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Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Forgotten Stepchild of The Literary World

         When my colleague Erica Martin and I finished our three-year graduate program in literacy from NIU, we felt the way people would expect us to feel:  elated, relieved,  and proud.  At the same time, however, we also experienced another emotion:  fear.  By spending our time reading the latest books and research articles in the field of literacy that had been emailed to us in a neat little bundle and having the opportunity to discuss these new ideas with classmates who were just as excited about literacy as we were, we had become somewhat spoiled.  We were now responsible for our own learning once again.  How were we going to continue to advance our learning and knowledge on our own while at the same time keep up with the demands of our jobs, our children, and our daily lives?   Well, one convenient place that has allowed me to continue to grow and learn from colleagues is Twitter.  I love it because I can literally spend five or ten minutes in line reading an article or blog post and feel as if I am staying current on the new ideas in a fairly expedient manner. 
           This morning, while scrolling through Twitter, a post by Stephanie Harvey really touched a nerve with me:  "Every child every day should hear an adult read something aloud, equal amounts of fiction and nonfiction and at least one poem a day" (@Stephharvey49).  If you recall, the first instructional shift of the Common Core State Standards calls for a "true balance of informational and literary texts" (  In fact, the Core breaks it down even further to percentages.  By 8th grade, students should be reading 45% literary material and 55% informational text.  Shanahan reminds us that these numbers do not apply only to English class, but to the students' reading material across the school day (  While I am genuinely pleased to see a heavier emphasis placed on informational text reading in all classes, and I am thrilled that content area teachers are beginning to view themselves as instructors of literacy, I am worried that as an educational system, many schools have misinterpreted the core and are offering students less opportunities to read poetry and other pieces of quality literature.   Personally, I would hate to live in a world where poetry has become obsolete.
            If you think I am overreacting, I ask you to reflect on this question:  when was the last time you (and by you - I mean teachers of all disciplines - not just English teachers) read a poem aloud to students?  Do you read aloud a poem daily as is recommended by Stephanie Harvey in her recent Tweet?  Weekly?  Monthly?  If you cannot remember the last time you read a poem to students,  I would argue that perhaps you should reconsider as poetry should still play an integral part in the learning of students everywhere for the following reasons:

        1.  Poetry's Connection to Social Emotional Learning  While some may argue that poetry is "unnecessary" because most of our students won't grow up to become poet laureates or even English majors, poetry has a strong connection to Social Emotional Learning.  Poetry is about feelings, discovery, and understanding the world in which we live.  It helps us cope when time are tough and celebrate our joy and accomplishments.  As Dylan Thomas explains eloquently, "Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own."  A large part of Social Emotional Learning requires students to be able to see events from the perspectives of others and to value the unique differences in attitudes and ideas that make each of us an individual.   Poetry is the perfect medium to help students grow in this area.  In her recent edutopia blog on the need to continue teaching poetry in schools, Elena Aguilar argues that "Our schools are places of too much "brain only;" we must find ways to surface other ways of being, other modes of learning. And we must find ways to talk about the difficult and unexplainable things in life -- death and suffering and even profound joy and transformation." Sometimes, poetry helps us to put words on the indescribable.

              For those of you that need more "hard" and "fast" proof that poetry increases empathy in students, consider the recent research study in New York City that concluded just that.  In the study, students who were given literary fiction reading assignments scored significantly higher in their ability to recognize and draw conclusions about the feelings and emotions of others versus those who were given non-fiction or genre-fiction reading assignment.  The results of this study really speak volumes to the need for students to be given opportunities to read quality literature and poetry to better understand the world.  They probably won't do it on their own. The world is too full of distractions these days.  They need you, their educator, to help them remember what they did not know they knew.  Kelly Gallagher refers to these opportunities to read and discover oneself through fiction as "rehearsals for life."  Of course, students may not become poets or English majors, but they are all a part of the human race.  Poetry and quality literature enables them to practice life experiences prior to having first hand experience with similar milestones.  Additionally, poems can enable students to comprehend and value experiences they may never encounter otherwise.

           2.  Poetry Helps Students Understand Informational Text on A Deeper Level  Another misconception of the Common Core Standards is that text dependent questioning is the only type of questioning that should be occurring in classrooms.  While it is true that Shift #4 requires students to "engage in rich and rigorous evidence based conversations about text," ( we would be doing a serious disservice to students if our discussions were entirely scripted and teacher-centered.  In previous blogs, we have spoken about the importance of achieving authentic student-centered discussions in your classrooms.  And while it is crucial that students first understand the text and engage in discussions that require rereading of key passages and analysis of word choice, tone, and diction,  it is these very discussions that set the stage for students to be better equipped to engage in the commonly misconstrued as taboo reader-response type questions:  How would you have acted in a similar situation?  How do you think the narrator felt when that happened?  These questions are the kinds that drive book clubs and adult reading circles everywhere, because they remind us that we, as readers, bring our own unique perspective to the text.  We engage in discussions of these types because they help students figure out who they are and who they want to be, using the literature to help get us there.  In the years before CCSS, teachers may have begun with these questions.  The problem with this format is that the text did not help drive the ideas of the readers.  It was simply an afterthought at best. The CCSS remind us that students first must possess a deep understanding of the actual text before they can engage in a rich reader-response type discussion.   Poetry, is the perfect medium, to help students make these connections to real-world events.  What could be  more powerful than reading a poem from a hurricane survivor after reading about the science behind the disaster?  What has a more lasting effect on the human heart than reading a poem written by a Holocaust survivor after studying this horrific tragedy in a history class?  To quote Aristotle, "Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history;  for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular."  Why not make the particular more accessible and significant in the minds of our students by supplementing it with poetry?

           3.  Poetry is a Celebration of Words and Language  Those of you who know me probably know of my relentless passion for vocabulary instruction.  Research solidly supports that explicit instruction in words and language increases a student's ability to comprehend challenging text:  a necessary precursor to the Common Core Targets that require synthesis, analysis, and inference-making of these same texts.   What better way to motivate students to learn new words and use them playfully than through poetry?  When I was in college, I took several poetry and fiction writing workshop classes.  I loved that a roomful of adults felt it important enough to sit around a in a circle and discuss the power of words on a page.  During this time, I would often eat lunch with an adult returning student who was also an avid poetry writer.  She carried her poems with her under her arm, and each time she read one aloud it was like she was unwrapping a new gift to herself.  I marveled at the amount of energy she would spend on  contemplating a single word change in a single line of her work, aware that the subtle changes in sound and meaning of the new word could have an enormous impact on the piece as a whole.   How great would it be if we could help our students to channel a bit of this passion for language and words  through the exploration of poetry mentor texts?   

            Of course, I think most of us would agree that poetry has a value in education today.  So why, then, are we, as a system, not investing our energy on it?   I've heard the argument recently, "But I don't have time for poetry!  I'm too busy teaching all these Common Core Standards."  To this, I ask:  are you sure you are teaching the standards?  The 7th grade Literature Targets alone make multiple references to poetry.  Standard Four in Seventh grade reads:  Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.  And Standard Five:   Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.  The sophistication of these standards is evident;  poetry instruction obviously cannot begin and end with seventh grade.  If you believe you are teaching the Common Core but have eliminated poetry from your classroom, I urge you to do a close reading of those standards one more time. 
            Since the Common Core clearly has emphasized the genre of poetry as important, does that mean teachers everywhere can dust the cobwebs off of their six week poetry unit and begin spending several weeks on identification of similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole?  Thankfully, not.  Of course, some teachers may mourn the death of this unit, feeling that it was one that students enjoyed.  I would argue that it might have been one that teachers and possibly even some students enjoyed.  I would also argue, however, that the only day in the unit  that was not entirely lost on a vast majority of boys in the room was that initial day when they got to bring their favorite rap lyrics to school and discover once again that music is poetry.  When we teach poetry, we must teach it in a way that is engaging and motivating for all students.
             The Common Core State Standards do require that we teach poetry but that we do it  differently.  Reviewing the two seventh grade standards alone that I shared with you earlier is enough proof of that.  If you notice, both standards require students to analyze.  No longer, thank goodness, is identification enough.  In his article "Why Poetry is Necessary,"  Robert Housden reveals that "Poems are necessary because they honor the unknown, both in us and in the world. They come from an undiscovered country; they are shaped into form by the power of language, and set free to fly with wings of images and metaphor"  (  How could any of this magic happen if we don't allow our students to analyze, to dig deep, and to discover the world an author has created with words?  I would venture to bet that this magic has never once happened in classroom where students first read a poem flooded with obnoxious onomatopoeia and then were asked to create their own example to demonstrate the sound of bacon sizzling.  Kids are smarter than that.  We need to give them the benefit of the doubt.
          In her book Naming the World:  A Year of Poems and Lessons, Nancy Atwell combines published poets and student imitations in sample lessons that can be used with students.  This is a fabulous resource for teachers who are not sure how to start including poetry into their curriculum.   Whether you choose to use Atwell's book or other sources to expose your students to poetry, however, doesn't matter. What does matter is that we as educators band together to make sure poetry does not become the forgotten stepchild of the literary family. 

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.
Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Have You Heard About the New Social Studies "Common Core"?

With the release of the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards, history teachers struggling under the burden of their giant curriculum finally have an alternative to content coverage.  Through an inquiry-based approach to teaching, the authors of the C3 Framework encourage teachers to surrender their battle with content coverage and instead strive to build a robust learning environment in which students ask questions, seek answers to these questions, and communicate their findings—all under the guidance of expert teachers who can share the disciplinary tools necessary to pursue their curiosity about the world.

What a relief!  What a revolution! 

But are we ready for this?

According to the C3 Framework, the first dimension of the Inquiry Arc of Learning begins with students developing compelling and supporting questions to guide their learning process.  Authors of the C3 Framework contend that these questions will arise naturally from students’ innate curiosity about the world and from their efforts to make sense of how the world works.  However, some social studies teachers argue that students can’t be expected to ask these compelling questions until they know their historical facts.  According to this theory, kids need to read textbooks, listen to lectures, and muddle through multiple-choice exams in order to build up their knowledge base and gain an accurate understanding of their historical facts.  

But this seems to be a backwards approach to learning.  If we fill students up with content knowledge in the hopes that they will refer to their history facts when called upon to think later in life, then we will surely end up disappointed.  Historical facts alone won’t stick in kids’ memories.  According to Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano in their book Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms (2013), facts can only be mastered by “engaging students in historical questions that spark their curiosity and make them passionate about seeking answers.”  As detailed in Dimension 1 of the C3 Framework’s Inquiry Arc, questioning is the key to student learning.  Kids are naturally curious about the world and want to make sense of it.  Research shows us time and again that our students are not simply “empty vessels in which to pour our adult ideas and knowledge” (C3 Framework, 2013, p. 84).  In fact, it is the pursuit of coverage that blocks historical thinking.  Because we are so pressured to get to the Cold War before February or finish Ancient Greece before Spring Break, we spend the majority of our teaching time talking at kids in the form of lectures or question-and-answer sessions.  According to the research of Tamara L Jetton and Cynthia Shanahan in their book AdolescentLiteracy in the Academic Disciplines: General Principles and PracticalStrategies, only 3% of instructional time in middle and high school classrooms is devoted to the explicit teaching, modeling, and scaffolding of students’ comprehension of a text (2012).  Instead, these learning opportunities are sacrificed for the memorization of a litany of facts that will most likely be forgotten.

So does this mean we throw out our content? 

Absolutely not.  Although the C3 Framework argues that “individual mastery of content no longer suffices,” students need content to help them understand the time period and context in which they are studying (19).  As a matter of fact, a major component of the C3 Framework’s Inquiry Arc is Dimension 2: Applying Disciplinary Tools and Concepts.  This dimension helps kids access the content they need to pursue their inquiries. Bruce A. Lesh in his book Why Don’t You Just Tell Us the Answers?” Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades7-12, contends that an inquiry-based approach to teaching actually elevates the teacher importance in instruction.  The teacher has the role of providing the context and guiding students “from being novices to masters in the art of thinking historically” (2012, p. 15).  

While investigating their inquiries, students will need help with Dimension 3 of the Framework, which addresses the skills of navigating through multiple texts, evaluating sources, and choosing evidence. The Sanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian website ( is a great resource for engaging kids in the historical inquiry of primary documents.  These inquiries give teachers the opportunity to share the disciplinary reading strategies of sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading—the reading strategies used by actual historians. Sourcing and contextualizing the documents helps students develop the habit of analyzing the author, his affiliations, and his beliefs while determining the historical context in which the document was written.  While corroborating, students learn to evaluate the text’s level of agreement or disagreement with other texts they have read.  In Reading Like a Historian, Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano (2013) argue that this process of historical inquiry “transforms the act of reading from passive reception to an engaged and passionate interrogation.  For historians, the act of reading is not about gathering lifeless information to repeat on a test, but engaging a human source in spirited conversation” (introduction).  Through an inquiry-based approach to teaching, students will learn to see their textbook as simply another source of information rather than the end-all be-all of historical truth. By encouraging students to seek out and read texts from multiple perspectives, some of which conflict with each other, we convey the idea that history is about “the struggle to make meaning from the remnants of our past, to craft new interpretations of texts, and make evidenced based and rationalized arguments to support those claims” (Jetton & Shanahan, 2012, p. 77).

The fourth Dimension of the Inquiry Arc provides the purpose for students' learning.  In this final stage of the inquiry process, students communicate their conclusions and take informed action.  This can take a range of venues and forms, such as individual essays, group projects, multimedia presentations, discussions, debates, and policy analyses.  The C3 Framework advocates for variety in both what and how students share their learning.  Students need opportunities for individual, partner, and group work.  This Dimension helps both teachers and students venture beyond multiple choice exams and into real-life application of their learning.  Students can communicate their conclusions to a range of audiences beyond just the teacher and into the classroom and outside the school.  With this approach, kids don't learn history just for the sake of doing well on the final exam; instead, they have the opportunity to learn about history in order to ask questions about the world, seek answers to these questions, and present their findings to a wider audience.

For those teachers looking for an end to the vicious cycle of content coverage, the C3 Framework can provide the catalyst for revising both our instruction and assessments.  Take a look at the changes coming to the AP History exam for Spring 2015.  If the AP program makes a change, then high schools will feel compelled to change, and middle schools will follow.  

What a revolution! 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Noticing Signposts and My Love Affair With Common Core Standard 10

          Literacy experts have often gone on the record as saying that the one of the two most important targets when instructing the English Language Arts Common Core is Standard 10 which reads as follows:  By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of grades 6–8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.  In plain English, this target requires that students  know how and when to apply varied reading strategies independently to challenging text in order to understand on a deep level.  Standard 10 is the most important target, in my opinion, because without the ability to comprehend tough text, students will be unable to master many if any of the other grade level standards connected to literacy.  A student cannot analyze sections of text, determine the theme of a text, or critique the author's use of argument techniques when he or she is still unable to extrapolate the literal meaning from the text.
            I think it is safe to assume that most educators make the choice to join the teaching profession because they appreciate the learning process and wish to help others share in the learning as well. Thus, it makes sense that we who have a natural tendency to help others would want to limit the amount of time that our students feel frustrated and anxious as the readings and tasks become increasingly more rigorous.  Unfortunately, what happens is that we end up doing a huge disservice to students under the guise of "helping" them.  We lower the text complexity.  We give students audio books to help them through tough reads.  We remove "tough" vocabulary words and replace then with simpler words before handing out an article.  We read everything aloud.  We ask only our most fluent readers to read.  We call on another student when the first students pauses and can't immediately produce a response.  We talk so much about the text that students need only to listen to our lecture and can virtually bypass the actual act of reading altogether. 
           I would argue that all of these behaviors that occur with the best of intentions are not helping our students to be better equipped to demonstrate proficiency of Standard 10.  In fact, these types of choices actually create a vicious cycle of learned helplessness where students are forced to rely on their teachers and resources they provide to get by in life.  Our students must experience struggle and be explicitly taught strategies to handle the challenges that accompany struggle instead of simply being sheltered from struggle altogether.   Recently, I used the website goanimate to create a video that satirizes just what could happen to these same students who enter the work force and are not equipped with the literacy skills needed to get the job done:
Click on the picture to be directed to the site to view the video.
           As educators, we need to be careful that we do not inappropriately equate "struggle" with "frustration."  Simply handing a child a rigorous text and telling him that is healthy to struggle will not suffice.  In his blog "Common Core or Guided Reading," Tim Shanahan states eloquently that "The success of the common core depends not just on the use of more challenging texts (that’s the easy part), but on whether teachers will have the patience and foresight to provide sufficient and appropriate scaffolding that will help the students to figure out the meaning of a challenging text without being told what it says."    In other words, we, as teachers, should be  scaffolding our instruction as a means to help students learn to do on their own what they can first only do with guided support.
         Recently, many of the 8th grade teachers at Woodlawn Middle School asked for my assistance in implementing the six signposts that good readers use while reading literature as outlined by Beers and Probst in their book Notice and Note:  Strategies for Close Reading (2013).  Although noticing and noting signposts while reading is not spelled out in the Common Core as a specific learning target, 8th grade students are adding this instructional strategy to their toolkits in an effort to gain valuable insights about the texts they read.   Ultimately, students utilizing these signposts should be better prepared to master learning targets because they are working toward development of Standard 10.  Beers's and Probst's signposts aid in removing the mystery that sometimes exists when students attempt to determine what they should devote their energy to analyzing and questioning as they read. The 8th grade LA teachers who are employing these strategies with students recognize the importance of continuing  the development of students' literacy skills by explicitly teaching strategies.  They know that making time for these lessons in class will ultimately save them time teaching other targets in the long run.  They don't view these lessons as "something extra" or "one more thing."  They know that they are a prerequisite needed to encourage critical readers and writers.
           When teaching a new strategy, such as the Notice and Note signposts, it is essential that teachers not only explicitly teach the how of the strategy, but that they also thoroughly explain the why and the when to students.  After exploring and modeling a new strategy several times with students, I want them  to understand specifically why they are spending time learning it, how it will help them to better understand when they read, and when they should elect to use it on their own.  This is a step that I think is often forgotten or only implied in many classrooms today and is essential if we wish to have students leave our rooms and use the skills we've taught them when we are not hovering over them, requiring it.
           Knowing that I wanted to express the why behind learning the signposts, I've always found that the best way to begin a new lesson in middle school is to incorporate an embarrassing tale from my own life into the lesson opening. And, luckily, I have plenty of experiences from which to draw and have no need to embellish.  I began with the story of my first failed attempt at getting a driver's license at age sixteen.  I was driving in a residential neighborhood.  I noticed a STOP sign.  I proceeded to roll through it and ended up failing the exam as result.  Even though I was smart enough to notice that the signpost, (in this case, the STOP sign) existed, I did not do anything as a result of my noticing.  I kept driving. ( In my defense, I didn't think I needed to stop...after all, none of my friends stopped at them.)  But not doing something about the signpost resulted in my having to get right back in line and try for my license a second time.  How does this example connect with reading?  I explained to the students that  it is not enough to just notice clues or "signposts" that writers leave for us in the text.  We must, also, NOTE the significance of them.  Otherwise, we run the risk of only having, at best, a surface level understanding of the text.  It wouldn't have helped my case at all if I had turned to the driver's license examiner and pleaded, "But, honestly, I NOTICED the stop sign."  Simply noting is not enough.  Today, I told them, I would be teaching them to notice one of the signposts that good readers should notice while reading.  In addition, I would help them to NOTE the significance by teaching them ONE specific question to anchor their thinking.  Both parts are needed for successful comprehension.
               The lesson then involved teaching students one of the signposts as outlined by Beers and Probst in their book Notice & Note:  Strategies for Close Reading that my colleague Erica Martin and I have described in greater detail in previous blogs.  Through explicit modeling of how to use this strategy with short stories that connected thematically to upcoming novels, students practiced noticing the signposts and noting the significance of each as a way to gain a deeper understanding of the Common Core Learning Targets that focus on theme, character development, and conflict.  It was pointed out repeatedly why the strategy should be used.  I shared with students that I am often a person who likes to get to the point.  Occasionally, if an author starts lapsing into a lengthy description of the same body of water, I may struggle with paying attention and miss a sign post.  The sign posts help me to slow down.   I should be aware of the signposts while reading whenever I read literature as a way to anchor my thinking, but especially when I am finding it difficult to differentiate between what is important and what might be a superfluous detail.
          To conclude the lesson and to quickly review the signposts in a more entertaining way than having me simply regurgitate the same information I gave them earlier,  students were given approximately five minutes to create a skit that portrayed one of the recently learned signposts to the class.  The students made sure to incorporate the anchor questions that they should ask themselves inside the skit to remind us one last time of how to note the significance once the signpost is located.  For example, when the "words of the wiser" signpost is noticed, and students have recognized a place where a more experienced character is imparting his/her wisdom onto the main character, the question 'What's the life lesson and how might this affect the character?" is used to help students note the significance of the moment.
Students in Ms. Keehnast's class acting out the Words of The Wiser Signpost.  Apparently beards always symbolize wisdom.

           Common Core Standard Ten will never be achieved if we simply try to bypass it in an effort to teach the other standards that target more specific literacy skills.  I would encourage all middle and high school educators to take a long, hard look at their instructional practices, especially if they find students are not mastering standards that they have been instructing on for weeks.  Could it possibly be that Standard 10 has not been explicitly addressed in your instructional practices?  If the answer is yes,  beginning to employ some solid literacy strategies with students might be a place to start.

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