Thursday, February 9, 2017

Next Steps in the DeVos Fight: Resist, Resist, Resist

The Republican dominated Senate has confirmed the clearly unqualified Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education. We can see this inexplicable vote as just another in a long line of votes where the government has decided to put partisan politics in front of good sense and good governance. One thing is sure, Betsy DeVos’ confirmation is a bad thing for public education, parents, teachers, and children.

What might not be as apparent is that Betsy DeVos’ confirmation is also bad for corporate education reformers. Education reformers got an education reformer in the cabinet position all right, but they also got the dumbest, most clueless, education reformer in the history of education reform to represent their interests. Even worse (better?) the whole world knows it. DeVos can now prepare herself for endless social media shares of her laughable Senate hearing performance, plus continued ridicule from late night TV hosts, and the awakened anger of teachers and parents across the country. I understand that one of the new Secretary’s first official trips in her position will include a crusade against anti-education grizzlies in the public schools of Colorado. Pack your gun and Bible, Betsy.

DeVos enters office as the only presidential cabinet appointment in history to require a tie-breaking vote from the Vice-President. That scion of education reform, champion of anti-LGBT legislation, and Trump toady, Mike Pence, cast the deciding vote. I like the irony of the dumbest education reformer in America needing the vote of the second dumbest education reformer in America to take up her position. It makes me think of a title for a new movie sequel: Dumb and Dumber Go to Washington.

I have never had anything nice to say about billionaire reformer Eli Broad, but he seems to be one education reformer who sees DeVos as a danger to his (misguided) movement. He wrote to Senate leaders saying that DeVos was “unprepared and unqualified.” He recognizes that bad leadership, even when it aligns with your own thinking, is bad for everybody. Perhaps you’ve noticed what is happening in the White House.

As Peter Greene has pointed out on his blog Curmudgucation, DeVos is awful and will be awful for public education, but

[the] upside of that is that people, understanding her level of awful, may actually wake up and pay attention. It's not a full return for the shellacking public education is about to take, but it's not nothing, either.

So while we have every reason to fear that DeVos will be a terrible steward of public education, we have the solace in knowing she will likely be a terrible administrator of the department and will have a difficult time moving her vile agenda forward and when one of her hare-brained schemes does manage to see the light of day, lots of people, not just veterans of the anti—corporate reform movement, will be paying attention.

So now we lick our wounds, the fight against DeVos’ confirmation was a worthy one that had little chance of succeeding in its ultimate goal, but has been successful in shining a light on the hollow and harmful motives of school privatizers. Now our job is to keep up the heat. Keep Betsy in the headlines and on social media; call her out for every mistaken idea and misstep. Tweet. Post. Write to your elected officials. Write to your local newspaper. Keep working. It will be exhausting, but necessary and important, work.


Resist. Resist. Resist.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Beyond Grades: How Are We Doing?

The fourth in a series on grades and grading

In previous posts I have argued that we need to move away from grades as a method of assessment because grades are a poor way to provide feedback to students and also a poor way to provide feedback to parents. In this last in the series on grades, I will argue that grades are also a particularly poor way to provide feedback to schools. 

Throughout the country the grading of schools has become fashionable. Florida, under the leadership of reform minded Jeb Bush, was the first state to adopt A-F grading for schools. since that time 15 other states have hopped on this bandwagon. These grades for schools are largely based on student performance on standardized tests. Corporate education reformers have sought to use school grades as a whip to make what they see as struggling schools shape up. Grading schools in this way has great appeal to legislators, because it allows them to give the appearance of caring about the quality of education without having to actually provide any resources that might help improve education in places that are wracked by poverty and years of inattention.

  • No decision about a school's performance should be based on a single data point or single test.
  • A valid measure of school performance should be comprehensive, accounting for school processes, conditions, practices, and outcomes.
  • Qualitative and quantitative measures should be used to measure school performance
  • Information from any accountability system should target school improvement, not high-stakes consequences.
I would add that grading schools in this manner leads to a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on tested subjects, the destruction of morale for low performing schools in high poverty areas and a false sense of security for schools receiving high grades simply because their affluent students score well on standardized tests.

Is there a better way to hold schools accountable? Of course. The trick is that providing schools with useful feedback requires time, commitment, vision and resources; things that simply assigning a grade does not require. The best way to hold schools accountable is to provide a dynamic assessment of the kinds of opportunities they are providing to their students. The school recognition program Schools of Opportunity* has developed guidelines for evaluating schools based on just such a concept. Currently, Schools of Opportunity is a small, all volunteer organization working each year to recognize schools that are providing great opportunities for their children despite many obstacles. The Schools of Opportunity template is one that every state in the country could emulate to truly hold schools accountable for serving children. Here are the things that this group says good schools must do.
  • Create and maintain a healthy school culture free of bullying and welcoming to all students and adults.
  • Broaden and enrich school curriculum to include all core subjects, physical education, health and the visual and performing arts.
  • Provide more and better learning time during and after the school year through extended school days, clubs and activities and summer programs.
  • End disparities in learning opportunities reinforced by tracking.
  • Use a variety of assessments designed to respond to student needs, inform teachers on instructional priorities, and to help administrators make programmatic decisions.
  •  Reassess student discipline policies to focus on keeping students in school.
  • Support teachers as professionals through strong mentoring programs, professional development and time to meet and work with colleagues.
  • Provide adequate resources to support a well-maintained, clean, safe, school environment.
  • Address key health issues through a professionally staffed responsive health facility.
  • Build on the strengths of language minority students by viewing language minority students as assets from whom all can learn.
  • Expand access to professionally staffed libraries and well-maintained and easily accessible internet resources.
I highlighted the "use a variety of assessments to respond to student needs" to emphasize the difference between a school grade approach and an "opportunity" approach. Since No Child Left Behind, standardized tests have been the key, and often the only, measure of school quality used to hold schools accountable. When NCLB came along in 2002, most schools used standardized tests on a limited basis, often 3 times in the life of a school child, to inform administrators and teachers how kids were doing based on a measure that had some generalizability across schools and school districts. After 2002 standardized tests spread to every grade level and were used for high stakes purposes such as retaining students, firing teachers and administrators, and even closing schools. The problems with using standardized tests for high-stakes accountability are many and have been recounted often. For a summary, you can read this document from Fair Test, a national testing watch dog group. Suffice it to say here, that standardized tests do little to help teachers adjust instruction or to inform students of their needs.

A "school of opportunity" needs a variety of measures to fulfill its mission of designing an accountability program that provides actionable feedback to teachers, parents, and students. Standardized tests do have a role - a small one. Given three times during a child's school career (and not used for any high-stakes decision making) standardized tests can help a school, a district, and its parents get a rough idea of how well the school is doing in meeting students needs. Much more important to administrators, teachers, students and parents, however, would be the regular formative and summative assessments that are used by teachers working with students in the classroom each day.

One promising assessment tool that is appearing in more and more schools is the common assessment. The common assessment is a kind of half-way house between the formative classroom assessment individual teachers use in the classroom every day  and the standardized test that is mostly disconnected from the actual classroom. In a common assessment, a group of teachers who are teaching the same subject, say Environmental Science in Grade 9, from the same curriculum, work together to design an assessment based on what students at that school are expected to know and be able to do in Environmental Science. By designing the common assessment, the teachers agree on expectations for students and on how student learning will be measured. Teachers are free to instruct in ways most likely to help children to achieve the desired goals, so autonomy is maintained within the framework of the district approved curriculum.

The strengths of a common assessment approach are many. Most importantly, teachers get information on what their students know and are able to do that can inform future instruction and students get feedback on their strengths and weaknesses based on a common set of criteria. Common assessments also give the teachers the opportunity to look at a variety of instructional methods for delivering the same content and then choose those methods that work best. This type of work gives a professional learning community real purpose and has a real impact as a professional development tool.

Common assessments also fit nicely into the arguments I have made in previous posts about the weakness of letter grades in providing feedback to students and parents. These school generated assessments allow the teacher to tell students exactly what they know and are able to do and what they need to work on. 

Of course many and varied assessments make up the full picture for any school. Common assessments deal with academic aspects of the assessment. Other measures are necessary to judge climate, inclusiveness, and equity in a true school of opportunity.

We must go beyond grading and look closely at what is happening in schools in order to provide our schools with useful, actionable feedback. That is what a true accountability system looks like. It cannot be done on the cheap and it cannot be done by a narrow minded focus on an A-F grade for schools.


*Schools of Opportunity is a school recognition project co-directed by award-winning former public school principal, Carol Burris and University of Colorado professor, Kevin G. Welner. You can learn more about the group and also learn how to nominate your school for recognition by going to the group's web site here.





Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Writing Strategies Book, by Jennifer Serravallo A Review

Jennifer Serravallo calls herself a “dedicated reading and writing workshop teacher.” As any dedicated reading and writing workshop teacher will tell you, teaching in this fashion is both tremendously rewarding and damned hard work. In her new book, The Writing Strategies Book, Serravallo has given the hard-working literacy teacher just the kind of help she needs. The Writing Strategies Book is a companion book to The Reading Strategies Book, which Serravallo released two years ago and which I reviewed here. Like the earlier book, The Writing Strategies Book has Serravallo’s characteristically thoughtful organization, grounding in research, and helpful format. Whatever your concern about the needs of a particular writer or group of writers in grades K-8, you are likely to find assistance here.

The book is organized around ten goals, arranged in a loose hierarchy. Serravallo’s view (reflecting Hattie’s research) is that the skillful writing teacher assists students to articulate a goal and then provides strategies and feedback to help them achieve that goal. The ten goals are composing with pictures, engagement, generating ideas, focus, organization/structure, elaboration, word choice, conventions, and partnerships and clubs. These goals are then arranged in such a way to allow teachers to pick and choose appropriately for students at different levels of writing development.

Each chapter introduces the goal and suggests how to know if the teacher is choosing the right goal for a particular writing student. The chapters also contain dozens of strategies to help the harried teacher meet the individual needs of students at varying levels of control of the writing process. These strategy sheets, similar to those in Serravallo’s previous book, are little masterpieces of design to help the teacher use them efficiently and effectively. Each strategy sheet tells you for whom the strategy is designed (grade levels, genre, processes) and contains an explanation of the strategy, teaching tips, prompts to use with the writer, and a Hat Tip that provides the interested reader with a place to look for further reading on the topic.

Speaking of the strategies approach to teaching writing, Serravallo says "Strategies help to take something that proficient writers do naturally and without conscious effort, and make it visible, clear, doable for the student writer. The strategies addressed are many and varied. Here is a sampling.

  • Reread Your Pictures So It Sounds like a Storybook
  • Experiment with Change
  • Reread to Jump Back In
  • Observe Closely
  • Subtopics Hiding in Topics
  • Defining Moments
  • Zoom in on a Moment of Importance
  • Moving from Chunk to Chunk
  • Write the Bones, then Go Back to Flesh It Out
  • See the World like a Poet
  • Be Your Own Harshest Critic
  • Precise Nouns
  • Vary Words to Eliminate Repetition
  • Visualize the Word and Have-a-Go
  • Write, Reread, Write, Reread, Repeat
  • Creating Complex Sentences
  • Voice Comma
  • Talk Around the Idea, Then Write
  • Stroytelling to Figure Out Point of View and Perspective
It is a daunting array of strategies, but fortunately Serravallo provides an introductory chapter, Getting Started, that clearly explains how to use the book and provides a great many suggestions for setting up a writing workshop in the classroom. Whether you are new to writing workshop, or a writing workshop veteran, you will want to start here to learn how to use the book most effectively and for the suggestions for setting up the classroom.

The Writer Strategies Book is true to its subtitle, Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers. It belongs on your desk right next to your plan book to provide a helping hand as you work to help children become skillful and willing writers. 

Serravallo, Jennifer. (2017). The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Value of Student-Led Parent Conferences

I am indebted to my colleague, reader, and fellow blogger, Steven Zemelman, for this guest post. As a follow-up to my recent posts on the limits of grading, Steven looks at one very promising alternative to grades for student evaluation

By Steven Zemelman

Ina recent blog post, Russ wrote about the severe limitations of grades in communicating to parents about their child’s learning. It seems that while many teachers consider traditional letter grades to be problematic, they believe parents demand grades as a measure of how their child is doing.

This discussion reminded me of the many teachers and schools around the country using student-led parent conferences to give parents a more in-depth look at how children are doing. To define it briefly, in student-led conferences students show, explain, and sometimes even demonstrate for their parents or guardians the work they’ve been doing in school. This can take place on a parent night or successively scheduled teacher-parent-child meetings. Yes, there’s time and work involved. Effective conferences must be preceded by considerable preparation on the students’ part, but it is preparation that immerses them in review, reflection, and the writing out of explanations. So it’s not an “extra” task but rather a deep learning experience that can substitute for review time that both children and teachers often find tedious. Further, it helps parents understand how the teacher approaches instruction, as well as their child’s strengths and challenges, and how they can help at home. And especially important, it empowers young people to use their voices authentically and authoritatively, something that is all too rare for them.

There are a variety of ways that teachers have structured the conferences. Some set them up as individual meetings with the teacher, parents, and child all involved together. Others prepare “stations” through which the children and their parents rotate to cover each subject. Still others have students each set up a display of materials at a spot in the room so that multiple conferences take place at once, with the teacher circulating to answer questions as needed. Teachers who use student-led conferences have developed a variety of tools to support the process:
  • protocols and guide sheets to help students choose and organize their artifacts and draft their goals, explanations, and self-evaluations
  •  room arrangements to facilitate the conference process
  • lessons to help students prepare their conference presentation.
Some issues do arise with student-led conferences. Not all parents are able to attend conferences, so an arrangement may be needed for those students to present their work to some other adult. Administrators or teachers who are not otherwise meeting with parents may need to be called on for this role. Conversely, some parents may want more opportunity to discuss things with the teacher. Some children may not complete the preparatory work, for legitimate reasons or a lack of engagement – after all, teachers are not always able to succeed with every student, in spite of our tendency  toward perfectionism, wishing all would succeed. In this case a more traditional conference may be called for. Additionally, time available may be shorter than desirable, requiring that the session focus on just one or two subjects or just a few samples of the students’ work.

Here are some excellent resources available on the Web, to help you in implementing student-led conferences.


Ashley Cronin, “Student-Led Conferences: Resources for Educators,” Edutopia post July 8, 2016 https://www.edutopia.org/blog/student-led-conferences-resources-ashley-cronin  -- a thorough explanation with links to many other resources on how to implement this strategy.

Wildwood IB World Magnet School, Chicago, “Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership,” Edutopia post Aug. 24, 2015 https://www.edutopia.org/practice/student-led-conferences-empowerment-and-ownership -- a practical and down-to-earth explanation of how one middle school does this, with handy tools and resources attached.

Several book-length explorations of student-led conferences are available as well.


--Steven Zemelman is Director of the Illinois Writing Project, author of professional books on literacy for teachers, and most recently, From Inquiry to Action: Civic Engagement with Project-Based Learning in All Content Areas. His blog on student civic action can be found at https://medium.com/@szemelman .



Sunday, January 22, 2017

No, Betsy, School Choice Is Not a Good Thing

With choice champion, Betsy DeVos, under consideration for Secretary of Education, I thought it would be a good time to revisit what school choice really means. This post is adapted from my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, published by Garn Press.


What could be more American than choice? The country was founded on the principle of freedom of choice in speech, in religion, in the press, in assembly. Corporate education reformers tap into this most American of values by stating that parents, who after all pay for their child’s education through taxes, should have choice in where they send their children to school. If a school is not performing well, and for the reformers this means the school is achieving low test scores, parents should have the right to choose a different school. As reformers are often heard to say, “zip code should not be destiny.” In other words, where you go to school and the quality of the school you go to should not be determined by where you live. 

For wealthy Americans, choice has always been available. Affluent parents have the option of sending their children to a private school of their choosing – a school that offers the type of curriculum and academic and social environment the parents find desirable. Less affluent middle-class families often exercise their choice by where they choose to live. I was once on a lengthy flight out of Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty Airport, seated next to an Indian-American man who lived in northern New Jersey. We got into a conversation where I learned that he had two young children and I happened to mention the school district I worked in. The man said, “Oh yes, I know the district well, my wife and I are saving to move there because we have heard the schools are so good.”

This story is repeated over and over throughout the country daily and real estate agents are sure to include the quality of the schools in their sales pitch when the schools have a good reputation. Of course, a reputation for high quality schools means high housing costs and usually high property taxes (and efforts to limit affordable housing). A large portion of the populace is effectively excluded to access to these “high-achieving” school districts by economic inequity. 

Education reformers seek to emulate the choice enjoyed by the affluent and the upper middle class by offering the choice of the publicly funded, but privately run, charter school and the school voucher, which provides parents with money, again taken from public funds, to offset the cost of sending children to private institutions. If parents have such “choice’, the reformers’ story goes, public schools, charters and private schools will compete for public monies and all schools will improve performance. 

While all of this may sound good and may appeal to the American sense of freedom, civilized societies have long recognized that choice is not an absolute good. In America, we have the choice to smoke if we wish. I am old enough to remember entering the smoke-filled teachers’ lounge in Bristol Jr.-Sr. High School in the 1970’s. Smokers and non-smokers graded papers, planned lessons, held meetings and ate lunch in a haze of cigarette smoke that yellowed the fingers of the smokers and the formerly cream-colored walls of the cramped room.  

Today, of course, we may still smoke if we wish, but we do not have the choice to smoke in the teachers’ lounge or anywhere on school property for that matter. We have come to recognize that one person’s choice to smoke may infringe on another person’s choice to breathe. 

I am also old enough to remember when seat belts were first introduced into cars in the late fifties and how we were more likely to sit on them than strap them around our waists. Using the seat belt was a choice. While we can still make that choice, when we do so we are breaking the law and can be fined for failure to “buckle-up.” The government came to realize that our choices needed to be limited for the public good. Seat belts saved lives and saved medical costs and so our choice was legislated away. 

Like many of my generation, I was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In those days there was much talk about choosing to withhold that part of our taxes that was being used to wage the war. Those who tried this were brought to court by the Internal Revenue Service. The courts, of course, ruled that because the government was charged by the Constitution to “provide for the common defense”, the government had every right to collect my taxes for the military. I was free to choose to speak out against the war, assemble peacefully to protest the war and write letters to the editor about the war, but I could not withhold my taxes. My choices were limited by law. 

In our society we have come to recognize that choice is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with others’ choices. What if an inner-city parent’s choice is to send a child to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally-staffed, neighborhood public school? By draining away the limited funds and resources available for public education, charter schools and voucher schemes infringe on that parent’s choice. Public monies are rightly spent to make that good local school a reality. In public education, as with smoking and seat belts and the military, the government must choose to limit our choice in order to provide for, as the Constitution says, “the common good.” Public education is a common good that privatization in the form of charters and vouchers will destroy. 

For more on the damage that charter schools and vouchers do to public education see my earlier posts here and here.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Building Bridges Beats Building Walls

Walt Whitman Bridge
From Bridges
By Bill Staines

There are bridges, bridges in the sky,
They are shining in the sun,
They are stone and steel and wood and wire,
They can change two things to one.
They are languages and letters,
They are poetry and awe,
They are love and understanding,
And they're better than a wall.

This song came on my Pandora channel yesterday (yes, my Pandora channel is the old fogey folkie station) and I couldn’t get it out of my head. As I sit here on the eve of the inauguration of a president who promises to be a “wall builder” one of my favorite singer/songwriters is singing of bridges, both physical and metaphorical. I cannot help to think back to a presidential inauguration of 56 years ago – the first one I can really remember and one I remember vividly. It was, of course, the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. One of the speakers at Kennedy’s inauguration was the great American poet Robert Frost, gray haired, and looking chilled and frail in the January cold. Frost, I am reminded, also had his opinions about walls.

From The Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends a frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

We teachers are bridge builders. At our best we build bridges to transport students from the known to the new, from ignorance to understanding, from illiteracy to literacy, from fear to comfort, from anxiety to calm. At our best we are among Frost’s “something’s” that do not love a wall. We break down walls of prejudice, of resistance, of self-doubt, of anger, of turmoil and replace them with bridges of tolerance, caring, encouragement, calm, and routine.

Great leaders, too, are bridge builders. Great leaders appeal to our better, not our baser, selves. On that long ago inauguration day, John F. Kennedy appealed to us to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” One-hundred years earlier, Abraham Lincoln warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” And 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan went to the Brandenburg Gate in Germany and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Great leaders (and great poets) understand that the history of the world favors the bridge builders and opposes the wall builders.

Walls divide. Bridges unite. Demagogues divide. Leaders unite.

The in-coming president has called for the building of a literal wall between our country and Mexico. No matter how you feel about that piece of political policy, the metaphorical walls the president-elect is building between us are much more concerning. Political analysts say that the Trump candidacy has given voice to people who feel that they have not been heard. Fair enough. But if that unheard voice is the voice of ignorance, prejudice, violence, and base self-interest, then it is the true leader’s responsibility to guide these voices toward a better understanding of what America truly stands for. The new president will swear to “preserve, protect and defend The Constitution of the United States.” That Constitution says that its purpose is “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” We can disagree about how to accomplish these ideals, but we cannot disagree that these ideals apply to all Americans and that building bridges to make sure that all Americans (and especially the poor and powerless) receive these benefits is the chief job of any president.

I will be waiting anxiously to hear how President Trump plans to be a bridge builder. I am not really interested in any walls (or hotels) he wishes to build. Is Mr. Trump a leader or a demagogue?

The Bridge Builder
by Will Allen Dromgoole

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day.
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”


The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Creating Life-Long Readers through Choice

I am pleased to present this guest post by Lesley Roessing, Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. Lesley is a former graduate student of mine at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, PA. Like any teacher I love to see my students make good.

By Lesley Roessing

A meta-analysis of 41 studies examined the effect of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes in a variety of settings with both child and adult samples. Results indicated that providing choice enhanced intrinsic motivation, effort, task performance, and perceived competence, among other outcomes.
-- (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

I wake up and roll out of bed. What shall I eat? Cereal? Oatmeal? Bagel? Breakfast bar? I have choices. No one tells me what to eat; I eat what I want and what I feel I need—limited only by what is available. Maybe I want to eat oatmeal fourteen days in a row; possibly I have a craving for a decidedly less-healthy donut on a particular day. The following day I try a multi-grain, no-sugar, vegan-friendly cereal bar, knowing that I can discard it if I take three bites and find I hate it. I go to my closet. Again, I can wear what I want, limited only by what I own and what I deem appropriate for the day ahead—my purpose, my audience.

I experience the same situation with what I watch on television, what movies I view, and what books I read. I make my own choices, sometimes with the advice of friends or colleagues and sometimes with the guidance of experts in the appropriate field. Sometimes I read a book because my book club is reading it, but again I have the choice of which book club to join and whether to read that month’s book so I can attend and contribute to the meeting. I experience some failures but a lot of successes along the way. I have come to know myself as a viewer and reader.

But as I talk to teachers and visit schools, so many students are being told what to read, when to read, and how to read. I held a literacy workshop and asked educators to free-write about what they read, when they read, where they read, how they read, and what they do after they read and what they do if they are not enjoying what they are reading. I then asked them to contrast what they wrote about their personal reading behaviors with the reading in their classrooms. The majority looked shocked, chagrined, embarrassed. Many shared that they were told what their students had to read and when. Some even said that all teachers in a grade level needed to be on approximately the same page in the same book at the same time. Some even admitted that the curriculum content was up to them as long as they covered the standards but that “having students all read the same book at the same time was easier—easier to implement and easier to assess.”

What is our aim in including reading and literature in the curriculum? If our aim is to grow lifelong readers, I contend that we are failing.

According to studies, about 50% of Americans polled are alliterate, which means 50% of Americans can read but rarely do so. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42% of college graduates.

There is a decline in, or even a halt to, reading both for pleasure and academics at the middle grades. Alliteracy occurs when students are capable of reading, but choose not to read. It is also known by the terms “nonreaders, literate nonreaders, and reluctant readers.”

The other day, a friend and I were talking about the classics, and I asked her, a former teacher, if she had read a certain novel. She laughed. “Yes, the Cliff Notes version.” That is not an anomaly. When I asked my university Adolescent Literature class how many had ever read Spark Notes or Cliff Notes instead of a novel or multiple novels, almost 100% raised their hands (even the pre-service and in-service English teachers). There is a reason these companies stay in business. And what’s the point? No one said they read the Notes along with the novel because they couldn’t understand the novel; they read them instead of the novel because they didn’t want to read the novel. If they are reading merely a synopsis and explanation, why assign the novel?

A few weeks ago I was talking to a middle school teacher about working with her class to read self-selected books in book clubs. She turned to me and said, “I don’t I can do this. I have to tell you; I am content-driven.” I looked confused. I said, “I can’t think of one novel where the content was important—unless the reader is appearing on Jeopardy.” I am not saying that students shouldn’t be introduced to all sorts of literature, including the classics. Many, including me, love many of the classics, but I was a reader first.

When I look back to what I remember reading in middle school and high school, it was what I read on my own—not self-selected choice reading for class, but reading completely outside school, for my own benefit. After all the Nancy Drew mysteries, I read anything about Edgar Cayce and Henry VIII, all the books by Dr. Tom Dooley, any biography by Irving Stone, and Daphne DuMaurier novels. There probably were more. I can’t remember anything I read for school. Despite school I continued reading, but many college students have told me that they stopped reading in middle school, when they were told what to read. In the two courses I teach which required reading YA novels, self-selected with a genre or issue, at the end of the course students tell me that they forgot how much they liked to read or that they didn’t know they liked to read.

You might have noticed that I have been using the term “students,” rather than “readers.” That is because we first have to grow readers, students who think of themselves as readers and are on their way to becoming life-long readers. I had many eighth grade students who admitted they never had previously read an entire book or had read only one or two books in the previous middle school classes or rather fake-read those books. Those same students became readers of twenty to thirty books by the end of that eighth grade year.

How? I would like to take the credit and say it was my amazing choice of whole-class reads and exhilarating discussions of plots, character, setting, and figurative language, and the spell-binding tests I gave. But in honesty, the answer was choice—theirs. Choice was the prime motivator. At the end of seventh grade, Dave told me that he was “not a reader.” On the last day of school, he turned to me and said, “I still don’t think I like to read but I haven’t read a book this year that I didn’t like.” (He read at least 25 books that year).

Think about it. There are very few topics or writing styles or genres that interest everyone. I did attempt each year to choose one such book for our one whole-class shared text. I introduced students to reading strategies, literary elements, authors, writing styles, plot variations through reading whole-class short stories, articles, and poetry, knowing that readers can’t make choices until they know something about themselves as readers and they can’t make text choices until they know something about text. I then let my students loose on a shared novel that I thought most would like and all could read within the shared experience. For me and most of my classes, that book was The Giver, but there was noting magical about the novel other than it is well-written, employs made of the terms and concepts of plot, character, setting, and mood we had been learning, has interesting concepts which can lead to deep ethical discussions with students, especially eighth graders who are mature enough to understand them, and touches on many interests. As Sean later told me, “The Giver was a good choice because it was a type of book most of us would not have chosen on our own, but many of us went on to read the other books in the [at that time] Lowry trilogy.”

I don’t employ a whole-class text to teach students how to read and what they should read, but to open up the possibilities of how to read and what to note and notice. When readers move on the self-selected individual reading or group-selected book clubs, I encourage them to read novels, memoirs, and nonfiction in diverse genres, formats, a variety of challenge level and lengths, and with multicultural characters, by multicultural authors. While I don’t require certain quantities, I want them to be aware of their choices and extend them.

I designed a chart for my university Bibliotherapy class which I would use if I still were in the classroom so that students could analyze, and reflect on, their reading diversity:


I introduce readers, and they introduce each other, to books though book talks, book blogs, book trailers, book passes, gallery walks, and featured books-of-the-week.

Reading should be personal. Not every book speaks to every child. However, when a student finds that book, a reader is born. It takes the right book at the right time for the right reader to make the match. This could be the topic, the issue, a character, the writing, or even the setting. I just read Jordan Sonnenblick’s Falling Over Sideways, and even though I already love his writing style and reading about the eighth graders I taught for twenty years, what hooked me was the father’s stroke. My mother had a stroke and lived for many years with the physical and mental limitations. I am an adult and my mother was older than Claire’s father, and I don’t know how common stroke is with middle-aged men, but many of my students lived with, or near, their grandparents who in many cases were their caretakers, or had an ill parent, and this novel would have resonated with them. Other books have hooked me for other reasons, but it is always personal.

The most important strategy a teacher can employ is to have books in the classroom, a diversity of books (refer to the chart above when adding to your library). I was lucky to be able to build a classroom library over the years and even though we had a wonderful school library and a librarian who gave the best book talks ever, most of my “reluctant” readers chose books from our classroom library which was shelved by genre and where an “abandoned book” (one that had been previewed but still not found to be enticing after 2-3 chapters) could be returned and the next book on a personal list could be checked out.

To build a library, the holidays are a good time to ask for library presents. Any student or parent who wishes to give a gift can contribute a book in their child’s name. Design a “Book Given in the Honor of…” tag for parents or students to complete and affix to books. The students could even take part in a contest and then the winning designs copied onto labels, the contest advertising the wish for books.

Imagine the pride when readers can point to favorite books they chose to share with others.


Lesley Roessing is Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. She designed and teaches a course in Bibliotherapy to use picture books and YA literature to help guide children and adolescents through problems. Lesley is the author of The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009), No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed; The Sentences They Saved (Discover Writing Press. 2013), and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Contact her at Lesley.roessing@armstrong.edu or follow Facebook.com/coastalsavwp.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Ten Questions for Betsy DeVos

As I am sure you are aware, Senate hearings on Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education begin Wednesday, January 11, 2017. When the nomination was first announced, I wrote of my concern to my Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. Toomey sent back a letter indicating his full-throated support of DeVos. This time I am writing to the other Pennsylvania Senator, Democrat Bob Casey, who serves on the Senate HELP committee who will interview DeVos and decide on whether or not to send her nomination forward. Trying to stop this dangerous nomination is an uphill battle, of course, with Republicans controlling the Senate, but Casey, through recent actions expressing concern about DeVos' conflicts of interest, has at least shown some concern about this nominee. And Casey is actually on the HELP Committee that will interview DeVos, so it is worth a shot.

I won't detail here why DeVos is an historically lousy choice for the job. Peter Greene, over at the Curmuducation blog, has already done a terrific job of that. What I offer here is a list of questions that I suggest Senator Casey, or someone on the panel, ask.

The Hon. Robert P. Casey
393 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Casey,

I am writing today to suggest some questions that you might ask candidate for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos at the upcoming Senate hearings. DeVos is an extremely ill advised choice, as I think will be readily apparent if you can get her to answer the questions below.


  1. Ms. DeVos, would you please state, concisely, any relevant experience you have had in public education, either as a student, a teacher, a school leader, a public school board member, a parent of a public school child, a PTA member, a volunteer in a traditional public school or as someone who once drove past a public school?
  2. You have a long record of advocating for school choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools. What if parents' first choice, as it is for most American families, is to send their children to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally-staffed, local neighborhood public school? How would the voucher and charter school schemes you advocate support this kind of choice?
  3. In your home state of Michigan, you and the foundations you support have fought hard to make sure that governmental oversight of charter schools is extremely limited despite indications of widespread fiscal mismanagement and poor academic performance. Should charter schools be subject to the same financial and academic scrutiny as traditional public schools? If not, why not?
  4. The Detroit Free Press has called you the lobbyist "at the center" of the current "deeply dysfunctional" school choice landscape in Detroit. Policies you have heavily advocated for and supported are on full display in that city. How is that working out? Would you care to take the committee on a site visit to Detroit to see the impact of your good works?
  5. Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, has called you "the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward" since forever. Talk about how you will develop good working relationships with the 2.5 million teachers represented by unions.
  6. Your family made much of its fortune through Amway, a quasi-legal pyramid scheme that, according to one suit that cost the company 150 million dollars to settle, "induces salespeople to buy thousands of dollars of overpriced products and useless success tools and then to recruit others to do the same thing in an endless chain scheme that dooms, by design, nearly all to losses." Do you think as Secretary at DOE you might be able to use such a multi-level marketing scheme to raise needed money for public schools? Do you think pyramid business schemes should be taught in school?
  7. In interviews you have discussed visits you have made to charter schools and the wonderful programs you saw there. Would you discuss any visits you have made, ever, to a traditional public school and talk about the programs you saw there? 
  8. Your predecessors at the federal Department of Education have faced a great deal of criticism for advocating the use of standardized testing to rate schools and teachers. Explain in detail the pros and cons of these so called Value-Added Measures, how they are calculated and whether or not you think they are a good way to evaluate teacher or school performance. Can we see the valued-added scores of the charter schools in Detroit, please?
  9. Lightning Round. Please identify these education program acronyms:
    • IEP
    • RTI
    • PARCC
    • SBAC
    • CCSS
    • ELL
    • ESL
    • FERPA
    • IDEA
    • PAC
    • WPA (Oops! Sorry, that one sneaked in from the Roosevelt administration)
  10. In the end, Ms. DeVos, as the person designated to lead the federal Department of Education, overseeing the programs and resources for the 90% of American school children who attend traditional public schools, does  a viable system of public education matter to you at all? Take your time with this one, but not as much time as you have taken to sign your required financial disclosure forms.
As I am writing this, I have learned that Senate Democrats are calling for a delay in the hearing because DeVos has failed to file financial disclosure forms necessary for approval. We'll see how that goes, but I would certainly find the hearings to be entertaining, if Senator Casey or someone else would just ask the questions above - and I do think that a site visit to Detroit is a great idea for the full committee.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Beyond Grades: How is My Child Doing?

Part 3 in a series on grading and feedback

In previous posts in this series on grading, I have argued first that grades fail to motivate genuine learning and second, that they provide only vague unhelpful feedback to students. But what about parents? Many teachers say that they must give grades because parents demand them. It is true that most parents view grades as useful feedback, primarily, I believe, because we teachers have sold grades as effective feedback for 150 years. Parents want an answer to the question, "How is my child doing?" For most parents, grades seem to provide the answer to that question.

But what if we showed parents that that question is only poorly answered by a letter or number grade and that we can provide them with much richer information? What if we could provide parents with the answer to that question and at the same time let them know what we can do together to help the child achieve even more? The transition might be bumpy, but ultimately, I think parents will see that a different approach to answering the "How is my child doing?" question will be much more rewarding.

First, let's understand that the question, "How is my child doing?" is a complex one. Parents want to know how their child is doing academically, but they also want to know that their child's social and emotional needs are being met. Educators have long recognized that a grade on a report card can't provide all this information, so we have typically been given a checklist of behaviors to tick off like "Works well with others" and "Participates in class discussions." Still grades and checklists or written comments carry a fuzzy picture of a child's progress. We would do better to answer a few questions that are suggested by the this complex, "How is my child doing?"

In a skill based subject like reading, what are the questions we want to answer for parents? I would suggest the following.

  • Is my child reading at, above or below expected reading level for grade and age?
  • Does my child enjoy reading and read for increasing lengths of time?
  • Does my child read with adequate fluency (decoding, expression, rate) for age and grade level?
  • Does my child understand what is read at an adequate level for age and grade?
  • What strengths does my child exhibit in reading?
  • What challenges does my child have in reading?
  • What are you doing in school to help improve my child's reading?
  • What can I do at home to help improve my child's reading?
I would discourage sharing with parents a specific level of reading or a specific grade level score in reading. This is information for the professional and not necessary for the parent. At, above or below level seems adequate for parent information.

In content based subjects the questions to be answered change a bit, but the goal of actionable feedback stays the same. Let's take a social studies example.
  • Did my child demonstrate a knowledge of the social studies content in the curriculum?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to think and work like a social scientist?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to read and comprehend social studies materials?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to conduct research in the social sciences?
  • Is my child developing an adequate social science vocabulary?
  • What is being done in school to help my child improve performance in social sciences?
  • What can I do at home to help my child improve performance in the social sciences?
At first glance this may seem like a lot of information for the teacher to gather, but on closer inspection I believe that the answers to these questions are readily available to any teacher who has been observing the children in the class over several weeks. The answers to these questions come from running records, student in class work, anecdotal records of students performance taken by the teacher as students are engaged in a variety of activities, as well as from traditional tests and quizzes. The information is richer and more informative than any single grade or standardized test score could provide a parent. This approach also argues for the primacy of the teacher as being in the best position to assess a child's abilities.

It may appear that reporting like this is best suited to a parent teacher conference, which typically happens once or twice a year in school. While a regular conference might be the best way to deliver this information. other methods could be just as effective. One alternative is the narrative report card, where answers to questions such as those above are shared with parents in a narrative format. Teachers are provided with a report card template with question prompts to respond to in a narrative form. This approach would be time consuming, but perhaps less so than having 4 conferences a year. Another possibility is using technology, like Skype or Facetime, to make conferring more convenient for teacher and parent. Ultimately, technology may replace the need for periodic reporting out, with details of student performance available to (older) students and their parents as soon as teachers enter the information on a school database dedicated to the purpose and password protected.

Whatever the method of reporting, I think we need to admit that grades are a woefully inadequate form of feedback that actually does damage to the true motivations for learning. If we start from tat proposition, than problems related to changing the system become less daunting.

I am sure that my readers who teach middle and high school are saying to themselves that this may be fine for elementary teachers who have 25 students, but how can I do this when I have 125+ students?Well, we first need to remember that while elementary teachers have fewer students they are reporting on more subjects, so any class of 25 in elementary school with 5 subjects to report on is more or less equal to a secondary class of 125 with one subject. There are issues with grade reporting in the secondary schools that are different, however, and I will deal with them in a future post in this series.

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



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!