Sunday, December 30, 2012

Analyze This!

The December/January 2012/2013 edition of Reading Today includes an interesting article by Maureen McLaughlin and Douglas Fisher entitled "Teaching Students to Meet the Common Core Standards in Grades 6-12? Analyze This!" Since the term analyze appears in 3 of the reading standards- Key Ideas and Details- 3, Craft and Structure- 5 and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas- 9, the authors explore how to teach students to analyze before they are expected to meet standards including the skill. They define analyze three ways:

1. examining the structure of information in detail, particularly for the purposes of explanation
2. demonstrate and ability to see patterns and to classify information into component parts
3. taking something learned apart for the purposes of thinking about its parts. (p. 12)

In order to be able to analyze informational texts, the authors focus on two components: generating and responding to questions and using text structure. Questioning teaches pattern seeking and structure examination as well as breaking things apart. The authors note Ciardiello's work (1998) on teaching four levels of questions- memory, convergent, divergent and evaluative. This strategy involves teaching key words that require different types of thinking and how to answer such questions. Many questioning strategies have been developed and proven effective. Marzano's McREL group even identified questioning as one of the most effective teaching techniques It is good to teach the material; it is also effective for self-utilization. Reciprocal teaching focuses on generating questions and also provides question starters (see my blog at or Kelly Gallagher's Twenty Questions homework assignments ask student to use metacognition, as students read they develop twenty questions that will be the springboard fro discussion Question-Answer relationships involves teaching students to categorize questions to help them know where to find answers. All of these strategies develop question generating and responding skills. Teaching these strategies on both fiction and nonfiction texts is important for developing the skills that students will need to develop for analyzing material as required by the CCSS.

Long have reading and literature teachers taught text structures for fictional works. We have all seen plot maps and graphic organizers identifying the characters, setting, problem/conflict, solution and at upper grades introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement. Some content area teachers have taught graphic organizers with cause and effect, chronological development, comparisons, and problem and solution. Just teaching these structures is not enough. We need to teach how to "use the structure to predict subsequent author moves and as a memory aid" (p. 13). This is where we as teachers often fail to complete the circle of instruction. We teach the beginning, but not the why and what is it good for. Rarely do we ask students to use these structures to build metacognition. They use these awarenesses because we tell them to, not because they independently thought they would be useful to develop understanding of text. Since this is what the CCSS requires of them at the high school level, we need to teach them at the earlier grades. This is where we have the most room to grow. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

PHP Using science as a motivator for underperforming students

The latest edition of Parenting for High Potential includes an article "Using Science as a Motivator for Underperforming Students" by Dr. Christy D. McGee. She tells the tale of her gifted son being bored and noncompliant in the early grades and finally, with her support, coming into himself as a real world answer finder for his peers. The quote that  hit me was that "the decision for the adults who work with these wonderfully curious [gifted] children is making sure that that their focus is not learning and not on finding ways to be entertained" (p. 16).  For my daughter, I have seen this over and over. She was entertained by coloring, not by learning for the first three years of her schooling. My pushing was well received by the teachers who were pressed not to improve the education for the kids who got, but to get all the kids to got it. They did not often find the time to meet her needs.

The biggest problem of the entertainment model is that my compliant child may chaff at the requirements that do not challenge her, but if something does, she breaks down. She has not learned how to deal with when things are not intuitively easy. We need to build challenge for all our kids, acknowledge that the common core, especially when scaffolded for the whole class, may not provide that challenge and  provide emotional support for these kids who have not learned how to deal with imperfection and challenge.

The saddest part is that for our brightest kids, the solution is that parents need to provide the education. We are rightly required to provide an appropriate education for our neediest children, but we are institutionally encouraged to not do so for our brightest. Parents are told to do the job. It is not that I do not want to provide a rich educational home environment for my daughter, it is that I resent that school can say they are not obligated to do so as well.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas

Several years ago the Alliance for Excellent Education released a report entitled Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement. It is available at This report rationalizes the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement as a way to improve education. The authors, Rafael Heller and Cynthia Greenleaf, acknowledge that one of the reasons for the weak literacy instruction is that the "existing accountability systems create incentives for teachers to drill students in simple, formulaic kinds of writing, at the expense of time they might otherwise spend teaching them to write thoughtful, independent, and varied kinds of papers in science , history and other subjects." (p.18) I would go further to state that writing is often minimized completely as a result of large student loads, enormous curriculums, accountability measures that do not value authentic writing and, in some cases, teachers who are poor readers and writers themselves. The CCSS movement intends to change what is taught, reducing curriculum and spreading out the teaching of literacy across subject areas, and changing how it is tested and the Race to the Top winners have bought into not only the CCSS but higher stakes for the teachers themselves. I have previously argued that the inch wide and mile deep mantra of the CCSS is nonsense since they do not reduce the standards by that much, so while curriculum is being reduced, it is not reduced by enough to substantially impact the volume of learning, especially when paired with the enormous increase in depth desired. Teachers are not being given more prep time or fewer students. Most teachers are not being trained to be better readers and writers themselves. So I will not hold my breath for the roll out of the CCSS to improve learning in our nation.

The report details four key considerations for policy leaders and policymakers. In light of the fact that this was written during the development of the CCSS, it is interesting to see which of these things have been addressed in the past five years.

1. The roles and responsibilities of content area teachers must be clear and consistent.
The authors assert the importance of content area teachers not being responsible for teaching basic reading and writing skills at the secondary level, but for the discipline specific skills of their academic discipline. With the CCSS we seem to have ignored this aspect. We continue to put students reading and writing far below grade level in classes without support in the basic skills. Some schools are indeed providing support under RTI programs, but this continues to be an area of concern. Intensive, high-quality intervention in foundational literacy skills needs to occur for students far below grade level. This may require the idea of a age based grading system needs to be swept aside as some students need five or six or seven years to graduate from high school. Many of our students are currently doing this because of failing classes, that is if they choose to press on to graduate at all. Wouldn't it be better to not fail the students but provide interventions that provide the time and teach the skills needed to graduate? To help develop young adults who are college and career ready. It seems that there is a major flaw in the program if we continue to press on ahead, blindly following the idea that all students learn at different rates but have the same time to learn the material anyway.

2. Every academic discipline should define its own essential literacy skills.
While some organizations like the NCTM and NSTA have identified literacy skills and specific content based reading strategies have been identified, disseminating this information throughout the community is slow and expensive. Part of the challenge is that far too many teachers are not practitioners of their discipline- just teachers (no disrespect intended). Innovative programs getting teachers involved in the actions of their disciplines have existed for decades. The National Writing Project, NASA collaborations and many more prove that this is doable. What we need to embrace is that is critical. Every teacher needs to perform the discipline to refine skills and understand what industry requires of its members. Sabbaticals and summer institutes could go a long way to helping teachers refine skills and identify critical components of their disciplines.

3. All secondary school teachers should receive initial and ongoing professional development in the literacy of their own content areas.
The authors assert that secondary certification should require a course on on literacy in the specific discipline and on-going coaching is essential to skill development and refinement (p. 27). Many states and universities are revamping their preservice training requirements to ensure that teachers will be prepared to teach CCSS. Whether these efforts are going to be adequate will only be discovered with time. While many schools have embraced the CCSS and are providing professional development in meeting the demands of the new curriculum, some have not. Furthermore, with the common professional development program of one and done, the idea of ongoing development is one that is questionable in light of tight budgets.

4. Content area teachers need positive incentives and appropriate tools to provide reading and writing instruction.
The authors believe that it is "crucial that open ended writing and analytic reading items be included in all high-stakes reading and writing assessments, content area tests, and graduation exams." (p.29) This is expensive and time consuming. The authors point out that without adjusting class sizes, teaching loads and schedules, teachers are not going to change the way they do business. Culture change at the most basic level is required. The way we do business needs to change, not just the expectations of results. Testing  or a new curriculum is not the answer. Labeling teachers effective or ineffective based on test results is not the answer. Paying teachers or students for good performance is not the answer. These strategies do not address the root of the problem- the beliefs and expectations of the students and teachers.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

NEAP vocabulary and comprehension

NEAP just released a study reinforcing the role of vocabulary in reading comprehension. (A summary of the report is available here as are links to the study itself .)  Education Week reviewed the report here

Long has it been recognized that vocabulary is the cornerstone of comprehension. Reading and English teachers have used a variety of successful and unsuccessful methods to try and address this issue which continues to persist today.  The NEAP study reveals that students in the top quartile of reading performance were also in the top quartile of vocabulary knowledge and similarly, kids in the bottom quartile of reading comprehension were in the bottom quartile of vocabulary understanding. What surprises me is that we continue to spend money researching the link which everyone admits exists rather than spend research dollars on successful vocabulary development methodology.

Kids enter kindergarten with a a huge range of vocabularies, mostly determined by their socioeconomic status (SES). As low SES students grow, their vocabulary does not grow at the same rate as kids who are from middle class homes, probably a result of exposure to rich vocabulary and experiential environments. We need to address the issue here as they just begin to learn language, not wait until they fail reading comprehension tests.

The stickler of statistics does exist. There will always be a bottom quartile and a top quartile. The test scoring is based on the existence of the bell curve. The challenge, therefore is not merely to address the needs of the lowest performers, but to move the entire bell up the scale. (Narrowing the bell, probably means not properly addressing the needs of our brightest students.) This means that teachers must use vocabularies that present challenging words to students, not in isolation, but in rich context. We can say "the twisting climbing ladder on the playground is a helix or spiral," that we will not accept "dilapidated papers ripped from spiral notebooks or crumpled from desks and backpacks," and the book that fell off the desk "plummeted." If home environments cannot or will not reinforce complex and rich vocabulary, we desperately need to do so.

We also need to embrace rich vocabulary instruction. Twenty words to define on Monday and test on Friday does not work.  My prior posts about vocabulary such as;postID=1020278193567943834 and, details some of the research and techniques that are recommended to teach vocabulary. If we are going to present complex texts to our students, it is more important than ever that they have the tools to approach complex vocabulary. Going beyond a broad and diverse vocabulary, students need to be able to identify context clues to figure out meaning, use picture clues, utilize their prior knowledge make predictions and identify irony and sarcasm in text. One of the Common Core shifts is from fiction to nonfiction. Using context clues, however, might best be done in literature as opposed to textbooks, where the new vocabulary is not highlighted and explicitly defined in context.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


I was in a used book store and ran across this classic piece of business literature from the 90’s. Fish! was authored by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen.  For those interested, the highlighted  Pike Place Fish market’s web address is  John Christensen has a website at  where you can explore the philosophy as well as a Fish! for schools tab. Although I had been to workshops that discussed the ideas, I had never read the book. It is a quick, easy read with a good plot line and simple but meaningful message.   If you have read it before or seen the film, revisiting the material in print is a good idea.

The first, overarching tenant of the philosophy is – choose your attitude. There is a story comparing having a child with a disability with planning a trip to Italy and getting off the plane in Holland. You can read it at . That story reinforces the message of attitude. You pick your attitude. You may not be able to pick your circumstances, but you do get to pick how you respond. Parenting is a difficult job and parenting a child with a disability is even more challenging. Regarding this life-long job I embarked upon, I have often said I can either laugh or cry and I do not like to cry. So yes, I laugh about the time my son climbed on to the roof and peeled the shingles off because he was angry at being sent inside after pulling his sister off the swings and having her head hit the ground first- it took my husband who had to repair the roof longer to laugh. Yes, I choose to laugh about the time I held a screaming child in a wrap hold at the Corning Museum of Glass to keep him from running with flailing arms through the gift shop. Life is full of these moments, we need to be able to see the silver lining and cast the terror of the moment into a positive light. Choosing to have a happy attitude is the one thing that keeps me from sinking into the depths of despair at my life.

After choose your attitude the other three guidelines presented are play, make their day, and be present in the moment. I immediately see how these things are seen and dismissed at times in parenting. We get focused on the frazzle not the moment. We over-program our kids and then focus on doing it right, not being there with them. It becomes about winning, not having fun. We can choose to life our personal lives this way or not, it is up to us.
The same goes for teaching. We can be overwhelmed with the paperwork; behavior problems; expected curriculum; difficult adults; and administrative, state and federal mandates or we can choose to be there, try to make learning fun and rewarding, and focus on the individuals. I suspect that if we give our students our attention, have an attitude that what we are doing is interesting, challenging and fun and focus on making their days both as a group and collectively, we will be better, happier teachers.

NY state commissioner King PTA presentation

At the 2012 NYS PTA State Convention, Commissioner King spoke about his goals for the department and philosophy with which he guides progress towards those goals.  Overriding all of his objectives is the idea that all children need to be college and career ready when they leave school. Today New York State has approximately 75% of its students graduating and far fewer of those meet the definition of college and career ready.  Admittedly, this is a pitiful bar for an industrialized nation no less a state with more medical universities than any other in the union.

Commissioner King touted the need for continuous improvement based on a standards map. He argued for professional development, data driven instruction, and increased principal effectiveness. (This mantra should come as a surprise for none, since it has been the statement of the Common Core State Standards, Gates Foundation, federal government and state government for the past couple of years. ) He defended the use of our 3-8 testing program and delayed results as autopsies that may not improve individual health, but may improve the health of the population. He also urged that they be used in tandem with frequent assessment to inform instruction. This philosophy has been the state education department’s defense of testing since NCLB went into place in 2001.

Some things in his speech were more novel. He promoted an improvement in the culture for learning where we protect and advance instruction with the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) as its centerpiece. He advocated for opportunities for the full range of students, both vocational and collegial.  He stated that we cannot wait to start until kindergarten. Birth to school age programs need to be in place to help level the playing field for children at risk.  Spending money on early childhood initiatives, rather than prisons after children leave school, is good for our society. He argued that we must partner effectively with parents and communities, teachers and principals to meet the needs of our children. When asked how he envisions integrating the various institutions that are part of the department of education with agencies in other departments, however, his response was weak. He commented that NY had not won federal funds to develop improved early childhood initiates so there were very few things that could be done.

In my opinion, if we are going to be dependent upon federal funds to meet the needs of our children, we will also be beholden to federal strings. People argued strongly for Race to the Top moneys and are now complaining about how they do not pay for the initiatives that they mandated, how they require testing and an anticipated narrowing of the curriculum as tests become more important to both teacher and principal ratings, and how administrations are looking at being overwhelmed by the teacher evaluation systems required to be in place. We cannot have it both ways, either we take the money and the rules or we figure out how to work smarter not more expensively to meet the needs the people in our state see for our children.