Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

When you are a writer, inspiration for your writing can come from all over, suddenly, unpredictably, sometimes even against your will. Into my in box this past week came an email from the Academy of American Poets, with a collection a poems for the beginning of the school year. Most were familiar, including this one by the acclaimed American poet of the working man, Philip Levine. 

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School - Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
(from What Work Is, Knopf 1991)
What jumped out at me in this reading of the poem was the question the teacher asks: What have I done? 
What have I done? To me, this is an invitational question. The question invites speculation. The question invites a variety of possible answers. The question has no right or wrong answer. The question taps into each individual student's background knowledge, schema, conceptual understanding and for some apparently, mischievousness. The question invites talk.
As teachers we ask a lot of questions. Indeed questions may be the most important tool in the teacher's arsenal, but too often our questions are inquisitional, rather than invitational.
Inquisitional questions have right answers. They do not encourage speculation. They cut off talk. Literary theorist, Louise Rosenblatt, criticized these inquisitional questions in her seminal article, "What Facts Does This Poem Teach You.?" The title giving away what she viewed as the objectification of an art form through unenlightened questioning. 
Here are some inquisitional questions for the poem above:
What is the significance of the poem being set in early April?
How does the narrator characterize the student, Grace Bimmler?
What evidence does the narrator provide that he is not interested in what is happening in class?
I think it would be much better to approach this poem, and most reading material for that matter, with a liberal use of invitational questions. Here is a list to get you started. The first one is my favorite and one that was taught to me by my wife, Cynthia Mershon, a literacy teacher.

What stood out for you?
This question invites the reader to participate in a conversation with a fellow reader. You can't be wrong, because you are answering from your personal experience with the text. After this opening invitation, we might follow up with these questions:
Can you say more about that?
What makes you think that?
What does this get you thinking about?

Does that make sense to you?
What is another possible way of thinking about this?
How does what (another student) said square with your understanding?
In a world increasingly focused on the standardized test, it may seem counterintuitive to recommend these invitational questions as a way into reading comprehension. Doesn't the student need to be skilled at answering the inquisitional questions?
Well yes, but I would argue that the best way to help students develop their comprehension of a text is through first inviting them into the world of the text and then, through skillful follow-up questioning, helping them refine their understanding of the text. This is, after all, what all readers do when they read independently. In Rosenblatt's words it is that initial "lived through experience of the text" that provides the baseline for ongoing interpretation and understanding.
So as this school year begins, may I suggest that you redouble your efforts at refining your questioning techniques in such a way that will invite your students into the learning.


















Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Teacher Tech Ambassadors: Engaged Professionals or Corporate Shills?

About 15 years ago, in my position as a curriculum director for a suburban school district, I worked with teachers, administrators and the Board of Education to introduce a new spelling program. The program was well researched and, we determined, would yield better results. The program would also require considerable rethinking and planning by all of our elementary teachers. One teacher, let's call her Lois, took the bull by the horns, and because she was a highly organized person who wanted to have this new program under control, she spent numerous hours laying out a year-long plan for using the new program. Lois shared it with me and I agreed it was excellent work.

"This is outstanding work, Lois", I said. "This will be helpful to all the teachers in the school district."

"Hold on there, Buster," she replied. "I did this work, and it was a lot of work, and I am not sharing it with anyone."

I was flabbergasted. The teaching profession has a long history of collegial sharing. For many years I had organized and/or participated in "teacher shares" where good ideas were spread around. As  a reading specialist, I always felt it was my obligation to share any knowledge I had or materials I developed for the good of all. The idea, I thought then, and I think now, was that no matter what we came up with, it was not about personal gain, it was about what would help children. The amount of teacher sharing that happens on social media sites like Pinterest would seem to indicate that this sharing is still a well-established expectation of the profession.

This blog is a way for me to continue that ideal. All teachers are free to use, or discard, my ideas free of charge and free of advertising. However, as I read in Sunday's New York Times, the monetization of public school teachers is reaching new heights with the incursion of Silicon Valley tech companies. Let's call them "Big Tech" since their business plan seems to be closely modeled on 'Big Pharma."

The article is titled, Silicon Valley Courts Brand Name Teachers, Raising Ethics IssuesThe reporter, Natasha Singer, tells the story of Kayla Drezel, a tech savvy third grade teacher, who has turned her classroom into a laboratory for educational technology and herself into a shill for various tech companies. She has negotiated a special contract giving her ten days off during the school year so that she can give speeches, attend tech company trainings and do workshops for teachers. She has an agreement with a clothing store to provide her with clothing in exchange for publicity for the store. As Ms. Drezel herself says, "It's like two full-time jobs."

I am sure it is. I also wonder what impact "two full-time jobs" has on Ms. Drezel's actual job  teaching third graders. But by all accounts, Ms. Drezel is a first-rate teachers, whose students love her and whose supervisors feel she has brought tech products and expertise to the school that they could not have possibly have afforded without her involvement and agreements with these tech companies.

What could be bad, eh?

Well, plenty. Public school teachers are public employees, not free agents. As such they are on very shaky ethical ground when they act as "ambassadors" for tech companies. Another word for ambassador would be consultant and as consultants for a private company they may come into conflict with their obligation to their employer, the school board. These positions certainly put the teacher in an ethical bind. Are teachers the servants of the parents and children or of the Big Tech companies? As former Attorney General of Maine, James E. Tierney, put it "Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in a public classroom without transparency, then that's problematic."

And then, of course, their is the issue of the continued privatization of the public schools. Why, do you suppose Big Tech is so willing to provide perks and pay to teachers who do product placement and promotion for them in the schools? Is it possible that they are taking advantage of the fact that schools are chronically under-resourced and are happy to accept the apparent largesse of Big Tech to get the technology their budgets won't allow. And how big a jump is it from there to renaming good old Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary as Big Tech Elementary.

It is understandable that teachers and administrators want the best for their children. Letting the Big Tech wolf in the door is not the way to go about this. One question that no one seems to be asking Ms. Drezel and other tech "ambassadors" is this: While you tech ambassadors are raking in profits from your tech work for various tech companies, what are you paying your students for serving as educational technology lab rats?
Here is what I think Ms. Drezel and others like her should do. Investigate a technology that will benefit her students. To begin with this is problematic since technological innovations have shown little impact on learning, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt. Write a grant that allows her to bring the technological innovation into her classroom. The grant would be exclusively for materials and equipment and training, not for personal income. Conduct an action research project to show the effectiveness or lack thereof of the technological intervention. Write a report and share with the administration and school board. If the technology is shown to be effective, seek funding through the regular budgetary process and then share with colleagues and assist them in using the tech in the classroom.

That is how professional teachers go about things. They investigate, they learn, they try out, and they share. The gains are personal, professional, systemic and intrinsic, not monetary.







Thursday, August 31, 2017

Building a Better (Robot) Teacher

An article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times this week caught my eye. It was entitled, The Secret of a Good Robot Teacher. The article begins with the question, Why is educational technology such a disappointment? You can read the article if you like, but, spoiler alert, I can tell you the answer the authors provide in one sentence: technology has failed because it cannot replicate what a teacher does.

Now I am the last person on earth to pooh pooh good research and the authors of this article have apparently done some solid research on the topic of educational technology. But I believe that any thinking human being could have come to the same conclusion as these researchers at least 50 years ago. In fact, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov did come to that conclusion in a short story called, The Fun They Had, written in 1951. In the story, Asimov imagines a time in the future when children are taught at home via a computer screen "teacher" that is calibrated to provide lessons based on the individual child's aptitudes. The kids hate it and long for the time when kids went to school together, were instructed by a real human, and read something called "books."

In the times article the authors cite a six-year study that examined different cybertechnology programs across thousands of students in hundreds of schools and found little evidence that it improved academic performance. The authors believe that the problem is that we just have not built a good enough robot yet, one that is responsive to the social cues so necessary in learning, and that we need to spend our time (and presumably money) on building robots that are socially responsive. In fact, they built one. A "robot that looked like a cute plush creature" with an animated face that allowed for expressions and eye movements. The researchers found that kids learned better from the expressive robot than they did from a "flat" one.

I wish the world of cybertechnology good luck in building a robot that is more successful in helping children learn, but I would suggest that this is not the best way to use scarce resources. We already have technology in place to provide the needed social interaction, feedback and authority necessary for learning. We call it the classroom teacher. The really important use of this kind of research should be, I believe, to help us understand more about how children learn and help teachers learn to more effectively use technology as an aid in student learning.

Technology is a tool. Like paper and pencil, technology offers the teacher one more tool to enhance student learning - a learning that will never be unmoored from social interaction with adults and other children. We need to work to refine the tool, not to make it more like a human being, but to make it more useful to actual human beings.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Confederate Statues: A History Lesson

President Donald Trump displays his ignorance of American history in his recent tweets about statues celebrating the Confederacy. It will be the responsibility of teachers, returning to school soon, to ensure that the President's ignorance does not gain traction and spread. Here is what he said through his favorite communication medium, Twitter:


I will agree with the President that you can't change history, but you can learn from it. What should school children learn from the controversy over Confederate statues? The first lesson to be learned, I believe, is that these statues were not intended as art or as a commemoration of Confederate "heroes", but as tools of intimidation and propaganda. The statues were built, largely during two periods 1890 - 1930 and the 1960s. The first period coincided with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the second period was during the Civil Rights Movement. 

The message was clear during both these periods. The statues were built to glorify white supremacy and to stand as a constant reminder to African Americans that they were not welcome to equality in the South even if the South had lost the Civil War. As the artist Austin Pendleton put it in a New York Times article,

These are not works of art; they're propaganda. To equate them with how a work of art exists in the world is a false equation. They're instruments of a political agenda and it would be real folly to suggest that there is any kind of ambiguity.


Like all monuments, these statues say more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of an exclusionary definition of America.

The "culture" that Mr. Trump sees being "ripped apart" is not "our" culture, but the culture of a defeated ideology, an ideology of white supremacy, an ideology that says one race has the right to subjugate another, an ideology that says one race is somehow a lesser race than another, an ideology that says that one race can abuse another with impunity. This is not a culture we need to be celebrating.

But is a legacy we need to remember, because the horror of this legacy must stand as a cautionary tale for all Americans in the future. We can remember that history by placing these statues in historical context. About 10 years ago I had a chance to visit Budapest, Hungary. Hungary, you will remember, was under the control of the Soviet Union from the end of WWII until 1990. The Soviets put down a revolution in Hungary in 1956, brutally and bloodily. 

The Soviets constructed dozens of statues celebrating Communism in the occupied city of Budapest. After the Soviets were kicked out, the city fathers wanted the statuary symbols of their subjugation out of the city, but they did not want to "destroy" history. They wanted future generations to remember what had happened to them, so they moved the statues out of town to a place called Memento Park, where they could be viewed altogether in a context that made the history of Soviet repression clear. 

We could do the same with the Confederate statues. They belong in a park or museum where they can be given the proper context. Where future generations can learn about a shameful part of our history and where they cannot stand as continuing symbols of subjugation and hate. 

As teachers the monument controversy offers a teachable moment that goes to the heart of the American ideal. Are we a country of inclusion or a country of exclusion? Are we a country with an open mind, unafraid to confront our shameful past in the hopes that it leads to a better future? Are we a country that truly aspires to the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? Or are we a country with a narrow mind, consumed by fear, hate, and base self-interest?

Yes, Mr. President, we can learn from this history. I hope you will. I hope our school students will. I hope we all will.






Sunday, August 20, 2017

High Expectations? Yes, But...

About the time that the No Child Left Behind legislation went into effect in 2002, then President George W. Bush famously decried the "soft-bigotry of low expectations" that was holding too many students back. President Bush had a point, if teachers and educational leaders did not expect high achievement from their students then low achievement would be the inevitable result. Bush's decree led to a spate of calls for teachers to have "high expectations" of their students. And as so often happens in education, this call was misunderstood and misapplied to the detriment of learners.

Telling new teachers, or veteran teachers for that matter, that they need to have high expectations for their learners is dangerously vague and unhelpful. The advice that teachers need is that we should set high, but achievable, goals for each of our students and that these high, but achievable, goals will be different for each of our students. As with all educational bromides, the real answers are much more subtle and more difficult to implement than just having "high expectations."

In 1954 the British track star Roger Bannister ran the first ever 4 minute mile. There can be no question that Bannister had high expectations for himself to achieve this goal. He had to train hard, get excellent coaching, and then drive himself to the brink of collapse to achieve his goal. In the 63 years since Bannister broke the four minute mile the record time has been lowered to 3:43.13 by the Moroccan track star, Hicham El Guerrouj. That is, with all the advances in training and equipment, just short of 17 seconds has been shaved off this record. Now, I suppose runners who have followed Bannister over all those years could have set a goal of running the first 3 minute mile. That would certainly be a high expectation. But the quest would have certainly ended in frustration and failure, because human beings have so far proven incapable of running that fast. So instead, runners set themselves the high, but achievable, goal of shaving hundredths of seconds off the existing record.

Back in my high school days, football players were expected to run a six minute mile. This was definitely a high expectation for me that demanded a full summer of training before ever walking onto the football field. Six minutes was a high, but (barely) achievable goal for me and most of my fellow football players, but a four minute mile would be out of the question and would have led to me giving up on football.

The point is that what constitutes high expectations depends on the individual and also on what can reasonably be achieved given our human limitations. I think it is ill advised to tell teachers to have high expectations of their students. If the teacher aims too high, students will become frustrated, lose confidence in themselves as learners and question the ability of their teacher to assist their learning.

How does a teacher craft high, but achievable, expectations for students? Here are a few keys.

  • Follow the Goldilocks principle. Work to find the amount of challenge that is "just right" for that individual student. This means working with the child in what Vygotsky called the "zone of proximal development", that area slightly above where the student can function independently, but well below where the student becomes frustrated. 
  • Provide high levels of support. Provide consistent specific feedback, provide additional and varied instruction, build positive relationships, teach students explicitly how to get help.
  • Give students opportunities to contribute. Make sure all students have an opportunity to voice their ideas and opinions regularly. Vary who gets called upon in class.
  • Show confidence in your students. Let students know that you believe they are competent learners who can learn and thrive in your classroom. Start off with goals that are a little easier to accomplish to build confidence and stamina for more difficult work.
  • Listen closely to students. Conferring with students individually about there learning provides the teacher with the information she needs to help the student to the next level of learning.
  • Praise student efforts and achievements often. Make sure the praise is both genuine and specific. I wrote about the role of praise in this post 
As teachers we must go into each interaction believing the students can learn and believing that we can help them learn, but simply having high expectations is not adequate. A high expectation for one student is another student's insurmountable barrier. As professionals, providing for the needs of all students is the high expectation we must hold for ourselves. It is a constant challenge that cannot be boiled down to a simplistic cliche like "have high expectations."








Sunday, August 6, 2017

In Praise of Praise as a Teaching Tool

Yesterday, my wife Cindy Mershon and I took our 3 1/2 year-old granddaughter, Schuyler,on a trip to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. We took the light rail train to get there. Schuyler is fascinated by trains and was particularly fascinated by the fold-down seats in the train that she could push down to sit in and then watch snap up when she got out of the seat. Schuyler was sitting in a regular seat as we sat in the station and she asked if she could move to a fold down seat. I said, "Yes", but tried to make it clear to her that for reasons of her own safety she could only get in or out of a seat when the train was not moving. When the train started moving, Schuyler told me that she could not get out of the seat. She understood. As soon as the train rolled to a halt at the next station, however, Schuyler hopped out of the seat to watch it snap back into place.

I said, "Schuyler, I like the way you waited until the train came to a stop before you left your seat. You are being safe. Good job." I was trying to practice what I had learned as a teacher many years before. In order for praise to be effective it must describe the desired behavior, be specific, and be positive. I repeated this for each of the many stops the train made over the next hour. Full disclosure here, Schuyler was imperfect in her application of the rule, so once or twice my feedback was corrective, not praising.

At any rate, it is an important reminder to all of us that praise is a powerful tool for teachers, if used genuinely and appropriately. By genuinely, I mean that the behavior being praised must be genuinely praiseworthy (kids can easily spot false praise) and by appropriately I mean it must reinforce the desired behavior by placing that behavior in a specific context, what psychologists call behavior specific praise (BSP).

In literacy instruction, behavior specific praise can help reinforce desired reading behavior. When a reader stumbles on a word and then figures it out, or successfully identifies a word by working through it, or self-corrects, we can use praise to help make sure these desirable behaviors continue.

Tommy, I like the way you reread the passage and then said the first letter of the new word to help you figure it out. Good job.

Nice work, Mary. You noticed that the word didn't look like "house", so you went back and corrected it by making it look right.

Jimmy, you did something good readers do. You realized that "house" didn't make sense in that sentence so you made it make sense by changing the word to "horse."

In reading comprehension, too, praise can be used to both reinforce desired behaviors and also extend thinking. Suppose you were reading Katherine Paterson's A Bridge to Terabithia with the students.

Lisa, I like the way you were able to identify Terabithia as a fantasy land for Leslie and Jess by using your background knowledge of other fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia. Yet, A Bridge to Terabithia is a very different kind of book from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. How would you say these books differ? 

Eric, you have correctly identified the "love letter" that Jess and Leslie wrote to Janice Avery as an act of revenge against a bully. Nice work. Good readers make inferences by combining their own knowledge with information from the reading. Do you think Jess and Leslie were right to do this? Were they acting like bullies themselves? What evidence do you find in the story to support your answer?

Used properly praise is a powerful tool for the teacher. There is no reason to withhold genuine praise from students. Indeed, psychiatrists tell us that praise should outweigh correction by a ratio of 4:1. You may want to track your own praise giving behaviors in reading instruction situations. With struggling readers it can be tempting to get this praise/correction ratio out of whack. I advise teachers working with strugglers or with students who misbehave to try to "Catch the child doing something right!" Well structured and genuine praise may be a better route to changed behavior than correction. As that sage of children's literature, Mary Poppins, might say, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."













Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Third Annual National Give-A-Kid-A-Book Day

July 6, 2017 marks the 3rd annual National Give-a-Kid-a-Book Day. This day of book giving was initiated on this blog in 2015 as a way to get books into children's hands during the summer, a time when many young readers suffer "summer loss" because they fail to exercise their reading muscles over the summer break. While many educators talk about children's motivation to read, research has shown that the key variable in whether children choose to read or not is access to books. As McGill-Franzen and Allington put it,

Ensuring that books are available to any child at any time of the year will be a good first step in enhancing the reading achievement of low-income students and an absolutely necessary step in closing the reading achievement gap.

This week my children and grandchildren are gathering for a family celebration. My wife, Cindy, and I now have five grandchildren, so we will be keeping the bookstores busy as we load up the grandkids with the latest picture books, poetry volumes, and young adult novels. I invite you to join us. Find a kid. Give that kid a book. It will make you feel good about yourself and you just might be doing your part in building a life-long reader.

National Give-a-Kid-a-Book Day is dedicated to the many hard-working people and organizations who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that all children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day, we recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll. Past inductee's include Luis Soriano, Lisa Willever, Philadelphia's Words on Wheels, Dolly Parton, Leland B. Jacobs, and Margaret Craig McNamara.

This year's inductees on the Honor Roll are as follows.

M. Jerry Weiss - Dr. Weiss, Distinguished Service Professor of Communications Emeritus from Jersey City State University, is one of the country's foremost authorities on literature for children and adolescents. Beyond that, Jerry is a constant force in making sure that children have access to great writing by great authors by insisting on classroom libraries filled with books for children to read. As a teacher educator, Jerry inspires his students to be readers, to read-aloud to children and to make sure children get books in their hands. His university has dedicated the M. Jerry Weiss Center as a place on campus for students, parents and children to come and browse and borrow the latest in great children's books.

Joan Kramer - Joan Kramer was a librarian, a passionate advocate for public education, a blogger and a dear friend of this blog. Joan was tireless in her advocacy for libraries, librarians, and the rights of children to have access to books. She fought a long battle against the forces of the Los Angeles County School District in their efforts to cut down student access to libraries, librarians and library aides. Joan recently lost her long courageous battle against cancer and she will be greatly missed.

Children's Book Project San Francisco - The Children's Book Project is celebrating 25 years of collecting and giving away books to the children of San Francisco who need them. Founded by the visionary Vicki Pollack, the Children's Book Project, continues to fulfill its mission of bringing literacy opportunities to children who might not otherwise have access to books. Get involved with this fine cause - you can donate books to the cause by clicking here.

Won't you celebrate with me. Give a kid a book. Include a lollipop or cookie if you want. Send the message - Reading is Sweet!

If you know of people who should be in the Give a Kid a Book Hall of Fame, please send along the names and I will consider their induction for next year.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

School Choice Opponents and the Status Quo

I was pleased when my recent post, School Choice: An Ugly Idea, attracted a Twitter response from choice advocate, Peter Cunningham. Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post and a former Assistant Secretary of Education under Arne Duncan. Education Post, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, was started 3 years ago to encourage a "better conversation" about education. With that list of pro-choice contributors, readers can infer what that better conversation was all about.

Cunningham's job is basically to use all the resources at his well-funded disposal to "swarm" back at anti-choice bloggers like Diane Ravitch, Peter Greene, and, apparently, little old me, to sell the corporate education reform line.

In his critique of my post, Cunningham raised arguments that I hear over and over from reformers and choice advocates and that I would like to address.


Those of us who continue to point out that poverty is the real issue in education are accused of using poverty as an excuse to do nothing. Right up front let me say I am against the status quo and I have spent a lifetime in education trying to improve teacher instruction and educational opportunities for the struggling readers and writers I have worked with. To point out the obvious, that poverty is the number one cause of educational inequity, does not make me a champion for the status quo. It simply means that I will not fall prey to the false promise of super-teachers, standardized test driven accountability, merit pay, charter schools, and vouchers, all of which are futile efforts to put a thumb in the overflowing dyke that is systematic discrimination, segregation, income inequity, and, yes, poverty.

Public schools, are, after all, reflections of their communities. If the communities are in crisis, the schools will be in crisis. You can't end the crisis by trying to fix the schools, you must take a whole community approach, and as the community improves, so, inevitably, will the schools. If corporate education reformers really wanted to help improve education, they would stop these charter school and voucher wars and spend their considerable resources on whole community improvement efforts. One way they could do this is to pay their taxes (rather than dodge them through spurious education donations) and support the intelligent use of their tax money for legislation leading to better jobs, better pay, better health care and better child care for communities under stress. Once these things begin to happen, good schools will follow.


I am very sympathetic to parents looking for good options for their children, when the local public school does not seem to be providing that good option. And it is a hollow argument to counsel patience to a parent of a 5 year-old entering school in September. Children only get one go-around at this. If a parent sees that a charter school appears to offer a safer environment, and surveys indicate that is the bottom line for most inner-city parents, safety, not educational quality, I cannot argue with them. In my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, I put it this way:

I would argue that every local neighborhood school can and should be able to provide this kind of education for every child. I would also argue that parents should fight to make sure that their neighborhood school gets the resources to make it the kind of school all families want to send their child to. But when that school is not provided locally, it is reasonable to expect a parent to investigate charter schools.

When I say investigate charter schools, I mean exactly that. In the book I offer a list of questions parents should ask as they look into charter schools. Among those are questions about the number of certified teaching staff, the rate of teacher and administrator turnover, discipline policies in the schools, and services for special needs children in the school. Parents may often find that they are trading much of what they desire in an education for their child for the appearance of a safer environment.

I am very pleased to read that Cunningham opposes vouchers. To his credit he has written about this in Education Post. In the article Cunningham rightly points to the many issues related to vouchers, not the least of which is that they do not lead to educational improvement, but that they do very much drain monies from public schools that desperately need it. Now I would like to hear is a unified voice from the corporate education reformers who support Cunningham and his publications with millions of dollars rising up in opposition to the Trump/DeVos school choice agenda. Let's all work together to get the horror show of vouchers off the table and then go back to the good fight over whether charter schools do more good than harm. I am in the harm camp, but that is a conversation that should continue. The voucher argument should be dead. I invite responsible reformers into the fight to kill it.












Sunday, June 18, 2017

Military Vouchers: Choice Comes to Our Defense

Inspired by Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her school choice agenda, Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis has declared that we are doing away with our traditional army, navy and air force in favor of giving each and every American family a 10,000 dollar military voucher that they can use to shop for the military protection they need. "Look", said Mattis, "it is obvious that the American military has failed. International assessments show us to be lagging behind others in military preparedness. Russia is rubbing our nose in it all over the place and that little twit in North Korea is a real danger that we have no idea how to deal with. And, by the way, when was the last time we won a war? What we need is good old-fashioned American competition in the form of military choice."

According to Mattis, military choice vouchers will allow families to purchase the kind of armed military protection they want. Some people may choose to "home-defend", using the money to arm the wife and children and build bunkers and bomb shelters. Others may avail themselves of special charter military institutions who will compete for dollars and, therefore, provide the kind of quality protection people want.

Some of those charter military organizations are already in the organizing stage.

Second Amendment Military Charter - Members of the NRA and second amendment enthusiasts in general may be interested in this charter which is based on the good old-fashioned concept of a local militia. The group's motto is "An AK-47 in every closet, a missile launcher in every attic, and a tank in every garage."

Hessian Mercenary Military Charter - This charter is sure to attract those who like a little nostalgia with their defense plan. If you prefer muskets to nuclear weapons, this may be the charter for you. Comes with authentic Hessian Revolutionary War uniform with a "Battle of Trenton" insignia.

KIPP Military Academy - Modeled after the much admired KIPP Charter Schools, this defense protection charter group promises to help you turn your family into a compliant, fighting machine who will follow orders without thinking or questioning your decisions - a key to battlefield success.

Teddy Roosevelt San Juan Hill Rough Riders Charter - The focus of this charter is the quick mobility that is provided by a cavalry. For your 10,000 dollars you get a horse, a saddle and a Teddy Roosevelt paste-on mustache. Special "Bully" T-Shirt for the first 200 who sign up.

Donald Trump Nuclear Option Military Charter - As an introductory offer, this protection package comes with two red buttons, one for blowing up Mexico and one for ordering a Coke. Have fun with the kids by playing, Button, Button, Whose Got the Button?

Cyber Military Charter - The advantage of this new military charter is that you never have to leave your home or interact with another human being while protecting your family from any and all intrusions. Comes with a fully loaded military-style computer for remotely detonating land mines on your property and software to help you block the Russians from hacking your Facebook page.

Onward Christian Soldiers Military Charter - This charter will target families with a religious right orientation. The package includes a special video training package called "Identifying the Infidel" and provides unlimited military cover for those picketing planned parenthood clinics and schools that teach evolution.

Blackwater Military Charter - Keeping it all in the Trump family, Betsy DeVos' brother, Erik Prince, is re-purposing his Blackwater Worldwide Iraq mercenary operation for us here at home. Prince, whose company billed the US government 1 billion dollars for his company's services overseas, said, "Getting ever richer off public dollars is the best business plan I can possibly imagine." No word yet if sister Betsy is investing in this company.

When asked if he thought all people were prepared to make good choices when it came to their own defense, Mattis said, "What is really important is that all Americans have a choice, not that they make good choices. People who make poor choices will likely soon be eliminated anyway, so over time fewer and fewer poor choices will be made. We need to give choice a chance to play itself out."





Wednesday, June 14, 2017

School Choice: An Ugly Idea

An ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Some Choices Are Just Ugly
The quote above comes from an essay in The New York Times titled Now is the Time to Talk about What We Are Actually Talking About. The quote resonates with me right now because my country seems to be awash in ugly ideas emanating from the centers of power in Washington and apparently resonating with many of my fellow Americans across the country. Here are just a few of these ugly ideas that I fear are beginning to turn a distinct shade of normal.
  • America should isolate itself from the rest of the world.
  • We must live in fear of people who do not look like us.
  • We must build literal and figurative walls to keep people out of the country.
  • We should return to harsher penalties for minor offenses and renew the war on drugs.
  • Climate change is a hoax and efforts to control it are bad for American business.
  • Health care is for those who can afford it.
I will let political pundits and journalists and policy analysts and others with more expertise than I weigh in on these issues. But there is one ugly idea that I do know something about and that I must challenge now because it becomes increasingly the color of normal. That idea is championed by the current resident of the White House, although he has likely given it very little thought, very dangerously championed by the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and most dangerously championed by the billionaires that more and more control all that happens in this country.

I am talking about the ugly idea that school choice and competition will lead to better schools. School choice ideology is born in racism, sustained by a concerted disinformation campaign, and designed to develop a work force of compliant worker drones, while further enriching the wealthy and undermining democratic control of the schools. School choice, better called school privatization, will destroy public education. That is its purpose. 

The racist roots of school choice are well documented. The original voucher programs were designed in the 1950s in the wake of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas to give southern white parents public monies to send their children to newly created all-white private schools. What may be less well understood is that charter schools continue, perhaps more subtly, the racist goals of the original voucher programs. Two of the most well-publicized and supposedly successful charter school progams, KIPP and New York City's Success Academies, were largely built by white people, who decided that what was best for their mostly brown-faced charges was to submit them to a harsh, military style system of discipline, built on compliance, blind obeisance to adults, and shaming and humiliation for minor infractions. These are charter schools built on the plantation model. 

In order to sell the idea of school choice, i.e., school privatization, choice champions had to first sell the false narrative of failing schools. Americans had a long tradition of valuing their public schools, in part because the schools were generally doing a good job and in part because all citizens had a voice in how they were run and how their tax money was spent. In order to change the narrative, privatizers pointed to international test scores, deteriorating schools in the inner-cities, and reports from economists that seemed to show that this could all be changed if we just fired the low performing teachers and rewarded the high performers. So in  many cities, local elected school boards were replaced by appointed boards, the public lost its voice, public coffers were raided to open charter schools, who promised but mostly failed to deliver, improvement, and the public schools further deteriorated for lack of funds (See Philadelphia and Detroit).

This narrative was based on some very real problems in public education, but it targeted schools, teachers, and teacher unions as the cause of the problem, when the real causes of the problem were clear to any thinking person - poverty, inequity, and segregation. We had and still have in this country, despite two decades of voucher and charter school schemes, a dual public school system: high functioning, first rate institutions for the affluent and unsafe, physically deteriorating, academically challenged school systems for the poor. This is not a teaching problem, it is a societal problem. Local schools reflect the local community. If the community is struggling with poverty, crime, and housing issues, the schools will struggle, too. School choice is an attempt by the wealthy to reform the school system on the cheap and distract all of us from the true problems in the society, which would require a much greater financial investment to fix - namely poverty and income inequity.

In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, urban public schools including those in large cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, and smaller cities like Rochester and Trenton were among the best in the world. As a society, we have failed these school systems, largely through discriminatory housing policies, prejudice, neglect, and "white flight." Now the best schools in the country are mostly in the suburbs. More affluent families took their children and their tax dollars out of the cities as minorities moved in and essentially abandoned these once great urban schools. Now, suburban schools function on comparatively generous budgets, in first-rate facilities (the families will allow no less) while urban schools fight for scraps.

The scraps that these urban schools fight for are further undermined by the school choice movement, which takes money away from the public schools and places it into the hands of charter operators or parents in the form of vouchers, often without public input. So struggling public schools struggle even more, kids who cannot avail themselves of vouchers or charters for a variety of reasons get less and less service and school districts in Philadelphia and Detroit are on the verge of collapse.

Secretary DeVos responds to all questions and concerns about the impact of choice, by saying all she wants is for parents to have a choice and all will be well. Her argument is absurd on the surface. What if choice schools discriminate? Well, as long as parents have choice...? What if choice schools teach creationism? Well, as long as parents have choice...? What if most of the monies for school choice go to supplement tuition to private schools for the already affluent? Well as long as parents have choice...? But as I have said before, this country, and the entire civilized world, has long recognized that choice is not always a good thing. That is why we have public works. That is why we have a military. That is why we have local and state police forces. That is why we have national parks (at least for now).

We need to see the move to privatize public schools for what it really is. As my college professor, Dr. Benjamin Powell, would say, "Follow the money." DeVos, Trump and the rest of the 1% of the country see public education, and the tax dollars collected to sustain it, as one of the last frontiers for big profits and that money is just sitting there to be grabbed up. All they have to do is convince people that the public schools are failing and that the answer is choice and that money starts to flow towards them. And, oh by the way, we have seen in the charter industry over the last 20 years that once that cash starts flowing, so does the corruption, as lax oversight has led to repeated stories of pilfering and misappropriating public monies. 

To say that school choice is an ugly idea, does not mean that our public schools are not struggling. But the struggle of public schools is best seen, as has been shown over and over again, as a symptom of a societal breakdown, as the result of increasing economic and resource inequity and segregation. True reform of the schools, like all true reform, will require focused attention on all those things that place our society in crisis. School choice is nothing more than a dirty bandage on an open wound. It will do more harm than good. A more equitable society is our surest path to improved schools and improved outlooks for those educated in our public schools.

At its root, public education is a beautiful idea. It is the idea that all children have the right to the best possible education and that all Americans will contribute to make it happen. There have been many missteps along the way, but that beautiful idea, though tarnished, remains beautiful. It deserves our continued care and dedication.







Wednesday, June 7, 2017

On Teaching Well: Five Lessons from Long Experience

Today I turned 70 years old. I have no idea how this happened. I was going along, struggling to do the best I could and then suddenly I woke up and this old guy was staring back at me from the mirror. Turning 70, though, has its advantages. One of those advantages comes from accumulated experience. Another comes from the graying countenance that seems to make people pay attention to what that experience has taught you. I'll take it. It is flattering to have an audience of readers who think you still have something to say. Later today I will celebrate this milestone with family and friends, but this morning I wanted to celebrate with you, my esteemed readers. And so I share five lessons I have learned from a career in education spanning nearly 50 years.

Lesson 1: Teaching is about Relationships

At its most basic, teaching is about building individual relationships with children. If children trust you, they will be willing to follow you in your flights of instructional fantasy and if they follow you they will learn from you. As a young teacher I stumbled upon this insight. I was teaching in what was then called a junior high school, grades 7,8 and 9. I saw about 150 students a day. At first I found this task very daunting. I learned my student's names, but I did not think of them as people so much as classes, the 7-2s and the 9-4s. I found it hard to engage individually with students because I  was working so hard on managing my rather large classes.

At some point I realized that when a student was speaking to me, that student needed my full attention and I needed to give my full attention to understand what the student was saying. I learned to focus on one student at a time. To truly listen. To block out the rest of the class, to really engage with that individual student for a moment. I learned to literally "lean-in" to the student physically to engage in real listening. I discovered that kids don't often have adults listen to them and listening is key to developing a  relationship with a child. Listening builds trust.

Secondly, I learned the importance of showing up. Kids notice if you show up at their concerts, their sporting events, their plays. Attending these life events with your students sends a message of caring and allows you to see your students in a different environment. Many students are very different animals outside of the classroom and getting to know them in a different setting pays off big inside the classroom.

Lesson 2: Teaching is More Coaching than Telling

As a young teacher, I was also a baseball and basketball coach. As a coach, I spent a great deal of time creating real game-like situations for my players during practice. I found that during simulated games, the practice was most focused and most productive and that I could give the players feedback that they could apply immediately and in context. It took me a while to apply this concept in the classroom. I started out teaching history the way I was taught it, by standing in front of the class and telling kids stuff and then giving them tests to see if they had learned the stuff.

After two years or so of this practice, I realized I was giving great lectures, but the students weren't learning much, so I "flipped' my classroom back before that term was fashionable and before the computer was an apple in Steve Jobs eye. I figured out, with the help of some prescient professional development, that I could teach best if I could simulate the work of historians in the classroom. In other words if I could turn the learning over to the students and then guide them in their learning by giving them individual feedback. Thus was born, for me, a new way of teaching, where the classroom was a practice field of noisy student activity and I was the coach, redirecting, cajoling, interjecting and giving feedback. I learned that learners learn by doing and teachers teach by guiding that learning.

Lesson 3: Teaching Requires Pedagogical Content Knowledge

As teachers we need to know stuff. It is critical that teachers have deep content knowledge in order to plan lessons and respond fully to student questions. But as teachers we must go beyond knowing stuff, to knowing how to impart stuff. This ability to join content with pedagogy has been called pedagogical content knowledge. This pedagogical content knowledge is where the science of teaching comes in. The skilled teacher takes the stuff of the discipline, the curriculum, and figures out, through a deep understanding of the research on how children learn, how to bring that stuff to the students and the students to that stuff.

For me this is the most fascinating aspect of teaching and the reason that teaching is a constantly engaging and energizing activity. On the one hand, long years of research has told us what ought to work in pedagogy and on the other hand, every year, every class, every child presents new challenges and new needs to reconsider what we are doing, to return to the research, and to look for new insights. Pedagogical content knowledge grows through continued professional reading, continued experience, and through continued awareness that it is necessary. It is really the reason that our profession is a profession and the reason that not everyone with a lot of content knowledge can do it.

Lesson 4: Student Errors Are a Teacher's Best Friend

It was not until I was studying to become a reading specialist that I truly came to appreciate student errors for what they are - mirrors into the mind of the child. I gained this insight by studying the work of the psycholinguist, Ken Goodman. For Goodman, reading errors were not errors at all, but miscues. What a great word that is. When a baseball player makes an error, we often call it a miscue. In other words the player "misread" the situation, which led to a mistake.  In baseball we can find out what caused the miscue by rewinding the videotape. In teaching, we can look at the evidence that led to the miscue and try to discover what caused the error. Once we can dope out what caused the error, we will know how to help the student.

This insight is critical to teaching. Students do not make errors deliberately. Rather than be upset that students make errors, we should celebrate these errors as opportunities to understand the student's thinking and also to better understand where our teaching might have gone awry. My advice? Don't complain about student errors, celebrate them. Student errors are the thinking teacher's best friend.

Lesson 5: Reflecting on Your Teaching Keeps You Growing

In my years as a teaching supervisor, I was never much interested in collecting teacher lesson plans before the lesson was taught. I liked to collect the plans at the end of the week and I asked that the teachers include a reflection on the lessons that went well, the lessons that did not go well and what changes they would make based on what went well and what didn't. Constant reflection on practice is the hallmark of the professional. It is necessary for the continued improvement of practice. Teaching is an art and a science that is never fully mastered. I am a better teacher now than I was 50 years ago, but I am also a better teacher now than I was yesterday, because I continue to read and reflect.

I recommend that teachers maintain a journal of reflections on teaching and I recommend that every teacher take a few minutes at the end of the school day, after the last student has left the classroom and after the buses have pulled out of the driveway, to simply sit and write a reflection on the day. It is, I think, the best way to implement a continuous improvement plan. Writing is a powerful way to bring our thoughts and ideas together in a meaningful way and it helps to build a record of successes and failures that can guide us in our ongoing efforts.

Over the years I was involved in hiring hundreds of teachers. I often interviewed those teachers after watching them do a demonstration lesson. The two most important questions I would ask after a demonstration were, "How did it go?" and "What would you change, if you could do the lesson over?" I found that the answers to these two questions gave me great insight into the kind of teacher the candidate would become.

Finally, there is no magic formula to what makes for a great teacher and there are many paths that may lead to becoming a great teacher, but there are no paths that do not begin with a deep and abiding respect for children.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Building a Better Pre-School: Finding the Right Balance

Two studies on building a better pre-school caught my eye this week. On the front page of the Wednesday, May 31, 2017 New York Times, education reporter Dana Goldstein details the findings of a group of researchers out of the University of California, Berkeley looking at the role of academics in pre-school, while Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Penn State have just released a brief focused on the importance of social and emotional learning in pre-school. I would like to look at both studies to see what conclusions we can reach when working to create the best possible pre-school environment for children.

The Berkeley study is sure to kick up a lot of fuss, first because it appeared on the front page of the New York Times, but also because it flies in the face of what many parents and teachers see as the optimal pre-school environment. The title of the piece doesn't help, Free Play or Flash Cards? New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools. Reading the article and the research report shows that the researchers' report is much more nuanced than a flash cards vs. play dynamic. What the researchers found is that children in academically oriented pre-school classrooms, which included activities focusing on oral language, pre-literacy, and math concepts, made academic gains that advantaged them as they entered kindergarten and throughout the kindergarten year. At the same time, and just as importantly, the authors found that this academic orientation did not have a negative impact on the social, emotional growth of the children.

The Robert Wood Johnson/Penn State brief concludes that to "promote school readiness, preschools need to focus strategically on social-emotional development." A focus on social emotional development pays off in greater readiness for kindergarten and with a wide array of positive adult outcomes from better interpersonal relationships to productive employment to civic engagement. The brief says that schools should be encouraged to use "evidence-based" programs combined with integration into academic enrichment programs and professional development for teachers in implementing the programs.

So what is the educator to do with these two seemingly competing orientations? I have argued in the past that as Mister Rogers said, "Play is the work of children." I cannot imagine any pre-school program where carefully structured "learning play" is not a large part of the school day. If you read the New York Times article, you will note that brief academic instruction periods were punctuated by longer periods of play where children were free to explore and where teachers could roam around, interacting with children and reinforcing lessons that were learned. The key, as it usually is, is balance and the fear, as it usually is, is that policy makers will read the headlines and not the more nuanced research and apply a mistaken concept of rigor on pre-school curriculum, on teachers, and most unfortunately on children.

What is really needed is to build a bulwark against the incursion of inappropriately academically oriented pre-school, while recognizing that an element of academic orientation is part of the job. How do we build that bulwark? As usual when it comes to protecting children from the uninformed incursions of policy makers, we must rely on the classroom teacher. I strongly recommend reading Dana Goldstein's companion piece to her front page report. I found it, almost by accident, on page 2 of the paper on May 31. In this piece, How to Build the Best Pre-Schools, Goldstein offers a glimpse at how she went about her reporting, how she visited pre-school classrooms, and what she saw in the classrooms there. Goldstein visited an "academically" oriented pre-school program and a "play" oriented pre-school, and while the classrooms offered some stark cosmetic differences, what was most telling was how much the teachers had in common. How both those teachers combined play with academic instruction. In both classrooms she found caring teachers and stimulating environments. She concludes:

Indeed, as publicly funded pre-K expands, the division may be not between academics and play, but between programs with well-trained and well-paid teachers and those without. 


I could not agree more. In order to ensure that our pre-schools are finding the right balance between academics and play, we need to be sure that we are employing the best teachers available and we need to make sure that these teachers are getting the finest, best informed professional development possible. No program, no research, no policy can come close to matching what the well-informed, well-prepared teacher can provide for children in the classroom.We cannot do pre-school on the cheap just because the children are small. We cannot run pre-school, as is often the case now, with poorly trained, poorly compensated para-professionals. The answer, ultimately, is not in the false dichotomy between academics and play, but in the will of our policy makers to make sure that every child has access to teachers who are prepared to do the job well and who are compensated appropriately for it. 














Friday, May 26, 2017

What Will We Do Without You, Jean Fritz?

Only when a book is written out of passion is there much hope of its being read with passion. - Jean Fritz

I read of the passing of children's author, Jean Fritz, in the New York Times this past week. Ms. Fritz was 101 years-old, yet she died too soon because her voice is needed now more than ever. As a history teacher and as a reading specialist, I had a particularly affinity for the works of Jean Fritz. Her books were all meticulously researched and highly entertaining. I could be confident that in recommending a Jean Fritz book to children that they would get accurate information and would likely find the books informative and engaging. Most importantly, though, Jean Fritz was a pioneer in the field of history for children because she was not afraid to tell the truth about our national heroes. Her portraits of famous Americans like Ben Franklin, John Hancock, Benedict Arnold, Paul Revere and others were famously warts and all accounts.

When Jean Fritz started writing for kids in the 1960s, history for children was notably homogenized and inclined toward what her New York Times obituary called "unalloyed veneration." George Washington "never told a lie"; Thomas Jefferson was a champion of  "equality" with no mention of his slave holding or rape of slave women; Andrew Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans with no mention of the "Trail of Tears." Jean Fritz would have none of that and for that, I, for one, am eternally grateful to her. I think we all should be. Her book titles signal to us that she is taking a look at American history with something of a sideways, critical stance. Can't you make them behave, King George?; Will you sign here, John Hancock?; Shh! We're writing the Constitution; Where do you think you're going, Christopher Columbus?

Here is an example of the Jean Fritz touch from her book, What's the big idea, Ben Franklin?. Fritz tells us that Franklin made up a list of rules for good behavior (like Don't spend too much money) and kept a notebook to record how he was doing.

But Benjamin liked a good time and he seldom let his rules interfere. Once he spent 6 pennies to see the first lion ever brought to America. This was a lot of money, he said, but it was worth it.

Another rule was "Don't show off", but once Ben had a little money he returned to Boston to visit his brother for the express purpose of showing off.

He swaggered into the shop letting [his brother] James and his apprentices see what a grand thing it was to be your own master. He twirled his watchchain. He jingled the money in his pockets and offered to treat everyone to a drink. (James was so angry that it took years for the brothers to make up.)

And then there is Paul Revere of the famous midnight ride. Turns out that for much of the midnight ride, Revere was without a horse, having been relieved of the horse and left on the side of the road by a group of British officers who had intercepted him. As Fritz tells it in And then what happened, Paul Revere?

Paul Revere felt bad, of course, to be on his Big Ride without a horse. He felt uneasy to be on a moonlit road on foot. So he struck out through the country, across stone walls, through pastures, over graveyards, back into Lexington to see if John Hancock and Samuel Adams were still there.

In an interview on Fresh Air! with Terry Gross this week, the historian Jill Lepore said, "When you ignore the facts of history, you turn history into religion." We should not attempt to turn children into faith based believers in a mythological American history. Children can handle the truth and we need, like Fritz, to respect them enough to give them the truth. The truth, ultimately, does not diminish our reverence for our history, but only enhances it because it is rooted in reality. Heroes, warts and all, are more believable, and therefore, more credible heroes.

In this age of "alternative facts", the writing of Jean Fritz stands as a strong reminder that thorough research and truth telling are the role of the historian, whether that historian is writing for adults or children. I for one would have loved to read a Jean Fritz book on the current political situation, perhaps entitled, What the hell were you thinking, President Trump?










Sunday, May 21, 2017

Finding Time for Productive Vocabulary Play

Today I am pleased to present this guest post from Lesley Roessing, Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. Lesley is the author of No More "Us" and "Them": Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core both From Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

By Lesley Roessing
  
What can teachers do when they have only a partial class period, a day of high absenteeism, or students who have lost focus because a holiday break is overshadowing academics and every other class is showing movies? What can teachers do when their six students athletes are leaving early for a championship game, when the nurse’s office is calling students one-by-one for dental checks, when 60% of the class is out because they have Confirmation practice, Take Your Child to Work Day, or the flu, when class will be interrupted by a fire drill or an assembly, or when class follows a grueling morning of standardized testing? These interruptions and distractions happen more frequently than we would care to admit, causing teachers to lose productive academic time. So how can teachers use this time and maintain academic integrity? Play word games.

Vocabulary is a reading skill. Vocabulary is one of the greatest predictors of reading comprehension. Knowing lots of words supports fluency; the more exposure to words, the better readers read and comprehend. Teaching vocabulary is a strategy for increasing reading comprehension in all disciplines. But this isn’t a blog about vocabulary-teaching strategies—it is about finding time for more vocabulary exposure, more time with words, and using that disrupted time to do so. Research shows that two strategies for increasing vocabulary knowledge are active engagement and motivation, i.e., wordplay. Teachers can employ those interrupted, distracted periods for active engagement and wordplay.

I always had six or seven Scrabble boards in my classroom. I favor the turntable type for two reasons: the spaces for tiles are recessed so if students bump the board, the pieces do not fall off. Also the board can be turned without disturbing the letters, and students don’t need to move to see the board. These boards may be more expensive but last much longer and are often available at yard sales.

On Scrabble Days, I divided the class into groups of four and gave them the time to play. Often I would let them use dictionaries to find words because, when they employed a word from the dictionary, they had to explain the word to their group, and, in that way, all were learning more words. The rules can be altered to earn fewer points for words discovered this way, but my goals for the activity were engagement, word usage, and learning new vocabulary. Scrabble is differentiated because students work with words they know or are able to read and understand.

In disciplines other than English/Language Arts, such as science, history/social studies, math, health, art, music, a requirement can be that the words formed have a connection with the discipline, no matter how tenuous. When challenged, the player has to make the connection. For example, the word cell would have a different connection to science than to history or social studies. In history class, a student might say that a particular historical figure spent time (or should have spent time) in a prison cell because of his illegal actions (giving examples of those actions). In English-Language Arts, players can earn extra points for literary terms, such as simile.

My other “Go-to” vocabulary game is Taboo. In Taboo the goal is for the player’s teammates to deduce a word from the player’s verbal clues. To elicit answers, the player cannot say any form of the target word or the five other words that are listed on the card beneath the word, those words being “taboo.” Players have to explain their words, provide synonyms of the word or the taboo words, or give examples of the word for their team to be capable of discovering the answer. This game can be played with as little as ten minutes, and a point tally can be maintained for each team.


In a content area class, the students can create cards featuring the vocabulary words learned or to be learned or disciplinary terms, adding the five words players would be most likely to associate with the word and are, therefore, taboo. They then can play History Taboo, Science Taboo, Math Taboo, Health Taboo, etc. with the cards.

I always maintained that if an administrator were to enter my classroom and inquire about what the students were doing, the unequivocal answer would be “word study,” citing the appropriate standards, such as the CCSS Anchor Standards for Language Vocabulary Acquisition and Use.

Sometimes those little hidden minutes can be a gift to try something new and academically valuable.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Invented Spelling: Discovering How Words Work


I was excited when my niece Jennifer shared this wonderful piece of writing by her daughter, Callie. It reminded me of the joy I would take in my young students' developing understanding of how words work when I was in the classroom. Invented spelling is truly joyous because of the great value it brings to the learning/teaching interaction. I have long considered it unfortunate that the discoverer of invented spelling, Charles Read, named it that. When we use the word spelling in any context, many teachers, students, and especially parents go directly to a binary paradigm - spelling is either right or it is wrong. Invented spelling, however, is not really about spelling, and it is certainly not about right or wrong; it is about discovery and problem solving and creating communication. It is about figuring out how words work. All of us want children to discover how words work, so if we called invented spelling "word discovery" it would likely be an easier sell for everyone.

The advantages of invented spelling are clear.

  1. Invented spelling encourages children to match the sounds they hear in words to letters (phoneme-grapheme correspondence). This ability is strongly correlated to learning to read.
  2. Invented spelling allows students the independence to get their ideas down on paper without having to be concerned (for the moment) with correct spelling. So, a young writer can create an exciting story about The E Noormus Teradaktl, instead of being limited to words he can spell and writing a boring story about The Big Duck.
  3. Invented spelling provides the teacher with a clear window into what a child knows and does not know about how words are constructed, and provides data for making further instructional decisions.
Let's take a look at Callie's writing above and see what "windows" into her knowledge Callie (who is in kindergarten and who turned 6 in March) provides. Callie writes that her Mom's favorite flower is a DaFDel. First of all, any adult looking at this would immediately know that this word is daffodil, so we can say that Callie is successful in communicating her ideas through writing. Also, Callie hears beginning and ending sounds in syllables DaF and Del, and has some understanding and ability to hear vowels in syllables. Callie leaves out the middle syllable represented by the single letter o, probably because she hears it as part of the "F" as in "Fa." That syllable is particularly hard to hear and even harder to spell - I remind myself how to spell the word by over-pronouncing it as daf-o-dil as a spelling reminder. Further note that Callie represents the final vowel with an e, understandable when we realize that the i is not clearly in evidence as we sound out the word.

Clearly, Callie has a number of the words she uses here in her sight word vocabulary: to, it is, at, the, with. We might be surprised to see the irregularly spelled word sewing spelled correctly, unless we knew that Callie's mother is a skilled seamstress. The word sewing has particular power for Callie and so it is a part of her sight vocabulary.

Typical of developing readers and writers, Callie leaves off the silent e in wake and time presumably, of course, because they are silent. Similarly, r-controlled vowels such as the u in purple cause problems for the young writer. Notice also that both wakup and foskol are treated as one word and we can probably hear in our own heads what it sounds like to Callie when her Mom calls her to wake up for school.

Finally we come to my favorite from this piece, Grches, which of course praises her mother's ability with grilled cheese sandwiches. Once again we notice the expected difficulty hearing the r-controlled vowel in grilled and that grilled cheese is currently all one word for Callie. Callie does not presently hear the -ed in grilled.

Obviously, Callie is showing all the indications of being ready to apply her knowledge of letters and sounds to learning to read and to becoming a conventional speller. As Callie's teacher, I would continue to give her lots of opportunities to write, often in story or retelling form rather than on worksheets and continue to work with her on stretching out the sounds of words to listen for all the sounds. Of course, bugaboos like r-controlled vowels will continue to provide challenges until such time as Callie has more visual exposure to words through reading and spelling instruction.

All teachers can provide their students with supportive invented spelling instruction. The first step, of course, is to make sure that young learners have lots of opportunities to write their own stories, to respond in writing to read alouds, and to keep a journal to chronicle their thoughts, ideas, and activities. Secondly, teaching kids to s-t-r-e-t-c-h out words and listen to the sounds as they try to match those sounds to letters and then consistently asking them to use this strategy will help. Finally, we can help students use the strategy by responding to the "How do you spell....?" question with a gentle, but insistent suggestion to, "Stretch the word out and give it your best shot. We can always fix it later. "

Inevitably when talking about invented spelling the question arises, "When should we stop using invented spelling?" My answer is never. I still use invented spelling as a tool today. When I write, I do not interrupt the flow of an idea to check a spelling. If I am not sure how to spell a word, I put down my best guess and return to it later, because the thought is what matters most and the thought can be lost if I interrupt my flow to look up a spelling. 

But I know what your concern is. At some point, kids spelling has to move toward the more conventional. For most normally developing kids this will happen in a progression that leads to more and more words spelled conventionally and fewer and fewer inventions. That is what we need to be looking for - steady progress toward the conventional. Further, we need to be sure that children develop a spelling conscience - that is the desire to spell things correctly as a courtesy to the reader. Developing a spelling conscience requires three things - an awareness that spelling matters, writing activities that matter to the writer (Why worry about spelling, if what I am writing doesn't matter?) and a sense of audience for the writing (Why worry about spelling, if no one is going to read it anyway?). As kids move to creating final drafts of their writing, from about third grade onward, we should expect conventional spelling, but we must remember that some students will continue to struggle and need our assistance to be fully conventional spellers, and some students will struggle with this throughout their schooling.

For kids who do not develop normally in their reading, writing, and spelling, the use of invented spelling is not the reason for their struggles. Other interventions may be needed for these students, but invented spelling does not cause kids to have difficulty learning conventional spelling, in fact, it helps all students. Who do you think will be the first to learn how to spell the word enormous in the story I told above? The child who approximates the spelling of enormous for his first grade story or the child who plays it safe and writes about The Big Duck. I am betting on the inventive speller.