Some quick thoughts on reading

I’m at a session sponsored by the American Reading Company, and in the course of their presentation, we’ve stumbled upon some interesting discussions.  The presenter is moving through three of the shifts that the Common Core brings about:

  • Shift I: 80% of our reading is spent on fiction and stories, we need to shift that to 50% non-fiction or informational text and 50% fiction.
  • Shift II: Reading and Writing grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational
  • Shift III: Regular practice with complex text and it’s academic language

At various junctures, he asks us to think about the changes that each of these shifts bring about for students, for teachers, and for school and district leaders.  The audience, consisting of supervisors of Language Arts, some Principals and Vice Principals as well as some teachers, has hit on the fact that we need more “text” in classes, and by that they have taken to mean that we need more books.  I’m struggling with this a bit.  Here’s why.

When we first got into the room, the presenter asked to list all of what we read in the past twenty-four hours, his point being to prove that the majority of what we read these days is informational text or non-fiction text.  However, as we dove into discussions about these shifts, and heard from folks saying that they see the need for more “texts” for students, it dawned on me to ask the group how much of what you read in those twenty-four hours was on paper?  How much was on a screen?

That’s significant.  The way we access text is different when we access it on a device.  Even a device as basic as a Kindle or a Nook, there are features that change the way we read and how we access text.

Are we thinking about that?

Plus, before we begin pushing more text into the classroom, much thought has to be given to what those texts are.  Looking at the books in the baskets in the front of the room, I see many books that are tradebooks or basals.  I’m not so sure that our diet as readers should consist of all that form.  Personally, I would have gone nuts.  I cut my reading teeth on long-form magazine writing.  Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and even those wonky J.Peterman catalogs totally saved me from the doldrums of classroom reading.

Additionally (and now this is bordering on rant) one of the issues many districts have in changing the complexity of text (Shift III) is that they rarely have an exact picture of where there students are reading.  Part of the pitch today is the ARC’s IRLA system, which is analogous to DRA2, Guided Reading Level, Lexile, or SRI.  Whichever flavor your school or district uses, having an understanding of where your students can read is so paramount to beginning the work required by the Common Core.  How many of our schools have teachers that have and use this information?  It’s incumbent upon school leaders to make sure this is happening.

Insert Transformative Practices Here.

Consider this a fact-finding mission.

Here’s some context:  I am new to the district I work in, meaning I just started here in July.  I was hired to come in and supervise three departments, three departments that had not been supervised (in the traditional sense–whatever that is–) before.  Curriculum had been looked at, but a group effort to make it flow from K-12 hadn’t been attempted.

In New Jersey, schools are grouped according to something called a District Factor Group, which is a value consisting of wealth components and educational levels of the residents taken from the most recent census data.  The group we belong to is very close to the highest (on and scale that rates them A-J with A being the lowest, we are an “I”).  The top two socio-economic levels usually comprise most of the top performing schools within the state.  Withing that group, we rank near the bottom in most of the measurables society uses to gauge us.

Are the two items related?  I’m sure there is something to the fact that there hasn’t been an earnest evaluation of what we do in quite a while, and going through such a process is often painful the first time, but it must be done.

I’ve talked to the teachers, specifically in the English Department at the high school, and outlined a plan to change the sequence of the courses offered.  None of them liked it, and, in fact, most were opposed.  That plan is now being debated in public.  It’s equal parts structural/course sequence change and curriculum change.

But what I am finding I really need is more input.  Input from the teachers and students.  Input from the network out here.  How do re-arrange situations in which students don’t view their learning in certain “levels” with any seriousness?

I need models.  I need ways to help kids who don’t like to read and engage in “literary things” find value and meaning in what they do in their academic classes.  I need ways to make it come alive for them.

I also need ways to do this so that teaching these kids in this new way does not drive my teachers insane.

There are models I’ve looked at that I love.  I’ve read Readicide and am mining that for ideas and inspiration.  What else should I read?  Who else should I talk to?  What are you doing that is making this type of difference?

The Questions They Won’t Ask

In talking to Shelley Blake-Plock today, I continued my habit of ripping quotes from people and saving them for later.  From Shelley, I got this gem today:

We are probably the last generation that will make the distinction between being online and not being online

This was stated in response to a question I asked that I felt obligated to ask given the company in the room and their relative knowledge levels of social media and its use in the classrooms.  My question was as follows:

Considering the amount of time you now require your students be online, and considering some of the writing that’s been done (a la Nick Carr’s Google=Stupid work), do you feel that you are asking your students to spend too much time “online?” and do you get any pushback from teachers or students?

His response fits well, but, still, are we old-fashioned for asking questions like that, or better yet, do those questions need to be asked?

Just wondering…

Anonymously Dropped Off

Yesterday, upon returning to my desk after being out on Friday and in meetings all morning on Monday, I found an envelope on my desk that was sent via inter-office mail.  Inside of the oft-recycled envelope were a series of desk calendar dates, each with a particular saying on them.  Here is a sample of the Monday, December 7th entry:

Technology can become detrimental to your quality of life when you use the time it saved to get more work done.

The ideas contained in the desk calendar philosophy are not the issue I have; there isn’t one of them that I don’t agree with.  (Even this one: Don’t allow yourself to become a slave to the devices that are meant to be a convenience for you.)  Rather, why not present these to me in a manner that opens dialogue about what you are feeling regarding technology and its role in your occupation?

If I’ve learned nothing else in the past few years, it’s that there will be things that come into your sphere that you embrace quickly and then let go just as quickly.  There are many additive technologies, but what truly makes a difference in our lives, especially the quality of our lives, is the types of technology that are truly transformative.  Another interesting piece is how individualized it all is.  What is revolutionary for me, is drivel and chore for someone else.  However, we all need to strive to find the balance between that which is adding to our workload, and that which transforms it and makes it more efficient.

Right now, someone in my district is striving to find that balance, and letting me know about it too.

Deaf Ears

I went to a conference two weeks ago, and I am still sitting on my “what I learned at (insert conference name here)” post.  It’s not that I didn’t take anything away that is worth squawking about, nor that I haven’t the time to write about it, because, let’s face it, so few of us do anymore.  It’s rather that I’ve been trying to find the way to say it without ruffling the feathers of those who put on conferences all over.

There shouldn’t be any educational technology conferences anymore.

Oh great.  Now it’s out there.  There goes any chance I ever had at presenting at ISTE (or NECC, or whatever it’s next iteration will be).

While I truly love the conference I am speaking of, being that the first time I attended was one of the biggest eye-opening events of my career a few years back, something has changed around the world of education and educational conferences.   What’s changed is not the technology–that’s a given.  What’s changed is that we now ask different questions than we did before. The more “Ed Tech” conferences I attend, the  more I see people there who don’t need to be there.  If we are talking about real change in education, the kind that makes nervous people of those with big jobs in big companies that depend on education as a market, than we’ve got to get different people here.

Instead of the word technology or educational technology being mentioned anywhere in the nomenclature of the conference, why don’t we focus on student learning.

If you can’t show me (preferably with live students) how what you are talking about is credible, gets kids excited to learn, and allows them to share their learning with whomever wants to be a part of it, I don’t know if I am interested.

I know this has been said before, and many times here in this space, but it’s not teaching with technology, or learning with technology, or educational technology.  It’s just teaching, just learning, and just education.  It’s here, it’s your computer connected to the world, and it makes your job easier.  And if  the educational technologist in your district would just let you know about these conferences, it might just become very clear to you.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that these conferences need to recognize the fact that we moved beyond just inviting directors of technology, technology coordinators, or higher-level administrators, but rather classroom teachers, students, and even community stakeholders.

And Sometimes We Feel Like This…

I have not been a contributor to any of those whom I rely on for inspiration in quite some time.  This space, twitter, any of the Ning’s I belong to–all of them have been foreign to me.  While a good many of the teachers who find it difficult to contribute during the year have truly blossomed (I have been reading) in their comments and reflections during these summer months, there hasn’t been much for me to say.  Or, I haven’t had the motivation or the open thinking space in my days to make the effort.

See, I’ve reached a saturation point of sorts that I have been ignoring for a few weeks.  My influx of information is at an all-time high; more resources, conversations, and ideas come at me on a daily basis than I ever thought possible when I started down this road a few years back, but my ability to handle them has not kept up.  I need some pruning, and, actually, I need some tips on how to handle this overload.


A short time ago, I would have scoffed at the notion that I needed to figure out a way to handle all of the information coming my way.  RSS, Diigo, social networks, etc. was a rush.  Every day, sometimes multiple times a day I would gather the newest round of articles, links, quotes, or whatever my manual trolling brought in.  Not so any more.  I’ll admit it, I can’t keep up.  There are too many of you now that have great ideas.

So I ask, what is the next level?  I feel like I’ve just worked so hard to attain access to the Dragon Scroll, yet I don’t have enough inner knowledge to understand its message.  Can anyone point me to resources that attack this next level of information mastery?  Who has great systems in place for being discretionary about information?

The Vatican is More Transparent Than The Classroom.

This year, as we wind to a close around here from the student side of things, amid all of the chaos of the crescendo that is the end of a school year, all I want to think about is transparency.

I don’t usually get parent phone calls in this position, but when I do, it’s almost exciting in a sick sort of way.  The best are when there is a little time to prepare, as in when someone from one of the schools passes me a heads up so that I can prepare some resources.

The few calls I have received as of late all point to one of the most puzzling problems we have: (to quote) “I don’t see anything coming home.  I have no idea what is going on in the classroom.”  Our teachers are excellent and among the hardest working I have ever been around, but why was I hearing about this so frequently?

Puzzling?  Extremely, and here is why.

Look at this example, and this one, and this one.  There are teachers who are leveraging the power of their students to produce evidence and examples of what is occurring in the classroom if not on daily basis, at least a weekly one.  This idea, of course, did not arise with the Google’s purchase of Blogger, but rather has been around forever; however, as our children rise out the elementary school and leave the trappings of the elementary classroom behind, the practice of the “Friday Folder” appeals less and less to them.  The neatly typed and clip-arted newsletter just isn’t making it to the refrigerator in 6th grade.

Use the technology to increase transparency.  These four organizations, long considered bastions of rigid secrecy and privacy, are far more likely to divulge information about what is going on within their walls than a good percentage of classrooms around the country.  Why?  I think we should be proud of what is going on in our classrooms and schools, and we should invite discussion and dialogue into them around student work.

Going one step further, the rebirth of the student portfolio has me intrigued within this format.  Teachers who have worked with their students to create a blog often run into one big problem: what do you do at the end of the year when those students no longer are yours, yet they still have an account in your class blog?  Does their work permanently reside with you?  Several schools around the world are using platforms like Moodle, WordPress MU, Google Apps for your Domain, or even local server tools available through the Mac OS X server to house student work in a manner that it follows them through the course of the years within a district or school.  Let’s promote that!  Let’s talk about having easy access for students, and parents, to student work as it’s in progress.  How many conversations have you seen occur on-line between students who would never speak to each other in class?  Will the same be said for parents and children who cannot relate to one another well in person?  Will their on-line interaction over their published work help them relate to one another at the personal level?

Perhaps I am taking it too far, but there is merit here, and I am actively looking for examples of how schools are doing this type of work.  Please add yours!

Cross-posted at TechLearning and Ecology of Education.

Open Letter to the Teacher who said “I Hate Technology.”

Dear Teacher who Said “I hate technology,”

First of all, I want to thank you for your candor and your willingness to openly share your opinion regarding the use of tools for learning.  I am a firm believer that we should all have an open forum for expressing our opinions about our profession and the factors that influence it.  That is why I am writing here.

Rather than do what most readers of this letter are expecting me to do and refute your claims, I have to admit that I concur–I hate it too.  Yes, I must admit, that comes as surprise, I am sure, but something tells me that our reasons for this shared loathing will not be the same.  Let me share mine with you and then we can have an informed discussion to compare and contrast.

First, I cannot stand that I have had to give up hours of painstakingly annotating papers with carefully crafted comments and editing marks.  I’ll miss that fullness of self when I return the essays and research papers back to the students and they scurrilously thumb to the last page, jettisoning any comment or edit I made, to find out their total score on the paper.

Secondly, the fact that there will be conversations about topics in my class that occurr UNABATED and not in my presence is inconceivable and incorrigible.  Thoughts about the content of my class that do not occur during the sanctity of my 50 minute class period belong either as one-on-one conversations with me in the hallway, clearly stated on their homework papers, or held onto in the working memory of the student until the next class period or hallway conversation with me.

Lastly, the assignment of group projects should be a rite of passage that includes several if not all of the following situations for students: one student should do most of the work including but not limited to: writing, researching, organizing, and assigning ancillary roles to other team members, one student should lose the flash drive that has the slide presentation at least once during the assignment duration, one student, most likely the one who pulls down 30+ hours at the local burger joint, should not be able to meet with the rest of the group at any time outside of school, provided the other group members athletics and extracurricular activities schedules do not preclude any outside of the classroom meetings.  Additionally, I should not be able to see the extent to which each of these students worked on the project until the very end of the process.

As you can see, my role as a teacher is being compromised by the intrusion of tools that render aspects of my daily goings-on as obsolete.  This I won’t stand for.  Plus, adding to my ire is the fact that there is all of this talk about new definitions of literacy.  Reading is no longer just the deconstruction and reconstruction of text, but now I am being asked to help students make sense of rich media, data sets that are visualized, and more streams of immediate news and information on a daily basis.  If you ask me, there is just a whole lot of noise.  What do you say we just don’t listen to it?

We had teachers growing up who were able to teach us the finer points of composing, of calculation, of geography, and the greater literary works of both North America and Europe, yet their technology was limited to chalk, and blessed be, an overhead projector.  Can’t we do as much or more with the same?

So I am with you, I think, in resisting this move, and I’ll do just what’s mandated of me by my building principal.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go close my classroom door…

Cross-posted at Ecology of Education and TechLearning.