Named One of the Best Educational Blogs 2010 by the Washington Post

About CSTP

Stories from School Blogs by State

Stay Informed

25 Articles Categorized in "Literacy"

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues | March 3, 2014

HB 2800


boxesBy Mark

I strongly believe that civil consideration of all sides of an issue are important for a literate society.

So let's take the Inslee/Dorn joint venture, House Bill 2800, which adds to RCW 28A.405.100 at section 2(f) a passage that begins on line 31 of page 3:

"Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, when relevant to the teacher and subject matter, student growth data elements must include results from federally mandated statewide student assessments."

This language is also inserted elsewhere in the document where it is relevant to define student growth.

Based on what I am reading, I hesitate to boil this issue down to a simple pro v. con. This issue, as are most, is more complicated that our society's convenient dualistic reduction.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development, Social Issues | December 19, 2013

Common Core: Irony, Commerce and the Clock


File52a4a9f585e15By Mark

For English Language Arts 9-10, Common Core standard #8 for Informational Text is this:

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I thought of this when I read a rant recently about how Common Core required education about safe sex rather than abstinence. This was the same week I read two different assertions: one claiming that Common Core specifically outlawed the teaching of cursive, the other claiming that cursive was now required. A few weeks ago I was lectured by a parent about how Common Core was forcing kids to just memorize a list of facts and spit them back on a test. My school year this year started with a colleague upset at the required reading list identified by the Common Core State Standards for high school English.

A seven-second Google search enabled me to "evaluate the argument and specific claims... assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient" and "identify false statements." 

1. Common Core does not address issues of sex education...

2. Common Core does not address handwriting or cursive in the standards...

CSTP--Staff | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues | December 11, 2013

Teacher of the Year is Dyslexic


Jeff Dunn 1

Our guest blogger, Jeffrey Dunn is 2014 Regional Teacher of the year from ESD 101. Jeffrey is an educator, cultural critic, & backwoods modernist currently teaching in Deer Park, Washington. He invites others to read bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Richard Brautigan.


Try and imagine the impact this fact has on my students. No longer am I a model of all that is correct. No longer am I the authority on all that is academic. In this case, I am learning disabled as defined in Washington State law (WAC 392-172A-03055). This law reads that learning disabilities may include “conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” In short, I am not the model of perfection students are led to believe all we teachers are.  

Researchers from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity's Sally Shaywitz (Overcoming Dyslexia) and the College de France and  Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale'sStanislas Dehaene (Reading in the Brain) estimate that between 10-20% (call it the midpoint, 15%) of all human populations are dyslexic (variation  is a result of definition and assessment practice). Think of it, in any class of 25, we should expect 4 of our students to be dyslexic. My thirty-six years of teaching experience has proven this statistic to be true.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | December 7, 2013

More on Coverage vs. Learning: Student Growth


220px-Johann_Heinrich_Füssli_054By Mark

Last month I shared my thoughts about how "coverage pressure" nearly led me to move on before my students were ready. My decision to slow down and focus on my students' skills rather than simply plow forward resulted in far better student performance both on that essay as well as the next essay they are currently writing for me. I have had several students voluntarily tell me that they understand what to do far better now because we slowed down and spent more time digging deeper.

The new evaluation law requires that all teachers be able to demonstrate how their planning and implementation results in student growth toward an important content standard or goal. As I wrote that piece linked above, a minor epiphany occurred to me: coverage of content and student growth are not the same thing.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | November 10, 2013

What They Learn vs. What I Cover


File527fbcb709896By Mark

I had big plans for this three day weekend. 

Like many of my colleagues, when I look at the calendar and see three or four day weekends (or five-day, in the case of Thanksgiving), I don't think necessarily about all the relaxation I can achieve. Instead, I wonder if I could get a few class sets of essays turned around in that extended weekend. Those big writing assignments take time to provide useful feedback upon. For me, that means 15 or 20 minutes per paper to provide critical, focused feedback for improvement.

My kids submit their writing via Google Drive, so I can add margin comments (and cut-and-paste the comments I find myself adding frequently). When I reviewed their papers Friday after school, I knew I had screwed up.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Literacy, Mathematics, Social Issues | July 14, 2013

Are Schools Really Failing?


CompassesSome "discourse" about all the failing seniors in Washington State wants us to believe (using Washington as a proxy) that schools are continuing to fail.

This Reuters article seems to suggest they aren't, at least in terms of "closing the achievement gap." (Here is the link to the source data.) In the Reuters digestion, though, one key passage stood out:

The only scores to stagnate were the overall averages for 17-year-olds. While black and Hispanic students improved quite dramatically, the overall averages for the age group barely budged in either reading or math.

Peggy Carr, a federal education analyst, said the flat trendline among older students was actually good news.

More 17-year-olds with shaky academic records are staying in school rather than dropping out, which makes them eligible to take the NAEP exams, she said.

Even though some groups showed significant gains, the overall average was the same. My math knowledge tells me that if gains happened somewhere and the average stayed the same, some group's performance decreased. That decrease is being explained as a change in the survey sample--kids who otherwise would have dropped out are now part of the pool. Makes sense. That might figure in to the "high" number of "failing" seniors on Washington State math assessments. In that first article linked above, Randy Dorn even alludes to the fact that a priority in schools today is to keep kids from dropping out: keeping them in the system longer. This is a good thing, but does have an affect on our "data."

So, wait a minute. Where else might this matter?

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development | January 12, 2013

Reading, Thinking, the Media and the Truth


I teach 9th grade English so one of my Common Core State Standards reads like this: 

Informational Texts: Delineate and evaluate argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I usually focus most on this standard when examining logical fallacies portrayed in advertising as part of my propaganda unit during the teaching of Animal Farm. The kids quickly see the illogical and unsupported claims about toothpastes, beauty products, diet pills and any number of other too-good-to-be-true product pitches. When the validity of the reasoning only takes a moment of critical thought to deconstruct, they get good at it. When claims are presented that "seem" valid on first blush, though, the kids have a hard time decoding the nuance of falsehood behind the presumptive truth.

The route information takes nowadays is more like the game of telephone than ever before, with information being stripped, twisted and de-contextualized until it emerges at the end of the line as a statement whose meaning is a completely different message than the original referent. Thus, our challenge is not to help students spot the obviously fallacious reasoning, but to have their radar on for the subtle (and I believe, often intentionally manipulative) misinformation, misguidance, incompleteness, or writerly interpretation that portrays itself as truth and fact.

This was already in my mind when I read this seemingly innocuous passage in an article about teachers:

Mark Gardner | Books, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | October 14, 2012

The Budget


Sale booksAnother invisible: the budget. I spend a lot of time on as part of my job. As chair of the English department, I have keep up the inventory of our resources--a key resource, of course, is our store of books. Every student at my school is required to take an English class, and my department budget works out to be about $1.80 per student per year. Granted, once you buy a book you can use it multiple times--but books also wear out, and our department budget also has to cover, among other things, basic supplies like paper, staples, dry erase markers, and the other necessities that my 18 full- or part-time English teachers usually end up buying out of their own pocket when the department supply runs out around mid-November.

When I get an email that we are a class-set short of copies of an anchor novel in the curriculum, I have to find a way to cover that gap. In a dream world, I'd buy library-bound hardcover copies of each novel, which start at about $20 per copy. Scratch that: in a dream world, I'd supply all of my students with e-readers wherein they can interact with, annotate, and easily carry their texts. 

Rob | Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Parent Involvment, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | September 22, 2012

Guidance Team


By Rob

Struggling students are referred to the Guidance Team.  We identify the most significant barrier to student success.  We develop a plan to address the barrier.  We choose metrics to track the effectiveness of our plan.  We document our interventions and meet regularly to track progress. 

A teacher may bring a student to the team who’s reading below grade level.  We review the student’s reading data.  Perhaps we find evidence they need phonics support.  We align our school’s resources- this student will meet with our reading specialist for an 8 week phonics intervention.  This may lead to improved fluency and the student can then carry the meaning while reading.  As a result, their reading comprehension improves.  I’ve seen this happen.  It demonstrates some of the best work a school can do.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | July 30, 2012

Realigning to Common Core


File7011343695826By Mark

This summer, I've been participating in a book study about challenges in implementing Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. In that spirit, I sat down today to look at my scope and sequence for the classes I teach (Freshman English Lit and Comp). All along I've been saying to myself and others that this whole Common Core Standards shifting is no big deal: we're already doing that work, it's just a matter of identifying in those standards all the things we already do--we won't really have to do much that is "new."

As it turns out, this whole process really made me rethink what I teach and how I teach. I found that there were many standards which were addressed, reinforced, and assessed in basically every single unit of the sequence. I also found a few standards which never appeared more than once, buried as a footnote in some broader unit. More concerning: some of the projects and assessments that I and my students enjoy the most were supported by only tenuous connections (at best) to the standards. 

This coming school year, I anticipate that many of my posts will reflect my process with the Common Core. Interestingly, when I try to characterize my feelings, the first word that pops into my head (however irrational this may be) is the word mourning. Some of those projects that kids seem to connect with so well lack strong connection to Common Core, even if they are the tasks that former students still recall to me ten years later. No matter how much I, or they, love the experience, these are the things I really need to examine and honestly assess whether they belong in my classroom under my new expectations.

As I try to help other teachers make this transition to the new standards, I need to remember that word that popped into my head. As I encounter resistance, I need to remember that isn't just about being "opposed to change." I need to remember that the first reaction when you are told to do something new might not actually be a reaction to that which is new, but rather a quick and confusing pang of loss for something deeply enjoyed that no longer seems to fit. 

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Mathematics | April 30, 2012

The English Problem


File3561335707875By Mark

For several years, my building has been identifying and aligning curriculum to standards--first state standards and now Common Core Standards--with part of this process being the identification of the Power Standards! each unit of instruction is to focus upon.

Simultaneously, we are gearing up for a new teacher evaluation system which figures heavily on a teacher's ability to define what his/her students' learning targets are and assess and document student progress toward those targets.

To an extent, both have been an uneasy fit for me as a high school English teacher. It is not so much in the philosophies underpinning these movements. It is that no one that I talk to seems to understand what I've started calling "The English Problem."

Rob | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Literacy, Mathematics | October 30, 2011

NCLB 2.012


By Rob

In a comment on my recent blog post Tom asks: "How can we rewrite the federal education bill so that it actually helps student learn?" This is a huge question. The difficult issues of funding, evaluation, accountability, standards, and testing must be addressed in a politically feasible manner. I don’t know what is feasible but I'd advocate for these ideas-

Standards: I support national standards. As a population we are more mobile than ever and there should not be a drastic difference in the curricular content among states. This requires a level of monitoring and evaluation of states and educational systems. Currently this evaluation and monitoring is done by comparing the separate standardized tests in each state. Although these tests are given to every student multiple times throughout their schooling it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions since these tests vary in rigor and content. Our testing system needs reform.

Testing: Evaluation and monitoring of education systems is necessary for oversight and informed policy decisions. However this does not require the current two week assessment window, every child tested, a huge financial cost, lost instructional time, and enormous pressure on educators and students. Instead this should be done with a smaller randomized sample of students and less impact and intrusion on instruction.

Summative tests, currently the HSPE and MSP (sort of), are assessments of learning given at the end of a particular educational stage. Passing these tests is necessary for students to receive credits or in some cases progress to the next grade. Presently these are a part of a broken testing system. With rare exception, the students who come into the tenth grade performing far below grade level are the ones who are not going to pass the High School Proficiency Exam.

This idea isn’t new but I support summative tests at grade 3, 5, 8, 10, and 12. Students should not exit that grade until they are proficient. How can a fifth grade teacher instruct a student on comparing and contrasting an author’s inferred message when the student is struggling to sound out every third word? How can an eighth grade math teacher approach the Pythagorean Theorem with a student who struggles to multiply?

I’ve heard teachers say (myself included) I could teach 35 students if they came to me proficient in the previous year’s content. Let’s go with this idea-

It begins with half day Pre-K for all students and full day kindergarten. Before they leave kindergarten they need to know their letter sounds, numbers, reading behaviors, and should be able to read and discuss the events in a predictable text. Those who are proficient enter a first grade class capped at 24 students (35 is too many first graders for any teacher no matter how academically proficient the kids are). Those who are approaching proficiency enter a first grade class capped at 16. Those far below proficiency enroll in a class capped at 12.

Schools would use their ongoing formative assessment in grades 1,2,4,6,7,9, and 11 to reconfigure classes and to carry the model forward. The student who enters second approaching standard but exits meeting standard would enroll in the third grade class with the highest student-teacher ratio.

This model has imbedded funding implications. The schools with the highest performing students would have higher class sizes and would be cheaper to staff as long as they continued to maintain high student performance. The schools with lower performing students, ostensibly with underserved populations, would have a lower teacher-pupil ratio and would receive more funding.

This model is not without its challenges. Schools would need to take great care not to track students by providing some students with continual remediation while others engage in higher order thinking. I believe smaller numbers of students is important when serving struggling students in reading and math it is also important for students not to be ability grouped for other content areas.

Can somebody tell me why this wouldn't be an improvement? Maybe this idea isn’t ready to be written into law but couldn’t congress earmark some funding so some districts could try it?


Rob | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Teacher Leadership | October 26, 2011

Corrective Action


Graph Down Arrow

By Rob

My school is in the third round of No Child Left Behind sanctions.  Among other procedures these sanctions call for ‘corrective action’ to be taken. 

Arriving at this point wasn’t a surprise.  It’s taken many years to get here.  Our school has been labeled ‘failing’ for a while but only after seeing last year’s test results do I feel like we’ve failed.  No teacher at our school wanted to enter the third round of NCLB sanctions.  Round 2, Schools of Choice, was embarrassing enough. 

There was pressure to improve our school’s test results.  I sensed a change in the tone of my evaluations.  Many new teachers were not hired for year two.  A veteran teacher was removed.  It seemed to me that the pressure was high and morale was low.

Perhaps other teachers felt this pressure more acutely than I.  Last year many of them have transferred elsewhere.  Of 23 classroom teachers 11 are novice (in their first or second year).  In my tenth year teaching I’m the second most experienced teacher at our school.

I’ve wondered how we’ve arrived at this unfortunate point.  Each fall we receive our state’s standardized test scores.  Teachers, energized and committed, face the challenge.  We’ve created systems for tracking student progress, providing extra support, engaging families, growing professionally, and improving instruction.  I believe some of these systems have been of great benefit to students.

While I thought these systems were beneficial our data never really showed it.  Here’s what it shows: (click the picture for a clearer view) 

In 2011 our scores dropped 30% to under 40% of students passing the 4th grade reading MSP.  The year before 71.4% of students passed the 3rd grade reading MSP.  The test didn’t get harder.  The state average pass rate remained flat.  This isn’t isolated to one grade.  Our 3rd grade reading pass rate fell 13.1% from the previous year.  Our 5th grade reading pass rate fell 32.8% from the previous year.

This drop in performance is startling.  So what happened?  Who knows?  I wish I had more answers and fewer questions.

Did the students consistently miss a particular type of reading comprehension question?  That could be addressed with an adjustment to the curriculum.

With a 37% mobility rate could the students who left be the ones who passed in 2010.  Might they have been replaced with students who didn't pass?  How about the families who left because of school choice (a NCLB sanction for schools in step 2 of improvement)?  Did the student population change significantly?  Are we comparing the same students from year to year?

Did students who narrowly passed the MSP in 2010 narrowly miss passing in 2011?  Did a slight drop in performance signify a drastic drop in the percent of students meeting standard?

Did significant numbers of non passing students come from specific classrooms?

Could school community, teacher morale, and the shame & blame policies of NCLB account, at least in part, for a dramatic drop in student performance?

Answers to these questions are important as a school undergoes “corrective action.”  I don’t know if anybody is asking these questions.  I don’t know if answers are available.  But I’d like to know exactly what problem I’m correcting and we all deserve a clearer answer than ‘you didn’t meet adequate yearly progress again.’ 

Rob | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Mathematics | September 23, 2011

Testing the Limit


ScantronBy Rob

Great investments have been made to collect and use data.  The role of assessments and use of student data has shifted and it has changed the nature of education.

The standardized test, Washington’s Measurement of Student Progress, is analyzed extensively to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind.  It is used to identify schools as “failing to meet adequate yearly progress.”  It is used to rank-order schools.  New metrics which control for the impact of poverty use this data to compare effectiveness among districts.  This assessment comes at a great cost- financial, time, lost instruction, grading, and tools for analyzing.  The information gained from it could be found with a smaller sample size and at a lower cost.

The Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) tracks student growth across a school year.  This test is completed by students on a laptop in a separate classroom.  Our technology and curriculum coach devotes weeks to setting up the computers, scheduling, and proctoring each class.  The list of goals compiled for each student is exhausting and includes standards not covered for months or years or, depending on the curriculum, not taught at all.  I am pleased when the assessment result matchs my analysis of the student but often it doesn’t.

I get very little actionable intelligence from the results of my MSP or MAP scores.  But increasingly I have to answer for the results. 

The emphasis on testing extends far beyond MSP and MAP.  Over the course of the school year my students must complete 32 mandated “common assessments” with the score recorded into a database.  How the scores are used I have no idea.  Increasingly these assessments feel more like an audit of my teaching than a tool for improving student learning.

Students also complete regular math and spelling quizzes.  This is an additional 85 assessments.  While these tests tie closely to the content they contribute to the culture of ‘no child left untested.’  My students are expected to demonstrate their proficiency 117 times throughout a 180 day school year.  They are second graders.  In third grade the assessment load will increase.

This certainly wasn’t my experience in elementary school.  It wasn’t even the experience of my students ten years ago.  And this emphasis on testing isn’t preparing my students for adulthood:  The last assessment I took was four years ago.

One form of assessment has been overlooked by policy makers and more attention should be paid.  It is the teacher’s ongoing examination of student progress and understanding.  Teachers use this information to inform their practice and to adjust lesson pacing.  It gives teachers an indication of what to re-teach or where to extend.  It allows teachers to identify struggling students while there is time to arrange extra support.  It requires acute observation and meaningful interactions with students.  This process is at the heart of teaching; it’s where the magic happens.  It happens every day... except when we're testing.


Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | August 23, 2011

New Standards, Part 2


Wheels By Mark

One of the wheels I reinvent each August is this chart wherein I build the scope and sequence for my courses, identify the timelines as well as major formative and summative assessments, then list which EALRs/GLEs those assessments address so that I can be sure I've fulfilled my obligation. Sounds fun, eh? Yeah, I'm a fun guy.

As I posted recently, the State of Washington is shifting from the old standards for Language Arts (farewell EALRs and GLEs) to the new Common Core standards. Ultimately, I like the wording of these "new" standards better (and for some reason, I can just understand many of them better). There are changes, to be sure, but even within those changes I can easily see ways that "what I already do" could be tweaked a bit to fit that instructional goal.

This post, however, is my attempt to help illuminate the complexity within teaching that these standards illustrate. (I cannot even begin to imagine what this same post from an elementary teacher might look like!)

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development, Social Issues | August 18, 2011

New Standards


Checklist By Mark

At the end of July, Randy Dorn announced that the state of Washington has adopted and will begin transitioning to application of the Common Core standards for English Language Arts. I head back to my classroom next week to start unpacking and really getting down to work preparing for the school year, but I'm having a problem seeing how this shift in standards should affect my planning and implementation.

And, based on the emails that have filled my spam folder for my school email address, there are an awful lot of businesses looking to cash in on this standards changeover... so many emails in fact, that the persistent cynic in me wonders whether this change to CCSSO Common Core standards isn't more about supporting textbook and software manufacturers than it is about promoting learning. When I see on the changeover explanation that the "system will include...

  • optional formative, or benchmark, exams; and
  • a variety of tools, processes and practices that teachers may use in planning and implementing informal, ongoing assessment. This will assist teachers in understanding what students are and are not learning on a daily basis so they can adjust instruction accordingly.

...I hear the cha-ching of cash registers and start thinking about all those emails trying to sell me matierals "perfectly aligned with Common Core Standards to guarantee student success on major assessments."

It probably isn't all about lining the pockets of curriculum mills, but when I look at the standards and the timeline that OSPI posted (more on that below), I do wonder really what is going to change... and I don't mean that in a futile, cynical way. I mean it like this: don't these standards just communicate what we should have been doing anyway under the old standards?

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues, Television | November 13, 2010

"Jersey Shore" is not real.



No, I'm not kidding. It isn't real. Those people auditioned, were hired, relocated into that gaudy house, and then filmed. The episodes aren't real, either... No, I'm not kidding. Those episodes are edited together based on a storyline the writers create by putting The Situation and his crew into situations where the writers know how they will react. It isn't "real."

It is amazing how much convincing it has taken to prove to my freshmen that the Jersey Shore is not real. These are the same kids who have no problem suspending disbelief long enough to just accept that Peter Parker can climb walls when he wears the right spandex suit but who cannot just accept that the animals on Animal Farm speak English and build a windmill.

These conversations help to illustrate a critical shift which ought to be happening in literacy instruction in American schools: rather than studying literary works, we need to be studying literary processes.

  • We need to study the process by which 360 hours of Jersey Shore footage gets edited down to 44 minutes for a one-hour weekly episode.
  • More importantly, we need to understand the process of acculturation and normalization which occurs in a viewer when they watch entertainment labeled as reality.
  • We need to study the process by which lighting, angle, score and juxtaposition are used by news organizations to communicate a message beyond the news.
  • More importantly, we need to study the subtle and not-so-subtle biases which shape the decision-making about what makes air and what doesn't.
  • We need to help young readers learn to discern which sources on the internet are valid and which are not, and even what we mean by "valid."

Are these lessons more or less important than Shakespeare or great novels and poetry?

As with the television news, whose producers must pare hours upon hours of worthy news into 20-22 minutes of air time (including sports and weather), when we must choose what literacy lessons to keep and what to cull for our limited amount of instructional time, on what should we base that decision?


Mark Gardner | Books, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Parent Involvment | September 22, 2010

Banned Books Week


Source: American Library Association (click for source site) By Mark

It is one of my favorite times of year... Banned Books Week is September 25th through October 2nd. The American Library Association (click on the photo to go to their site) promotes the freedom of choice by encouraging libraries across the nation to celebrate every American's right to choose not to read controversial books.

Notice that I didn't emphasize "every American's right to choose what they read." When I consider the titles which have been challenged or banned over the years, what I see is not just the loss of a choice to read a book but the loss of the choice to not read. There is a reason I haven't read Mein Kampf and haven't watched Natural Born Killers. These are not the same reasons I choose not to read Twilight or watch, well, Twilight, but the fact is that I have the right to choose not to consume these texts. That decision was not made for me. Sure, I agree that every student's parents have the right to say that a text is not appropriate for their kid and ask for an alternative if a text is assigned in a class. 

But, there are only two parents who have the right to say what text is not appropriate for my kid.

Appropriately, this year's theme for Banned Books Week is "Think for yourself and let others do the same."

It's particularly fun this year that Banned Books Week corresponds with my teaching of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Down on the farm, literacy is wielded like a weapon. Those who are literate easily overpower those who are illiterate, essentially enslaving them by controlling information (hello FoxNews). A great Orwellian theme, and one to which we ought always pay close attention.

As a side note: There's a very intriguing interactive map at the ALA press-kit site which uses Googlemaps to tag exemplars of challenged or banned books. Some of the titles and reasons are rather surprising.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Games, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Web/Tech, Weblogs | May 7, 2010

Tech Guru, Tech Skeptic


Ibm_pc-jr  By Mark

I've inadvertently, and inexplicably, become a guru of sorts. I sometimes feel like I barely have myself figured out--but nonetheless, my willingness to experiment with technology and use it in my instruction has led other to seek me out for advice. The dirty little secret? Most the time those confident answers I offer are simply my willingness to offer conjecture and speak it with authority--I have no special training to back it up other than the time I spend on my own just playing with these "cool toys." 

The dirtier little secret? When it comes to incorporating technology into the classroom, I may be computer savvy and a digital native, but more than that I'm a technology skeptic.

Too often, when I see technology for the classroom, I only see ways to go the long way about accomplishing a goal which could have reasonably been accomplished "the old-fashioned way." (Full disclosure: I'm a 31-year-old education blogger who came of age with the I may be entering my curmudgeonly years a little early.)  

Mark Gardner | Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Mathematics | April 18, 2010

Basic Addition


Z9sk1r  By Mark

I'm lucky that my 5-year-old son comes to work with me each day. His preschool is housed in the high school where I teach 9th and 10th grade. In fact, his classroom is literally across the hall from my 6th period and just around the corner from the room where I teach the rest of the day.

Not long ago, I went in to visit him and his peers during my plan period. He and his little buddies were sitting around a table doing a math worksheet. Two frogs on lily pads plus five frogs on lily pads makes a total of seven. Three frogs jump off and you're left with four. Good stuff for pre-K. Sure, an occasional finger was employed in these basic mathematical operations, but for the most part this computation was quick, confident, and alarmingly accurate for a bunch of pre-K-ers. 

I listened as the little folks' conversations about math escalated until those little five-year-olds were adding and subtracting frogs accurately up in to double digits, and I kid you not, I heard one boy talk to another about the "pattern" he saw that the numbers repeated, and yes, he used the word "pattern." He pointed out that if he added three to nine it made 12, and if he added three to NINEteen, it made 22, and if he added three to twenty-NINE if made 32. Good stuff...not every 5-year-old will get that, but it doesn't seem unreasonable that every 15-year-old should.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues | November 20, 2009

My Case for Homogenous Groupings in High School


TBg4YM By Mark

I look with envy at my peers in the math department.

Sure, I know they have the same issues I have as an English teacher: kids who don't turn work in; hours of planning, prep, and grading to do; a state standardized test looming over our heads.

But, there's one thing they have that I really want.

You probably won't find many Algebra II students who cannot do basic work with monomials and reverse order of operations. In Geometry, the kids are all likely equally confounded at first by the mysteries of Pythagorus. In Algebra I, more often than not I think the kids at least have basic number sense.

Or, perhaps it is better put this way...

In that Algebra I class, there's probably not a kid sitting there running advanced differential equations through his head while everyone else solves for x. If that kid were spotted, you better believe that his teacher would bump him up to somewhere that he could be both more challenged and better served.

But in an English 9 class, just because their birthdays fell within a given year, a kid who can immediately spot the nuances in Scout's narration in To Kill a Mockingbird and by the end articulate how the novel is a coming-of-age tale about the collapse of childhood illusions is sitting next to a kid who still thinks Scout is a boy and Atticus is African-American.

Kim | Education, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Mathematics | May 30, 2009

Knowing vs. Thinking


I read an article a couple of weeks ago that really caught my attention. Unfortunately, when I went back to it - or at least TRIED to go back to it, I couldn't for the life of me remember where I had read it. Darn. It was about the use of technology in the classroom and how, if we aren't careful about how we use it, we might actually be doing more harm than good to our students' ability to think critically.

What technology and the use of the internet can give us is instant access to amounts of information so vast that our ancestors couldn't even have dreamt of it. Yes, I am a Google fanatic, and even as an English teacher who refuses to spell "relief" any other way, I have been known to use "google" as a verb. However, when I recently assigned my students a research project, I was reminded of how dismaying it is to see how they confuse "finding information" with "thinking" and "learning." They are great at cutting and pasting information into beautiful PowerPoint presentations or blogs or webpages. What this lost article pointed out and what I have fought against in my classroom is the ease with which technology negates the need to actually think. I require that for every sentence of fact, students are required to present two sentences of their own analysis, but often students are willing to settle for a lower grade in order to avoid the "pain" involved in activating their brain.

It reminds me of a conversation I once had with one of my daughter's elementary school teachers who felt it was unnecessary to require kids to memorize the multiplication tables or spelling lists because they would always have access to calculators and spell check programs. I tried to explain how understanding the concepts underlying the equations and word structure was just as important as being able to solve the equations or spell the words correctly, but she was in complete disagreement, stating that there are plenty of other areas where the kids can be asked to "think," and that if we skip some of the rote memorization, we can move on to more and better concepts. I understand the point she was trying to make, but recognizing patterns in equations or word formation is basic to analysis of any kind.

While we're touting the use of technology as "best practice," we have to be conscientious that we are not substituting flashy presentations and clever sound bites (or bytes) for true critical thinking, which is fundamental to the success of civilization.

P.S. If anyone read that article and could lead me back to it, I would greatly appreciate it!

Travis Wittwer | Assessment, Books, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Mathematics, Mentoring, National Board Certification, Parent Involvment, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership, Web/Tech, Weblogs | February 7, 2009

Stories from School now on Twitter!

Picture 1 

Do you want to receive your Stories from School posts through Twitter? Now you can . . . . 

Kim | Assessment, Education Policy, Literacy | February 1, 2009

I, for one, will miss the WASL.


The other day I was interviewed for a profile in our school newspaper. I tried to answer most of the questions from a perspective more professional than personal, and the stumper was this: “If you could have one wish, what would it be?” After an evening of pondering, I realized my answer was so simple that I was surprised it didn’t jump to my mind immediately. I would wish that every student have a desire to learn that matches my desire to teach them.

As an English teacher at a low-income high school, I know that in some cases, I am the only provider of inspiration to achieve beyond the minimum requirements; many of my kids have grown up with little or no intrinsic motivation to be high achievers in school. How does this relate to WASL? When my tenth graders heard that the WASL was going to vanish, I heard questions that astounded, confounded, and frustrated me. One young man asked, “Does that mean we don’t have to write any more essays?” The question itself drew a cheer from his peers. The fact is, the WASL provides a measurable and achievable extrinsic motivation that many of my students need.

Tom | Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | July 9, 2008

Sam I Am Meets the Teacher


by Tom

I’ve always believed that preparation is the best way to compensate for an inability to improvise. Improvising in the classroom scares me. Which is exactly why I tend to be somewhat extreme in regards to lesson preparation. I still engineer every lesson to the minute, even after twenty-four years on the job.

That includes our 30-minute silent reading time. I carefully teach my students how to select books from different genres at their independent reading level. I make sure they have time to share and tell about their books, I make sure to give them lessons on decoding and comprehension strategies. I do everything I’ve heard I’m supposed to do to make the most of this 30 minute time. And it works pretty well.

Well, almost...