Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Ethical Battle of Doctoral Work and Positions of Power in Public Schools

While most of the posts on this page have to do with direct classroom literacy practice, book reviews, and things of that nature, I do occasionally talk about issues in the public schools, including things that I hear about, things that I face, and other issues happening.

As I've stated many times before, I teach 5th grade. This means that I teach all subject areas, not just the language arts, as my literacy focused blog might imply. The state and school district I work in are both heavily focused on standardized testing measures, which are ongoing. Pre tests, mid tests, post tests, formative, summative, daily, weekly, monthly, semi-monthly, one-shot, short term, long term, you name it, we're asked to do it all.

In math, we are in the second year of our adoption of Math Investigations. The adoption process was highly politicized, which is something that, if you're a new teacher, you need to get used to. What I mean is the fact that everything that happens that involves large sums of money and massive, multi million dollar contracts, probably involves some sort of nepotism, friendly hand outs, pocket lining, or some other sort of politics. Now I'm not claiming this happened with Math Investigations, but after participating in the adoption proceedings, it was hard not to feel like someone in a position of power wielded some sort of influence into the final decision to hand over millions of dollars to the Investigations people.

OK, OK, anyways, on to today's little story. Recently, the entire district was asked to give some sort of numeration assessment, and this was tossed at us mid-year, right in the middle of everything else. Of course, the initial reaction from the teachers in the 25+ elementary schools around town was "why?" There never was an answer. Now, I am a doctoral student at the local university, and happen to know people that move in and out of both circles, public schools and university, their paths cross often actually in a town such as this one.

What I found out, through contacts both in the university system and knowing contacts who work at my districts central office is that we're doing this assessment to help someone in a position of power downtown with their doctoral dissertation. Now the issue becomes ethical from where I stand. There is nothing I found out there that actually says this is wrong, in fact, it's probably not, so I'm not implying wrongdoing on the part of the university or the public schools, or this person. I think it's an issue of individual ethics, and it's from that perspective that I will proceed.

It's one thing to complete a doctorate while working as a director of some program or another with a public school district, but it's quite another to mix the two, and ask 1,000 teachers to do the dirty work. I am still a little new to the whole process, but that gives me unique perspective as someone who moves within both systems (both high levels of the university and the public schools) to see this from an individual perspective not influenced by "the way it's done according to..." When I get to the dissertation sequence of my doctorate, my research will be my own, and if I need to assess students, I will do that, and if I need help, that's what grad assistants are for and others in the university level, not people who work for me and have no power to say no.

I tell this story simply as a cautionary tale, especially if you're in a situation similar to mine (and I'm not saying I'm unique, there are literally tens of thousands of teachers who are working on doctorates simultaneously). I think that, in terms of action research, to better my method and praxis, it's definitely appropriate, if not necessary, to have ongoing research, experimenting with new methods, and other things, within my own classroom. It's another thing to impose that on other classrooms without prior consent (that's not based on an "I said do it" mandate) from the instructor. So watch out, stand up for yourself, and know your rights. As for me, I'm not too sure what my rights are, so it looks like I'm stuck, but at least I can vent, right?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Must NOT Read List For Elementary School (Books That Were Once Great But Have Become Irrelevant)

Today's topic is about, as the title suggests, books that should not be read in the classroom. Now, I do have a side note on this one. I'm not just picking out horrible books, because there's many of those, too many to keep count, millions actually. This post is about books that were once great, or are still put on "must read" lists even though they're irrelevant, out of touch with today's child, or just hokie altogether at this point. So let's get to it. This could also be titled "The Great Classic Book Roast."

  • Little House on the Prairie: This applies to that entire series. I realize that these books were once considered the single greatest thing ever, and many teachers still hold on to them and use them in the classroom. In fact, in the 4th grade level of the current edition of the Scott Foresman basal reader that my district uses, excerpts of Little House in the Prairie can be found. WHY IT'S TRASH: I read this book in 4th grade, and hated every second of it. That was in 1990. Add 18 years to this, and that's about how kids today for the most part feel about this book. It's from a different time, and if you're reading it for historical perspective, there are much more meaningful ways to go about that.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall: OK, this isn't really fair. Sarah, Plain and Tall and Little House on the Prairie are very similar books. This book is another outdated story that has no relevance to today's kids. WHY IT'S TRASH: See what I wrote for Little House on the Prairie, right down to the basal thing.
  • To Kill A Mockingbird: Wow, I'm going to take some heat for this one, but I had to do it. The book does impart some important racial situations and big issues of Harper Lee's time. I had two copies of this book on my classroom bookshelf, and in three years it was checked out twice, neither student finished the book. I found, from talking to them, that the story actually didn't seem to make sense. WHY IT'S TRASH: Popular literary theories about reading methodology tell us that children should find cultural connections with stories for them to be meaningful. This is even more important to marginalized children (socio-economic, language, race, ethnicity, and whatever else you could add to this list). This story is a classic, and is a book that I have a lot of respect for, but it's no longer a good mainstay in the classroom, there are other books that can be read that will have more meaning in our time.
  • Where the Red Fern Grows: This is another classic that put me to sleep when I was in school. It sits, to this day, untouched on my classroom shelf and in the library, where it hasn't been checked out in over 7 years (I checked). WHY IT'S TRASH: It's irrelevant, doesn't hold interest anymore, and is actually a little dated in many ways.
  • Tikki Tikki Tembo: I'm going primary on this one. I actually used to read this book to pre-schoolers when that was where I taught. In those early literate stages, children enjoy rhyming books. Dr. Seuss is more appropriate than this book, which now borders on culturally inappropriate and dated. What is this 1945? WHY IT'S TRASH: All Chinese people have ridiculously long names. Yao Ming? 7 letters, end of story.

I'm going to stop this there before I start listing all of your favorite books from the past. I want to end with my theory as to why these books continue to end up on lists of teachers favorite books each year (the NEA puts out a list every year where teachers vote, and other organizations do this as well).

These books continue to stay on these lists because many teachers don't actually know of too many other books. They're teaching what they were taught, which is, if you read me and pay attention, highly inappropriate, because times are different, kids are different, and instruction should be different in order to meet those new needs in a new world. Ask teachers who do read the books that their classes read, those who have knowledge in the field, and those lists will change greatly.

**I offer a more in depth discussion of Little House on the Prairie, in response to comments from this post. Please see that post (December 3rd): Another Look at the Downfall of Once Classic Book Little House on the Prairie**

Friday, November 28, 2008

Reading An Entire Book: Implications on Language & Literacy: with ideas for improving classroom literacy practices

I was watching The Simpsons the other day, and Bart said something in response to Lisa talking about a book she had read. Bart said "you've read a WHOLE book before?" Bart is more real than some of us would believe in this respect. I've already had numerous students enter the 5th grade claiming they've never completed, completely individually, an entire book before that wasn't a leveled reader, picture book, or textbook based story.

To me this is quite alarming. I'm not going to fall back on the argument that "this would never have happened 50 years ago, before internet and TV and blah blah blah..." That argument doesn't hold, especially for me (I posted about digital literacy two days ago in an article titled iPod Literacy). This is alarming because the act of reading has been replaced by... well, I'm not sure exactly, but not another literacy activity. Reading has by-and-large not been replaced by reading things on the internet, it's been replaced by watching TV, playing video games, and texting. While I've argued in the past that these activities have some merit and can be utilized in the classroom, they become a hindrance when the student basically stops interacting with the written word outside of "T2L, BRB, ROFL." There's a great article out there from Newsweek titled The Death of English (LOL): In an experiment, the more adept children were at text messaging, the better they did at spelling and writing, which tries to strike a balance to the text messaging debate better than I can say it here, because I tend to be biased against cell phones for many reasons, most of them out of stubbornness.

What really bothers me is, I've met college students who claim that they've never read a book and wear it like a badge of honor. This behavior is bewildering to me, and I have to wonder where it stems from. Is it a backlash against the world we once knew? Is it due to a lack of attention? Or is it an outright failure of public education, with its never ending, rigid focus on standardized testing? I think the answer to all of these questions is YES.

Now, I've stated some of the problems, and have even briefly brought up a few questions for further research and discussion. I'm going to discuss ways for teachers to combat the failure to read phenomenon in the classroom (or at home if you're a parent).

  • SELF CHOICE: You need to help students choose their own books. This is a process that should involve both student and teacher in order for it to be effective. You can refer to some guidelines I set out in yesterday's post titled How To Determine the Reading Level of A Book At A Glance to help you choose the right book, level wise, for that child. It's then up to the child, with your guidance, to find a book that will hold their interest, be on a topic that they enjoy reading about, and will have literary elements that have worked for that child in the past. You would be surprised how many students do not have the ability to self search for a book, they need to be taught (and since you're a teacher, this is your job).

  • FREEDOM TO EXPERIMENT: Yes, I've had students who read on a first grade level want to read Harry Potter. At first, I let them make this choice, because it never works. This is where you have to suspend your teacher instinct, at least at the beginning of the year, to let students try to find it themselves. You also need to give them some freedom to abandon a few books. I have some students who, still, here at November, will read a few pages of a book, put it back, and get another one. My policy is that they should be trying the book for at least 3 chapters, then, when we return from Winter Break, they're going to choose and read without abandoning.

  • CHOOSE SOMETHING FAMILIAR: If you teach like me, you do a lot of read alouds. I save some of the best books ever to read aloud. In fact, some of the books I discuss on this very website are the book that I read aloud to my class. Occasionally, a student will want to re-read the book I read aloud. Believe it or not, this is a great practice, especially for students who aren't quite ready to take some risks when self-reading. Let them do it.

Those ideas are more along the lines of helping students come into their own as readers. There are some great strategies in terms of classroom management and assignments to keep students focused, but to also be able to pull grades and have it basically fit into your instruction. I send home a calendar for the month, and students are supposed to read for a minimum of 30 minutes every evening. I usually don't send home homework outside of this, so I don't get complaints. After reading, the parent must sign that date on the calendar.

Twice per week, I have students complete a reading log assignment in which they respond to a few prompts about their book. This helps them reflect on their reading. I don't do it daily to avoid students burning out, just on Monday nights and Thursday nights.

These two activities, together, can be a valuable addition to the classroom. Some classroom practices you should include to encourage good reading habits are:

  • Read aloud to your students every single day. Only read books that you are familiar with (no pulling things off the shelf you've never experienced yourself. When you're reading aloud, think aloud, ask questions, answer questions, take predictions, make it a whole group experience.
  • Give students time, every day, to read silently. They enjoy this quiet time to themselves. It's your job to make sure they are reading and aren't just wasting time. If your school allows it, let students bring a pillow or bean bag and lay around while they read. It should be a comfortable experience, this reinforces the habit and also makes it enjoyable.
  • Have some way for students to share their reading experience. Whether it's a account for each student in your classroom, simple book reports that are shared, or a separate shelf where students can put favorite books for others to check out, let them share the valuable experiences in some way. They could also make book advertisements, make commercials for the book, or vote on their favorite books to keep those titles out there.
  • Make it interesting. Fluency and comprehension checks are important, but use them sparingly. The tendency to over test, especially with chapter tests and things like that, can ruin the literary experience. Do you give yourself chapter tests when you read for pleasure at home? Then stop doing it at school (at least stop doing it so much).
  • Have goals. If you have 25 students, make a goal for each to read 4 books during the semester. Put up a large bar graph in the classroom, and color in one each time a student reads a book and passes some sort of comprehension test at the end (AR, a book report, etc) to prove they read the entire thing. If your class can hit the goal, in this case, 100 books read, then have some MAJOR party or some kind of reward for them.

I hope this post can be of service to you. Let me know if there's anything else you'd like to hear about.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How To Determine the Reading Level of A Book At A Glance

I've done some posts in the past about determining the reading level of children/adolescent/young adult books, but they usually involve referring to some type of chart, or searching around on or another book site to find the reading level according to a formula.

This post is about how to quickly determine if the book is appropriate for a student (or your own child, whatever the case may be for you) just by using information you gathered from the book itself. Many children's books very obviously list this information right on the front cover. DK Readers for example have the level as a number, as well as who it is appropriate for. Scholastic books sometimes have the appropriate reader level listed near the bar code, many of the short leveled reader books that are used in elementary classrooms list the level, along with the skills that the book works on, right on the front or back cover.

So, beyond books that list the level somewhere, which is a trend we're seeing more recently, how can you find the level of a book that doesn't have this information anywhere on it? The skill of finding the level of a book on your own takes some practice, but once you have rated enough books on your own, the better you get (that's right, it's the ol' "practice makes perfect" thing).

There are many methods that teachers have been using in their own classroom to determine if a book is an appropriate book for that certain child. Leveling a book on the spot is usually done to see if it fits a certain child.

The "five finger rule" is a mainstay that you'll hear about anywhere you go. Basically, open the book up to a random page, and have the student read that page. Every time they miscue (pass a word or miss it), hold up a finger. If they miss five on that page, it's not a good book for them. This method has served many teachers well for a very long time.

The reason the methods like the "5 finger rule" have been around and continue to be used is because they apply book leveling to the individual child, which only makes sense. All the book levels in the world won't do you any good if that child can't pick up the book and read it.

Variations of the five finger rule include:

  • Vocabulary picking: Go through one chapter of the book (roughly 5 pages) and see if you can find more than 20 words that could be given for vocabulary. That is, 20 words that the student won't know. If you can do it, this isn't a good book for that child to read.
  • Check back: Go ahead and give the child this book. After two chapters (depending on the length), check their understanding of the book. This should be fairly obvious, but will only work if you have an understanding of the book.

There's millions of different ways to check, at a glance, if a child should read a certain book. The examples I have given so far mainly gravitate around fluency. But comprehension should not be ignored, because, ultimately, it is what matters most.

Now, the school district I work for has always been interested in fluency. How fast can a child read versus how many mistakes they make over time, that's the basic formula for fluency. So, just because a child can read 160 words per minute (which is excellent for any child under the age of 14), does that make them a good reader? Of course not. With the focus on fluency, many students have learned to become what we call "word callers." They know the words and can read them quickly. The main problem, however, is a disconnect between fluency and comprehension. I've also had students who read 65 words per minute (considered slow or deficient in intermediate grades), but comprehends on an advanced level. So speed isn't the best way to go.

When I sit down to determine if a child should be reading a certain book, I want to know if they can handle the structure and words of the story, but I also want to know if they understand the content. Take me for example. I'm working on a doctorate, so in theory, I am one of the highest educated people on the planet. This means that I should be able to pick up any book written in my language and read it for comprehension. Yes, I could pick up any book and read it, but understand it? That's a different story. If I read a book on bio-chemistry, I'd probably actually comprehend less than half, and this is a cultural/situational comprehension issue with reading.

Students who don't know a thing about the Holocaust are going to struggle reading about it, because the background knowledge isn't there. Take this into account as well. Comprehension checks done on the fly only work if you, the instructor, have a rudimentary understanding of the book you're trying to scrutinize. If it's a classroom read aloud, you can lay some background for the students, but if it's an individual reader, you probably don't have the time to do this, so make sure it's appropriate in terms of fluency, comprehension, content, and will hold the interest of the child.

Wow, that's a lot to take in. But this is what good literacy instruction involves, good, appropriate, individualized literacy instruction. Many issues must be taken into account when determining the level of a book for a child. Is the child fluent without comprehension, or vice versa? Is there an English Language Learner (ELL) issue in play that must be addressed? Is there a lack of background knowledge on the topic? These are just a few questions you need to ask yourself.

Now this is all well and good, but what if you came here searching for how to level books because you want to level an entire library for later use? This isn't hard, because you obviously have the internet (or you wouldn't be reading this). Scholastic has a Teacher Book Wizard that lists levels of many books out there. I did a post back in April titled How They Determine the Reading Level of A Book, and it offers some resources, including some comparison charts to interpret book levels done through different leveling systems and/or formulas.

Finally, if you are on your own, you can involve a little intuitive guesswork. I've done this before. If you can't find any information about the book online through some Google detective work, then read a few pages of the book, compare it to other books of similar levels, and guess at it.

Some basic formulas (along with their link to Wikipedia) that are used to determine the reading level of a book include:

I hope that this information can be of service to you. Please let me know if it was, or if there are things you're trying to find out or understand that I didn't touch on here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

iPod Literacy

My fifth grade students take the advanced technological age they live in for granted, that's for certain. And why shouldn't they? These kids have grown up in the age of iPod, wireless high speed internet, and on demand TV that you can pause. Any of these things would have made my head explode when I was ten-years-old, but it's all just common stuff now.

I've made some funny observations in my short, four year career as an educator that falls along these lines. Recently a primary teacher came down looking for me to find a tape player to use in a first grade classroom to play some tapes and do some recordings. She came to me because I'm one of the requisite "keepers of tech" in my school, and I was a good person to ask.

I told her that I hadn't seen a tape player or a tape in about seven years, we laughed, and off she went. The funny thing is, I wasn't really kidding. Tape player? Do they still make those?

The point here is that teachers sometimes are trapped in the past. I still have seen many, MANY, the vast majority, of teachers out there not be able to proficiently use a computer. Blogging in the classroom, online communities of learners, webquests? Forget about all of these things if the teacher can't even login and do the basics. I've had kids enter my classroom with a wealth of technological knowledge, none of it learned at school. Luckily my school has a computer lab with a full time technology teacher, but that's beside the point here, not all schools have this.

In terms of literacy, the fact that 90% of all kids carry and iPod, a cell phone, or both in one (yeah, they do that now, crazy huh?) should have forced a reaction by now in the classroom setting, but it hasn't budged teachers from the traditional techniques of reaching kids. Textbooks and short films were old news when I was a fifth grader, back in 1992, and that's literally a billion years ago in terms of technology, and kids today are in a different existence.

How can we embrace these things in order to further literacy practice? I recently told my class to bring in the lyrics and a copy of their favorite song (no profanity/racial/sexual lyrics was my only rule). First of all, I didn't tell them how to get me their song, and what I got was interesting. I had songs on jump drives, a few e-mailed to me, a couple burned on CD's, and a few iPods come in the class. So, I took that opportunity to install iTunes on the machines in my classroom.

This project we did involved students breaking down the lyrics of their song, trying to find the underlying layers of meaning in the song. They also looked at the melody itself and researched the source of that. What took place in the class was nothing short of amazing. It was a classroom full of students learning about jazz, the poetry of Robert Frost, and the philosophy of the Creole through the lyrics and melody of Kanye West, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, The Jonas Brothers, and Rihanna.

The end result of this was a classroom full of students who were shown a way to look at the basic world around them in a new way.

This is simply a small example of how to incorporate what I call 'iPod Literacy' into the classroom. Imagine the depth of knowledge one can gain from podcasts (I'm hooked actually, I can learn Spanish, the word of the day, and catch all the stuff on ESPN I missed through daily podcasts).

Imagine what could become of education if teachers would put down the textbooks, worksheets, and token activities and take a look at the world of today's tech savvy student.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Depths of Literacy Education

I'm sitting here on the verge of Thanksgiving vacation, wondering about the state of affairs in public education. Soon, it will be Christmas vacation, and then, upon our return for the Spring semester, it will be time to start that push towards the standardized testing that will commence in April (in New Mexico, the date varies by state).

Much of what happens in terms of literacy education mandates happen in response to standardized testing, it is the driving force behind what districts, states, and the fed mandates for teachers to do in the classroom.

Where does this leave you, the classroom teacher? For one, it leaves you caught in the crossfire. Teachers are the one who know the best way to teach their students. It's teachers who have access to those valuable resources that kids can use to further their own learning. At the same time, it's those teachers who have no power outside of the classroom to decide what to do in the classroom.

Yes, it's hard, and frustrating. But there are things you can do in order to take control of your classroom. First of all, you need to know your stuff. Know what you're doing, know that it's the right way to teach according to standards, the needs of your students, and according to research. I've heard many teachers say that it's too difficult to keep up with the current trends in education, that they just have to 'go with the flow' and work based on what's in front of them. That is a start, but without a grounding in theory, there is really no praxis so to speak, it's straight method based on some vague understandings that are based on misunderstandings.

Literacy is so much deeper than a few stories in a few textbooks. It's so much deeper than worksheets, post-tests, and the occasional diorama or project. Literacy is an intricate, multi-leveled process in which students learn to interact with the world, and it's deeper than the words on the page. Literacy instruction, if it's practiced effectively, opens students to different ideas, it gives them a new outlet for creativity and exploration, and ultimately teaches them more than any teacher ever will.

I know that this post is more of a rant than anything else, but I do want to explore this topic more deeply in the near future. Let's just hope that I don't disappear for another three months! If you have anything you'd like to add to the discussion, please let me know, I'm open to comments or even to a guest author.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Reading Class: A How To

I recently realized something as I was teaching my 5th graders during reading class. I realized that my class structure has become truly unique. I realized that my structure no longer follows the district guidelines (although it is still within what the district wants, it is not a clone), it no longer follows traditional thought, and it no longer follows what anyone else in the building does.

The teaching of reading in elementary school is basically broken into three components: teacher led reading (read aloud, shared, or modeled reading depending on the jargon where you work), group reading, and individual reading. Activities that are done in reading fall within one of these three areas.

My students enjoy teacher led reading immensely, they beg for more. The reason for this is the lack of textbooks, more often than not called "basal readers," which are books of story excerpts. Some of the excerpts are from great stories, so early in my career, I began to question this by saying that if the story was so good, shouldn't we read the whole thing? Isn't that part of the experience? My quest for the authentic literacy experience led me to where I am now.

For the first 30 minutes of each reading class (which run for 90 minutes, within my currently self contained classroom), I read to my students. I read to them from books that are basically above the reading level of 75% of the class, but not substantially above their level. I have read books like "The Castle in the Attic," "The City of Ember," "Coraline," and "The Giver," all books that I have read personally and consider to be masterpieces of children's literature. It is important that the teacher is familiar with the books before reading them out loud, don't just pick one because I or somebody else recommended it and start reading it. I am comfortable reading "The Giver," but somebody else might find it outside of their comfort zone, so be knowledgeable first.

After that 30 minutes is over, students work in groups for 30 minutes, reading a book that they selected together, or working on a project that I have given them. This block is where students are actually ability grouped and rotate between "stations," this is in following the Guided Reading model that my school district has mandated. This is another rule of reading. If your school district tells you to do something, do it, but make it work. Don't just say "I'm not doing that." In their groups, one of the big things I have going on is computer work. Students complete various projects on the computers during group.

At the end of group, there is 30 minutes of individual work. The activity most often done and preferred in individual time is sustained silent reading. Students love self choice, they love the joy that comes with a good book, and they love the time to themselves after a long day of lectures, group work, discussion, experimenting, and everything else that makes the school day so great. I guess I should say that my reading is taught at the end of the day (not my choice, but that's the way it goes).

So that's just a quick overview. I'll be back during the week with more book reviews, more ideas, and more discussion. Please check back soon.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Back For More

Wow, I haven't been online in awhile. This has been the all time crazy few months, and I had to make the decision to let blogging fall by the wayside for the time being. For those of you who had kept up with me before, here's a small update on what transpired from late July until now (a span of pretty much four months).

I started off in the doctoral program at NMSU this current fall semester, that began in August. It was a little trying at first trying to get into the rhythm of it, but I'm in a good place now. I have declared my Ph.D. program, which is Literacy, Language, & Culture, which is a specialization under Curriculum & Instruction. I found out this past week that I will be teaching my first class at NMSU this upcoming spring, a reading content area literacy course that I'm very excited about instructing in.

I, of course, still teach 5th grade as well. My job isn't hard at this point, it's my fourth year and I'm in a very good rhythm there. I've been trying a lot of new methods out this year that definitely label me as a "liberal" teacher, at least as far as methods and praxis goes. I've done away with textbooks altogether, I use worksheets maybe twice a month, except for in math, which is still my weakest subject area, and I've been able to specialize in one area in science (I teach chemistry, YEAH!).

So, apart from that, I moved to a new house in September, which took awhile. We're finally settled now, and it took a long time, but we're here. Now that it's all said and done, I think I'm ready to jump back into this blog. I wanted this blog to be a valuable resource, and I still do, without a doubt. So please, don't give up on me, I'm back!