Sunday, April 20, 2014

Notice and Note

Kylene Beers and Robert Probst's book, Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, prompted a great deal of thought as I read. I wrote about their thoughts on text having a single meaning and rigor in previous posts. The authors presented ideas in a way that made me think differently about how I approach reading, both personally and professionally. Labeling the features that make us pause and think while reading is key to providing instruction around them. The authors present their framework as a progressive method for helping students identify text features that provide clues about literary elements and comprehension.

The origins of the book are pre-CCSS so the central concept is about increasing comprehension rather than meeting the close reading thoughts of the Common Core. They did input some information about the CCSS, but it is a sideline, not a main focus. Fiction is the obvious application of their framework, but they are working on a nonfiction adaption and do suggest some ways to think about the signposts in non-ELA subjects around nonfiction.

The book is organized into three sections-background questions that guide their understanding of reading, the signposts they identified and lessons to teach each signpost. Each chapter in the first section contains a Talking with Colleagues section to promote discussion of personal beliefs and how they relate to the ideas in the text. This part of the book would be a great professional learning community beginning.  The other two parts of the book end with a Questions you may have segment, organized like FAQs. Concrete scripts for how to teach the lessons enables a clear description of how to present each part of their framework. It is easy to see how this might work in a classroom. The target audience does appear to be secondary, but with some modifications, it can be adapted to elementary classes.

I modified their summary chart to include the final column, features that were included in the text, but not on their chart. As an itinerant teacher currently working with a homeschooled family in a library, I do not have walls on which to post charts. Having the entire framework on a single page helps me because it is portable. I can put it in a page protector and carry it with me as we go along. The bookmarks that are included in the appendix are another tool I can see myself utilizing with students because of their portability.

I do not think that I will present the lessons one a time to my current English 10 student. I think that I can present the complete list of signposts and walk him through the signposts as we read. Since we have a class of one, student discussion is limited. I will need to promote discussion with me, a tricky role since I cannot be seen as the only purveyor of information. Discussion needs to be full of prompts to get him to think and provide bounce points to build upon. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Notice and Note- does a text have a single meaning?

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher gave us the freedom to write a literary essay about our recently completed book, Ethan Frome. A friend of my suggested that I could reasonably write a paper about anything, even the relationship between the cat and Zeena. I took up the challenge, reread a book that I did not like the first time, located every reference to the cat and began crafting my argument. While I did not believe that this was a reasonable assertion, I did my best to carefully defend my ridiculous claim with support from the text. My long suffering English teacher did not know what to do with this paper. It was clear I had read the book carefully and I supported my claim with evidence from the text, yet my claim was absurd. She passed it around the English department, none of whom had anything helpful to add to her dilemma of what grade to assign to the work.

A few years back, I was working with an English teacher who shared that the analysis of Cliff notes regarding a particular symbol was wrong. She knew what the symbol meant and the students needed to arrive at her answer, not any of the assorted other thoughts that other scholars had arrived at.

These two stories highlight the idea that a text can be interpreted different ways. This challenge of how to use text dependent questions is explored by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst in Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading. They share their interpretation of David Coleman's (leading author of CCSS and now President of College Board) idea of text dependent questions- one right answer found in the text. Using Coleman's thoughts multiple choice questions can clearly be answered, computers can evaluate short responses and determine if the student found the correct evidence to support the claim.

Beers and Probst, however, suggest something else. That a text can mean something different to different people depending on their background knowledge and how the reader interacts with the text. Having highlighted two incidents involving different interpretations of the text supported by evidence, I know that I would argue that there are multiple understanding of a text, all of which can be potentially correct, even if diametrically opposed so long as the assertions are guided by reasonable logic and the text. The authors refer to Rosenblatt's work in which she defines two criteria for validity of interpretation:
  1. it cannot be valid if there is no verbal basis in the text
  2. it cannot be valid if it can be clearly refuted by the text (p. 43).
Using this criteria multiple choice questions and computer evaluations of short answer responses with evidence listed are far trickier. For gifted students who have a tendency to look deeper into questions than other students, multiple or diverse understandings of texts and the questions posed by adults lead to challenges when a teacher, evaluator or computer "knows" the correct answer and it differs from what the gifted child thinks. For students of different ages and experiences, Animal Farm can be a story about animals taking over a farm where power makes them bad or a satire about the Soviet Union. Both are correct, but different learnings lead to different understandings.

Beers and Probst propose a structure to get students to ask the questions and then explore answers- inquiry learning- rather than posing the questions when the teacher knows the correct answers, as a way to increase interest and ability to use rereadings and references to unravel the meaning of a text. Students may bring their background to the text, view the text through that lens and then use the text to support or refute their understandings. Using the authors's structure is more authentic in that eventually we want students to be able to interpret text on their own, not only in the vicinity of an expert. Students must be able to independently create questions and search out answers. Merely relying on the teacher for confirmation of correctness is a dependence we cannot afford.

We must think about how we want to evaluate students and be cautious to ensure that their deep thoughts and wonderings are supported, even if they veer from where we think they should be going.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Notice & Note- Rigor

I have been reading Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst's book, Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, and the chapter on rigor has me thinking. They describe rigor as "not an attribute of a text, but rather a characteristic of our behavior with the text. Put another way, rigor resides in the energy and attention given to the text, not the text itself" (p. 21). This is counter to how I usually see rigor used.

The inclusion of the term rigor in the CCSS documents has led to a tidal wave of publications regarding rigor and debate among professionals about what it really means. Without the standards committee defining the term, we are left to define it ourselves.The Common Core standards criteria document describe the standards as being "inclusive of rigorous content and applications of knowledge through higher-order skills, so that all students are prepared for the 21st century." This description seems to balance both the content and the stuff students do with it as requiring rigor. defines rigor as:
  1. strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.
  2. the full or extreme severity of laws, rules, etc.
  3. severity of living conditions; hardship; austerity: the rigor of wartime existence. 
  4. a severe or harsh act, circumstance, etc.
  5. scrupulous or inflexible accuracy or adherence: the logical rigor of mathematics.
The final description of rigor here seems to meet the intent of CCSS authors. Accuracy not challenge seems to be the goal. If we look at the other definitions, however, we see some ways that rigor is being used in classrooms- severe and harsh readings and an austerity of scaffolding and support. I do not think the authors meant to have the word take on the negative connotations of rigor when regarding education, but maybe they did. Is their intent that education be some expedition to the south pole, fraught with dangers-- such as, failing grades and tests, exceedingly slow examination of texts, elimination of the enjoyable and fun reading of fiction, and hours of homework for young elementary students? I do not think that was their intent, but it does seem to be a side-effect of how it is being implemented.
The authors describe an English teacher who selected the most difficult reading Beowulf she could find, purely because it was difficult and inaccessible. We can predict what students did- some gave up before they started; some puzzled through the Old English vocabulary, merely focused on trying to understand the verbiage; some went home to online cliff notes and were able to work with the material as a result of knowing the summary and some other author's interpretation of the material. Did any of them engage in rigorous learning? Probably not. Difficult for the sake of difficult is not good. If we do not get kids to engage in the higher-order skills because they cannot get through the text, they are not engaging in rigor. If we send them to seek out easier sources with the higher-order thinking presented to them, they are not meeting our goal either.
Somehow we need to get students to engage in the thinking piece. This means that higher reading levels may not be the answer. In some ways the standards acknowledge this when they suggest multiple media sources as important. After all reading a full page magazine ad and identifying bias does not require complicated or advanced "reading" per se. While there is a time and a place for presenting challenging reading material to students, we need to balance that with their ability to apply higher-order skills to the material. I think that we have forgotten this in our application of the concept of rigor. Although I do believe learning how to puzzle through a difficult text is important- not a higher order skill, but an important one nevertheless, we also need for them to think deeply about accessible texts as well. There remains a place for Dr. Seuss' Butter Battle Book in a high school class covering the Cold War. Understanding the parallels Seuss draws and his criticism of the time period are higher-order skills, but on accessible and enjoyable reading. We need to ensure that students deal with this type of assignment as well as being able to read Regan's "Tear Down this Wall" speech and understand the cultural and foreign policy ramifications of it.
Is our behavior with the material the critical component of rigor? I think that without thinking deeply about the material we merely engage in hard work. It does not take great thought to move a pile of rocks with a shovel and a wheel barrow, but it does require lots of sweat. Is this rigorous work when one could use the loader sitting idly nearby? Or is it merely cruelty, inflicting unnecessarily hard work on a person just because we can? We need to carefully examine each "rigorous" text we use and determine if the students will be spending their energy purely on the reading rather than on the thinking.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Dumbing us Down

John Taylor Gatto was the 1991 New York State teacher of the year. He is also a confirmed critic of the education system and efforts to reform it. His book, Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education, is a series of essays on the matter. He idealizes the self-education found in this country through its early years. They are, in his view the foundation of democracy and progress.  The republication of his 1992 classic highlights the challenges of public education and proposed the elimination of it as the only solution the challenges of poverty, teen suicide, drug addiction and illiteracy.

His essay entitled “We Need Less Schooling Not More” was the one that struck me most profoundly. He epitomizes the family as the ultimate learning machine, the community as the fertile ground in which learning grows and networks as the downfall of society. In his view communities are small groups that regulate their participants and look after themselves. They are small, deeply knit groups that work together for a common cause. Networks, on the other hand are liable to be large, like schools, all-inclusive and thrive on the lack of individualism and holistic nature of humankind. Networks dehumanize people, reducing them to limited bites whose sole interest is what you can do for me (p. 53). While the book contains an introduction and afterward written for the modern reader, this essay is not based in modern times in which our virtual networks and social media have further isolated us and our interactions. One only has to go to a restaurant, public event or grocery store to see the fodder that would support Gatto’s assertions here. People do not talk to those they are with, they text and surf their cell phones. They may be with people, like their children, spouses or friends, but their attention is elsewhere. Networks have become substitutions for deep friendships and relationships.

Gatto asserts that teacher unions are trying to persuade the business community to hire and promote based on grades (p.60). Today we see this as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) includes a statement that students who pass the high school exams will be required to be exempt from remedial classes in college. Since these tests will be required to graduate, the conclusion is that all students will be ready for college upon graduation- something that is not true today. Currently we Estimate between 20% for private four year schools to 60% for community colleges of students take remedial classes. If our graduates are going to meet the bar of being ready for college one of a few things must happen:

·         Fewer students will graduate- the bar is raised, students incapable of meeting the current bar will not be able to jump over a raised one and they will leave school without a diploma.

·         New diploma tracks will be developed- passed the CCSS test and graduate verses some form of a not yet there but has attended school and is on track to eventually get there.

·         Colleges will reduce standards and require passing a higher level course that students may need to take repeatedly to pass.

·         Fewer students will attend college.

These selections are all incompatible with the Common Core standards. While the business community is unlikely to buy into the grades= money phenomena, colleges might be mandated to do so.

Gatto sees schools as agents that divide and classify “people, demanding that they compulsively compete with each other, and publicly labels the losers by literally degrading them, identifying them as ‘low class’ losers”(p. 61). Clearly he sees the worst of school and society. I wonder, however, how he reconciles this concept with his model Puritan village. They were quick to degrade nonconformists, often embarrassing, killing or exiling those who were different and thus “losers.” Even the Puritans competed with each other; there was a hierarchy that was based in the quality of your family, the frequency of your church going and the fiscal success of your enterprises.

He contrasts this modern vision of schooling with what sees as the purpose of education, “discovering meaning for yourself as well as discovering satisfying purpose for yourself” (p. 62). While self-discovery was important for some of our early pioneer learners like Franklin and Lincoln, they had access to books that had great storehouses of information. They had mentors who helped them in their “self-discovery.” Teachers are our modern day mentors. We will discount the many individuals throughout our early years that were illiterate and poorly educated. Families that are supported by either two working parents or single family households where the sole supporter is working are not available for the omnipresent family development and support that Gatto envisions as critical to self-discovery. Schools fill an interaction void that modern life has created. The advent of constant electronic communication has magnified this void since the largest periods of time kids spend face to face talking is in schools. Some proponents of technology are advocating for limiting this interaction by implementing increased amounts of screen time in school. Will this lead to self-discovery and purpose- unlikely. Although some of the CCSS methodologies emphasize self-discovery, there is a huge challenge in this idea. Only so many hours are available for school to teach. In the historic past of Gatto’s ideal, there was less to learn, and students did not experience self-discovery in their one room school house epitomized by rote learning.

Gatto effectively points out the contradictions of schools in relation to families. He states that “schools stifle families” (p. 67). I have seen this over and over as my children have marched through school. Most recently at the high school midterm test schedules were emailed to students, not their families. Students were expected to only be in school during their exams, and were not to be present if they had no tests. I do believe a consequence of this idea is that families need to help out with transporting their darlings, even if they do not have the schedule that came out a full week before the testing was to begin. We do not live in a community where kids walk to school or where public transportation exists. Parents were required to struggle to provide supervision of their children who were prohibited from being in school if they had no exams. Although most high schoolers can spend time on their own, we know that doing so results in an increase in vandalism, self-destructive behavior like drug-use and screen time which results in increased violence and obesity. Schools that want parents to be involved invite them into school and education meaningfully. Our current system falls far short of this. I do not, however, see the down time kids have as being used in a journey of self-discovery. I think that perhaps this vision that Gatto has is just that, a vision or ideal, much like the creators of the CCSS have toward the standards- lightly based in reality but lacking the solid foundation of the real world.

Gatto’s writing has become a cornerstone of homeschooling proponents who are looking for deep values and limited exposure to perceived “deviant” influences. I understand that there are many unsavory things that children are exposed to in schools. I would have been grateful if my son did not pick up some of his colorful vocabulary there. If I do not want my children to live in an isolsate environment and want them to engage in the wonderful, rich experiences the world has to offer, however, they need to figure out how to navigate these unsavory elements. It is my job to teach the values. I know that many parents have abdicated that role, knowingly or unknowingly, but that is not an excuse to decry public education. Families need to use the local control we have and fight for the righting of school policies and “norms” that are in the best interests of children and families. This decision is a local one, that will be encased in debate, but that is the essence of democracy.

This book is a philosophical examination of schooling that is not for everyone. The writing is pedantic. The ideas challenging to those involved in public education. The implications intriguing especially in light of the CCSS.