Monthly Archives: September 2012

Why Kids Need Schools to Change

In the article, “Why Kids Need Schools to Change”, Tina Barseghian highlights the philosophies of an educator named, Madeline Levine, Ph.D. who is the author of a book called, “Teach Your Children Well”. The article addresses some of the issues that adolescents face in the classroom that are seldom discussed in relation to education reform. Levine begins by saying that “kids learn better when teachers are invested, paying attention, and showing they care”. I couldn’t agree more with this statement especially after my experience in my last pre-practicum where I observed two different teachers in the 11th grade. One teacher was attentive and interested; the other just trying to pass the time while their students’ listened to music or slept. Levine says, “the biggest impact you have as a teacher is the relationship you establish with your students” and this became obvious as the students’ eagerly awaited one class to begin and failed to show up in the other. Levine goes on to discuss the role of expectations and that the higher the expectations, the better the outcome. You come to learn what expectations are achievable from really getting to know your students and by “taking seriously the range of interests kids have”.  If you take an interest in the students as individual learners, creators, and thinkers you have a better chance of getting your students to want to push themselves for themselves and not just for the End of Course (EOC) exams.

 Levine spends most of her time at Challenge Success, which is a school training program operating out of Stanford that has already been incorporated in 100 schools around the country. Challenge Success works on modernizing old systems in place using five criteria:

“Project Based Learning”– “Collaboration, work on things that cross time zones, and cultures”. As a future teacher, I truly believe in collaboration, group work, and small group discussions. I love seeing the exchange of ideas among people and how different experiences shape and re-shape how we all come to particular answers.

“Alternative Assessments”– Levine says, “We should have alternative criteria for gauging students’ knowledge and ability to show what they know”. In my opinion, this is true not only for students’ who fall by the wayside but also as a way of gauging the ways in which different people learn, how they process and digest information, and how students’ produce work that some standardized testing prohibits. The book, “How People Learn” discusses ways in which we can expand the current forms of defining and testing achievement and understanding.

Scheduling”- Here Levine expresses the importance of sleep among adolescents and explains the ways in which our 200 year-old system enables students to get this sleep they so badly need! The motto here is CHANGE!

Climate of Care”- Levine says, “… in public schools there are just a few counselors for a thousand kids or more” and this may be true. However, I find it difficult to imagine being a teacher, a counselor, and a therapist though I do see the importance of having an interest in our students and paying attention to students’ who exhibit problematic or worrying behavior and addressing those issues in a proactive way.

Parent Education” – “Parents should know how to push their kids’ towards the edge, but not over it”.  And I think the same is true for educators and education systems as a whole. Our goal should not be to ruin our students’ lives and deter them from furthering their education but rather guide them towards a path of enrichment and understanding about their world and the world that came before them. 


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Can You Catch On?

In the article “The Writing Revolution”, by Peg Tyre, she addresses the issue of writing skills in high school students. Teachers from New Dorp in Staten Island, when trying to assess writing skills, noticed that students “were missing a crucial understanding of how language works”. Unable to write complex sentences and not knowing how parts of speech function in a sentence left these students without the skills to write a paper that would fulfill the requirements in the Massachusetts Frameworks that we have read and discussed in class. Teacher Fran Simmons asserts, “These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did”. Tyre goes along in the article to point out the lack of training in teacher’s colleges for teachers to teach writing and the shift over the years from instruction in grammar and sentence structure to creative expression. As a student in the public school system in the 1990’s I can agree that lessons in sentence structure and parts of speech were minimal. As long as I wrote well and made my intended point, it did not matter whether I knew how or why the words were strung together. Just as in math, it is essential to learn the fundamentals and reasons why you perform certain operations in order to be able to complete the more complex problems that come along in advanced math, students need to not only be able to write a coherent sentence but understand the mechanics behind it. The Massachusetts Frameworks seems to halfway address this problem by requiring 3rd grade students to be able to “Use linking words and phrases (e.g., because, therefore, since, for example) to connect opinion and reasons”, a problem mentioned by the teachers in Tyre’s article. This standard seems more like a way to test if a student can write about complex ideas rather than a way to teach them how to do so. The idea presented to give students a formula for writing that they can break out of later once they’ve mastered it seems like an appropriate solution, but is one that is usually frowned upon because writing is a personal creative process. I do not believe that having a formula to present your ideas is a bad idea for young students as long as teachers reiterate that the sentences do not always have to follow the formula, rather show them how to use it as a foundation to branch off from when their thoughts become more sophisticated.  







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Texts as Conversations

The NCTE recently highlighted a book by Sarah Brown Wessling called “Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: English Language Arts, Grades 9-12” that I wanted to highlight and discuss in the context of alot of the conversations we’ve been having both in this blog and in the classroom.

The Common Core standards are all in the execution, they can be carried out in any number of ways that lead to a number of different outcomes. Sarah explores how in her own classroom contexts and in the classroom contexts of her two contributors, the Common Core was mediated and interpreted in a way that not only lead to a deeper understanding of the texts, but a more complex and ambiguous one as well.

The thing that really captured me about the excerpt of the book that’s provided is how she positions text as being part of a larger conversation rtaher than a thing in and of itself: “I recognized that my centerpiece text was never as powerful without the benefit of other texts to provide context.”  This to me, is exactly correct: context is how we make meaning of a text, as our last class meeting demonstrated, we could understand the words of a text in a literal fashion but not understand the actual text itself without outside context. I’d argue the converse is the case as well: we can understand text if we have the context to understand it even if we don’t understand the words.

Even from a mechanical “understanding words” perspective, for example, I can read very basic French despite not knowing the language at all because I have the context of knowing Spanish, a language with the same roots. I’ve been able to have conversations with Portuguese speakers, if slow ones, despite the fact that Portuguese has about the same relationship to Spanish as Chaucer’s English does to modern English.

This, to me, is what Sarah’s excerpt demonstrates: while there are various ways and means of making meaning, it is often the case that ones that take advantage of context are the most meaningful, powerful, and easy to understand. They are richer, more complex, and yet provide the student with a detailed enough “map” of the text that they can navigate it. 

One final point, one that I think Sarah alludes to but that is left unstated as an explicit point. Part of the “context” that a text exists in, as well as our interpretation of a text, and our choice of what texts to have “converse” with that text is the political context. One can take various paths and attitudes towards this, but if there’s one thing the power of context demonstrates to me is that the act of teaching is political. The “context” much like the text itself, is not a thing that exists in a void, the context is informed by values, judgement, opinions, in short, by politics, ideology, and belief systems. 


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Caring for Character: Empathy as Analytical Tool

In his essay, “Superman is Dead: How We Help Students make sense of Literary Characters,” Barry Gilmore suggests that through an understanding of the empathetic relationship between readers and characters, students can not only broaden their understanding of a particular text through an examination of it’s characters, but also garner more enjoyment from the text far more than if it where approached from a critical academic distance.  Gilmore suggests that in order to encourage students to read and actively engage with texts, it is important to understand why they care about some characters more than others and how this empathetic connection shapes their interest and enthusiasm towards particular texts.  The ability to discern why we as readers might be drawn to a particular character is seen by Gilmore as a way of getting beyond broad analysis and into a more immersive understanding of texts specifically and literature more generally.

Gilmore’s investigation into why we care about character is concerned mostly with examining the role empathy plays in student’s ability to relate to specific characters and how these relationships provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of the work as a whole.  What causes students to identify with certain characters and dismiss others as being unrealistic or unbelievable?  How can we as teachers access this emphatic identification in order to expand students understanding of the literary?  Gilmore speaks beyond the literary implications for examining why we care about character by suggesting that our understanding of the social world expands through an engagement with literature, “we and our students might want to explore the possibility that when we read we are developing more than just tools for understanding how authors shape a believable human being out of airy nothing; we are developing tools, as well, for shaping our own interactions with others.”  Connecting literature with the broader social world is an important step towards engaging students with issues outside of the realm of a purely academic field of literary study.  In order for literature to remain relevant to students, I believe it is important to go beyond the question of character identification and towards an understanding of what it means to identify.  This gets students beyond the simple qualitative assessments of identification, such as whether or not they like or dislike a certain character, and towards a more comprehensive analytical understanding of what it means to like or dislike a character.

The empathetic desire to identify with characters extends into the reasons why students chose to identify with particular characters and how these individual choices can be used both to encourage students to read and to engage with how their empathy informs their understanding of a character within a particular work.  By asking how students care about literary characters, we as teachers are able to highlight the ways in which the complexity of literary craft is used to create a space for identification.  Gilmore points to the tendency for young boys in particular to identify with character archetypes, often associated with genre fiction, and the ways in which a students identification with a particular character or type of character can offer insights into maintaining literature’s relevancy for young readers.  By accessing personal experience regarding why students tend to identify with particular characters, the literary details that make identification possible can be discussed.  The fusion of personal experience or qualitative assessment and literary analysis is offered as the most comprehensive way for students to engage with and understand literary texts.  Identification gives way to an investigation of the literary elements which make the engrossing emphatic connections possible.


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Controversy in Arizona

The standards for English Language Arts and Literacy are, for the most part, thorough. By using generic frameworks for defining these principles that students should eventually master, teachers are given liberties to design a curriculum that is personal and appropriate. The “Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts and Literacy” explicitly states its limitations on page 6 of the document.  I’d like to bring your attention to the 5th example of what the standards do not cover.  It is as follows:   “It is also beyond the scope of the standards to define the full range of supports appropriate for English language learners and for students with special needs. At the same time, all students must have the opportunity to learn and meet the same high standards if they are to access the knowledge and skills necessary in their post-high school lives.”

Recently, I found an article via the NCTE Inbox on Education Weekly’s website that focuses on the current debate over sufficient English teaching programs for students that are not fluent.  The article, written by the Associated Press, is entitled ‘U.S., Arizona Settle Over Students With Limited English’.   It addresses the denouement an ongoing issue between the federal Department of Justice and Education and the Arizona Department of Education concerning the early immersion of English Language Learners into classrooms that did not provide a special language learning component.  Arizona’s educational system was accused of “misclassifying” students.  The federal government argued that the premature moving of students violated the “students’ civil rights” and threatened to take away funding unless the testing for English Language Learners, in order to determine if the students are ready to join English classrooms, is changed.

Is the standardized testing of English Language Learners the only way to “classify” them as ready?

Arizona educational authorities conceded to the federal government’s demand that the classification system must be altered. The Associated Press reports, “Arizona could have lost millions in federal funding if it didn’t fix the system to address investigators’ concerns.” The article is extremely vague and fails to specify the nature of these changes that will supposedly “fix the system.”  Maybe that’s because no one has an answer.

In January of 2011, NPR’s Claudio Sanchez put together a compelling story  (audio and text) that preemptively addresses this concern. It provides a great background for the Associated Press’ article by describing the intensive, lengthy English Language Learning program. The current program, a strict four-hour class called Structured English Immersion, developed in the wake of bilingual education, which was banned in 2000. Sanchez asks teachers and principals about what they think are the most competent systems for teaching English in the Arizona school system. The variety of opinions he encounters further illustrates how dynamic and difficult the issue of finding effective pedagogic strategies for non-native English speakers is.

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No cellphones allowed! …..maybe?

Cellphones: They seem to be the booming problem of the 21st century and the younger generation according to society.  I don’t remember one day in high school that went by without a teacher or faculty member telling me or a fellow student to put away our cellphones.  I personally believe they had a just reason for doing so. After all, no teacher wants their students texting while they should be paying attention in class. Furthermore, I believe that the idea of cellphones in school has gotten such a negative connotation, that implementing them into the learning system may be a long shot.

However, in the article  “Enriching literacy with cellphones: 3 ideas to get started”,  the author Lisa Nielsen, discusses the positive use of cellphones in the classroom in order to enhance learning.  While many educators may still be against this idea, after reading the article, I believe these ideas could be a great way to get students actively interested in learning.  As the title states, the author discusses three individual ways that teachers can implement cellphones into their everyday lessons.  The first method she discusses is the use of texting.  While most teachers would immediately leap of their chairs when hearing this idea, I believe the author made several good points on why this may very well work.   She mentions that the increase of text messaging in teens and tweens has aided in their reading, but most importantly, writing skills (Nielsen).  I personally agree with the benefits of texting, considering I feel that I benefited from the use of social media, specifically texting, when it comes to writing.  Even though many teens may use texting “lingo” opposed to full, correct English words, Nielsen uses that fact to implement her first idea.  She suggests letting students use their cellphones or even computers, along with their texting “lingo”, to write their first drafts and ideas of whatever assignment they are responsible for writing.  She believes this can help the students to have a  quick, free flow of ideas just as their text messages, and can therefore, lead to an edited version that will be in standard English.  I find this to be not only a positive idea for the students, who may even learn to enjoy writing assignments, but may lead the teacher to feel a stronger connection with her students, and lead her to receive better papers.

Nielsen’s second idea is incorporating the use of Google Voice to capture students’ voices in order to aid in oral reports.  Instead of students having to dread oral reports (which is exactly what happened to me in high school), Nielsen suggests the use of Google Voice for recording and sending oral reports instead of delivering them live.  This idea provides students a relief from the agonizing dread of giving an oral presentation, and could even lead to higher grades due to the elimination of mistakes.  Along with the texting idea, I  believe this would not only help students to feel less pressure, but can lead to a great opportunity for fun in the classroom.

Nielsen’s third idea is the use of video on their cellphones for recording themselves or others reciting or delivering speeches.  This idea is perhaps my favorite, due to the fact that Nielsen suggests students using their cellphones to record themselves and classmates acting out scenes from the story or novel they are currently reading in the classroom.  This, to me, seems like a fantastic idea, because it can not only provide the students with a more effective way of understanding what they are reading, but it can be used and shown in the classroom for other to watch and compare.  It could even lead to laughs and entertainment!

Nielsen wraps us her article with the comment, “Children deserve nothing less than for their teachers to embrace the power of this technology and support them in becoming learners who can use the powerful computing tools to which they already have access to soar to new heights.”  This is a very powerful and true statement that I believe every teacher should read and be aware of.  Most of us are aware that even with these great ideas, the challenges of bringing in cellphones to the learning environment could be harder than they look.  However, I believe that with determination, Nielsen’s ideas could lead to an increase in both enjoyment and learning, engaging students while using their well-known devices which they hold so near and dear to their <3.

Therefore, having gotten a grasp on Nielsen’s ideas of incorporating cellphones, do you think these ideas could be effective in a classroom environment? Or is this simply too far fetched of an idea?


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Since as far back as I can remember there have always been debates about how much teachers should make, how underpaid they are for as much work as they do, and how often they are blamed for everything. In telling people that I want to be a high school English teacher, I am more often given a bad remark about teaching back. “Are you sure?” “Aren’t you just asking for it?” “You couldn’t pay me to go back to high school!” “Teenagers? You’re crazy!” I’m sure we have all heard these remarks at one point. I haven’t even started teaching and I’m already not being supported by a lot of people. This idea of not being supported and not being respected is some of the driving forces behind the teachers who have gone on strike in Chicago this week.

In the article, “Teachers’ Strike in Chicago Test Mayor and Union”, that appeared in The New York Times, it talks about what has led 350,000 students to be without teachers this week. This week, thousands of teachers went on strike, the first in twenty-five years for Chicago. Negotiations have gone on this week between Chicago Public Schools officials and leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union to resolve this issue. This strike has gained a lot of support in other cities giving a “glimpse at a mounting national struggle over unionized teachers’ pay, conditions, benefits and standing” (Rich 1). This topic has even reached presidential candidate Mitt Romney who released a statement saying, “Teachers’ unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet” (1).

Issues at debate besides the obvious salary increase and teacher benefits are “how to evaluate teachers and whether teaching openings should automatically go to laid-off teachers” (1). The New York Times reports that the average teacher in Chicago makes $76,000 a year.

This caught my attention because I have heard more and more about teachers being upset about teacher evaluations that weigh so heavily on student test scores. This, and all the issues raised in this strike, are all issues that are applicable to teachers all over the country. What the teachers in Chicago are fighting for are what teachers all over the country fight for everyday, except they still do their job. I understand the importance of the issues and what these teachers are trying to do but I cannot help but think of the students in this case. Coming off of a three month summer vacation, these teachers are starting the year off on the wrong foot. Teachers constantly preach that they want the support of parents, but in putting 350,000 students out of the classroom, they are not getting on parents good side. Where are all these students supposed to go? Parents work, summer camps and programs are over, and college babysitters are back in school.  These parents, especially those with young children, are being forced to call out of work themselves and as a result losing pay. What is most scary for these parents is that they have no idea how long they are going to have to find an alternative for their children. As this strike gains support across the nation, parents across the country are forced to ask themselves if this could happen to them and what would they do?

As much as this strike is supposed to hopefully bring about much needed change you can’t help but wonder about the chaos it is currently causing…and for how long?


-Jessica Dick


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