Monday, March 2, 2015

March 2 is Dr. Seuss' 111th Birthday - Celebrate Read-Across-America Day

Monday, March 2, marks the 111th birthday for one of the most important men in American history - Theodore Geisel, aka, Dr. Seuss. Long before JK Rowling captivated a generation of young readers, a mild-mannered man with a knack for silly, yet inspired, rhymes ignited a love of reading for children as young as ... well for children. This great piece from William Porter of the Denver Post offers an engaging look at "100 Years of Dr. Seuss." (Yes, I know he was actually turning 110 when Porter wrote this - but no matter).

So many of us in the English world would love to develop a lifelong love of reading in children, and no one did more than the man who "introduced  millions of children to the joys of reading and the magic of wordplay."  It was the "spirit of playfulness" that permeates his work which made it so endearing. But it's so much more than that, especially when you "Consider the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat." 

Consider the opening lines to "The Cat in the Hat," the 1957 chronicle of a brother and sister's misadventure with a gangly, anthropomorphic feline sporting a red-and-white top hat:

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold, wet day.
I sat there with Sally,
We sat there we two.
And I said, "How I wish
We had something to do."

Mood, setting, conflict, ennui. Just like Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," except that something actually happens.

"Geisel's works also endure because of his gift for creating rhymes that are fun to read aloud and easy to remember, but are not cloying or irritating," Robinson said. "That's no small feat. I think it's this combination of playfulness and lyricism that makes Dr. Seuss' works stand the test of time."

It's a wonderful, endearing legacy.  This week, teachers across the country should honor the godfather of literacy by celebrating:




Sunday, March 1, 2015

Whole "Common Core" Foods - They Standardized Deli Service, and Ruined It

Standardization is good and even necessary at times, right? Standard laws and rules and safety limits and measurements all make society more efficient and often more effective. But the value of standards isn't a given. Did the standardization of fast food by McDonalds improve food? Hardly. And that brings me to Whole Foods.

I love shopping at Whole Foods and have done so as often as possible for at least ten years. My Whole Foods is in southeast Denver on Hampden Avenue at Tamarac Square, and it is a truly glorious store. In fact, I think it was a bit of a flagship store for a while in Colorado, and our shopping experiences and service have always been exceptional ... until yesterday. While doing our weekly shopping we had the worst service experience ever while simply trying to order some deli meats and cheese, the same order we have placed for a long time. The problem is the store at Tamarac has moved the deli meats from the meat and cheese counter in the center to the prepared foods aisle along the side, and that has created a log jam of miscommunication and poor service, the likes of which I would never imagine from John Mackey's company.

Because the new location is alongside prepared foods and fresh sandwiches, the staff has no central focus and their "system" for taking orders ended with me waiting nearly 30 minutes for a half pound of ham, some mortadella, and ten slices of cheese. Having finished our shopping, we were ready to wrap up our trip and leave, as the deli meats order usually takes about five minutes while the workers at the cheese counter methodically take orders and fill them. "Prepared foods," on the other hand, had three different people filling orders, they were writing them down on "order sheets" which were laid out in no order, and they had no system for people stepping up to the counter. After waiting a few minutes, my wife went to check out. She finished and watched three customers who ordered after us check out before I finally came with my small deli order.

The cashier noted that I had "a free sample," which the clerk gave me to compensate for the delay, and when I explained the situation, a "manager" overheard and apologized as he explained the new "plan to standardize service" at more than a thousand stores. Apparently, ordering meats from a different department than "prepared foods" meant that, at some stores, they "never knew who was ordering what." And, that sounds like a completely ridiculous excuse for a company that is more than thirty years old. The manager also noted they are still training the prepared foods staff who "aren't used to slicing meats." So the obvious question is: why implement this disaster without full and proper training? When my wife was at the store last week, she witnessed some "corporate types" who were publicly discussing how the new design would "increase flow" and efficiency for people who get prepared foods and deli meats. And, that's simply absurd. What about the meat/cheese counter workers that we have known for years who know exactly what we like, how we like it, and who are already trained to cut meats.

This new system - and an apparent re-design of the store - is part of a plan to standardize, and it's simply a case of fixing what ain't broke. It's like the Common Core movement, which sought to address low performance at some schools with a stifling rigid new focus forced upon all schools. The store we had on Hampden Avenue worked very well. It was that "place where everybody knows your name." But the corporate reformers got a hold of it, and their plans to standardize have compromised service. Another example:  we've ordered Friday pizza specials for years with no problem. Last week, we called to order and were connected with a worker in "prepared foods" who had no idea how to take a pizza order. She thought we wanted frozen pizza, then pizza by the pound, then something else. And, she wasn't even sure how to direct our order to the guys making the pizza who we used to place orders with seamlessly.

And, thus, in a move to standardize service at all stores, Whole Foods has royally screwed up service at ours. And, had this been one of our first visits to Whole Foods, we might not return. Of course, if the problems continue, we'll probably revert to shopping at King Soopers which is closer. I don't really prefer King Soopers. But if Whole Foods wants to be more like fast food restaurants in its standardization of service, I might as well shop anywhere because the high quality of Whole Foods is being compromised in pursuit of a "common floor."




In Search of the Great American Novel

The GAN - It's an elusive beast that is the Holy Grail of American literature ... and American English teachers/professors. It is the Great American Novel.

We've talked about it in class, we've claimed numerous titles to be it when we are teaching them, we've even tried to write it ourselves. The list of the top contenders is long, but familiar. And the usual suspects are tough to refute. Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a strong favorite, which was given great support by Ernest Hemingway who noted, "All American literature begins with one book ..." Of course, Hemingway is just as likely to be credited with the accomplishment with his book The Sun Also Rises even though it's set in Europe.  Hester Prynne's early feminism certainly makes a claim in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and few would challenge the weight of the story about Ahab and the White Whale in Moby Dick. (Fewer would claim to have actually read the book with authority to declare its value). Probably second to "Huck" is the modernist tale of corruption and loss of innocence in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a story which has been given resurgence thanks to Baz Luhrman and Leonardo DiCaprio.  And, in a more contemporary vein, high school English departments would raise mutiny if a list excluded Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird or Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Thus, the debate carries on. And it just got more concise with a book about the books.

Scholar Lawrence Buell has attempted to codify the discussion in his monolithic new critique, The Dream of the Great American Novel.  Critics have already started to weigh in on the value of Buell's work.  And that is obviously Buell's goal in the first place - kick off the discussion again, and place his research at the center of the debate.  One of the claims is that the novel has been written and re-written. And its most recent incarnations come from the two sharpest writers of the most recent generation, Jonathon Franzen and David Foster Wallace. It seems possible that Franzen wouldn't necessarily dispute his anointment. Though he could be as likely to "not show up" for the discussion. It is, anyway, a discussion that should continue, perpetually and forever, as America and American literature continues to reinvent itself, always in search of that elusive "green light."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Edu-reformers & PARCC-Rangers Get Equity Wrong

Common Core & PARCC testing have been promoted and sold to legislators as the panacea to cure all that ills public education, from equity and achievement gaps to America's students "trailing the world." And this is a problem. The primary issue is the belief that new standards and new tests can both lift our highest achievers and close a gap with our struggling learners. That naive, pie-in-the-sky thinking represents a deep naivete and a real laziness about the demands of educating a child. Basically, these critics want "a test" to singularly identify the struggles of students so they can quickly identify weak teachers and get rid of them in order to turn bad schools into good schools. And, even more simplistically, they want "a test" to sort "good/bad" schools. And, that's myopic at best.

I've run across this narrow-mindedness too much lately in the writings of people like Greg Harris of an organization called Students First. Harris claims he's "opting his child in to PARCC" because kids need the type of thinking it will measure. It's an artful bit of optimism, and "begging the question," as he simply declares, with no data or evidence, that PARCC is a quality test which will provide data to improve outcomes. Another PARCC-Ranger who offers un-supported praise of the quality and importance of testing as a barometer for educational outcomes is Lynnell Mickelsen, who took to her blog to dis "white suburban moms," of which she seems very clearly to be one. She's particularly upset over the opt out movement.  I don't know what kind of success "reformists" like Harris and Mickelsen have had in closing achievement gaps, or really even teaching struggling populations, because I've seen no evidence of either. But apparently they've read something about the ability of new, out-of-context, standardized tests to solve equity issues and close gaps. I'm waiting anxiously for the pilot test info that supports their claims. Or not.

On the other hand, we have a powerful and insightful alternative view from suburban mom and education advocate Ilana Spiegel who exposes the problems of test-based education reform by warning that we are "Operating at the Margins of Learning."

If we are truly concerned with providing equitable opportunities through improved schooling, we must acknowledge the challenges of these communities. Only then can we fully know how test-based accountability has not substantially improved schooling, and, in fact, denies enriched and equitable opportunities for children. With test-based reform, the question has become "are we doing testing right" rather than "does testing produce equitable outcomes for students?" When we talk about trimming one test or adding another, we only operate at the margins of learning. In fact, since 1997 when Colorado first administered CSAP, and since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, we have seen little if any gains on internationally benchmarked assessments such as National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The NEPC concludes that test-based accountability does not increase equitable opportunities through improved schooling. In fact, since the advent of "test and punish" accountability, resources in less privileged communities are focused on tests and increasing test scores, rather than increasing opportunities through smaller class sizes, quality school-year and summer programing, and enriched class offerings. Current policies use test scores as a gate-keeper to challenging secondary course work and a punishment for eight-year-olds who may struggle with reading. This approach ignores the opportunity gaps created by outside school forces. No one would argue that measuring outcomes alone enriches opportunities. When standardized tests are put on a pedestal as a magic bullet that gets students to "try harder," teachers to "teach smarter," and administrators to manage more effectively, we lose sight of many children's missed opportunities to learn.

Spiegel, despite the pejorative ignorance of people like Mickelsen, is one of those white suburban moms who is advocating for all populations, from her kids to those who look nothing like her. And her analysis is one of the most insightful pieces on the issues of testing and equity that I have seen. It's far beyond the rants of people like Harris and Mickelsen who may have good intentions, but are truly naive about the actual workings of schools. Unlike them, Spiegel has research on her side in the studies of the NEPC.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Middle Schoolers Display Math Prowess at Math Counts in Colorado

The world of competitive math doesn't always get the press and spotlight the way the nation obsesses over the spelling bee. But the students competing in the national Math Counts competition are every bit the exceptional students as top spellers, and probably more so. Math Counts is a national math competition sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers, and this month will see regional competitions in states across the country. In Colorado, there are eight regional competitions, and my son competed in the Denver Metro Regional where he and his teammates vied for a spot at the state finals in March and the national competition in Boston in May. Here's my story on the recent competition: Cherry Creek Middle Schoolers Succeed at Metro Math Counts.

They are called “mathletes.” And, while they may not run the 40-yard-dash in 4.5 seconds, they can certainly solve complex algorithms in that time. Their skills were on display at the University of Denver on February 7 in the annual Metro Area Math Counts Competition. The students were tasked with quickly answering questions such as “How many ordered triples (x, y, z) of positive integers have the property that x + y + z = 6?” and “What is the largest prime that divides both 20! + 14! and 20! − 14!?” Clearly, for those worrying about the math skills of Colorado students, there is much hope to be found in the world of Math Counts.

The winning team for this year’s Metro regional was the Cherry Creek Challenge School. The second place team was Campus Middle School, which had five of the top ten students in the Countdown, including the eventual individual champion, Austen Mazenko. Mazenko defeated one of last year’s state champions Anjalie Kini in an intense final round. Former Math Counts competitors Avi Swartz and Isani Singh of Cherry Creek High School were in the audience cheering on their former teammates, and they tensed up watching the final question. “When Avi and I saw that final question,” Isani said, “we just thought, ‘Oh, man, who’s going to get it first?” Because Mazenko and Kini are two of the top math students in the state, she knew it was simply a matter of speed. This year Mazenko had the faster buzzer.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Don't Let Students "Read" Shakespeare

There may be no worse sound in the world for an English teacher than to hear high school students struggle as they mangle, mishandle, and malign the words of the Bard after their teacher has asked them to "be the part of" Romeo or Hamlet or Macbeth or Brutus or any other of the brilliant characters brought to life by the greatest playwright of all time.  This sound is only worsened by the visual of a couple fifteen year old boys using their pens to "act out" the sword fight between Tybalt and Mercutio or Hamlet and Laertes. Needless to say, I am opposed to students "studying" Shakespeare by reading it aloud and acting it out in class.

After I finish a study of Hamlet with my AP juniors, I am always pleased with their understanding of the play and their knowledge that they have experienced the language as it was meant to be heard - from classically trained actors.  Thus, in the study of Shakespeare I make regular class use of CD/sound recordings, and occasionally well-done movie versions, so my students can appreciate Shakespeare the way it was meant to be.  In Hamlet, for example, I call upon the Arkangel version of the play, as it is an excellent, well-acted, comprehensive edition of the text.  And of course, there is no finer version of the texts than the Folger Library version of the plays.

I do not ask that the students read the plays alone or ahead of time - other than perhaps the scene summaries - because the work was not meant to be read silently.  It's drama.  It's a play for goodness sakes.  It's meant to be performed - heard and/or seen.  Thus, while I will analyze the text in a variety of ways - including some recitation (Hamlet's soliloquies, for example) - I do not expect students to go home and read and understand Shakespeare on their own.  It must be experienced in order to be appreciated, and it must be appreciated in order to be studied effectively. And it won't be studied or appreciated with a couple of untrained, ineffective, bored, or bumbling teenagers stumbling through the lines in front of class.



Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Teach Any Specific Book in School?

The arbitrary nature of content in the average high school English curriculum is one aspect of this career that frustrates me the most. To begin, specific titles are never mentioned in any state standard anywhere in the country. Thus, the conventional wisdom implies teachers can teach any book they so desire - as long as, I guess, it has some curricular merit. That ambiguity bothers me, though I am hesitant to declare there is any book that high school students "must read." In departments where I've worked, teachers adamantly argue there is "no sacred book," and then they rabidly fight to maintain their favorites. Additionally, while there are some common titles throughout the land, schools teach them at different levels, and that seems problematic as well.

English departments tend to set standards for curriculum along the lines of the number of novels taught each semester, and nearly all of them offer a blend of "required" and "optional" or "supplemental" texts. Yet, little annoys me more than a high school teacher asking around for a book to teach late in the year. It is as if they have no particular reason to teach the book other than to "teach a novel." That is nothing if not ridiculous, and it seems to be a real disservice to the profession. The key, of course, is that English teachers are "skill driven," and if the students are reading quality literature, they are developing skills of critical reading and critical thinking. And, certainly, there is a component of "character education" that comes with all classic literature. We teach Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies because we want students to have discussions that force them to question what they want their society to look like.

Thus, I am frustrated by the ambiguity of it all, but I am also uneasy about a national curriculum of mandated titles. For, as a colleague and I once reviewed plans by the state to encourage more "workplace oriented outcomes," she lamented, "What about catharsis and my students' emotional growth from the sacrifice and death of Sydney Carton?" I couldn't quite argue, but I also didn't mention that I managed to make it all the way to a Master's degree in Literature and a job as a highly successful AP Language teacher before I ever read A Tale of Two Cities.

So, I am left to ponder - why do we read what we read?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

MLB's New Rules to "Speed Up the Game"

Watching Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki bat is painful. It's not painful from the slumps that he regularly suffers, and it's not about the injuries that have plagued his career. It's painful because it is painfully, mind-numbingly boring. Troy Tulowitzki has helped slow the game down to an annoyingly turtle-like pace. And, MLB's new rules to "speed up the game," are not - despite complaints by players and purists - about "speeding up" the game. The new rules are designed to simply return it to the reasonable pace it had for a hundred years. And, the "new rule" that requires a batter to keep one foot in the batter's box between pitches (with exceptions) is not even new. It's just been so rarely enforced.

Watching Tulo at the plate - or actually backing off of it to readjust his batting gloves in some type of OCD-inspired ritual - is one of the more unpleasant parts of Colorado Rockies baseball (and there are plenty of others). After each swing of the bat, he walks around like he has all the time in the world, and there aren't thousands of people waiting for him to get his (oft-injured) butt in the box to do his job. It's a shame MLB had to act, but these prima donna players had done their best to alienate a generation of fans. In 1980, MLB games averaged two and a half hours. By 2014, the length had extended past three hours.

If the pitchers would stay on the mound and the batters would  stay in the box, the game would be much more enjoyable, with no real loss to the integrity of the game.

Kudos to the league for - finally - acting.





Wednesday, February 18, 2015

PARCC Online Test Format - This Could be a Huge Problem

PARCC & Common Core were supposed to revolutionize everything, presenting common rigorous standards and a new computerized testing system that would streamline the collection and analysis of student work. And it's the "computerized" nature of the testing system that is perhaps the most problematic. Clearly, anyone who has bothered to check out the assessments online and dare to take a practice knows that the PARCC program is anything but user-friendly. And, if you are a teacher or a parent, and you haven't yet taken a look at the practice tests, you must do so in order to make an informed decision about the tests. In all honesty, this format absolutely guarantees that these test results will be anything but an accurate measurement of students' content knowledge and academic skills.

To be fair, years from now the nature of online tests might be the norm to the point that taking them is no different than the natural skills of any other school coursework. But right now, they are a new monster that we have yet to control. It will be literally years before the technical skills/savvy and familiarity of students will be to the point where the PARCC/online tests can provide an authentic measurement of ... anything. And, it's not enough to say that this generation of kids are "more comfortable" with computers and more adept at using them. The only people who say so are adults (ie., parents, grandparents, businesspeople, and politicians) who lack regular contact with kids. Kids know what they know in terms of their tech, but little more than that. What that means is: a kid may be familiar with how to use his cell phone or type something into Google. But they aren't so tech savvy that navigating new programs - like the PARCC mess - is in any way second nature. And that's the problem.

The necessary tech familiarity and skills kids will need to work seamlessly through the PARCC creates an immediate and serious equity issue. And, that's only one reason why schools and parents are balking at the idea that schools/students are ready for this type of test. By "ready" some schools - and the PARCC leadership - are simply claiming that the technology worked. And, some kids may have felt it was interesting to try out the new format online. But what of the data?  It has been years since Common Core was established and the PARCC consortium was formed. And it has been a year since schools across the country allegedly "piloted" the PARCC test. So, where are the results?  Where is the data that proves the test authentically identified kids who are lacking skills, proficient learners, or advanced? It's not enough to say that we've never taken this test, so they can't set proficiencies. How will they at any time?  There are students at all ages right now that we can reliably identify as trailing or proficient or advanced. Where is the data that shows PARCC authentically measured that?

Why pilot a test if you are not going to reveal results as proof of an authentic measurement? There is simply something wrong with this model, and the nature of these tests presents a huge problem. It's a problem for teachers, schools, administrators, parents, and kids. And, until we have some legitimate answers about authenticity, I can't imagine how we can, in good conscience, proceed with the PARCC test.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Teaching Reading at All Levels

Do you teach reading once kids are in middle and high school, or even college?

Of course you do. Or at least you should. One of the biggest problems in secondary instruction is the idea that we teach students to read in first or second grade, and for ever after that, we simply assign reading. Reading  - or the way we access text - is a skill that needs to be developed and refined continually based on the text or information.

So, how do you teach reading?

You go back to the books and you look into literacy instruction, as opposed to focusing more on literature and how to talk about stories. You don't look for a new book, but a new activity or angle in class. You model your own reading habits, and you develop open communication with the kids about theirs. And there are great resources out there in how to do this.

A great place to start is an excellent book and literacy guide called I Read It But I Don't Get It by Cris Tovani, and English teacher and literacy advocate in the Cherry Creek School District. Tovani - and her book - is one of best resources I've found. In fact, when I discovered her book years ago while taking a staff development class on reading comprehension - another good idea if your district supports it - it literally reignited my passion for teaching English. When I spoke to my coordinator about it, he smiled and said, "You've been reborn, haven't you." I had, and the experience kicked off a reading revolution for me. It was a tad infectious, too, as our principal bought copies for the entire department. Another exceptional text by Tovani that is specifically geared toward teachers in content areas is Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?

Nearly 50% of high school students are "dys-fluent," even when reading grade level and familiar text. That means they are literate, and their brains can identify and pronounce the words as their eyes run across them. However, they are "fake reading" at best, and that is why they comprehend and synthesize little of what they read. That is why they don't remember what they read. That is why they don't have much to say in class discussion. That is why they aren't connecting with the literature you are so passionate about. They can "read." They just aren't very good at it.

And that is the key to our education problems. And it is the burden of high school teachers.

The teaching of reading is far too often linked with primary grades, and is dismissed by middle school and high school teachers outright. However, what primary teachers focus on most is decoding and then moving to basic comprehension. Thus, as reading material becomes more complex, students need to access more tools of comprehension. They need regular instruction in how to deconstruct a text. They need guidance and focus in being meta-cognitive and retaining that which they read.

Thus, despite English teachers' love of and passion for their themes and general discussions of great literature, they need to focus on the basic techniques of reading. The problem of course is that young teachers do not come out of college with this as a focus. And they have very little in terms of ability to develop resources and engaging lessons on literacy. Ultimately, high school teachers do a lot of "assigning reading" and very little teaching of it. Sadly, when students don't comprehend and don't connect, teachers admonish them, telling them to read it again, or read it more slowly. And, that is practically useless.

So, stepping outside our narrow focus of the stories we love, schools need a commitment to return to the basics of literacy instruction ... at all grade levels. Ultimately, we must be teachers of literacy as much as we are teachers of literature or science or social studies. And that holds true whether we are teaching ELA and Essentials of English or College Prep English and AP Language and Literature.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Colorado Teacher's Naive Defense of PARCC - Test for Testing's Sake


As the discussion and debate about standardized testing continues in Colorado and nationwide, and more parents are exercising their rights of choice in education by refusing to allow their children's participation in a new un-proven assessment system, people in the pro-testing (sic!) camp are pushing back with spirited defense of tests like PARCC. This has created an interesting back-and-forth in the media. In Colorado, the Denver Post has been on a pro-PARCC run for a while now, and I responded last week with an argument that "PARCC Won't Solve Our Testing Challenges." As I've noted before, I am not opposed to standards or accountability or even the idea of "education reform." However, I have been suspicious of and critical toward PARCC for myriad reasons. From the lack of transparency about the creation of the tests to the supposed "piloting" of the test that produced no actual data or results to the awkward online format that is unlike any previous high stakes testing to the inherent inequity that test-based reform has wrought, schools need time to evaluate Common Core-linked testing and new programs such as PARCC. These are all legitimate concerns that require time to resolve.

But those concerns are simply irrelevant and dismissed by some.

In response to my PARCC criticism, Longmont area teacher Jessica Moore submitted a letter to the Denver Post which urged "Don't Throw Out PARCC Before It Has Been Instituted." Moore is in favor of, even in awe of, the new PARCC exam, and she sings its praises on her website. The thought that some could challenge the idea of the test or consider refusing to take it is shocking to her. In Moore's world, Colorado should proceed with the PARCC test simply because there is a PARCC test - and that's a point of view which certainly lacks the sort of critical thinking that standardized tests fail to measure. Truly, as Moore notes, "countless hours" and hundreds of millions of "dollars" have gone in to the development of the PARCC. Yet, surprisingly, there is still no data about its authenticity. That seems like an egregious lack of quality control that would have been unacceptable in the very business world that is so actively promoting the tests. The tests are nothing if not a major financial investment. Imagine if those millions of dollars and countless hours had been spent on direct intervention for our most challenged schools and populations. Additionally, in a rather obtuse bit of thinking, Moore responds to my criticism that promises about PARCC's quality are not "evidence-based" by responding that while there's no evidence PARCC is good, there's no evidence that it's bad either. I'm not sure why Moore believes that counter-argument should reassure parents, teachers, or kids. But arguing that there's no "proof" the tests are poorly written and ill-conceived is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Moore concludes with some artful "begging the question" by simply declaring "it's a good test," as if Coloradans should simply believe it because she says so. Claiming to be an educator "involved in the development and review" of the test questions, Moore acknowledges that we will have to "tweak the test" to improve it. Sadly, as an educator she should have advocated for such "tweaking" during a legitimate piloting of the test. And, even then, such tweaking would not and could not address all the problems with test-based reform that will only exacerbate equity issues as struggling schools will be forced to increase myopic efforts to "teach to the test." And, people like Jessica Moore seem to naively and passively accept that if testing is to be done, it must be via the PARCC. As a parent of high performing children and a teacher at a high performing high school, I will continue to argue that the ACT test already meets our needs and legal requirements.

And, thus, I can find no reason to accept Moore's naive promotion of PARCC.




Fear the Use of "No-Fear Shakespeare"


As a rule, our English department officially opposes the use of No-Fear Shakespeare, or any other aids that simplify the language in which literature is written. That doesn't mean, of course, that our students honorably and studiously avoid using such aids. But, as an official line, we do not support the use of such crutches, and we certainly don't condone using them in the classroom. No Fear Shakespeare and Book Rags and Grade Saver and all the other aids have no business in the English classroom.

It's not just about the plot and theme, teachers. If that were the case, we would be teaching out of the graphic novel versions of all literature. It's about the language - it's about the text. The goal of education is to expose children to ideas and information they would not otherwise encounter or engage on their own. It's about challenge and struggle. It's not supposed to be easy, though it should certainly be engaging. And, no student I've found actually "enjoys" reading the study guides. They simply do so to find out what they don't understand, so they can pass the quizzes and tests. That is fundamentally the wrong model for the English classroom.

On the other hand, if we are working on the language in class - even if, especially if, we break it down into short passage analysis - students can truly "appreciate" the language. They will laugh and grimace and smile and feel if they learn why they're supposed to be feeling. And, it might mean that a class period covers a single speech or a few lines. And, that's fine. There's no schedule to finish the text - there's only a schedule to understand. Teachers have often underestimated their students ability to access such language and analyze style. However, for our more average level students, such short, focused passage analysis is actually quite accessible precisely because it's concrete and not overwhelming. For example, a single line or two from Julius Caesar can be analyzed for "how language is used to reflect Brutus' troubled mind?" What words reflect confusion or unease. Students can key in on single sentences or words far more easily than entire scenes and acts. 

I strongly urge English teachers to avoid these aids - but have the discussion with your classes about why. The teacher is supposed to be the study-guide. We are No Fear Shakespeare, and it is our job to help students access information.