Thursday, June 28, 2018

Supreme Court Sticks It To the Union, Again

The increasingly conservative Supreme Court decided to side with the rich and moneyed in the so-called Janus ruling yesterday. The ruling seemed inevitable. In fact, I predicted this day would come in a post 4 years ago, SCOTUS Sticks It To The Union. Justice Samuel Alito has signaled in several rulings that he has been itching to overturn the earlier Supreme Court decision in Abood from 40 years ago that allowed public sector unions (like teacher unions) to collect agency fees from non-members who benefit from the unions collective bargaining activity. Alito just needed to wait for Senator Mitch McConnell to block the Obama nomination of Judge Merrick Garland and then steamroll the approval of Justice Neil Gorsuch and he had the five votes he needed (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kennedy).

Alito sounded almost gleeful in his opinion. "We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of non-members by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern." In her dissent, read from the bench, Justice Elena Kagan would have none of it. "There is no sugar-coating today's opinion. The majority overthrows an opinion entrenched in the nation's law - and in its economic life - for over forty years... And it does so by weaponizing the first amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy."

The ruling will weaken public sector unions in general and teacher unions in particular. Unions are imperfect constructions, of course. They are also vital to the economic and physical health of working people. Teacher unions are vital not just to teachers and teacher families, but to student and student families as well.

I began my career in 1969 prior to unionization and collective bargaining. My pay was too low to support my family, so I worked evenings and weekends at my father's gas station and sold ice cream from a truck in the summer months. I taught 6 classes a day. I was allowed 2 preparation periods a week. My class size was as high as 40 students and averaged 33. My unair-conditioned room reached temperatures approaching 100 degrees on warm June and September days.

In 1970, Pennsylvania teachers won collective bargaining rights. Over the next ten years, thanks to the collective bargaining actions of my union, I saw my salary rise enough so that I did not have to work evenings and weekends at the gas station. My class sizes went down. I was allowed 5 preparation periods a week. An air-conditioner was installed in my classroom.

All this was good for me and my family, of course, but it was also good for my students. A living wage meant I could spend more time on lesson plans and wasn't tired all the time. Smaller classes meant more time for individual student attention. Air-conditioning meant a better learning environment for the students.

The union movement will now be in a battle for its existence. Already groups funded by wealthy conservative organizations are gearing up to help teachers opt out of their union (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 28, 2018 p. A15). Non-Members will reap all the benefits of the collective bargaining work the union does for free. Younger teachers, with lower salaries, may well make the hard choice to opt out of the union to save a few very needed bucks.

This, of course, is exactly what the moneyed 1% of Americans wants. Public sector unions will get smaller and poorer in the coming years. Weak unions mean lower wages. Weak unions mean lower taxes. Weak unions mean more money for the rich and less for the rest of us. The Supreme Court ruling is a boon to the wealthy and a further stake in the heart of public education.

There is, however, hope. Along with the steady drumbeat of anti-worker legislation and anti-labor court rulings coming out of Washington has come a new energy on the part of teachers to take collective action. We have seen this happening in non-union states like Arizona, Oklahoma, and North Carolina, but the attractiveness of collective action seems to be reflecting well on union activities as well. A recent Gallup poll found that more people have a positive view of unions than at any time since 2003. Unions in states like West Virginia, where teachers have had walkouts, report increases in union membership.

Union leaders are going to need to redouble efforts to truly serve their constituents, to make personal contact, to listen, to serve. While virtually every decision coming out of the power corridors has been anti-union, the moneyed classes may have over-played their hand. The true power still remains in the hands of the classroom teacher, because it is the classroom teacher who is responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the public schools where 85% of all children still attend. If those classroom teachers are willing to work together collectively through union action, they are a force that cannot be stopped by any legislation or wrong headed Supreme Court ruling.

By joining together, by working together, teachers can achieve reasonable working conditions, a livable salary, and a more equitable education for their students. If we do not join together, working conditions, salaries, and learning conditions will continue to deteriorate.

As for me, I will borrow from the singing of Pete Seeger: "You can't stop me, I'm sticking to the union. I'm sticking to the union till the day I die."

Monday, June 25, 2018

On the Passing of Donald Hall: Poet, Children's Book Author, Baseball Fan

Donald Hall at work in his office (photo: Tony Cenicola, NYT)
I read in Monday morning's New York Times, that Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the United States, a New England poet and writer in the tradition of Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur, had died at the age of 89. Donald Hall and I have a long history. I am sitting here right now pouring over my signed edition of Hall's, Old and New Poems (Ticknor and Fields, 1990). Ironically, though, my first encounter with the great poet wasn't through poetry, but through an extended essay he wrote in the 1970s entitled, Father's Playing Catch with Sons. The essay was, and still is, the very best explication I have read on baseball's special hold on the national consciousness.

...for baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining all the generations of fathers and sons.

Donald Hall, poet, was also Donald Hall, baseball fan, and as a fellow baseball fan, I quickly became a fan of his writing.

I next encountered Donald Hall as a children's book author. His poem, The Ox Cart Man, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney, won the Caldecott Medal in 1980, just as I was launching my second career as a reading specialist. The Ox Cart Man is a little jewel of an exposition on the cycle of the rural life. The poem follows a farmer to market where he sells his honey, wool, leather, and linen and then..

When the cart is empty he sells the cart.
When the cart is sold he sells the ox, 
harness and yoke and walks
home, his pockets heavy
with the year's coin for salt and taxes,

and at home by fire's light in November cold
stitches new harness 
for next year's ox in the barn,
and carves the yoke, and saws planks
building the cart again.

The Ox Cart Man and other children's books by Hall became fixtures in my classroom library and in my read alouds. Other titles include  I Am the Dog I Am the Cat, When Willard Met Babe Ruth, The Farm Summer 1942 (all illustrated by Barry Moser), The Milkman's Boy (illustrated by Greg Shed), The Man Who Lived Alone (illustrated by Mary Azarian), and Lucy's Summer and Lucy's Christmas (illustrated by Michael McCurdy)

Finally, in the 1980s and 90s, I dove into Donald Hall the poet for adults. While much of Hall's early poetry was colored by the same rural themes of his children's books, his later work evoked images of illness and loss. His wife, the noted poet Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia in 1995, and Hall himself fought a 25 year battle with colon and liver cancer.

This is from Stone Walls written in the 1970s:

Stone walls emerge from leafy ground
and show their bones. In September a leaf
falls singly down, then a thousand leaves whirl
in frosty air. I am wild
with joy of leaves falling, of stone walls
emerging, of return to the countryside
where I lay as a boy
in the valley of noon heat, in the village
of little sounds, where I floated 
out of myself, into the world that lives in the air.

This is a later poem from Hall's collection, The Old Life (1996).


          Curled on the sofa
in the fetal position, Jane wept day 
          and night, night and day.
I could not touch her, I could do nothing.
          Melancholia fell
like the rain over Ireland for weeks
          without end.
                                I never
belittled her sorrows or joshed at
          her dreads and miseries.
How admirable I found myself.

For readers wishing for an introduction to the poetry of Donald Hall, I would recommend the collection, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Selected Poems, 1946-2006. For a teacher's classroom library, I would recommend any of the picture books mentioned above and most especially a collection that Hall edited, The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems.

Thank you. Donald Hall for years and years of good reading, good poetry, and good baseball stories.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Fostering a Love for Reading in Children

A recent article in Education Week Teacher caught my attention. The article "Four Steps to Building a Magnificent Classroom Library", by primary grades teacher, Justin Minkel, offers some solid advice for making sure your in-class library is an effective resource for your students. The first three steps are "Increase diversity", "Match books to student ability", and "Make time for reading." All good ideas, thoroughly explained.

The fourth step that Minkel identifies calls for the teacher to "Build a love of reading." This is critical, of course, but aside from acknowledging its importance, "our job isn't just to teach kids to read, but to do whatever we can to make sure they love to read", Minkel offers few recommendations for how to make this happen. Access to lots of books in a well-constructed classroom library is a good start, but what else can a teacher do to foster that love of reading?

1. Be a Reader

In order to foster young readers, teachers must model how much joy reading brings to them personally. I like to think of teachers as living a literate life that includes reading for personal pleasure, reading books that may be of interest to their own students (to know what to purchase for the classroom library), and reading professional journals and books for personal professional development. Teachers should also take some time to share with students, talking about what they are reading, so that students get a picture of the adult in the room as a literate person.

2. Read Aloud Daily

What better way to share the joy of reading with children than by reading a good book aloud to them every day. Read aloud must be a regularly scheduled part of reading instructional time, not just a special treat or as a cool down exercise after recess, but as a celebration of the rich rewards contained in a good book well-read. Teachers must prepare for read aloud by reading the book and practicing reading with proper fluency, expression. and intonation. I wrote about The Need to Read Aloud here.

3. Provide Lots of Time for Reading in Class

In his article, Minkel highlights time for reading, but it bears reiterating here. Time crunches, test pressure, and over-packed curricula have put the squeeze on instructional time in school, but it remains critical that children have time to read independently and extensively during the school day. You can read my thoughts on this topic in this blog post: Independent Reading: A Research-Based Defense.

4. Conduct Regular Book Talks

As classroom teachers, we have tremendous power in shaping our students' reading interests. One way to use this influence productively is through the book talk. In a book talk, the teacher shares a book that she has read and that she thinks may interest some of the students. The book talk shows the children the book, names the author, and tells the students just enough about the book to whet their appetite and help them know if it may be something they want to read. Book talks may also include a brief read aloud of an interesting passage from the book. Book talks are short and don't give away the endings of books. I recommend book talking several books a week. I set aside 10 or 15 minutes on Monday mornings for book talking. After talking about the book to the kids, I just let them know they are available to be borrowed and leave them on my desk to be perused. They usually disappear by the end of the day. Librarian Nancy Keane offers some tips for book talks here. 

5. Encourage Talk About Books

Kids should be encouraged to share what they have read through talk. Independent reading time might end with a turn and talk where students partner up to share what they are reading and "what stood out for them." Teachers can hold mini-conferences with students during independent reading and invite students to, "Tell me about what you are reading." When students finish a book they nay be invited to do their own book talk about the book for their classmates. Talking about our reading with others improves our comprehension and reinforces the social nature of reading and constructing meaning.

6. Help Kids Get Books in Their Homes

One of the most important reasons for having an excellent classroom library is because we know that access to reading material is critical to the development of lifelong readers. Just as important for creating these lifelong readers are books in the home. Teachers can foster reading in the home by making sure that children get regular trips to the school library to borrow books and by encouraging parents to use the resources of the local public libraries to borrow books. Some teachers set up their own classroom libraries as lending libraries, so that students can also take these books home.

Research by Richard Allington has shown that simply getting books in kids hands over the summer helps counteract the effects of summer loss. Many homes do not have rich literacy resources. School activities that would contribute to getting more books in the home would be extremely worthwhile. Profits from book fairs and other activities might be directed to making sure that vulnerable readers get a few books of their own to take home over the summer.

Teachers can do much to foster a love of reading in their children. Like all worthy learning goals, this instruction must be planned, intentional, explicit, and persistent. Most importantly, it must grow out of the joy the teacher herself gets out of leading the literate life.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Exploding the Canon: Do Students Really Need to Read "The Scarlet Letter"?

Raise your hand if you were assigned reading The Scarlet Letter in high school. Keep your hand up if you actually read it. Continue to keep your hand up if you enjoyed it. I'm betting the raised hands are dwindling.

The Scarlet Letter is one of those works, along with The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, Hamlet, The Odyssey that make up the "literary canon", those classic texts we are all supposed to read. I was assigned it like everyone else. I didn't read it. Neither did most of my tenth grade classmates. Being a generally compliant student, I tried to read it, but I never got past the first couple of chapters. I suspect that The Scarlet Letter is the most assigned, most unread book in the American high school.

The book presented a great many challenges to my tenth grade mind. The greatest challenge was the archaic language and the drudgery involved in understanding what was going on. The sex, deception and community of nasty people were fine, but I just could not engage with this language and the descriptions.

My story has a happy ending. I passed the test on the book (I was really good at listening in class and was good friends with one kid who actually read it). To this day, while I still haven't read the book,  I can answer virtually any Jeopardy! style question on it. In fact, until this very public confession here, no one has ever brought this hole in my education up to me. My life, even my literary life, has not been severely impacted by my failure to read this book. Which brings me to the question, Why do we keep assigning this book to high school students?

The arguments for reading The Scarlet Letter, or any other classic, are many.
  • It's a classic. It has stood the test of time.
  • It has historical and cultural importance.
  • It has beautiful prose, timeless themes, and compelling characters.
  • If students aren't familiar with the classics, students won't understand allusions to them in every day discourse. You can hardly go a day without some reference to a classic text. If we don't study these works we are leaving kids out of participation in our cultural dialogue.
  • I had to read it, so you should, too.
I don't find any of these arguments to be compelling reasons for high school students to read The Scarlet Letter. I certainly think that college English majors and those studying to be English teachers should read the book - in college or as adults. I do think the idea that students need knowledge of the book in order to engage in everyday discourse that includes allusions to these classics is important, but do we really need to read the book to get this knowledge?

Since a classic book has historical and cultural significance, why not study it historically and culturally, as an artifact? After all, we do not need to refight the Battle of Gettysburg to understand its historical and cultural significance. We study about it. Why not study about The Scarlet Letter and read something more contemporary students might find engaging?

Here is what the culturally literate student needs to know about The Scarlet Letter.

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Date of Publication: 1850
Genre: Romantic Novel
Setting: Massachusetts Bay Colony, mid-17th century, the Puritan era
Summary: Hester Prynne, imprisoned for adultery, is paraded through town carrying her child, Pearl, sporting a scarlet letter "A" on her dress marking her for her sin. She refuses to tell who the father of her child is, a child recently born, despite her husband being away for two full years. Hester is visited in prison by her husband, who disguises himself as Dr. Roger Chillingworth and orders Hester to remain silent while he ferrets out who the father is. It does not take long for Chillingworth to figure out that the father is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is too afraid to confess his sin, but feels great pangs of guilt, not to mention being unnerved by the machinations of Chillingworth. Hester tells Dimmesdale who Chillingworth really is and they plan to escape together to England, but Dimmesdale instead confesses his sins, rips open his shirt to show a scarlet wound on his chest and dies. A year later Chillingworth dies, leaving all his money to Pearl. Hester and Pearl escape to England to begin a new life. Hester eventually returns to Massachusetts proudly wearing her scarlet letter and is buried next to Dimmesdale below a gravestone marked with a scarlet "A."
Major Themes: Revenge, Hypocrisy, Guilt and Blame, Women and Femininity, Sin.

Armed with this knowledge, students should be well prepared to parse any Scarlet Letter allusions that come up in conversation. Instead of reading The Scarlet Letter, students could learn about it. We could also show them a movie version, or an adaptation like the movie, The Easy A, which is a lot of fun.

In the meantime, teachers might be more productively engaged in getting students to actually read books that will pique their interest and contribute more fully to their becoming life long readers. Hawthorne, after all, wrote his book for an audience of adults, not high school sophomores. On the other hand, a book like Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has beautiful prose, timeless (and similar) themes, compelling characters and was written for young adult readers. All in all, if we are assigning reading to high schoolers, Speak seems like a better choice than The Scarlet Letter.

I won't argue that we should do away with the canonical literature in our classes entirely and only have kids read contemporary works, but I do think it would be wise to limit the assigning of classics to those that may have most resonance for a particular group of students and mix in plenty of high quality contemporary (and diverse) literature designed to engage readers in actually reading the book. I also think we would do a great service to our students by giving them more of a voice in what they actually read. Who knows, many of these contemporary books they do read may be part of the canon some day and they will have a head start.

For more arguments for and against teaching the classics see the article: “A Classic Debate” by Emily Chiariello in Literacy Today, May/June 2017 (Vol. 34, #6, p. 26-29),

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Thank You to My Readers: 1 Million Strong Today

Today this blog attracted its one millionth reader according to the little counter that Blogger provides to users of their service. While this number is dwarfed by many of the great education bloggers out there, it still marks a big milestone for me. I started this blog in earnest five years ago after some fits and starts. It fulfills a promise I made to myself to write after my retirement, because I felt I still had some things to say about teaching literacy. Over time I also began to address teaching and the politics of public education from a broader perspective.

One million is a mind boggling number. I have been presenting workshops for teachers since the early 1980s and in all that time I have probably reached fewer than 5000 teachers. With this blog I reach that many every week. Amazing.

So thank you to all my readers. I appreciate every single person who has ever clicked on this blog and I hope you have found thoughtful and useful information here. A special thank you to some folks who have championed this blog throughout its run: Diane Ravitch, Dr. Mary Howard, Peter Greene, P.L. Thomas, Steven Singer, Stu Bloom, Jonathan Pelto, Julie  Larrea Borst, and Susan DuFresne. Thanks also to Denny Taylor and Garn Press for reposting my work on the Garn Press web site. Special thanks to friends Erica Spence-Umstead, Tom Barclay, Don Stoll, Darcie Cimarusti, and Carol Burris for continued encouragement. Finally thanks to my wife Cindy, my number one confidant, critic, and co-conspirator.

As a form of celebration, here are five posts, one from each of the five years of the blog's existence, that I think represent what the blog has been all about.

From 2013: Round Robin Reading Must Die - One person's effort to wipe out a ubiquitous, but failed, literacy practice.

From 2014: Fighting Back at Standardized Tests: A Teacher's Guide- What the classroom teacher can do to fight back at the proliferation and abuse of standardized tests.

From 2015: You've Got To Be Taught - One teacher's take on racism, how it is taught in this country, and how it can be untaught in our schools by knowledgeable, caring teachers.

From 2016: 10 Reading Instruction Non-Negotiables - What are the most essential elements of reading instruction?

From 2017: What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need? - While it is important for teachers to have broad and deep content knowledge, even more important is the knowledge of how to communicate that knowledge to students - pedagogical content knowledge.

Enjoy! And as Shakespeare would say, "Thanks and thanks; and ever thanks.