Buzz Books

(A version of this post appears at HBWReads under a different title.  Feel free to check it out here)
In April, I wrote about a project we began in Verona regarding summer reading, and described it as an attempt to make reading viral within our middle school.  The post, titled “Making Reading Viral,” detailed what was then an idea about how to create buzz around the titles we were recommending for the summer.The project began in earnest on June 27th, and we are now a month in.  Some brief stats on the site so far:Our middle school has a population of less than 700 students, and our town roughly 14,000 people.  Students and teachers write on their assigned days, with some mixing and matching going on.  It’s been a pleasure to administer the site and organize their work.

On Tuesday, August 2nd, I have the privilege of speaking at #140edu: Exploring the State of Education NOW Conference at the 92nd Street Y, NY, NY.  My topic: The Buzz Books.

A while back, I was asked by the conference founder, Jeff Pulver, to participate in this conference, and if so, what did I have in mind to talk about.  Immediately, I thought of the Buzz Books and the HBWReads blog.  Reading, to me, has been a difference-maker in my life, taking me from a place of shadows and ignorance, to one of luminosity and understanding.

Scholars have recently been examining the state of reading today among the general population of children in grades 5-12, and thestatistics coming out of their work paint an awful picture.  There are extreme ramifications upon our society if we raise a generation of non-readers.  So, we as a district, looked at what we thought of reading in general, and more specifically of summer reading.  We looked at reading phenomena like the Harry Potter books, the Twilight Series, and more recently, the Hunger Games trilogy.

We saw something there that caught our eye.

Reading is a social endeavor, and it’s done best when we can talk about books with people we have an interest in.  When we read a book that is outstanding, the first thing we want to do is to run and tell someone who matters to us all about it and recommend it to them.  We wanted to capture that somehow.

When I get on stage on Monday, I’m going to talk about that idea, but I am also going to talk about the work that has been done by all of the students and teachers at HBWReads so far this summer.  Looking back at the statistics I shared the other day, we have had wild success in terms of readers and traffic through our site.  We have had conversations around books that would not have otherwise occurred.  We are making reading viral, and helping to spread it through not only our community here in Verona, but also in other parts of the county and world.  Don’t underestimate the power of that.

The conference will be live on the web, and as soon as the information is posted as to how to tune in, I’ll pass it along here. (Here is the Ustream address if you are interested in catching the conference.  I go on roughly at 11:45am)

Can We Handle the “Truth?”

Yesterday, Grant Wiggins took a good sized whack at a hornet’s nest(Be sure to read all of the comments, too).  He boldly stated that fiction should be removed from ELA curricula:

No, I am not kidding. I think it is absurd that the bulk of reading making up the ELA curriculum involves fiction. There are few good reasons for retaining so much literature and many good reasons for dumping most of it. Plato famously banned poetry from The Republic. And who is the author of the above quote who agrees with me? None other than Thomas Jefferson.

The responses appeared across various networks faster than you can say Huck Finn.

I give Grant credit for raising the point in such a way.  If you’ve been in English departments in America over the last few years, the topic of including more non-fiction is one that we’ve been discussing at length.  Additionally, there have been myriad studies that show how we’ve created a void for male readers through our adherence to certain titles within the canon.  However, there is something that bears mentioning when we talk about the types of books we read in schools.

The person working with the students.

I work with a group of English teachers now who I know get students, both male and female, into the literature they read.  Could we do better at providing choice to them and providing access to texts that would suit them more perfectly?  Absolutely.  But recently, we asked our students what they thought about their English classes and an overwhelming majority came back to say that they really enjoyed the novels because of the teachers.  And, to further counter Grant’s point, 56% of our respondents were male.

Mary Beth Hertz wrote about this last night, in what I thought was a clear counter-argument that contained both an appeal to our emotions–because let’s face it, great fiction should create empathy within us– and a sober look at some of the things we can do to make our ELA classes more accessible to those we feel are disaffected by the canon.  She also pointed to Nick Provenzano’s post that looked at the yearly reflections on his curriculum:

The one thing that is really tough about being an English teacher is that ever year, the curriculum gets old. As it gets older, the students are slightly removed from it. In the curriculum for my district, the “newest” piece is Death of a Salesman. That is now over 50 years old. I think Death of a Salesman is still relevant to students today and the Dustin Hoffman movie is a great performance of the work. I still love teaching The Crucible and the kids cannot get enough of Holden and The Catcher in the Rye… It’s Twain and those crazy Romanticists and Transcendentalists that are losing the power they once had on students. Many kids cannot see the connection of Huck coming of age and Thoreau writing that people should be who they are no matter what others think. What next?

What Nick points to is clearly something, from my conversations with English teachers over the last few years, that is on the mind of those in the classrooms.  Can I still use the tried and true novels we’ve used and help students make connections between themselves and the characters?  Can they access these?  What I liked about Nick’s post is that he details some of the changes he’s made in his curriculum by including a class on the Graphic Novel, or Pictorial Literature, and other elements like pulling in new material to teach things like satire.

Strangely, though, as I conclude this and think about the words I just read and wrote about Nick’s practices, it goes back to the initial point: it’s the person working with the students that makes all of the difference.

More of This, Please

I read Eric Langhorst’s blog, I’ll confess, not for the great history links he sends out, but for ideas about how I would run my my own classroom.  In one of his latest posts/podcasts, Eric talks about how his class skyped in author Pat Hughes to talk about her work (and it magically fit right into what they were studying–imagine the serendipity!).  If you know how to use skype, you understand how simple and easy it is to use.  My mother uses it.  My kids can almost use it now.  It’s simple to pick up. After our impromptu conference with Shelly Blake-Plock last week, I began thinking about why we don’t bring others into our classrooms this way more often.  It’s not all that crazy to plan–anytime I have done one, it originated from an idea, that led to an email, that became a brainstorm for a date and time, and then some quick tech set-up.  Voila.  Instant access to smarter, more interesting people (choose your interviews wisely). The next level then becomes something like this once you’ve become more established: This was taken from Silvia Tolisano who uses htis with her students to help them engage more fully in the many conversations they have with people from around the world.  I’ve said this before in this space, and Sylvia characterizes it nicely here, but we need to be outsourcing more of what we do to our students.  By creating all of these opportunities for student learning out of one phone call (augmented with video, of course), Sylvia and others who do this sort of thing, have given students the opportunity to explore something more than just the history book or primary source documents.  The teachers who do this sort of thing are creating avenues for curiosity and exploration.  And that’s something we need to be doing more of.

Side note: if you get the chance, check out Silvia’s flickr visuals.  They are the bees knees.

Selling Their Wares

Last Sunday featured an interesting article in the New York Times by Winnie Hu, “Selling Lessons Online Raises Cash and Questions,” in which she unveiled, at least to me, that the sale of finished lessons by teachers is a booming business.  I knew it was possible to purchase lesson plans online, but I had no idea that is was actually a profitable endeavor.  Some of the teachers profiled are making a killing.

As the title suggests, there are a lot of issues that this brings up for society as a whole.  There are the usual:

“To the extent that school district resources are used, then I think it’s fair to ask whether the district should share in the proceeds,” said Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

regarding the intellectual property of teachers in which they use the resources that taxpayers provide them with to turn a personal profit.  And there are the professional, brought up by Joseph McDonald, a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University:

“Teachers swapping ideas with one another, that’s a great thing,” he said. “But somebody asking 75 cents for a word puzzle reduces the power of the learning community and is ultimately destructive to the profession.”

This one hits at home a little for me, which after my initial shock at the dollar amounts that could be made subsided, was the next gut reaction.  Does the fact that we are no longer just sharing through our networks cloud the nature of collaboration?  Or does the minimal dollar amount automatically take that off the table?  Some may not see the harm in paying an iTunes-equivalent fee for a great stock lesson on Beowulf, but the cumulative effect could be much greater.

Where I am with this as I right this in a wholly new direction, however.  Could this be the beginning of freelance teaching?  a return to the time when a teacher found a good spot in the center of town and hung up a sign that said “Great knowledge here.  Be enlightened for small fee?”  This sounds odd, yes, but think of how easy it is to set up an online portal that tracks student progress, provides immediate feedback, exposes their work to a global audience, and allows for real-time collaboration and communication.  It’s something we all might be able to create with a web server, a good friend who can code and will work for food and beer, and a little marketing savvy.  Is this the future of learning as we know it?

We are still in the infancy of online learning and virtual schools, but as we see more teachers and schools embrace it, the shift may be for teachers to gather together and form their own schools this way, because, let’s face it, it’s not rocket science to set up these portals.  Also, how many teachers that you know truly believe there is a better way to do things than is being done in the schools they work in?  This might just be the way to create the schools they want to create, or at least one in which they have the locus of control.

Seth Godin has been quoted as saying the following:

If you think the fallout from the newspaper industry was dramatic, wait until you see what happens in education.

Could this be what he was talking about?

Late edit to this post:  Larry Cuban has an excellent view on the call for technology to change schools that fits nicely with this post here.

Build Out Excuses

How much information is too much?

That’s a question that has been flying around not only my own head over the last few weeks, but also the departments with which I work.  We are moving toward an open gradebook whereby students and parents will have access to grades online.  Yes, I know, for many of you this is old hat; however, as many of you also may remember, it didn’t occur without significant conversation around how it was going to be done (or maybe not).  We are in the beginning stages of getting our teachers ready for it, and in speaking with teachers about the process, there is considerable trepidation about how much information parents should have, and whose responsibility is it to make sure they have that information.

For better or for worse, we rely on our students to act as portals to their parents when it comes to giving updates on their progress, and when that system fails, we then access parents directly either via the phone or now through email.  In past years, I may have included the traditional handwritten note in that group, but we are talking mainly middle and high school students here, and it is a well-researched fact that there is a cut-off point for when students cease bringing home paper documents from school in their weekly folders.  That cut-off point is sometime around October of their 5th grade year.  Does the use of web-based grading systems step in at this point and provide that solution for the failed communication between school and home?

Not entirely.  Just as I feel that we can never have a completely virtual schooling systems in which there is no personal contact, there can never be a portal that parents and teachers can rely on all of the time, regardless of the information displayed there.  However, I truly feel that making student grades and student attendance available 24/7 does much more harm than good for relationships between schools and communities.

The pushback we are receiving is coming in the form of increased pressure on teachers to get grading done in a timely manner.  In most math classes, it’s not such a big deal, but in AP Literature and other writing-based classes, the issue of how long a teacher has to grade a major paper becomes a thorny issue.  How long does it take to grade two sections worth of five-page essays?  How long does it take to grade a senior research project?  Two weeks?  a month?  In addition, the conversations around personal grading styles is now put in the spotlight.  If a parent can now see exactly how “teacher A ” grades compared to “teacher B,” they may begin to wonder why they are so different.  Why was Johnny weighted so heavily in participation as a sophomore in US History, but not at all as a junior in US History II?

When we moved to providing every teacher with a web page, it made it possible to post everything you handed out in class, effectively building out the excuse made by students that they didn’t have the “handout” or the notes.  Not every teacher did this, but it certainly was possible.  Philosophically, some disagreed with it, saying that it fostered no accountability by students to pay attention in class.  That’s flawed thinking, in my book.  Build out the excuses: if they have access to the documents from school or home, their reasoning is not plausible.  The same is true, I feel, for gradebooks.  By eliminating the unknown, as in how their child is doing, you are removing that from the table when discussing a child’s progress with parents.  Instead of “I was shocked to see that he is failing,” the conversation can begin with other terms, such as “how do we get him to do the work?”

I understand that opening up your processes to public scrutiny may feel like an attack on autonomy, but that is not where we are going with this.  Getting a group of intelligent, well-educated individuals who care about the success of kids to talk about their instructional practices, especially assessment, will move mountains.  It will begin to change the culture of a building.

If you have done this in your district, what input did teachers have on determining the policies behind the implementation and what parents see?  I’d like to have a few ideas so that when I begin working with teachers, I can offer suggestions as to how they should proceed.

Cross posted at

Great Pushback, From a Local Source

This comment appeared in my email inbox the other day, submitted by a teacher I work with in regards to my Attention, Engagement, Learning post from ASCD :

I really liked your “transfer of responsibility” model. But to a degree I disagree with the idea that students speaking/ interacting is a panacea for learning. I remember in my teaching classes we were drilled with the mantra “leanring is social”. But I think that’s just a new myth. I think instruction has to be differentiated. SOME kids are social learners and some are not. I frequently do partner assignments in Russian at the high school, and one of the consistent comments I got back on my survey was “less partner work”. My other class there ( I have two sections) seems to love it. I’ve also seen partner/ group work devolve into BS sessions or one person giving the answers to the other and the other kid not learning a thing.
So: not a panacea, just another tool to use appropriately.
I was blown away that anyone in my district actually reads this, but psyched to have some push-back from a local level where, to me, it matters most.  Here was my quick reply:
Thanks for checking it out; it was a great weekend where I was able to really get into excellent discussions about things that matter.  Here’s my take on your reaction.

Yes, some kids are social learners, some are not.  Some kids draw pictures, some are like me and cannot even begin to attempt that.  What the GRR model advocates is not “all social all the time,” but rather a mix of various types of collaborative and cooperative work.  Some of that will involve talking, some may not.

Plus, when you take a close look at what Kagan believes about the brain and what he believes about how we learn, the structures make a ton of sense.  In the model you gave me for your classes, how do you hold each student responsible for what goes on in the discussion?  If, as you say, it devolves into a BS session, what can be done to deter that?  The structures Kagan created all are built with a combination of group and individual accountability whereby, if done right, there is equal responsibility on the part of all cooperative partners.

From my perspective, we as teachers work very hard.  Can we begin to look at what we do not from the standpoint of teachers, but from the standpoint of learners?  If we did, I think we would agree that there is a lot of responsibility that can be transferred to the learner.  This is not just a tweak here or there I am talking about, but a whole paradigm shift in practice.

And, that was not all.  He came back today with another great insight:
My observations and criticism were directed more toward the PET scan and the concept that “the person doing the talking is the one doing the learning”. For me to buy into that model I would need to see more context for what specific events were occurring during the PET scan. For example, I”m sure that parts of the brain involved in registering the facial expressions and emotional reactions of the person one is speaking to are lighting up in that scan. But does that necessarily mean that that person is “learning” more of a particular content? What if we took two individuals and asked one to write a summary of  Romeo and Juliet and asked the other to retell it? Which brain would light up more? And what needs to be lighting up to demonstrate learning? To be mildly flip: I bet my brain would light up pretty brightly if I was about to be in a car accident. What am I learning (except that I”m screwed …:)
My point simply is this: I need more evidence to buy the notion that the “one doing the talking” is the one who is learning. This may be true for some social learners in some contexts but not necessarily in others (again, returning to what we both agree is the need for differentiating instruction).
I like and accept in principle the GRR model, especially in the broad principal/ thesis of moving the student from dependency to independence. I think that some of the failures I’ve seen of cooperative learning was that it kept students stuck in being dependent on other students for the answer/ learning, rather than using it as a means to wean them to a level where they can demonstrate/ perform a skill independently. So I think the concept if I do it-we do it-you (plural) do it-you (singular) do it is a good one. (Although not all kids will need to do the you plural one all the time in all situations…
These are the kinds of discussions that we should be having, and whether or not they are in person, at this point, I don’t care.  Eventually I would love that, but we have to start somewhere.
What do you think?

Kagan’s Structures

Just a heads up: these next few posts are going to all deal with my time spent with Dr. Spencer Kagan.  His generosity in sitting down to answer my questions led to a bunch of information that would be irresponsible of me to put into one post.

For the second time in two days, I’ve been fortunate to sit down and have a truly transformative conversation.  Dr. Spencer Kagan, a psychologist and author of hundreds of books about using cooperative learning structures in schools, sat down with me after his session and we talked about the primitive needs of our brain and how they wreak havoc on modern learning, embedded curriculum and the lack of a separate curriculum for “21st Century Skills.”

Kagan’s session was based on this idea:

“unstructured interaction does not lead to equity in the classroom.”

and it forces you to think for a minute about what equity is, and what it means to decrease the gap in achievement in your classroom.  For me, when I begin thinking of that, or when I listen to a teacher talk about a class with children of widely varying abilities, I think of how difficult it becomes to make sure that beyond helping a child reach a year’s growth in a year’s time, but also making sure that the gap between the high-achievers and low-achievers is minimized.  In his session, Kagan showed us some examples of data he’s collected in which classrooms that had a huge achievement gap and were given direct instruction aimed at raising everyone’s test scores actually did work, only the gap between the high achievers and low achievers remained constant.  He then showed the same situation with an experimental group of a classroom that implemented true cooperative learning structures, and that gap nearly disappeared within a year’s time.


Cooperative Learning is based on four principles, according to Kagan and others, that fit into the nice pneumonic PIES:

  • Positive Interdependence – occurs when gains of individuals or teams are positively correlated.
  • Individual Accountability – occurs when all students in a group are held accountable for doing a share of the work and for mastery of the material to be learned.
  • Equal Participation – occurs when each member of the group is afforded equal shares of responsibility and input.
  • Simultaneous Interaction – occurs when class time is designed to allow many student interactions during the period.

Again, and I apologize if this is becoming a trend in my writing, this session focused on a lot of doing, coupled with some amazing information on how the brain worked.  Doing, rather than just sitting hearing about the theory, makes all of the difference in learning.  This was Kagan’s message overall.  Throughout the hour and half, we interacted in several ways with both those we did not know and those we did.  We used touch, interview, and most of laughter, to get ourselves in a ready state for learning to occur.

Whether you are an advocate of this theory, which I am, or not, it was hard to deny that the activities we engaged in: Sage and Scribe, Celebrity Interview, Hagoo, Take-Off/Touchdown, and a quiet signal, did not focus our attention and put us in a position to be receptive to learning not only from Kagan, but from our new colleagues as well.


Kagan, S (2007, February, 8). Simple Structures to Reduce the Achievement Gap. NCCREST, Retrieved March 16, 2009.

Your Biggest Novel-in under a minute

We are really pushing summarizing and paraphrasing in our schools this year.  The ability to take relevant information and boil it down to its essentials, and to represent that information in language and terms that have meaning to the individual is a skill that, regardless of century, people need to have.

Thanks to Alec Couros, I found this gem last night as I was trying to fall asleep.  It’s called Forrest Gump in One Minute, In One Take.

From this, all sorts of ideas begin to spring up.  If you read Tom Barrett’s collection of the 32 uses of the Flip Cam in your classroom, this project makes even more sense.  I think that taking a tome like Jane Eyre and asking students to do it in this format, with similar constraints, is a beautiful idea.  I’d love to hear of other examples where people did this, or something similar.

Now does it ensure that the students pulled everything out of the novel that they should have?  That’s up to you and how you assess it.  But for me, this project, coupled with some other more traditional assessments would be more than enough.

It Never Was an Either/Or

This week I have spent a good portion of my time working with teachers in grades PK-2 talking about creativity and innovation.  Due to the changes that New Jersey is proposing in the new draft standards, which came about through their membership in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (among other factors as well), the elements that are stressed in the P21 manifesto have populated themselves into the new standards.  Themes such as:

  • Global awareness
  • Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy
  • Civic literacy
  • Health literacy

and skills like:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration

are all now written into our standards from PK-12.

If you come from middle or high school teaching into an administration position in which you work with grades PK-5, you will understand how stressful it is to work with elementary teachers.  They are wonderful people; I should know, I am married to one.  But when you look at all they have to do in a day and the limited time they have to do it in, having them sit in an afterschool meeting to work with curriculum is daunting.  To introduce these ideas to our elementary teachers, we used our good friend Sir Ken Robinson.  We took a page from the P21 Framework that centered on creativity and innovation and had the teachers use it as a backbone for writing down ideas that struck them while watching Sir Ken’s TED talk from 2006.  From there, we had them answer two prompts in groups of 4-5:

  • Identify the structures in place in your classroom that promote creativity and innovation either in your students or yourself.
  • So what?  What Now?

The responses were phenomenal, especially in relation to the areas where Sir Ken spoke about finding creative capacities and working with them instead of educating them out of them.  However, one thing I have learned in administration in regards to any kind of meeting is that you have to be ready for the “don’t waste my time question of the day,” which is the part where you have to make it matter to them.  A teacher asked the question very bluntly:

“where is this going?  How are we to fit these ideas, which by the way we all believe in, into what we already do?”

My answer wasn’t great, I’ll admit, and it had a lot to do with explaining where the ideas behind the new standards revisions came from, but it stuck with me.

Last night, in my reader appeared an article from Patrick Riccards at Eduflack in which he debated the mode of delivery that the P21 people have chosen.  This gem was smack in the middle of it:

The debate over 21CS skills should not be one between one set of curricular goals versus the other.  This isn’t core knowledge versus soft skills.  No, our focus should be on how we teach those core subjects that are necessary.  How do we teach math and science so that we better integrate technology and critical thinking skills?  How do we teach the social sciences in a manner that focuses on project-based learning and team-based activities?  How do we ensure that a 21st century student is not being forced to unplug when they enter the classroom, and instead uses the technologies and interests that drive the rest of their life to boost their interest and achievement in core academic subjects?  And most importantly, how do we ensure all students are graduating with the content knowledge and skills needed to truly achieve in the 21st century economy

One does not go forward by jettisoning the skills with which we gathered. To me it’s not about introducing new content, but rather how we engage students in content using the “soft skills” that we need them to develop. The ability to have a lasting understanding is our goal here, and providing relevant context to what we do in the classroom is a great way to get there.  So my answer to that question is not to change the content of what you do, but to use the same skills you are trying to develop in the students in your own practice.  Be innovative, be creative, be prepared to fail often, collaborate, model the behaviors you want to see in your students.