28 October 2012

Here Come the Test Scores--My Hopes and Fears

In my state people are awaiting the public release of standardized test scores this week; students in Kentucky were the first to be tested over the Common Core State Standards last spring. Officials across the state have been warning the public of the potential results because the tests were new, not comparable to previous tests, and based on much more rigorous college and career ready standards.

If you’ve been reading my blog since its creation ten months ago, you likely remember my previous posts on the topic of standardized testing. If you haven’t been reading, you can read those posts here, here, and here.

I have a fear, a fear that the shock of the test results will move people to even more drastic measures and more harmful test preparation as the primary means of teaching students during the school day. We have much to lose if educators resort to more test prep and skill/drill approaches to instruction. We risk higher drop out rates because we are likely to find students disengaged, uninterested, and fed-up with school. We risk the loss of effective arts programs, healthy habits of mind, and understandings of success. In short, we risk the opportunity to prepare students for the life which awaits them beyond K-12 schooling. Sure that’s the intention of the CCR skills—to prepare students for life beyond high school—but the CCR skills leave out creativity and innovation, for the most part.

Being a generally optimistic individual, I also have hope—hope that we will remember the importance of creativity, collaboration, and innovation this week when the standardized test scores for students in Kentucky are released. I hope we facilitate learning opportunities and provide personalized learning based on students’ interests and passions. I hope we continue to promote the arts embedded into problem solving and project based learning. I hope that we will encourage creativity, not squash it.

Ironically, I presented at an assessment conference this week and upon my return home, my 9 year old reminded me that book character dress up day at his elementary school was the next day.   We had discussed this event previously, so I knew he was interested in dressing up like Hiccup in How to Train a Dragon.  However, at 7:00 pm the night before the event, we needed a burst of creativity to make his plan a reality.  The whole family contributed to this creative endeavor.   My older son offered his advice for making the horns from aluminum foil, while my husband searched for an old black tee shirt we could cut up for a tunic.  When it was all said and done, the whole family felt a sense of togetherness and a sense of accomplishment—collaboration and creativity!  Keep it coming.

19 October 2012


Today I am writing, thinking, talking, collaborating, networking and spending National Day on Writing at the Kentucky Reading Association Annual Conference with literacy educators from across the state and country.

Last night Laura Robb opened the conference by having us write about the texts we read. Tomorrow afternoon as the conference concludes, Doug Buehl will lead us in a session on academic discipline literacy, and right now I am taking a few minutes to reflect on what...

…I write

My blog

Personal journals

Reading journals

Annotations in the texts I read

Notes at every convening

Comments in my sons’ planners

Articles for professional journals

Professional learning resource materials

Conversations in online discussion groups

Conference proposals

Grant proposals

Feedback in the margins of my husband’s dissertation

Status updates on Facebook for family and friends who live far and near

Comments on blogs I read

Lists of anything I fear forgetting

Letters of recommendation

Notes at conferences and in meetings

Tweets related to teaching and learning, the humanities, education reform,

Emails to colleagues, other educators, organizations, researchers, friends and family

Text messages to my 11 year old

Notes to my 9 year old (in his lunch box and for the mailbox affixed to wall outside his bedroom)


I.write.every.day.of.my.life. because it’s important to me.

13 October 2012

Introducing Principals to the Literacy Design Collaborative

This week I had my first opportunity to meet all the middle and high school principals in our district.  As the primary point of contact for a major literacy grant, it was important for these administrators to know who I am, and more importantly, to know about the ongoing professional learning experiences we are facilitating for their teachers.  Since we believe in modeling best practice, my colleagues and I decided to stage an argument about the content the principals would learn (In this situation, the content happened to be writing instruction and impact of writing programs in schools).  The argument was designed to set the context and engage the learners/readers in two articles with opposing view-points.  

I’m really happy to be back in the district working closely with teachers and schools, and for the most part it’s going well.  However, I do have one little issue.  My colleague and I don’t agree on the appropriate approach for writing instruction, so we need your help.  We are going to give you two different articles and ask you to help us decide an answer to this question—is it necessary to omit personal connection to produce good writing?  I don’t think it’s necessary to do so, but my colleague does.  Will you help us settle this argument by gleaning evidence from two texts?

My science colleague distributed The Writing Revolution, and I distributed In Defense of Freedom Writers but only after I talked about the power Manuel Scott’s presentation had on me a couple of weeks ago.   Then we gave each administrator a few text dependent questions to accompany both articles, set a timer for 20 minutes and then paced, re-read and watched as a room full of principals and associate principals read the two articles with their pens in hand.  Following the reading of the two articles, our social studies colleague continued the staged argument by telling the principals she didn’t agree with either of us—she was in the middle.  She then facilitated a fish bowl discussion to engage the principals in conversation around the two points of view conveyed in the two articles.  She charted ideas and the principals on the outside of the fishbowl recorded additional thoughts on sticky notes when it wasn’t their turn to talk.  A few struggled to keep quiet when they were on the outside of the fish bowl because they felt so strongly about what they had read.

These are the same conditions teachers are creating as they introduce a Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) task to students in science, social studies and English Language Arts.   Before we went into the rest of our presentation on LDC, we told the principals the argument had been staged, and they got it.  They understood we had set the context for learning more about the content.  Teachers in our district, across many districts in Kentucky, and in several other states in the United States are utilizing the LDC tools to implement the Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical subjects.

We are using LDC because we see the importance of engaging students in meaningful and authentic reading and writing opportunities in every discipline.  Think about the response above--A few struggled to keep quiet when they were on the outside of the fish bowl because they felt so strongly about what they had read.   Exactly.  Imagine this happening in classrooms full of excited and engaged adolescents!
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you will know this is exactly why I left the state department to be closer to schools, closer to the teaching and learning that will make a difference in the lives of students.

07 October 2012

Close Reading, Text Dependent Questions, & Academic Writiing = Nothing New

...or Considering a Balanced Approach to Literacy Instruction

As a teacher who was educated at a liberal arts college, close reading, text dependent questions and academic writing have been part of my educator tool box since I began teaching in 1998.  Now, however, these practices are seeing a resurgence of emphasis because of the Common Core State Standards. 

This was one of the ways I introduced my students to what it means to be a good reader. 
We would discuss which four were accurate according to Nabokov.
Some of my most vivid college memories include my English professors asking us to defend our readings of various poems, stories and novels with evidence from the text.  We read the works of Keats, Kipling, Yeats, Shakespeare, Woolf, Faulkner, Nabokov, O’Connor and more.   Most of my professors didn’t lecture; they taught us to read closely and defend our responses.  We discussed great literary texts and were encouraged to leave our personal responses behind.  In fact, I often say I never really learned to read critically until my first poetry class with Dr. Whited in 1994.

In my junior year of college a new, dynamic, and cutting-edge thinker joined the English faculty, and she believed we should be taught multiple ways of reading and interpreting text.  She challenged our formalist readings and asked us to consider the ideas of Foucault and Barthes.  While I considered the idea of authorship coming from outside the text, read the theories, and practiced them in this professor’s course, I had a difficult time thinking an approach to reading a text other than the New Critic approach would lead to an accurate reading of a text.  I successfully argued my point in my final Master’s Capstone Presentation and went on to teach high school English for the next seven years, utilizing primarily a formal close reading of text to teach my students to read and comprehend. My formalist teaching style worked effectively on the Cherokee Indian Reservation where my students’ performance in writing and reading improved each year I was at the school.

Flash forward seven years from my master’s capstone presentation.  I was in a new state with a new curriculum and a new, more diverse population of students and was working toward my National Board Certification.  A major part of working on National Boards is the intense analysis and reflection required.  I was also mentoring student teachers from the University of Kentucky.  One student teacher, in particular, challenged my thinking with her dynamic approach and different ways of considering text.  She reminded me of my college professor.  She understood the ideas of Foucault and Barthes to be relevant to our classroom and she considered poetry beyond the traditional cannon I so loved and faithfully taught, even as I paired literature with non-fiction texts.  Accordingly, I acquiesced to the importance of a balanced approach in my high school English classroom and sent an email to my college professor telling her I should have listened sooner.

So when The Atlantic published Peg Tyre’s article and Applebee’s response, I decided to reply with my own thoughts on the importance of academic writing in our classrooms today.  Two days after I blogged about Tyre’s article, I had the opportunity to hear Manuel Scott speak to my district about his personal experiences in public education.  He shared the story we all saw in the movie Freedom Writers and shared that his story most resembled that of Manny, a character created by combining multiple individuals from the original group of Freedom Writers.

Mr. Scott shared the story of his teacher, Erin Gruwell, and her persistence, patience, and passion for helping her students learn.  She started the year with “dead white guys in tights” and ultimately combined the beauty of Shakespeare with lyrics by people like Tupac to make learning more relevant and meaningful to her students.  As Mr. Scott shared, his teacher didn’t stop teaching Shakespeare and the power of words to tell a personal story—she just hooked the kids with Tupac.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Erin Gruwell’s interview with The Atlantic and her defense of teaching students memoir writing.  In our rush to improve public education, I hope we all remember to keep a balanced approach to literacy instruction because it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario.  We can teach academic writing and memoir writing, and we can teach the Cannon paired with other non-traditional texts, both fiction and non-fiction. 

My favorite resources for close reading and text dependent questions in order of  personal preference.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them  by Francine Prose

 Douglas Fisher: Close Reading and the CCSS, Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w9v6-zUg3Y

Douglas Fisher: Close Reading and the CCSS, Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhGI5zdjpvc
Text Dependent Questions & the Common Core http://www.achievethecore.org/steal-these-tools/text-dependent-questions


06 October 2012

Wearing My Parent (not my educator) Hat for the PTA

From a parent and educator’s point of view…

Since very early drafts of the Common Core State Standards, I have been involved with reviewing, presenting, and helping educate others on the Common Core.    Most of my work was done as a consultant at the Kentucky Department of Education, where we provided feedback to early drafts, brought teachers together to provide feedback, presented to various audiences at local, state and national conferences, deconstructed the standards, created learning plans and units for the standards, and created assessments for the standards.  Basically, I spent the past three years of my life immersed in work related to these standards. 

Consequently, when I was asked by a teacher and parent liaison at my son’s elementary school to provide an overview for parents at the next PTA/curriculum night, I jumped at the opportunity and quickly spouted out three or four ideas I could use based on all my previous presentations.  This very kind and calm teacher and parent liaison gently reminded me that my audience would be different because it would not consist entirely of educators but of normal parents who just wanted to know what their children would be learning in the next few years. 


This changed everything.  Although I had been involved with the PTA off and on over the years and had spent many hours volunteering at the elementary school, I realized the need to think carefully about my audience for this presentation.  In the weeks leading to PTA night, I spent hours retooling powerpoint slides I had created for previous regional, state and national presentations.  My three younger adult sisters kept popping into my head, and they became my goal post for considering my audience.  After learning we would have a translator present on PTA night, my audience goal post expanded, and I grew more excited with the challenge of helping fellow parents understand what our children would learn in the coming months and years.

My foray into helping parents understand the Common Core was not only exciting but also enlightening because I reconsidered the responsibility I have as an educator to make sure my colleagues in education understand the standards alone will not make a difference.  Effective teaching and learning practices will make the difference in knowing our children are ready for the world which awaits them beyond their K-12 schooling experience and we don’t have to wait to show our children this world.