Category Archives: Books

Right Book. Right Group. Right Time

I’d had my heart set on reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my current eighth graders since last spring. Thanks largely to Nancie Atwell’s influence (see The Reading Zone, 2007), I no longer assign whole class novels. Instead, read-alouds allow for an accessible whole class experience that supplements students’ independent reading. I know I am lucky to teach at a school where I am trusted to make such pedagogical and curricular decisions.

Although it had been a long time since I’d read it, I was confident that To Kill a Mockingbird would be a valuable literary experience. It would also offer opportunities to connect to and discuss current issues of racism and the justice system. When I revisited it, however, I noticed several challenges. There’s the matter of the narrator’s southern accent, which I knew I could not pull off. There is also dialect and the N-word. I prepped the kids for it, gave them a lot of contextual information, and decided to use an audio recording. Despite those efforts, the kids were disengaged. Whenever I paused for discussion, my usually opinionated and insightful students remained silent. After a couple of days, they asked me to abandon the audio recording and read it aloud myself. I tried, but they were still disengaged. At that point, Anisa said, “Jessie, we know this is a book you really like, but do you think you could choose a book that we would like?”

I grappled with that question for the rest of the day. Did we just need to give the book more time, or was it truly not the right book?

I remember the year I used David James Duncan’s The River Why with ninth graders. I had loved that book, and I was certain that everyone in a pre-Advanced Placement English class would love it too.  After all, what adolescents wouldn’t love a coming-of-age story full of humor, self-discovery, and romance? I could not have been more wrong. The kids hated it. They did not connect with the main character; the humor was too sophisticated. There was a near revolt.

My selection of Angela’s Ashes, on the other hand, was transformative for my juniors and seniors, who could both appreciate the humor and empathize with the depictions of extreme poverty. What had been a disconnected, disengaged group of students developed community and confidence. That was when I learned the power of the right book for the right group at the right time.

Are there some books that are universally the right book? Maybe. It seems that every group of seventh graders loves The Outsiders. But most of the time, I have to start with my group of students in mind, and search for the book that will be the right match. I had forgotten to do that when I selected To Kill a Mockingbird, and then, against my better judgment, I continued to put the curriculum ahead of the students. Anisa’s question gave me the jolt I needed to change course. The next morning, I told the kids that I valued To Kill a Mockingbird and hoped they would each choose to read it at some point, but I could see that it was not the right book for the class at this time.

Wanting to get us back into our read-aloud groove, I pivoted to Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is engaging, but lacks the literary heft I know my students are ready for and need. During a discussion about what makes a book interesting, Yasmin mentioned Of Mice and Men as an example of a book that had a powerful emotional impact. Isaac and Steven agreed. Yasmin then bounced out of her seat, saying Of Mice and Men should be our next read aloud book. I looked at Isaac and Steven who nodded vigorously. I’d been considering Of Mice and Men. The students’ enthusiastic endorsement settled the matter.

I imagine that there are individuals who would see this course of events as a reason not to trust teachers’ professional judgment, and instead to centralize all decisions about instructional materials at the district or school board level. For me it has the opposite effect. It makes me think about the absurdity of individuals far removed from classrooms making decisions about text selections. If I, who know my students deeply, can occasionally make the wrong choice, how could it be alright to leave the decision making to individuals who don’t know my students at all?

In this age of teacher-proofing and mandated curricula, I am curious about other teachers’ experiences. Are you able to make decisions about what will be the right book for the group in front of you? How do top-down decisions about curricula affect your and your students’ experiences?

Oh, and if you have any middle school read-aloud recommendations, please pass those along too.

Summer Reading: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

I should be reading the new budget and writing about that, I know. That’s for another day.

Instead, I spent my Fourth of July family trip getting sunburned while reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond. A much better choice, as I walked away with far less frustration than a close read of the budget likely would have offered me.

I have to admit that I rarely look forward to my summer “work reading.” Typically, my reading is more of a skim, dipping in when something seems to connect to my work. This book, however, seemed to connect at every turn.

I read this book with a specific purpose: When I and the other thousand-or-so staff return for our August kickoff meetings, we’re taking the idea of culturally responsive practice to scale. Specifically, the district Teaching and Learning team is working to design a common experience for the adults in our system to open us to more frank and meaningful conversations about race, inequity, privilege, and what culturally responsive practice should look like.

The challenge I’m facing, and which this book helped me with, is the reality of being a white male teaching is a largely white (generally affluent) community, and in this context trying to find the right way to communicate with my fellow white teachers that culturally responsive teaching isn’t about using rap music to “connect with kids” or putting up posters of famous nonwhite scientists or changing John to Juan in a story problem and checking the “culturally responsive” box. Further, saying “but I’m not racist” and “I treat every student the same” isn’t an excuse for not learning about and adopting culturally responsive practices (and I think such statements constitute a neon sign pointing at someone who probably needs more than anyone else to read this book).

At the August kickoff, that common experience will help establish that as a district our focus for the 2017-18 school year will be on “seeing and serving every child.” Why? Simply put, the data over the last few years communicates it without question: We’re serving some kids exceptionally well, others well enough, and some not well at all. The dividing line is crystal clear and let’s just say the students on one side of the line are are more linguistically and culturally diverse than those on the other.

But our test scores are high and our graduation rates just fine!

That’s good, of course. However, my assistant superintendent shared with me the field-trip analogy: if we take 100 kids on a field trip and only return with 93% of them, that’s a problem. Yes, we can celebrate our successes, but we as responsible educators must make sure we do all we can for each child, not just most kids. Continue reading

Teaching “Banned Books”

http://www.bannedbooksweek.org

This week is the annual Banned Books Week, where educators draw attention to the dangers of outright banning books in public schools and libraries. The list of “frequently banned and challenged books” tends to circulate, commonly eliciting a chorus of “Really, somebody has a problem with Judy Blume?”

While I believe than any book a public library can get its hands on ought to have space on a shelf somewhere in public access, I don’t think that elementary schools ought to be teaching Fifty Shades Darker even if it is written with the vocabulary and syntax of a fourth grader (so I hear…)

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Challenging a Growth Mindset

Alfie Kohn published a Salon opinion piece August 16th imploring educators (and others) to take a closer look at the current fad in education: Growth vs. Fixed mindset.

Carol Dweck’s research about the impact of growth versus fixed mindsets (with regard to children achieving their full potential) seemed to sweep quickly through the education landscape. There’s a lot of good in the idea: what we focus on in the learning process ought to focus on improving knowledge and skills rather than simply aiming for a specific score on an assessment. Dweck’s 2007 book, Mindset, perseverates on that point though examples and in my personal opinion, contains about seven really great pages that get to the core of the idea (you can skip the rest).

Kohn points out that the fundamental principles of the growth mindset focus aren’t inherently bad, but he offers this, which to me sums up everything (everything) about education reform, trends, and change:

Having spent a few decades watching one idea after another light up the night sky and then flame out — in the field of education and in the culture at large — I realize this pattern often has less to do with the original (promising) idea than with the way it has been oversimplified and poorly implemented. (Source)

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Class Size and Deathless Prose: Clamor in the Classroom!

image from http://aviary.blob.core.windows.net/k-mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp-13111306/ee8ab921-aa02-4bfb-a968-8bcbd615dc2d.jpg

by Maren Johnson

When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.

~Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

McCourt, a thirty-year teaching veteran and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, is describing the reason it took him so long in life, until the age of 66 actually, to write his first book.

Unlike Frank McCourt, I am not trying to "fashion deathless prose." I am just trying to write this blog post. However, I know what he is talking about. After a day of five classes, interacting with one hundred-and-some-impossibly-large number of high school students, putting together a coherent series of thoughts can be a daunting challenge.

Last year I had a student teacher–an outstanding one. This year, she has her own classroom in a different district. One of my fellow teachers recently gave her Teacher Man, which we also read for a school book study a few years ago. My former student teacher brought the "deathless prose" and "clamor of the classroom" quotation above to our attention. Yes, that "clamor of the classroom" is often a positive thing, but, still, it is a day-long clamor! My former student teacher is dealing with many of the challenges faced by new teachers as they enter the profession. On top of all this, she has some very large class sizes! I have a few of those as well, and some of my colleagues have classes that are downright physically crowded.

My large classes are full of students with large personalities! One student wants to tell about the funny thing that happened to him yesterday afternoon. He has a new story every day. Another student has a long, complicated, and ongoing drama involving a boyfriend. A student is learning English and wants to follow me around asking questions. Another student is learning English and sits silently. One student unexpectedly shows up with some silica salts that change color when dehydrated. This will require a Bunsen burner. Three students are about to leave for the sports event and need their homework right now. All that put together adds up to "clamor in the classroom," seriously complicated by large class sizes!

While the sheer number of daily human interactions itself can sometimes be hard for both students and teachers, there are other reasons large class sizes pose problems. With smaller classes, we are able to provide more individualized attention to each student–and students have more opportunities to make relationships with adults in the classroom and with eachother. Low income students show especially large academic gains when they have small class sizes. Teachers stay in the profession longer when their class sizes are not so large–and this results in more consistent and stable instruction in schools.  School counselors with large caseloads face similar issues.

Back in 2009, the Washington state legislature passed ESHB 2261, which established the Quality Education Council. The Quality Education Council adopted recommendations for specific lower class sizes, but staffing allocations in the state budget have yet to fund these.

Now the Washington state legislature needs to put its own recommendations for lower class sizes, recommendations adopted by the Quality Education Council, into place in our schools.  It might be time to clamor for it.

Growth, Part Two: Open to Learning

By Mark

About a year ago I was sitting in a training, titled "Common Assessments, blah, blah, blah" (I can't remember the title).

But it was in that session that I remember, for probably the first time if not in my career then in a long time, actually learning something I thought I could use. Hence, this facebook status update:

Esd training

I had just finished my tenth year of teaching, and was about to embark on my eleventh and begin referring to myself as "mid-career."

In reflection, it obviously wasn't that I had never been exposed to quality professional development. (Well, maybe…) The change, though, happened in my head. Suddenly, I was at a point in my career where I was mentally ready to learn. Seeing a new strategy was no longer a threat meaning that "the way I teach is wrong." Rather than feel obligated to accept and apply everything the trainer offered, I realized that even walking away with the tiniest applicable nugget was a success.

It was really at that moment that I finally began to grow as a teacher. It started by simply becoming open to learning that challenged me, rather than only being open to learning that already fit into my current view of myself and my practice.

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What’s that standard? Excellence in Washington State and Finland

by Maren Johnson

Pasi Sahlberg 1I attended an amazing conference in Seattle this week, Excellence in Education: Washington State and Finland. We learned about some great things going on in Finland, we learned about some great things going on in Washington, and I experienced some culture shock.  Was it the differences between Finland and the United States that struck me?  Well yes, there was that, and that is what got me started thinking about culture.  However, instead of international differences, I was thinking about some of the cultural as well as philosophical differences between education groups in our own Washington state: differences between people who are in the classroom and those making policy decisions guiding classroom work; differences between policy makers and those doing education research. How to overcome those differences and build on them?  Keynote speaker Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of Finland’s Education Ministry, said, “So much of what we do in Finland, we have learned from American researchers and educators.”  He then very provocatively said the difference is that in Finland, they actually implement that research!  Here in Washington, we need to get those research<—>policy<—> implementation links tightened up, and yes, those are double-headed arrows: information needs to flow each way!

There are some vast historical and social differences between Finland and Washington—an education system cannot just be transplanted.  However, Finland has not always been an education high performer—it languished in the mid twentieth century—but over the past several decades, as Pasi Sahlberg said, “Finland has improved a lot, while the rest of the world has improved a little bit.”  This improvement can be traced to policy decisions.  What are a few of the Finnish Lessons we might learn?

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The Mindsets

FWhen I was an undergraduate, I loved having the opportunity to choose whichever courses interested me. Outside of my major, I took everything from calculus to photography to sociology. I also took advantage of another benefit offered: the option to take courses "pass/fail." I engaged this option whenever there was the chance that I would earn less than an "A."

At the time, I justified it from a financial standpoint. I had tuition and housing scholarships which required a certain GPA: a "C" would harm my GPA, but a "P" had no effect on it and I'd still earn the credit. However, in hindsight, I see that this behavior was a sign of something I'm only now starting to understand: my transcript was my identity.

Recently at an after-school meeting, one of our building associate principals shared an article summarizing the work done by Carol Dweck of the Stanford University School of Psychology. The gist: while it is not absolute, there are generally two "mindsets" into which people can be classified–the "fixed" mindset and the "growth" mindset. 

A person whose disposition is in the "growth" mindset will relish challenge, recover from failure having learned and applied critical lessons, and "end up" in a different and usually better place from where they "start out."

In college, I was clearly of the "fixed" mindset.

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The Budget

Sale booksAnother invisible: the budget. I spend a lot of time on amazon.com as part of my job. As chair of the English department, I have keep up the inventory of our resources–a key resource, of course, is our store of books. Every student at my school is required to take an English class, and my department budget works out to be about $1.80 per student per year. Granted, once you buy a book you can use it multiple times–but books also wear out, and our department budget also has to cover, among other things, basic supplies like paper, staples, dry erase markers, and the other necessities that my 18 full- or part-time English teachers usually end up buying out of their own pocket when the department supply runs out around mid-November.

When I get an email that we are a class-set short of copies of an anchor novel in the curriculum, I have to find a way to cover that gap. In a dream world, I'd buy library-bound hardcover copies of each novel, which start at about $20 per copy. Scratch that: in a dream world, I'd supply all of my students with e-readers wherein they can interact with, annotate, and easily carry their texts. 

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Camp Fired

Picture 1

 By Travis

The message is clear. Very clear.

On the surface, the message comes across as positive, saying there is an organization out there to help children. I am all for helping children.

However, there is hidden message. An agenda, perhaps? This subtle meaning sends its message to the community even if the community does not consciously read it that way.

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