardized testing continues in Colorado and nationwide, and more parents are exercising their rights of choice in education by refusing to allow their children's participation in a new un-proven assessment system, people in the pro-testing (sic!) camp are pushing back with spirited defense of tests like PARCC. This has created an interesting back-and-forth in the media. In Colorado, the Denver Post has been on a pro-PARCC run for a while now, and I responded last week with an argument that "PARCC Won't Solve Our Testing Challenges." As I've noted before, I am not opposed to standards or accountability or even the idea of "education reform." However, I have been suspicious of and critical toward PARCC for myriad reasons. From the lack of transparency about the creation of the tests to the supposed "piloting" of the test that produced no actual data or results to the awkward online format that is unlike any previous high stakes testing to the inherent inequity that test-based reform has wrought, schools need time to evaluate Common Core-linked testing and new programs such as PARCC. These are all legitimate concerns that require time to resolve.

But those concerns are simply irrelevant and dismissed by some.

In response to my PARCC criticism, Longmont area teacher Jessica Moore submitted a letter to the Denver Post which urged "Don't Throw Out PARCC Before It Has Been Instituted." Moore is in favor of, even in awe of, the new PARCC exam, and she sings its praises on her website. The thought that some could challenge the idea of the test or consider refusing to take it is shocking to her. In Moore's world, Colorado should proceed with the PARCC test simply because there is a PARCC test - and that's a point of view which certainly lacks the sort of critical thinking that standardized tests fail to measure. Truly, as Moore notes, "countless hours" and hundreds of millions of "dollars" have gone in to the development of the PARCC. Yet, surprisingly, there is still no data about its authenticity. That seems like an egregious lack of quality control that would have been unacceptable in the very business world that is so actively promoting the tests. The tests are nothing if not a major financial investment. Imagine if those millions of dollars and countless hours had been spent on direct intervention for our most challenged schools and populations. Additionally, in a rather obtuse bit of thinking, Moore responds to my criticism that promises about PARCC's quality are not "evidence-based" by responding that while there's no evidence PARCC is good, there's no evidence that it's bad either. I'm not sure why Moore believes that counter-argument should reassure parents, teachers, or kids. But arguing that there's no "proof" the tests are poorly written and ill-conceived is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Moore concludes with some artful "begging the question" by simply declaring "it's a good test," as if Coloradans should simply believe it because she says so. Claiming to be an educator "involved in the development and review" of the test questions, Moore acknowledges that we will have to "tweak the test" to improve it. Sadly, as an educator she should have advocated for such "tweaking" during a legitimate piloting of the test. And, even then, such tweaking would not and could not address all the problems with test-based reform that will only exacerbate equity issues as struggling schools will be forced to increase myopic efforts to "teach to the test." And, people like Jessica Moore seem to naively and passively accept that if testing is to be done, it must be via the PARCC. As a parent of high performing children and a teacher at a high performing high school, I will continue to argue that the ACT test already meets our needs and legal requirements.

And, thus, I can find no reason to accept Moore's naive promotion of PARCC.

Fear the Use of "No-Fear Shakespeare"

As a rule, our English department officially opposes the use of No-Fear Shakespeare, or any other aids that simplify the language in which literature is written. That doesn't mean, of course, that our students honorably and studiously avoid using such aids. But, as an official line, we do not support the use of such crutches, and we certainly don't condone using them in the classroom. No Fear Shakespeare and Book Rags and Grade Saver and all the other aids have no business in the English classroom.

It's not just about the plot and theme, teachers. If that were the case, we would be teaching out of the graphic novel versions of all literature. It's about the language - it's about the text. The goal of education is to expose children to ideas and information they would not otherwise encounter or engage on their own. It's about challenge and struggle. It's not supposed to be easy, though it should certainly be engaging. And, no student I've found actually "enjoys" reading the study guides. They simply do so to find out what they don't understand, so they can pass the quizzes and tests. That is fundamentally the wrong model for the English classroom.

On the other hand, if we are working on the language in class - even if, especially if, we break it down into short passage analysis - students can truly "appreciate" the language. They will laugh and grimace and smile and feel if they learn why they're supposed to be feeling. And, it might mean that a class period covers a single speech or a few lines. And, that's fine. There's no schedule to finish the text - there's only a schedule to understand. Teachers have often underestimated their students ability to access such language and analyze style. However, for our more average level students, such short, focused passage analysis is actually quite accessible precisely because it's concrete and not overwhelming. For example, a single line or two from Julius Caesar can be analyzed for "how language is used to reflect Brutus' troubled mind?" What words reflect confusion or unease. Students can key in on single sentences or words far more easily than entire scenes and acts. 

I strongly urge English teachers to avoid these aids - but have the discussion with your classes about why. The teacher is supposed to be the study-guide. We are No Fear Shakespeare, and it is our job to help students access information.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Lord of the Flies - Analysis & the Art of Close Reading

The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down ...

Those seven words, which open William Golding's classic coming-of-age novel Lord of the Flies, would take me roughly thirty minutes to teach when I began the novel each September. And that is my introduction for my freshman on how to study literature at the high school level. After the students have had the book for a couple days, and have been asked to read the first chapter, I open with a discussion of effective reading strategies. This follows an earlier class when I exposed them to the possibility they were fake reading. And, I propose that we revisit the chapter and "read it aloud" employing reading strategies such as "asking questions during reading" and being metacognitive. They seem surprised but intrigued.

So, I begin. I read, "The boy ..." And then, I pause. "So, what do you know?" I ask. They seem confused. "There's a boy," they say. But what does that mean? Why does Golding start with the word "boy"? Why not Ralph, as the boy is identified a couple pages later? The reason, of course, is that we must know him as a boy, not a man. He is a child - one who is still innocent - and he will come of age by losing that innocence when he recognizes and understands the darkness that is in man's heart. Thus, by beginning with boy, and not man or person or Ralph, Golding establishes a potential bildungsroman.

"And why not a girl?" I proceed to ask. Would it be a different novel with a group of girls on the island? Of course it would. We discuss the more physically aggressive, immature, and potentially savage nature of boys versus girls. We ponder the drama that might arise among a group of adolescent girls. We discuss the difference between boys and girls at all ages. I share stories of nieces who, as toddlers, would passively observe the flowers in my parents' garden, whereas as my nephews would walk right in, trample, even pick them. I point out that if there is a group of young children frying ants on the sidewalk in your neighborhood in the summer, it will most definitely be boys, not girls. I point out that girls and women would never have invented skateboard halfpipes or MMA fighting. And, then I share with them Golding's answer when asked why he chose adolescent boys as his characters. "Well," he said in perfect deadpan voice, "when you get right down to it, the fourteen-year-old-boy is the closest manifestation of true evil you will find anywhere in the world." The class erupts. The girls enthusiastically agree, and the boys concede and shrug their shoulders. Golding's diction, "the boy," is absolutely significant in conveying theme.

We proceed. The boy has "fair hair." Is that an important detail? Absolutely. An author of great literature will not bother to mention a character's hair unless that quality is significant. In this case, the boy's fair hair is a reflection of his demeanor and role in the novel. He is the "good guy." Light is a positive motif, and in Western allegory light is symbol of the forces of good in the battle of good and evil. Additionally, Ralph, the boy, attempts to establish a system of order and justice. Thus, he is "fair." And, hair becomes a primary motif throughout the work, as numerous characters are identified by their hair. However, the next point is that the fair-haired boy "lowers himself down." Is that significant? Of course, it is. Just as light and dark are symbolic of good and evil in Western civilization, directions of up and down are, too. Obviously, heaven is up and hell is down, and gods are always considered to be up on the mountain or up in the sky. Thus, the boy - coming from civilization - is going down. This foreshadows and will symbolize man's "fall from grace" as the boys on the island descend into savagery and wickedness. Additionally, the reflexive pronoun is significant as the boy "lowers himself." Our hero plays a role in his fall - just as Adam and Eve or any tragic hero. He is partially responsible.

Following this analysis, the class realizes my expectations for them in terms of close reading and the task of analyzing how the author uses language to achieve his purpose. Certainly, they argue, if they spend that much time on each word, the novel will take years to read and analyze. Alas, I explain that much of this dialogue should be going on inside their heads, subconsciously. And as we continue to study, they will learn to instinctively apply such knowledge and ask such questions. The remaining time in class is spent on the rest of the first paragraph. The boys are in an Edenic-like setting. It has been damaged with a "scar" from the airplane which crashed. We discuss the connotation of "scar" and the idea that man's actions have damaged the innocent natural world. Other details include the boy shedding his clothes, trailing this sign of civilization behind him. The scar is a steamy bath of heat, and a the silence is broken with a "witch-like cry" of a red and yellow bird. These particular words create an ominous tone, foreshadowing the evil to come and the fire that will also become a significant motif. At the end of the class, we realize we'll need another period for the rest of chapter one.

Ultimately, this class is time well spent, as the students are introduced to the ideas of close reading and style analysis. Expectations are set for studying literature beyond the elements of the novel on which they focused in middle school. They will eventually compose a written passage analysis of this first paragraph when they are asked to re-read the passage and analyze the way "the author uses language to convey his theme."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

YA Lit is Simply Entertainment - and that's OK

I'm not overly impressed with the writing of Rick Riordan - namely his immensely popular Percy Jackson series. But that's OK because he is not writing for me. When I first read the first book: Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, I was intrigued by the potential. Here was a book that drew heavily from classic traditions. Though as I read I was a bit disappointed in the quality of the writing ... and the way the stories seemed more like "hacks" than attributions and derivatives. The writing just seemed overly weak and cliched, especially when compared with the brilliance of JK Rowling, who had set a new bar in children's lit. However, my kids, who are 9 and 12, as well as their friends and millions of other young people are duly impressed and entertained and, even, fanatical about the stories. And, that is fine with people like Noah Berlatsky who reminds us that "Young Adult Fiction Does Not Have to be a Gateway to the Classics."

Discussions like this often seem to presume that there was an idyllic time, somewhere in the past, when kids' books were substantially better, or when young people read great adult literature. Graham contrasts Percy Jackson and Riordan's new encyclopedia Percy Jackson's Greek Gods to the classic 1925 collection of Greek myths by Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire. She finds Riordan's book slangy and "inscribed with obsolescence," since it references Craigslist, iPhones, and other pop culture detritus. The D'Aulaires, on the other hand, remain "lucid"—though their poetic Victorian language is, she admits, "stilted." Graham seems to conclude that it's a loss that kids want to read lines like "At first, Kronos wasn’t so bad. He had to work his way up to being a complete slime bucket" instead of  “In olden times, when men still worshiped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty." To me, though, Riordan's joke about Kronos is actually better written: less weighed down with reverence, more surprising, and less condescending towards its subject matter (who is it who sees those idols as "ugly"?). I read Riordan's The Last Hero multiple times and worked on a study guide about it; I wouldn't say that its prose is deathless, but I can think of many inferior books. Percy Jackson isn't any worse than the Hardy Boys adventures or Piers Anthony's Xanth novels that I read as a kid.

In the past few years, when English teachers I know have discussed new selections - especially for class assignments like summer reading - the debate about YA lit has come up. Certainly, kids are more likely to read YA, and some of the writing can be very compelling. But is it literature? Is it worthy of study? Is it only about character, plot, and theme? Do we want literature to be a window or a mirror?  The questions go on and on. And with the incredible rise of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter phenomenon, the interest of "adults" in "children's literature" has expanded, as the line on reading material has become blurry.

So, should adults read - and actually be engaged or entertained by - stories written for kids? New Hampshire writer Ruth Graham argues no in a compelling article for, "Against YA."

Of course, Graham doesn't just believe the works aren't appropriate and shouldn't be interesting to adults. Her commentary claims adults "should be embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children." And this piece just happens to coincide with the theatrical release of the film adaption of John Green's poignant and compelling work The Fault in Our Stars. This is a richly written YA novel that Time Magazine named one of the Ten Best Books of the year. And, I know I really enjoyed the book. And I really enjoy all of John Green's work. However, I argued against the study of TFIOS in school simply because of the simplicity of the language. It is a great story, no doubt. But other than discussing themes and feelings, there is really nothing worthy of study on a language level.

As for whether adults should or shouldn't read kids books, that's simply a matter of debate.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Testing Giant Pearson, Inc. Devours the World of Education

With the talk of cash-strapped school budgets, you'd never think there is millions to be made in the world of public education. But, that's because you are not a text book and test-making company that is feeding off the education reform era. That's because you're not Pearson. As the growth and influence of Common Core and PARCC testing guides nearly all the discussion of public education, some people are beginning to wake up to the monopolistic behavior of a one-hundred-year old British company that began in construction. Pearson moved heavily into the education market nearly fifteen years ago in a prescient move to buy a testing company just as the United States Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which kicked off an era of testing the likes of which schools had never seen. In the years since, Pearson has had its hands in nearly every aspect of "education reform." It's now clear that the un-due and dis-proportionate control that Pearson has over public education in America demands investigation. To that end, Stephanie Simon has amassed some impressive information that calls into question the ethics of a profit-driven company influencing public education, as she exposes how Pearson is really about "No Profit Left Behind."

Monday, February 9, 2015

Is It Really about College Degrees, or Just About Wages

"You have to go to college." Or do you?

The discussion continues about the necessity of a college degree, as we struggle to close the "achievement gap" and increase the numbers of kids who are ready for college and careers. And that issue of "readiness" is the one that I've been troubled by lately. While US schools are sending more kids to college and producing more degrees than ever before, there is a growing "graduation gap" among the kids going on to post-secondary school. A study from the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy indicates a growing gap between the wealthier and poorer students in terms of degree achievement.

And, I am wondering about the push for degrees. It seems to me that education reformers are pushing more and more kids toward college and bachelor degrees for one simple reason:  more money and higher standard of living. We want to close the racial gaps in the middle and upper class, and we believe that the way families will increase status is through higher-paying, white collar jobs. If that's true, then the argument really isn't about degrees - it's about wages. Rather than telling people to go to college because that will give them access to higher paying jobs, we should instead be promoting and working toward higher wages for skilled labor. For, we know there are all sorts of people working in jobs that never required a degree.

And, that's OK.

Furthermore, while some may argue that we need to promote K-12 education, so that all students are qualified for and have the opportunity to "go to college," I question that logic. It seems to me that "readiness" for "college and career" are not often the same thing. And, promoting such an idea is actually quite inefficient. The "college/career" discussion is for another post.

But the truth about wages is clear.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Dick Hilker Offers Naive & Mis-informed View on Testing Debate in Colorado

Standardized testing remains the hot topic across the nation and in the legislature of Colorado as "pro-testing" and "protesting" forces battle over how much is enough and whether we should put PARCC-in-place or simply park-PARCC. To that issue, former newspaper columnist - and occasional curmudgeon - Dick Hilker believes the state should "leave standardized testing alone." Hiller takes a rather general and non-researched view that there's nothing wrong with testing ... and he then proceeds to disparage parents, teachers, kids, and public education.

Among those complaining: Educrats who claim test results really don't prove anything. Teachers who say they have to spend so much time "teaching to the test" that kids don't learn anything important. Parents who refuse to let their youngsters take the tests on the grounds that the pressure of performing well causes all types of emotional trauma.
Balderdash. These are probably the same people who think letter grades should be abolished and every child should be given a smiley face at the end of the year. If Tommy gets a tummy-ache before a core test, how can he possibly handle a college entrance exam, or even a classroom test that might mean the difference between him getting an A or B? Fortunately, most people have figured out that we can't improve our schools by simply providing them with more and more money. Improvement first requires a high degree of accountability on the part of school boards, administrators, teachers, individual schools and pupils. No one has found a way to measure progress — or the lack thereof — except by testing.
There are more than a few problems with Hilker's (mis)-view:

While his claims of "balderdash" and his mockery of teachers, parents, and children may entertain some readers, it really does nothing to complement or further the discussion.
This year students and teachers at hundreds of high schools around the state will lose ten or more days of instruction in order to complete the PARCC/CMAS tests. That's a simple hard reality of scheduling/proctoring of which Hilker has little-to-no understanding. However, students will/can complete the ACT (and associated ACT-Aspire tests for 9th & 10th graders) in one morning. And, we all know that ACT is the standard benchmark for college readiness nationwide. Thus, Hilker's call to simply leave the current testing requirements alone seems wildly misinformed ... and it lacks the critical thinking we hope to teach all students.

Additionally, the second round of PARCC comes a week before the state ACT and AP exams, and schools can expect that few juniors and AP students will bother to take the PARCC when the ACT and AP are what actually matter to them. Many will instead spend time preparing for AP exams. And, I can't say I blame them for their refusals, though as an educator, I must promote their participation in a test they don't value, and I will suffer any state reprisals that come from such refusals. 
Clearly, the push-back against testing is not simply an attempt to avoid accountability. It's actually a fact-based criticism and challenge of making accountability about a single test score which does not reflect anything other than the ability to take a test. Well, that and family income. As far as parents opting out, and Hilker's disparaging comments about "Tommy's tummy-ache," I'd argue he has some homework to do because there are numerous legitimate reasons for test refusal. 

Case in point - my 12-year-old son is currently studying calculus and recently won the Denver Math Counts competition, solving complex algorithms in less time than some pro-athletes run the 40. Obviously, the 7th-grade PARCC math exam is a colossal waste of his time. It's also a waste of resources to schedule such a test for him. And, as a veteran educator who has taught in schools from Denver to Taiwan, I have serious concerns about the quality and ability of the PARCC to accurately measure all students' strengths and weaknesses. It's not about a tummy-ache - it's much more complicated than that.

Obviously, Dick Hilker has a great deal of contempt for teachers and for public education, and he desires a convenient quick fix in the form of a test that will diagnose and solve all of education's challenges. Yet, it's simply not true that "no one has found a way to measure progress except for testing." Schools measure all day and all year through numerous means of data collection. And for the majority of students these measures work quite well. That's, of course, not to dismiss the challenges faced by roughly a third of schools and students. There are serious problems and challenges for many students. Testing critics simply point out that education is a complex system that can't be "fixed" by a standardized test.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Non-Fiction in the English Classroom

For years, some people in my English department argued that we severely under-serve and under-appreciate the genre of non-fiction in the classroom, especially at the high school level.  Despite our love for our stories in literature, we must acknowledge that nearly all the reading students will be asked to do in college is of the non-fiction slant, and we do our students a disservice by not studying non-fiction texts before then.  If the only non-fiction information and textual analysis students get in high school is their social studies textbook, that's a real shame.

Thus, I have attempted to promote non-fiction texts and work them into the curriculum.  For example, the summer reading assignment for my CE Intro to College Composition class was Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.  This was Gladwell's first book, and it focuses on the role that trends and specific subgroups of people play in the development of society.  By focusing on ideas such as the Broken Windows Theory or the way products become hip, Gladwell outlines how small actions impact and determine society's development.  In crafting his argument, Gladwell identifies three subgroups of people - Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen - who put these forces in play.  These descriptions are great fodder for discussion in the classroom.

Creativity and innovation are the qualities that lead to progress.  Beyond the obvious basic skills of literacy and computation, we want students to be able to problem solve - and that is linked to creativity.  Thus, books that can promote and inspire the ideas of creativity and innovation are useful tools in the classroom.  And, keeping in line with the push to promote more non-fiction in the classroom, I would recommend reading Daniel Pink's latest A Whole New Mind and Jonah Leher's Imagine.  Both these works are accessible in terms of promoting the values of imaginative, right-brain thinking which is integral to innovation and problem solving.

Other non-fiction works I've used are:

Michael Lewis' Next: The Future Just Happened

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The PARCC Test Won't Solve Anything - and it won't "fix' public education

The new Common Core State Standards, and the associated standardized assessments like PARCC, have been touted as the "magical cure" for all that ills public education. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here's my latest piece for the Denver Post, which explains why:

PARCC Won't Solve Our Problems.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Post-Modern Puzzle of Good Writing & Literature.

Post-modern ...

It's just a word that sounds cool. And many literary types wish they could appreciate post-modernism, even if they can't. Every one talks about Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and often it's just to note how little of it they've read. For example, "I've tried to read it, but only got to page 47 ..." And, I am about to begin the post-modern discussion of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried with my AP Lang juniors. They are always a bit blown away by the creative blending of fiction and reality. And, the book is accessible enough that they aren't scared of like young readers are of Pynchon. So, that's what makes Lenika Cruz's recent essay for The Atlantic about "Post-Modernism - for Kids" so cool. Cruz takes a look at the children's classic "Lemony Snicket" Series of Unfortunate Events and argues that what made it so popular and engaging for kids is the same literary qualities that make Post-Modernism such a complex and engaging challenge for adults.

In college, I encountered postmodern novels including Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…, Don Delillo’s White Noise, and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. My professors presented them as works that were radical, at least in their day. But to me the tone and techniques they deployed felt familiar and somehow comforting. For an example of postmodern hallmarks—such as metafiction, the unreliable narrator, irony, black humor, self-reference, maximalism, and paranoia—look no further than this excerpt from the seventh Unfortunate Events book, The Ersatz Elevator.
And that made me think about the idea of literature as a puzzle. According to writer Peter Turchi, literature is "a puzzling experience." In his new book, A Muse & a Maze: Writing as a Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, Turchi examines and seeks to explain the "puzzle of the written word" as he explains the origins and significance of puzzles and similar mind games in society. Jigsaw puzzles have fascinated us for centuries, and they continue to sell well even in the era of digital media and X-box. In exploring the history of puzzles and games, Turchi explores the medium of narrative writing and wonders about the puzzling nature of stories. His basic explanation is that "all writers are puzzle makers," as they carefully construct and slowly reveal a complete portrait of an idea over the course of many pages. It's a fascinating way to look at literature and worth considering as we craft lessons for readers.

In a footnote I’d like to see appended to every article on Y.A. and every other B.S. genre browbeating, Turchi writes: “Is Toni Morrison’s Beloveda ghost story? Is Wuthering Heights a romance novel? Is Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses a western? … Outside of publishers’ sales meetings, when is it necessary or useful to attach labels to books?

The analysis of literature, or simply the enjoyment of a well crafted tale, is really about appreciating the puzzling craft of narrative. So many disparate parts come together to create the ultimate paragraph, and for a reader, it's as gratifying to read that last sentence as it is to place that final jigsaw. Each moment brings not only satisfaction, but also understanding.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Reading Tom Robbins' Still Life with Woodpecker

A former student - a senior now who is probably one of the most astute readers I've had in high school classes - let me know that he is currently reading Tom Robbin's classic Still Life with Woodpecker. I was instantly transported back to freshman year of college when a friend handed it to me - and everything about literature changed for a young history major who was destined to switch to English. The book that promises to answer "the mystery of redheads" is a captivating intro to one of America's most innovative and significant writers. And I love when students discover Robbins and all his madcap irreverence.

My student's father recommended the book to him. And that is pretty cool as well, for Robbins is certainly edgy and downright inappropriate at times. Not that a senior in high school shouldn't be able to handle it - but many probably aren't ready. Despite that, Robbins is worth the time for avid readers because of all the ways he challenges convention. I love explaining to students the unique approach Robbins takes to composition. It truly captures the idea of writing as "craft." As teachers of writing, consider sharing some of the magic of Robbins with writers:

Tracy Robbins for

Timothy Egan for the New York Times - on "perfect sentences in an imperfect world."

Alan Rinzler of The Book Deal - with Robbins' advice to writers.