Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Best Education Books of 2016

Time once again for my annual listing of the best books on education that I read in the past year. My selections are, of course, limited by the books that I chose to read and the time I had for reading them, but I think you will find both informative and entertaining reading in these pages. My thanks to these authors and to all the writers who champion the causes of public education and sound literacy instruction - your voices are needed now more than ever.

I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids, by Kyle Schwartz. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Schwartz, a fourth grade teacher at Doull Elementary School in Denver, Colorado, asked her students to complete the statement that is the title of this wonderful book and the children's responses changed everything for her as a teacher. When she shared the lesson with others it became a Twitter sensation with the hashtag #iwishmyteacherknew.

As might be expected, student responses to this question were eyeopening for Schwartz who had been teaching for just 4 years when she presented the lesson. She learned stories of absent parents, homelessness, no pencils for doing homework and sadness over parents being deported to Mexico.

In the book, Schwartz takes the insights she gained from the exercise and expands it into a study about the importance of community in the school and classroom. She takes an admirably holistic view of the children and their needs, talents and resources. One aspect of the book I found particularly compelling was the Resources and Barriers Chart. It can be tempting to look at children of poverty only from the perspective of what they do not have. Schwartz helps us see how all children have resources and we need to build on those resources to help them learn. In this view, speaking Spanish at home becomes a resource, being physically active is a resource, showing interest in current events is a resource and these are resources that can be used to combat barriers like having difficulty paying attention or struggles with time management. 

Schwartz also gives excellent advice for teachers who work in a community where students are highly mobile. After telling the heart-breaking story of Ronaldo, the bright, eager student who had to leave school because his father was deported, Schwartz builds on the lessons learned to create Welcome Kits and Transition Mementos for children coming into or leaving her classroom. Other chapters discuss supporting students in trauma, grief and loss, building structures to develop student self-efficacy, and creating a culture that develops character.

What I admire most about this book is that Schwartz has taken one good lesson and one key insight and expanded it into a richer understanding of how we can build a classroom community against the apparent barriers of poverty, trauma and transition.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'All Too, by Christopher Emdin. Beacon Press.

Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, is out to explode the mythology of the hero teacher riding in on his/her white horse to save urban youth by teaching like a champion. He calls this very white, savior mentality what it truly is - colonialism. He argues that we will fail to make a difference in urban schools, filled with children of color, if we fail to recognize that their reality is not our reality. Indeed we need to start from an understanding of the reality of these children and teach them with a focus on that reality. Emdin calls his approach "reality pedagogy." 

Reading this book gave me a better understanding of why the achievement gap has been so intractable a problem for educators. We are applying a white, middle-class pedagogy to a non-white, non-middle-class culture. Until we, as educators, dig in and understand fully the culture of the children we are trying to teach, the achievement gap will continue, but what we really need to understand is that this achievement gap is in many ways an "instruction gap." It is not that white teachers who teach in the hood do not care, it is that they care in ways that are not productive for the children they are teaching.

While I was reading this book, I could not help but think of the work of Larry Sipe, late professor of literacy at the University of Pennsylvania. Sipe studied minority children's interactions with read-aloud and found that children of color interact with text in very different ways from white, middle class kids. They tended to not sit quietly and listen and then raise their hands when they wanted to comment, but rather to enjoy a book as a kind of call and response activity where they engaged with the book, calling out and interacting as the book was being read and sometimes even expanding and innovating on the story. This type of behavior, a normal part of these students' cultures, might not be tolerated by teachers seeking orderly dialogue and so Sipe posited that the way that minority children learn may be disadvantaged in the classroom.

I often tell my prospective teacher students that they will know what to teach if they follow the child, observing closely what the child needs. Emdin takes this insight to a whole new level. In order to teach urban youth well, we must fully understand and embrace the rich culture they bring to school, which is their greatest ally in learning.

Whether you teach in an urban environment or not, read this book to gain a better understanding of what teaching will need to look like in our increasingly diverse society. Old models of teaching simply will not suffice.

Education and the Commercial Mindset, by Samuel E. Abrams. Harvard University Press.

Abrams is a veteran public school teacher and administrator and currently the Director of the Center for the Study of Privatization of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In this book, Abrams takes a detailed look at the school privatization movement through two notable privatization experiments: Edison Schools and KIPP Charter Schools.

Edison was one of the first companies into the school privatization game. Led by media mogul, Chris Whittle, the company started out as an experiment in private education for public school students, morphed into a troubled school management organization and finally died a quick death in the face of disappointing educational results and a rising tide of community opposition. It is a compelling story that plays out against a background of outsiders experimenting with educational designs on the predominantly poor children in urban areas like Baltimore and Philadelphia. Ultimately, Edison could not deliver on its promises of profits to its investors or improved academic performance for its clients. The company died an ignominious death and Whittle left in 2015.

The KIPP Charter chain is a different story, but just as compelling for those worried about the privatization of public education. KIPP schools are non-profits who receive public funds to provide education to public school students, mostly in urban areas. As Abrams shows, KIPP schools also receive considerable funding from wealthy donors who wish to invest in school privatization. This money allows KIPP schools to spend more than $3,500 more per pupil than the public schools. KIPP is known for its harsh discipline practices, its compliance oriented school environment and its test-score focused curriculum. KIPP"s success has attracted a great deal of attention, but Abrams asks us to consider what the costs are of this success to the kind of citizens we really want to produce in schools.

This is a must read for those who wish to get a richer understanding of the privatization movement well-beyond what we generally read in the newspapers, magazines and TV reports. Diane Ravitch wrote a full-blown review of the book for The New York Review of Books.

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, by Steve Nelson. Garn Press.

Steve Nelson is the Head of School of the exclusive private Calhoun School in New York City. Nelson's book may seem like an odd choice for this blog which seeks to champion public education, but Nelson's book gives us a clear-eyed, thoughtful and well-written account of what Temple University Professor, Kathy Hirsch-Pasek calls "school the way it should be." This is what Nelson has achieved in this book, shown us school they way it should be for all children, rich or poor; black brown, or white; urban, suburban, or rural. 

Nelson shows us that it is actually the current education reformers who are the conservatives, seeking to maintain a system of public schools that was designed to spit out compliant factory workers 150 years ago and is now designed to educate a compliant work force subservient to the privileged 1%.

Nelson's vision of a progressive education is one that has never been tried on a large scale, no matter what you have read about the 1960s and 70s. A progressive education, he says, is one that follows two main principles:
  • To stir in each child a continuous commitment to be thoughtfully engaged in the ongoing evolution of our democratic republic and to exercise his/her individual and collective responsibilities within a global community.
  • To allow all children to grow into deeply satisfying and ethical lives.
Nelson's child centered vision of school and schooling is certainly idealistic. But it is important for all of us to have a clear understanding of the ideal, so that we have a worthy target to shoot at in the service of children.

After you read this book, you may find yourself looking at your students, your curriculum, and your instruction a little differently.

Who's Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More, by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris. Stenhouse.

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris are among my literacy instruction heroes. Not only do they maintain a terrific blog on literacy Think Tank for the 21st Century, but they are prolific writers of wonderful books, filled with keen insight and an orientation toward a balanced literacy approach. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing their book, Reading Wellness, and this year they are back with another very helpful book, Who's Doing the Work?

For all teachers of literacy our goal is to help children become skilled, strategic independent readers of fiction and non-fiction texts of all shapes and varieties. In their new book, Burkins and Yaris show that sometimes in our zeal to scaffold student literacy development, we are overly helpful of students, turning them into readers who are dependent on teacher intervention rather than independent readers. 

Organizing their book around the key elements of balanced literacy, read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading, Burkins and Yaris clearly and methodically show us how to scaffold literacy in a way that leads to independence rather than dependence. Dividing instruction into conventional practice and next generation practice, the authors first show us what is and then suggest what should be. This very useful construct provides, if I may say it, the scaffold for the teacher to learn how to move from the conventional to the next generation smoothly and effectively. Useful charts comparing conventional and next generation instruction clearly drive home the key points of each chapter.

What the authors are really asking is that we all fine tune our practice to make sure that the gradual release of responsibility so important to creating student independence happens in each component of balanced literacy instruction. This is a book that all teachers in grades K-8 will want to have on their professional reading shelf and will find themselves referring to often.

These are my choices for best books on education 2016. Of course, there were many fine books from the past year that I did not get to. What books would you add to the list? Please add your comments below or on my Facebook page.

Looking forward to much great reading in 2017. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Least of Russ on Reading 2016

This is my third annual publication of posts that, for one reason or another, attracted little attention the first time around. It has been a year of gratifying growth in this blog; a year filled with the excitement of the publication of my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, and a year of great consternation and disappointment on the political front. Through it all, this blog has allowed me to give voice to my beliefs about good literacy instruction and sound education policy and to make new friends and greet new readers from throughout the country and around the world.

So, as Noble Laureate Bob Dylan would say, while "writers and critics throughout the land" publish their year end "Best of ..." lists, I present The Least of Russ on Reading. I hope you will give some of these posts from the last year another glance.

Happy New Year!

Reading Our Way to Empathy

A great classroom conversation leads me to an insight on the importance of fiction and poetry in helping students see the point of view of others - to develop empathy. This development of empathy is a key "outcome" of the reading of literature in the classroom.

Accountability in Public Schools: The Three-Legged Stool

Corporate Education Reformers seem to forget that the bargain struck on accountability in the schools was that students and teachers would be held accountable for improved performance, while policy makers and state and federal governments would be held accountable for making sure the resources were available for students and teachers to be successful. Somewhere along the way, that third part of the three-legged stool fell by the wayside, while reformers doubled-down on student and teacher accountability.

The Importance of Making Mistakes

Mistakes are the lifeblood of teaching. It is through student error that we learn what to teach next and through our own errors that we learn how to teach better.

Can Fiction Save Democracy?

Right before the election I found myself musing about the importance of good fiction to a functioning democratic society. Could it be that the lower status of fiction in the public school curriculum today is the exact wrong way to go right now?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Holiday Gift of Poetry 2016

Today, I continue a four-year tradition here at Russ on Reading, spreading the joy and wonder of the holiday season through poetry. Happy Holidays and a joyous and fulfilling New Year to all of my loyal readers. One way to ensure joy in the coming year is to bring more poetry into your lives and into your classroom. Here are three to get you started.

I wrote this poem for my second grade students more than 20 years ago. It was inspired by a refrain I heard them saying during the week before Christmas.

I Just Can’t Wait for Christmas
By Russ Walsh

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

I just can’t wait for Christmas; 
Oh please, please, get here fast
With candy, toys, and presents
It’s going to be a blast.

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

I just can’t wait for Christmas;
Mom says to settle down,
But how can I be patient
When Santa’s due in town?

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

I just can’t wait for Christmas;
Did Santa get my letter?
I hope I get that brand-new bike
And not another sweater!

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

I just can’t wait for Christmas;
And now it’s Christmas Eve.
Dad just hauled me off to bed
A tuggin’ at my sleeve.

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

And now I’m lying in my bed
Staring out at a full moon
Trying hard to get to sleep.
Oh! Christmas please come soon.


I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

Here is one from a favorite poet of my middle school students.

by Walter De La Mare

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone, 
Just one candle burning on, 
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Someone came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe), 
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen - and kissed me there.

And finally, a Wallace Stevens riddle for older students.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Beyond Grades: How Am I Doing?

Part 2 in a series on grading and feedback

In a post two weeks ago, I argued that we need to move away from grades for reporting student achievement. I argued that grades are ineffective in reporting student learning, encourage a grade acquisition orientation rather than a learning orientation, and destroy the motivation of lower achievers. But if I am going to argue against grading, I need to be ready with suggested replacements for grades. I begin an attempt to do this below. I would appreciate it if you tell me what you think of my ideas.

First, I think we need to decide what our goals are for reporting out on student achievement. I would argue that there are three reasons we wish to assess and report out and all of them have to do with providing feedback to stakeholders. First, we want to report on student learning to the student so that the student can answer the question, "How am I doing?" Next we want to provide feedback to parents, so that parents can answer the question, "How is my child doing?" Finally, we want to provide feedback to the school/district to inform curricular and instructional decisions moving forward and to answer the question, "How are we doing?"

In today's post I will address the first question; the one related to reporting out to the student.

How Am I Doing?

Learning is a process of adding new information to information you already know. Any assessment program should inform a student about what she already knows and what she needs to learn. Reporting a grade to a child provides only a vague notion of what is known and not known. Better to give more specific feedback. Let's take reading as an example. Here is the information that a child needs to know about reading progress.
  • What am I doing well in reading right now that I should continue doing?
  • What aspects of reading do I need to work on?
  • What do I need to do to improve in these areas?
  • What are we going to work on together to improve in these areas over the next few weeks?
Ideally, students participate in this assessment through their own self-assessment. In my reading classroom, my students and I would periodically brainstorm a "criteria chart" of reading behaviors that we had learned about in class. After developing the chart, I would ask the students to identify on a T-chart those things on the list they were doing well and one or two things they still needed to work on. I would then sit individually with the students to discuss their strengths and weaknesses (sometimes lists would change based on my input) and then develop goals for the next few weeks.

OK, I think I know what you are thinking. This may be fine and good for a skill based subject like reading or writing, but what about a content-based subject like science? Again, I think a similar strategy would be most effective. The key will be identifying what you want the children to know and be able to do in any particular science unit. The assessment/feedback loop must be focused on the knowledge you want kids to acquire and feedback on how well they have acquired that knowledge.

Let's say we are in a fourth grade classroom studying a unit on Earth Science. The objectives for the unit are as follows:
  • Students will be able to identify various ways that land forms change rapidly and slowly.
  • Students will be able to identify the elements of the rock cycle.
  • Students will learn that rocks can be identified by their properties and will be able to to identify various types of rocks.
  • Students will be able to identify the differences between rocks and minerals.
  • Students will be able to work like a scientist by conducting experiments in crystal formation and rock formation.
Through authentic assessments (in-class activities where students get a chance to demonstrate their understanding), observations, written work, quizzes and tests, the teacher gathers knowledge about what the student knows and is able to do. During the unit and at the end of the unit, occasional conferences, often brief and informal, occasionally a bit longer and formal, are held to provide specific feedback to the students. By the end of the unit teachers report to the students on their success in achieving the objectives. In this scenario the questions would be as follows.
  • What do I know about land forms, elements of the rock cycle, rock identification, and the differences between rocks and minerals? What gaps in my knowledge have I shown in these topics? What can I do now and in the future to fill in these gaps in my knowledge?
  • To what extent have I shown the ability to think and work like a scientist by conducting experiments? What do I need to work on to make more effective use of scientific problem solving?
  • What are my strengths and challenges in reading science content?
  • What progress am I making in acquiring science-based vocabulary?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses in writing about science content?
This kind of direct and specific feedback is much more helpful than a vague, imprecise grade, which tells me almost nothing about what I have learned and what I need to work on. If one reason for grades is to provide feedback to children, surely some system like the one described above provides far superior and much more useful feedback.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is all well and good, but parents will never accept it. Parents want grades. Parents believe grades have some meaning, primarily because we have tried to convince them that they do over the past 150 years. We all know better. We need to tell parents we were wrong, We need to show them there are better ways to report on learning. In a subsequent post, I will address how we can best answer the parent question, "How is my child doing?"

To read about a procedure that two school districts used to do away with grades, click here.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Our Schools and Prejudice: The Need to Connect

Three articles in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times this week resonated strongly with me in this time of greater and greater division in my country. First was a report by Ben Austin on Violence and Division on the South Side of Chicago, which reported on efforts to get some dialogue going between the mostly minority inhabitants of the South Side of Chicago and the mostly white area of Mount Greenwood, just adjacent to it. The area has been the sight of protests, sometimes violent, in the wake of a killing of a Black man by a white police officer. A small group from both sides of the issue are working to get a conversation on race and prejudice and "Black Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives Matter" going. Progress has been difficult, but at least the discussions have started.

Next came a piece by Heather C. McGhee titled, "I'm Prejudiced", He Said. Then We Kept Talking. This was the remarkable account of the author, the president of Demos, a public policy organization, and a man named Garry who called into a show on C-SPAN to make the startling confession of the title. The caller asked for help with his prejudice. This led to several meetings with McGhee in which both of them learned a great deal about each other and about the character of prejudice itself. As McGhee puts it, "Gary asked, 'What can I do to change?'" and his ability to acknowledge the persistence of prejudice allowed her to answer.

Finally there was, The Roots of Implicit Bias", by Daniel A. Yudkin and Jay Van Bavel. Yudkin and Bavel assert that implicit bias is real, but it is not rooted in prejudice, so much as in the human tendency to divide the world into groups. In other words, what may appear as prejudice may actually be "a manifestation of a broader tendency to see the world as "us vs. them." The good news is that according to the author's research, implicit bias van be overcome by "rational deliberation."

These three articles, I think, point to both the great tragedy and the great potential of American society and, by extension, the great tragedy and great potential of the public school. In American society we are learning everyday of the toll we have paid through systematic efforts to divide us and see others as "them", those about whom we know little and with whom we share little. When I say this is deliberate, I mean that the segregation our society faces has been the deliberate result of economic and political forces that have conspired to keep the races separate. In our schools, it is no accident that once vibrant urban schools have fallen into disrepair. This is the result of white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s and then the deliberate under-funding of inner-city schools once those with political and economic clout had relocated outside the city. The movement toward charter schools in the cities has further segregated the public school community.

But as I look at these three articles, I can see how the public school can play a role in helping us improve this long-standing stain on the America of all of our imaginations. These articles suggest that what we need more than anything else to combat prejudice is to connect, to talk, and to deliberate.

I grew up in the 1950s in a segregated community. African Americans where prohibited, through tacit agreements between the builders and real estate agents, from buying homes in Levittown, PA. African American families were forced to live on the outskirts of town, in developments largely reserved for them. The first Black family to move into Levittown was greeted with angry protests and burning crosses. But Levittown's schools were integrated and I had the great good fortune to go to school with people of all races and colors. This allowed me to connect. To make friends across racial lines, to play ball and study and goof off and go to parties with all different kinds of people. The experience was absolutely formative. All of my classmates at Woodrow Wilson High School came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, and while there was not always unified agreement on all issues, the basic humanity and belief in the equality of all human beings was unshakable for that group.

With the highly segregated schools today, not only divided along racial lines, but also economic lines, these connections become harder to make. We need to come up with deliberate strategies that allow students from all different groups to connect. As long as neighborhoods are segregated along economic lines, this cannot happen, unless we begin to think of neighborhoods more broadly. Yes, I am talking about busing across school district lines to achieve a better racial balance. And yes, I am aware of the narrative that busing was tried in the 70s and failed. The truth is that busing did not fail. In the period when busing was prominent in the late 70s through the late 80s, the achievement gap in schools actually narrowed. It was only after reactionary forces declared busing a failure that the achievement gap and school segregation began to grow again. Busing did not fail, people failed and they failed because of a failure to connect with each other and to continue the dialogue on how to make it work. True integration of schools would help narrow the achievement gap and help children make the connections they need to learn to live with those other Americans they will be living with in the future.

In the meantime, if we cannot make these direct connections right away, we can certainly get some dialogue going between and among kids of all different races, religions and ethnicities through some basic technology. Lately, my wife and I have been thrilled to have Facetime available so that we can get periodic visits from our new grandson, Henry, who lives 1,000 miles away. Facetime allows for our regular Henry fix. Technology should allow children to connect across school district borders. When I was in 4th grade, my teacher arranged for us to have pen pals from Germany. It was a powerful learning experience that led me to study German culture and language in high school. If pen pals during the snail mail era can make powerful connections, whole classrooms, suburban and inner city, should easily be able to design and work together on all kinds of projects that open them up to dialogue and understanding. This seems to me to be a way to truly use technology to advance learning in a large way. If we are up against artificial borders that limit dialogue, why not use technology to break down those borders. This seems like a smart way for Bill Gates to spend his education dollars.

Third comes rational deliberation. If any place is well suited to rational deliberation it should be the school (I know, many things going on in schools these days hardly seem rational or deliberative, but still...). If it is true that human beings have implicit bias, it is also true that school children have an innate sense of fairness. They want to be treated fairly. They want their classmates to be treated fairly. The get indignant when they sense someone is not being treated fairly. We can build on this through what we read, what we write, and what we talk about in class. Here is a great bibliography of books, divided by age groups, for addressing issues of race and prejudice. We need to read these books aloud to children and we need to assign them to be read. We need to be talking about these books with children and we need to provide the children opportunities to talk to each other about what they have read. We need to allow children to reflect on what they are reading in informal and formal writing activities. Deliberation is the essence of education. A child who deliberates on these issues, may grow into an adult who can deal with these issues in a deliberative manner.

Recent current events have exposed rifts in our society that many of us have had the luxury to ignore for the last many years. We can no longer ignore them. Fortunately, school is a good place to deal with them and school children are the ideal audience.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Mis-Measure of Schools and School Children

Currently, at least 14 states grade their public schools on an A-F scale. Educators are correct to point out that this is a stupid way to hold schools accountable. Three reasons pop out right away when we think about the idiocy of giving schools a letter grade and then publicizing this grade through the media.

  1. A letter grade cannot possibly capture the complexity of the learning society that is a school. So many factors go into what makes a school high functioning or low functioning that letter grades, leaning heavily on standardized tests, are suspect from the outset.
  2. Letter grades, again based largely on standardized test scores, narrow the curriculum and encourage poor instructional practice based on test preparation
  3. Low grades given to schools where teachers, administrators and students are working hard at overcoming the odds, destroy morale and inhibit motivation, while high grades may encourage a false complacency.
So, yes, all educators should fight against these short-sighted, narrow-cast attempts to assess their work on a school-wide basis. Unfortunately, we teachers cannot claim the moral high ground here. Teachers, after all, invented A-F grading and for the past 150 years or so have been working to convince parents, students, and community members that grades are a legitimate way to assess a student's knowledge. This is a lie. It is a lie that the public has bought into wholly and now the public, in the form of state legislatures and departments of education, is coming to punish us with our own invention.

Letter grades for students have all the same flaws as letter grades for schools, except that instead of the damage being institutional it is personal. 
  1. Letter grades for students, we all know, are woefully inadequate measures of the complexity of individual student learning. 
  2. Grades narrow learning by creating a "grading orientation" rather than a "learning orientation."
  3. While high grades may motivate students to want to achieve more high grades, low grades are demoralizing to lower achieving students and destroy motivation.
We tend to pack too much into grades: test and quiz scores, homework completion, attendance, classroom participation, effort and on and on. Many of these things are only tangentially relevant to actual achievement, but all get packed into a grade. I was recently a part of a discussion on assessing writing. The teachers were working on a rubric, which tried to capture all the aspects of a constructed response essay. At one point, the principal pointed out that the rubric score was not to be considered as a grade. In fact, a student with a "4" out of "6" on the essay, might get an A if she were in a low track class or a C if in a higher track class. The teachers generally agreed. Immediately, we have to ask, what is being graded - the student's ability to write or the student's perceived overall ability? Obviously, the grade does not reflect, in this scenario, writing ability, but some aspect of writing combined with effort, combined with teacher perceptions. And so it is with all grades. They lie. They do not provide useful feedback, but we have convinced the public they are meaningful.

Alfie Kohn has argued for years that grades diminish an orientation towards learning. A "grading orientation" as he calls it, causes students to focus on getting a grade rather than learning new and interesting information. A grading orientation leads to a desire to choose the easiest possible task, because that easier task will lead to the better grade, not necessarily to better learning. Students become efficient grade acquirers. For example, when assigned a reading task with follow up questions, the efficient grade acquirer will go straight to the questions and answer them, only reading what is absolutely necessary to complete the graded assignment. A grading and testing orientation narrows students focus on the trivial and takes them away from the larger questions and broader understandings in any area of study.

In a Psychology Today article, Schwartz and Sharpe argue that "if we corrupt students' souls by convincing them that the main motive for learning are high grades and honors, we end up de-motivating, and de-moralizing, those students who have little chance for the top rankings. It is true that studies have shown that grades can be motivating for high achievers, but often, as discussed above, this is at the cost of deeper understanding. 

I had a group of so-called "college bound" 8th graders many years ago in an American History class. The students in this class were used to getting As on all there work. They understood the school "game" well and were bright and capable. I had a habit of including one or two essay questions on my tests and quizzes along with map identification and multiple choice questions. These students regularly Aced the map and multiple choice questions, but struggled mightily with the essays, which tended to read like a list of highlights from the text, rather than well reasoned arguments. Some of these students started getting Bs or Cs on their tests. They were incensed. We had a lengthy discussion about what it meant to think like an historian, but the students felt I was changing the rules on them. They were A students after all. How dare I? 

If I had had a little more experience (and tenure) in those days, I might have told those students what I tell my college students now, "All of you in this class are smart enough to get an A, so I am going to give you an A right now. Now let's get on with the actual learning we have to do." 

I know nothing I say here is going to change grades and grading in the near future, but I do want us all to understand that when others seek to grade us, we have only ourselves to blame. In subsequent posts I will discuss better ways to assess student learning.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Heavens to Betsy (DeVos)!

My paternal grandmother, Eleanor Cunningham Walsh, disdained the use of coarse language of any type. Whenever one of her many grandchildren would do something particularly boneheaded, the most virulent epithet she could muster was, "Heavens to Betsy!" When president-elect, Donald Trump, announced his choice for Secretary of Education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, I must admit that "Heavens to Betsy" was not the first phrase that came to my mind, but on reflection I think it is very appropriate.

DeVos is the ultimate privatizer of education. Not satisfied with using quasi-public charter schools as a way to drain resources from actual public schools, DeVos goes Full Monty on vouchers. She wants to eliminate public education entirely by giving every child a government check to go find the private school or religious school of choice. It is, of course, "the civil rights issue of our time." I have cataloged the danger and false promises of vouchers in this post from a few years ago. It is important to note that the heavily education reform-minded Obama administration rejected vouchers as a solution because it drained public dollars from public schools that were already strapped for resources and because vouchers did not work.

The idiocy and danger of this appointment has been well documented by other bloggers. If you have not done so already, I suggest you read the posts of the always on target Peter Greene here and here and here, Jersey Jazzman's analysis of Devos' husband's charter school fiasco here, and Michigan State University professor, Mitchell Robinson's account from DeVos' home state here. G.F. Brandenburg has pointed out that all that DeVos money comes from Amway Products, the quasi-legal pyramid scheme of a corporation that sucks money from poor unsuspecting would be small business owners in order to enrich the very few at the top of the pyramid. The Badass Teachers Association has also compiled a reading list on DeVos you can find here. 

So, what do we do now? Where do those of us who care about public education turn after years of disastrous leadership in the Department of Education, with an appointment that promises to be even more disastrous?

I suggest we join together to resist. First we need to resist by direct action to try to block this nominee. The Network for Public Education has begun a letter writing campaign you can access here. Better yet, call your senators (who will vote on the nomination) and your representatives (who will advise the senators). Directions for calling can be found here. 

Secondly, we need to resist on the state level. The federal government can and has done plenty of damage to public schools in the last 20 years, but under the new ESSA rules and under the current funding structure for schools, the feds need complicity in the states to make bad stuff happen. So, support your local and state teacher unions and parent organizations that will fight against federal efforts to expand vouchers and charters. Elect pro-public education officials. Go to school board meetings and let your voices be heard.

Thirdly, we need to resist by challenging this false narrative of charter schools and vouchers being the "civil rights issue of our time." Here we can fight back with real documentation. A recent study by Mathematica, a respected research group that generally finds in favor of the privatizers, found, after an extensive study, that the quality of the teacher is not a factor in the different educational opportunities of children. Here is how Mathematica's Senior Researcher, Eric Isenberg, put it 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found only small differences in the effectiveness of teachers of high- and low-income students in our study districts. This suggests that the achievement gap arises from factors other than students's access to effective teachers.

My favorite part of this statement is "contrary to conventional wisdom." This is unintentionally funny. It should say "contrary to the conventional wisdom of corporate education reformers who have been clueless on this issue from the start." All the rest of us have always known that it is poverty, inequity, and segregation that are the main contributors to the achievement gap.

Two summaries of the research on vouchers I find helpful are provided by the NEA here and by Keystone Research Center here. The conclusion: vouchers drain money from public schools, fail to expand choice for most parents, fail to improve student achievement, fail to provide safeguards for how the money is spent, and end up costing the taxpayers more. Vouchers, in other words, are a scam of the proportions of Amway. No wonder DeVos is a fan.

So, dear teachers, we must resist. We must resist with our actions and we must resist with our voices. We must help the nation realize, in what promises to be a difficult time ahead, that the real "civil rights issue of our time" is inequity, and that until we get to work on that issue, no scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy with monies intended for school children is going to narrow the achievement gap. Let us all commit to calling that gap what it truly is, an opportunity gap, a gap that the billionaire Betsy DeVos cannot possibly see from the platform of privilege where she has been standing her entire life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Reflection

The title of this post comes from a picture book by Eve Bunting, with illustrations by Beth Peck. Back when I was teaching elementary school, I always read this book aloud to the students around Thanksgiving. The book tells the contemporary story of a family from an unnamed Caribbean island who flee their home by night to escape political persecution at the hands of government soldiers. They board a boat and endure many hardships on a journey that ends with a landing in Florida on Thanksgiving Day. Once safe on land, they spend their first day in America celebrating their freedom and safety with relatives on shore.

I love this book for many reasons, Bunting's spare, but vivid prose, Peck's wonderful crayon drawings, the joyous ending, but especially because it resonates so beautifully with the experiences of those other Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving - escaping persecution to find freedom and safety in a faraway new land. I would usually back up this reading with a reading of Ann McGovern's classic, If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620, illustrated by Ann Devito.

Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, rolls around this year as the meaning of the recent election begins to be revealed. I find myself thinking about how grateful I am for the diversity of peoples and cultures that make up the American family. This diversity has enriched my life in so many ways, profound and trivial, and I hope that we all can take a moment to reflect on this during this year's Thanksgiving celebration, as it becomes increasingly apparent that not all Americans share in a joyous view of diversity.

Last week in the Food section of the newspaper, the New York Times took a look at the many ways Americans celebrate this holiday. Each of the many cultures that make up the American quilt have contributed foods and traditions that recall home at the same time they celebrate the gifts that life in America has brought. It was compelling to read about these many diverse cultures, all putting their own stamp on the celebration, but all celebrating America as Americans.

As a parent and teacher, wanting to share this sense of "many cultures, one country" with my children, grandchildren, and students, I naturally turn to read-alouds and picture books. Fortunately there are many good books to choose from. In addition to the two mentioned above I recommend the following:

Squanto's Journey, by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Greg Shed.

The Thanksgiving story told from the point of view of the Native American whose actions helped save the Plymouth Colony. An historically accurate, detailed account.

Duck for Turkey Day, by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kathryn Miller

A young Vietnamese girl worries what her teacher and classmates will think because her parents insist that duck is tastier than turkey and insist on serving it for Thanksgiving.

Molly's Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy.

Recent immigrant Molly helps her classmates learn that it takes all kinds of Pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving. Powerful, classic story with new illustrations.

Gracias, The Thanksgiving Turkey, by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

When Miguel's father sends home a live turkey from his job on the road driving a truck, Miguel names the bird Gracias and walks him around the neighborhood on a leash. He then must fret about the bird's fate when his father gets home.

Want more? Here is an online resource for multicultural Thanksgiving Day books.

Happy Thanksgiving. May the holiday bring you together with family and friends and may we all take a moment to give thanks for the diversity that makes us who we are. And also, perhaps, to remember that for many of us, some young ancestor from a far away land likely looked up at his parents and asked, "How many days to America?"

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What Is Research-Based Instruction?

Did you ever wonder about the term "research-based"? We all want to make sure our instruction is research-based. But every commercial program for reading instruction on the market advertises itself as research-based and professional developers always preface their talks by saying their recommendations are research-based. We are told the Common Core is research-based. What exactly does "research-based" mean?

The conventional definition of research-based is instructional practice that is "founded on an accumulation of facts that have been established in research." Let's take that Common Core favorite close reading as an example. Close reading is research-based. It is founded on some things that we know about reading instruction. For example, research shows definitively that reading comprehension and fluency are improved by repeated reading. Research also shows that focusing on vocabulary and sentence structure strengthens reading comprehension. Since close reading deals with these factors of reading comprehension proponents can say that close reading is research-based.

What close reading is not is researched. According to the Common Core's own review of the literature published here, "close reading was not a widely practiced method prior to the adoption of the Standards, [and so] it has not been studied directly through rigorous academic research." There are no studies that demonstrate that close reading accomplishes improved reading. There are no studies that show that close reading makes you more college and career ready. There are no studies that demonstrate that close reading is a better use of time than other instructional strategies focusing on fluency, vocabulary, and syntax.

Is this a distinction without a difference? I don't think so. Let's look at an instructional strategy that has been proven to improve reading comprehension - reciprocal teaching. Reciprocal teaching is an integrated strategy approach where students are taught to use several reading strategies within a small group discussion environment to process their understanding of the text. Like close reading, reciprocal teaching combines several well-researched reading comprehension strategies for improving comprehension, in this case summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. Like close reading, reciprocal teaching focuses on vocabulary and comprehension. Unlike close reading, however, reciprocal teaching itself has been subjected to rigorous research and has been found to be effective in improving student use of reading strategies and improving comprehension.

So, as teachers, we are faced with a dilemma. Do we spend scarce instructional time on a research-based strategy like close reading that is being heavily pushed by Common Core proponents and perhaps by the administration of our school or do we focus on a researched strategy like reciprocal teaching as the more likely to get the results we want (improved comprehension, vocabulary, sentence level understanding) or do we do a little of both?

To help us make a decision we can take a look at what the literacy experts say. In any research-based sales pitch we must always be aware of who is doing the selling. Common Core proponents support close reading, but these people are not literacy specialists. The leading researcher on reading comprehension in the country, P. David Pearson, has some concerns about close reading. Pearson has critiqued close reading's emphasis on text dependent questions and tasks as too narrowly focused and too dismissive of student background knowledge. Another researcher, John Guthrie is concerned that close reading ignores the importance of student engagement in the reading. Snow and O'Connor have suggested that close reading works against the valuable outcomes that come from discussion and argumentation, because students are limited to only what is in the text (Pearson & Hiebert, 2015).

So, when we see the term research-based we know as teachers that we need to dig a little deeper. If the proponents of the Common Core were devoted to the research, they might well have wanted to highlight reciprocal teaching as a strategy to be supported and spread through every classroom in the country. But as is true with many things in literacy instruction, the Common Core was driven by a political agenda (college and career readiness) and proponents found the research on which to base their recommendations for meeting that agenda. As teachers in classrooms full of real kids with real learning needs, we need to do better.

Embracing research to guide our work is a good thing. But teachers must be wise consumers of that research. Teachers must surely make decisions on the basis of research, but just as surely on the basis of the particular needs of the children in front of them. Close reading may well be a valuable instructional strategy, but based on the lack of research, the jury is still out. We may want to include close reading in our instruction, but we certainly would not want to do so to the exclusion of strategies with a stronger research base.

Here are some questions that may help you be an informed consumer of research.

  • Who paid for the research?
  • Who stands to profit from the research?
  • Who conducted the research?
  • What particular theoretical/psychological construct seems to underpin the research?
  • Has the research appeared in a peer reviewed journal?
  • Does the research square with my own experience?
  • Has the research stood the test of time and been replicated by others?
  • Does the research square with what we know about how children learn language?
  • How well does the population studied in the research match with my own students?

Work Cited

Pearson, P.D. & Hiebert, E.H. (2015) Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. NY: Teachers College Press.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Purposeful Reading: Engaging Students in Content Text

I had the opportunity to observe a guided reading lesson in a second grade class last week. The children were reading a book called Wonderful Worms, by Linda Glaser. The teacher did a fine job of introducing the book to the children and worked hard to set the purpose for reading. The teacher said, "I want you to read this book to find out why the author named this book, Wonderful Worms." As purpose setting questions go, this is a good one, because it was general enough to allow the children to think about the whole story and specific enough to allow the students to focus on the main message of the story. As Tim Shanahan has pointed out here, when purpose questions are too specific they may take student attention away from a fuller understanding of the text. The teacher added to the purpose setting by asking the students what questions they had about the story. These questions tapped into the students' own curiosity on the topic and so were also helpful in setting purposes for reading.

Despite these fine efforts by the teacher, not all the students in the guided reading group were buying into it. One boy sped through the pages very quickly and when the teacher went to his side and asked that he read aloud, his oral reading showed lots of speed, but little meaning making. The overall impression was that this child's purpose was to get through with the task as quickly and as painlessly as possible. He wanted to be done with the exercise and comprehension be damned. All the good work of purpose setting was lost on this reader.

Student purposes and teacher purposes are often in competition in a reading assignment. Very often students who are asked to answer questions at the end of the chapter will ignore the reading of the chapter altogether and just search the text for the answer to the question. The students' purpose here is similar to that of the second grader in the lesson above - not to learn the information - but, as Shanahan suggests, to complete the task in the most efficient way possible.

To understand why, I think we need to look at the reasons adults read and then see how we can apply this understanding to young readers. I read for many reasons every day. I read to stay informed, I read for entertainment, and I read for work. To stay informed, I read the New York Times. I read the Times selectively, skimming headlines to see which articles I want to read more fully. Everyday I linger over the obituaries, which I consider a kind of daily history lesson, the opinion pages, as well as movie and theater reviews. If an article relevant to education pops up, I read it closely, sometimes even leaving a comment.

For entertainment each day I read a poem. I enjoy poetry, perhaps because I have a short attention span, but also because I enjoy the interplay of words at which poets are so adept. I look for this word play and I also look for insights that illuminate the human condition. Finally for work, I may take an entirely different approach to reading. Recently, I have been creating power points for a graduate class I am teaching. This requires reading large amounts of research and theory and translating that into pithy power point slides. This is a very different kind of reading that has me focusing on key points to share with my students.

Each of these kinds of reading has a specific purpose and requires a specific kind of reading. The key is that I, the reader, determine the purpose and that that purpose fulfills some need, personal or professional, in my life. What I am doing is purposeful reading and what we want to foster in our students is not a teacher determined purpose, but a condition that sets them up to do purposeful reading.

Literacy researcher, Nell Duke says that we need to create classrooms where students "read informational text as often as possible for compelling reasons." What are some ways we can foster compelling reasons for reading?

Reading as inquiry - students who are curious about a topic have a genuine purpose for reading. Teachers can foster curiosity through setting up conditions where students observe phenomena and then seek information to explain it. Raising butterflies or tadpoles or having an ant farm in the classroom may pique student interest. Simple experiments (Duke suggests evaporation or magnetism) may send students off to find information to explain what happened. Skillful teachers help students activate curiosity and then point the students to books, articles, web sites they can read to quench that curiosity.

Reading to share - Research shows that when students are asked to read something so that they can share that information with others, they read more strategically and with greater comprehension (Guthrie , 2003). One way to set up a reading share is a jigsaw activity. In a jigsaw, small groups of students form a home group. Each member of the home group is assigned to an expert group where they will read one chunk of a longer piece of informational text. The students read and discuss what they have read with their small group of other experts and then are responsible for sharing that information with their home group. In the home group, experts on different parts of the text share what they have learned.

Reading to write - Duke suggests that reading to write can also increase authenticity. If reading on pollution is paired with the goal of writing letters to the community regarding recycling practices, the purpose of the reading becomes more clear. The same may be true for reading about a particular country that culminates in a travel brochure. Purposeful writing tasks make can make for purposeful reading.

Anticipation/prediction guides - Anticipation/prediction guides are a good strategy for helping students activate background knowledge and generate curiosity about a reading. To make an anticipation/prediction guide the teacher chooses a passage and determines what key ideas the author is communicating. These key ideas are then expressed in simple declarative sentences and arranged in a yes/no, agree/disagree, true/false format. Students predict whether they will read that these statements are true or false according to the author. An important aspect of the anticipation/prediction guide is the discussion generated by student choices prior to reading. You can learn more about anticipation guides here. Below is an example of an anticipation/prediction guide that has the student revisiting the predictions after reading.

The research has long been clear that reading with a purpose improves comprehension. What has also been clear is that no matter how hard teachers work at creating purposes for reading, student purposes may not match teacher purposes. Working toward developing curiosity and real reasons for reading may lead to the kind of purposeful reading that is engaging and which fosters use of reading strategies and improved comprehension.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Racist Genie is Out of the Bottle (again)

Like many teachers across the country, I walked into my classroom for the first time after the election with a sense of trepidation. I teach a college freshman class focused on reading improvement. The class is quite diverse, about 55% African-American, 30% white, and 15% Hispanic. I planned to address the election because I knew it would be on the mind of all my students. I planned to show them the video of President Obama’s post-election speech from the White House lawn. The President, following the tradition of Presidents before him, sought to ensure a smooth transition and articulated a hope that all American citizens would work together for the success of a Trump presidency. I told the students that the President was trying to show us the best way to respond to surprising and perhaps worrying change.

I then asked the students to write in their interactive notebooks in response to this prompt: What are some of your worries and some of your hopes as we look forward to a Trump presidency? The students wrote for about 15 minutes and then I invited them to share. More hands went up than at any other time in the semester. Worries, for the most part followed a familiar pattern. Students of Hispanic descent cited fear that they or their friends and relatives would be targeted for deportation. Some students worried about the hateful targeting of their Muslim/Hispanic/African-American friends. Many students expressed surprise that so many women had voted for Trump in the wake of his sexist statements and behavior. One student worried that the election would further divide the country, while another student offered that he thought the campaign had divided the country long before the election took place and he blamed both candidates for taking the low road. The students were thoughtful and articulate and impassioned.

One student offered the hope that Trump would moderate his attacks on people of color, Muslims, immigrants and others now that he had won the election and realized he had to serve all of us. I said I thought we could all agree that this was greatly to be hoped.

And then it happened. Something I was not expecting, but something that brought great clarity to what this election really means to many of the young people in my classroom.

A normally quiet young woman raised her hand and said, “It is not so much Trump I am worried about, but his followers who now feel free to act out all their feelings towards minorities.” The young woman then went on to tell about three separate incidents of intimidation and bias that had been directed at her, on campus, to her face, since the election. The young woman, who is Hispanic and born in this country, was asked if she was ready to be deported now that Trump was elected. Other taunts of the “we are going to build that wall and send you back where you came from" variety came a little later and she reported them to campus authorities, all of them written down on her phone so she could get the language verbatim.

Another young woman raised her hand to report on a tweet she received that stated, “If my president can grab your pussy, then I can, too.” Other young women reported receiving the same tweet. Another student reported on a tweet she received saying that, “At last we won’t have to put up with those ‘things’ coming over the border, cause Trump is going to build a wall.” Several students reported on racist tweets that were circulating since the election. Another student said that friends reported to her that they had voted for Trump because every time they saw a Muslim on the street they were afraid and Trump was going to kick them out.

Trump’s campaign of hate has let the genie out of the bottle. The racism that is never far from the surface in America has been unleashed, has been made acceptable and has empowered the most bigoted in our society to own their bigotry as a weapon against all people they identify as the “other.” I talked briefly, trying to give all this context, about Germany in the 1930s and how the politics of fear can unleash the most horrific perversions of human behavior.

A young man raised his hand. “I am scared, and all my friends in the LGBT community are scared, too. We don’t know much about Trump’s position on LGBT rights, but we know all about his Vice President, Mike Pence’s, positions on gays and transgender people. I fear that since Trump doesn’t have any experience in governing, he will listen to people like Mike Pence.” The emotion in the young man’s voice was palpable. His classmates offered support, and I lost it.

“Look folks," I said. "This is not OK. You need to know that this is not OK. If any of you at any time are subject to any of these attacks, tweets, Facebook posts or just campus innuendo either because of your race, your gender, your sexual identity, please report what has happened immediately. If you are afraid to report it to the authorities on campus, come to me and we will do it together. This must stop now.”

It was a highly emotional classroom. We never got to the planned essay reading for the day. Class ended in hugs and attempted reassurance. When I got home and shared with my wife, she told me about news reports coming in from around the country of similar types of intimidation and race baiting in schools and public places.

This morning the New York Times published an editorial asking that the President-elect directly and immediately denounce the hate and let his supporters know that this targeting behavior is not OK. But once you let the hate genie out of the bottle, it is devilishly difficult to put it back in. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are never far from the surface in this country and when these baser instincts of humans seem to have the imprimatur of the leader of the country, it may take a lifetime to tame them.

As teachers, we need to be on guard and vigilant. We must re-double our efforts to make sure the classroom, the hallways, the cafeteria, the locker room, the campus are safe for all people, including Trump supporters, who will almost certainly be the targets of backlash as well.

In 1992, Rodney King, the African-American victim of a brutal police beating in Los Angeles asked, “Can we all get along?” Apparently not, Rodney. Not yet, anyway. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Can Fiction Save Democracy?

By many accounts this is the most contentious presidential election ever. There seems to be genuine fear that our democratic system of government, built on the ideals of the rule of law, an honorable and peaceful political process, and the ability of elected leaders to compromise in the face of difficult decisions, has devolved into warring camps on constant attack. These camps then use a variety of media outlets, which often seem more like political arms of the dueling parties rather than journalists bent on informing the public, to push their point of view down our throats.

How are teachers to respond to this? Our educational system was built on the ideal that a thriving democracy depended on an informed, educated citizenry. What is our responsibility as teachers in the face of the growing polarization of the parties and the overwhelming amount of propaganda parading as information bombarding our students?

Some educators are arguing that what we need is to help children develop news literacy. The News Literacy Project defines news literacy as the ability to discern between reporting that seeks to present information fairly, accurately and contextually from reporting that is rooted in opinion, rumor and disinformation. You can learn more about the news literacy approach from The News Literacy Project web site and the Center for News Literacy, both of which are developing lesson plan ideas for teachers.

News literacy is a worthy and necessary goal, of course, and it has the advantage of slipping nicely into place alongside the Common Core State Standards' call for the reading of more nonfiction text in school and for the critical analysis of that text. But I would like to focus on one way we can address the threat to democracy that may not be as obvious, and that seems to be downplayed in the Common Core, but is nonetheless vital if our country is to survive. I want to suggest that reading fiction is the best hope for our current and future democracy.

Why fiction? I believe that our current state of political affairs is the result of an increasing inability to see another person's point of view as legitimate. I am talking here about empathy. The ability as the songwriter Joe South put it, to "walk a mile" in the other guy's shoes. Our increasing isolation as a country, the diminution of community spirit and the increase in the politics of me, has sneaked up on us. It is in part the result of technological innovation including the automobile, the television, and the internet.

It is ironic that the internet, with its promise of opening the world of knowledge to us, has instead become an echo chamber where we only really hear the voices that agree with us. The victim of this isolation has been our ability to empathize with others. This growing isolation is one way to explain the vitriol directed at immigrants, the increased racial segregation 60 years after Brown v. The Board of Education, and the stark division between red states and blue states. Other factors are at play of course, but empathy is one that we can address in school.

It is well documented that fiction helps individuals develop empathy (Mar, Oatley & Peterson, 2009). Several studies have shown that reading literary fiction, as opposed to non-fiction or formulaic fiction, helps develop what researchers call Theory of Mind. According to Kidd and Castano (2013) "Theory of Mind is the ability to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires" (page 337). Kidd and Castano found that reading literary fiction helped readers develop Theory of Mind. A study by Vezzali, et al. (2014) found that reading Harry Potter books (with their depiction of prejudice against Muggles) reduced racist attitudes of high school students. Vezzali says that when you read fiction, you don't just learn a new way of interacting, you actually put yourself in the place of the character.

And that is what we need to be doing at this critical time in our history - putting ourselves in the other guy's place. One of the first great, long novels I ever read was The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. This book helped me develop an understanding of people that were far out of my own suburban Philadelphia experience, but who I could see were real, hard-working, very American people trying to make a go of it in a world that was conspiring against them. The words of that heroic Everyman of the novel, Tom Joad, resonate in my ears to this day. 

And then, in the height of the Civil Rights movement, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. After reading that book, I wanted to become a lawyer. I wanted to right wrongs. I wanted to be a better person than I was. Atticus Finch is still an important model for me in trying to be a good person and a good father. In college, I read Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris. I was and still am a huge baseball fan and here was a book that used baseball as the backdrop for a very human story of an unlikely friendship between an educated, erudite star pitcher and a slow-witted, uneducated, third-string catcher. That book opened my eyes to the basic humanity in us all, no matter how limited or humble our background, how unhappy our circumstance, or how limited our prospects.

And that is just three books for me. In the classroom, I have seen students transformed by the insights they found in characters in picture books like The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson, or Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting; by novels like The Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson; Freak the Mighty, by Nathaniel Philbrick; The Giver, by Lois Lowry; The Man Without a Face, by Isabelle Holland and so many, many more.

So the answer to what is ailing the country is right there on the shelves of our classroom library - good fiction. Now the job remains to make sure we connect the kids with these books and that that connection leads to a life of reading that fiction and nurturing that empathetic soul that resides in us all. Only by seeing the other person as one with us in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can our ideal of a democratic nation survive.

So, I ask you to go out and vote for the candidate you think best represents the kind of empathy that is the American ideal and then come home, pour yourself a glass of wine, and open a good book.