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Sunday, January 6, 2008

NCLB Resolutions

A new year, a new start, and an upcoming new session of my state's legislature where something not so new, NCLB, is again a hot issue. When the session opens in February, it is likely there will be a proposal in the Senate to end Minnesota's participation in NCLB, an action that has been proposed in the past by the Democrats, but this year it will be proposed by the Republicans!

From Minneapolis StarTribune Jan. 2 article:
"What we want is to make a real firm stand for local control," said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, who added that he represents Senate Republicans on this issue. "We've had five years of the No Child Left Behind regime, and I think it's safe to call it a failure now. We're giving it an F and trying to take back our schools."

There's been no response from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty – not surprising since he has Vice Presidential aspirations.

While there is a feeling among state legislators that NCLB is no longer a state action, it's also true that the consequences and the funding of the increasingly numerous and complex federal education proposals are state responsibilities. And the state needs to pay attention as its education resources are co-opted as more and more districts, including my own, are forced to spend human and financial capital developing complex "improvement plans" based on impossibly unrealistic expectations for very small disaggregate populations.

My school's plan was necessitated by a small number of special education students who are now in the high school, which doesn't have to write a plan.

I'm eager for Minnesota to emulate Nebraska and regain our tradition of education excellence and progressivism. I'm attending my precinct caucus on February 5 to declare that it's past time for our state to wait and see what Congress does. Any changes in elected officials are a year away. It is time that state actions put pressure on Congress to listen to education and testing experts, to look at school and classroom realities, to put students above political rhetoric, and to provide federal funding for federal mandates.

That's my story. I'd love to hear yours. What's the outlook in your state? In your school?

[To keep in touch with NCTE's NCLB reform efforts and for resources in taking action yourself, check out NCTE's Education Issues Action Center.]

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Most Magical Community of Readers

[2:30 a.m.] I've just returned from the Harry Potter release party at my closest bookstore (30 miles away). As eager as I am to dive into Deadly Hallows, I want to savor the gathering a little longer. As I crossed the parking lot to the table with the wristbands, a woman with a 13 year old son in tow ran up to me, gave me a hug, and introduced herself -- I hadn't seen her since she was one of my 8th grade students. We had a lovely chat about books. As I was getting in the loooooong line, three of my departing 8th grade girls, decked out in Hogwart uniforms, raced to show me their books. We, along with the mom who drove them, spent an animated half hour discussing Harry Potter, speculating about the book, sharing J.K. Rowling trivia, recalling reading we did last year, and catching up on the work Amber has done this summer on the fantasy novel she's writing. The evening ended with perfect symmetry. As I was exiting the store, I ran into two juniors who were the last students I saw at the Half-Blood Prince release. In between these meetings I overheard serious and frivolous Harry Potter discussions, idle comments about many books spied as the line wound its way through the bookstore, as well as friend-to-friend book recommendations.

All the way home I was grieving that it is unlikely that there will be another literary gathering of this egalitarian magnitude, of this critical mass of diverse children and adults united in their love for a particular book and for books in general. Just imagine regular events of this kind of deep celebration, of impassioned talk about books among strangers, of intense concern for fictional characters and events that didn't really happen, of gathering to get a book we simply must have now.

Orson Scott Card's dedication in The Great Snape Debate reads "To all nonreaders who became readers because of the Harry Potter books." I would add thanks to all the Harry Potter fans who helped bring their nonreader friends into the reading community and show them the yellow brick road that leads from Hogwarts to everlasting choices of new reading adventures.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Waiting for Harry Potter

I'm almost finished re-reading The Half-Blood Prince in anticipation of tonight's release of the Final Installment -- and awash in a host of thoughts and mixed-feelings.

Recently, I caught the end of an interview on NPR about the appropriateness of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie for children. The speaker has a 10-year-old son who is a Harry Potter fan and a 6-year-old daughter who has seen the previous movies. After seeing the movie for himself first—good-responsible-parent idea—he has reservations about taking his son to see it because it is so much darker, with some spookier parts. Well, duh-uh! The movie is rated PG-13; the book, which he did read with his son, IS darker and spookier.

In other popular kids series (Alex Rider, Maximum Ride, Unfortunate Events and the classics The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys), the characters are static and even though, logically, much time has to pass in order for some of them to experience that many adventures, we suspend our disbelief as they don’t grow older. In past series where the characters do grow older (Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder) they face the normal joys and sadnesses of life – not ever-intensifying Ultimate Evil. Kids and parents know what to expect, that each book is the same as the last.

Not so with Harry. His aging process of one school year per book is in synch for the kids who, as younger readers, joined in his adventure from the beginning and have aged in pace, or a little faster, with Harry as books were released. Now that readers will be able to gulp down the series whole, the later books may not be as appropriate for some new readers who are themselves closer in age to the Harry of the Sorcerer’s Stone. One more unique twist in Rowlings’ contributions in stretching the boundaries of “children’s” literature.

Now, my thoughts on two of the Big Questions:
Is Dumbledore really dead? Significant details: he's sleeping in his portrait, his animal companion Fawkes is a phoenix. Less significant detail: I don't want him to be dead. No, I don't believe he's really most sincerely dead. But like Gandalf or Obi Wan Kenobi, he may be translated somehow.

Is Snape really evil? Isn't it interesting that there has been a lot of writing on this question including a clever book The Great Snape Debate with arguments on both sides of the question with Orson Scott Card as one of the contributing authors. My own answer is No. I trust Dumbledore. I also want Snape redeemed to make up for his boyhood loneliness and James' cruel treatment of him. Snapes as a true Death Eater is too simple an answer. On the other hand, Rowling may be using the logic of Vizzini in The Princess Bride as he contemplates in which glass The Dread Pirate Roberts has put the poison Iocaine. And maybe the answer is just as tricksy.

I'm looking forward to tonight's communion with Harry Potter fans of all ages. I'll become, for a few hours, my alter-ego Professor Minerva McGonagall.

But I'm not sure what I will do afterward: what I have done after all the other midnight celebrations -- rush home and start reading and don't quit until I'm finished or hold off, not wanting the magic to end, whatever the end might be. In any case, I'm not ready to hang up my Hogwarts robe just yet.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

8th Grade Technological Literacy?

I'm at the NECC (National Education Computing Conference) in Atlanta and just attended a panel on the NCLB requirement that all students be technologically literate by the end of 8th grade, the subject of my May Technology Toolkit column in Voices from the Middle. As I had fearfully expected, the panelists did not have any better answers for this requirement than I did. But it did make me consider more deeply the irony of mandating an evaluation of an undefined skill.

What is technological literacy?

I was most disappointed that the speaker from one state spoke glowingly about their assessment, a computer-based test in which students showed they could bold words in word processing, work with a spreadsheet and database, and send an email. This state, to my way of thinking, is confusing technological proficiency with technological literacy. And not even assessing the proficiencies very well, since these would be the basic skills we might have expected in 1995.

Another panelist, a chief state education officer, spoke of a more encouraging approach: they have used teacher technological literacy as a starting point and hope to use the student technology assessments to leverage more funding for technology in the future. However, the student assessments are still knowledge-based and one reason she gave for the importance of technologically literacy was that their state testing would be computer-based in the next few years so students will need to be able to use the technology.

I was most encouraged by the third panelist who represented Generation Yes, a company, which, ironically, had the most student-centered, literacy-based approach. It "began as a federal Technology Innovation Challenge Grant in the Olympia school district in Washington State in 1996. The vision was to include students in the effort to infuse technology into curriculum in every K-12 classroom." Including students in their own literacy? What a novel idea!

Now a question to you. How did your school or district assess the technology literacy of your 8th graders this year?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Musings of a Concrete Random

Like about 19% of you, on the Gregorc scale of learning styles, I am a concrete random. In my case that explains my extreme multi-tasking learning style, my eternally messy desk, and my tendency to create metaphors to understand or explain new concepts. I love metaphors. . . except I also rapidly see their flaws; so just as rapidly, I am creating disclaimers to point out where the comparison breaks down.

As I opened the current issue of Edutopia , the first item to catch my random attention was an ETS ad using the metaphor of The Perfect Storm to illustrate three forces that underlie a "tempest. . . that's threatening American prosperity and tearing at our political cohesion." The three brewing forces the ad identifies are
"• economic restructuring that places a premium on literacy and numeracy skills
• uneven distribution of these skills
• sweeping demographic trends that are changing the population and workforce"

Stripping away the adver-ganda, we teachers see these storm clouds of achievement gaps in our own backyards, so that part of the metaphor works. However, meteorologists can't stop a tempest. I'm optimistic that we do have on-the-ground influence, though maybe not as much until the mandates of NCLB emphasize learning, not testing. [See NCTE recommendations for
changes in NCLB]

On the facing page is the Edutopia Editor's Note with a different metaphor: educational reform ala Dell Computer's practice of mass customization.
Of course I see the flaws in using computers as metaphors for learners; we've been victims of "students as widgets" metaphors for the last thirty years. But the column goes on to highlight a law proposed by Arizona' state superintendent of public education, Tom Horne, to require that each middle and high school student will have a customized learning plan by 2011. While these plans wouldn't be IEPs, they would "guarantee that all students get one-on-one advice from educators in identifying a career path. The plans would require teachers to assume the role of academic guidance counselors, frequently checking on students' progress and helping establish career goals." It seems the students and their achievements, not their test scores, would be the focus. Worthy undertaking.

But we concrete randoms are also pretty good with irony:
Metaphor 1. Given the legislative preoccupation with testing and the amount of time spent prepping and actually taking tests, isn't ironic that a testing company is "acting decisively to ensure a bright, secure future for our children and our country"?
Metaphor 2. Arizona wants teachers to counsel students about their career paths, but wants lexiles [see my March 31 blog] to counsel the students about their reading choices. If students are to rely on the advice of teachers who know the students and know the territory of post-high school planning, surely they should be able to call on teachers who know the students and know the territory of young adult literature for help in selecting books.

The closing of the Editor's Note on the proposed Arizona personal learning plans: "The upside of the idea is that it could push students to be more active in deciding what they are learning and understand why they are learning it. And isn't that what public education is all about?"

No metaphor needed.

[p.s. The Edutopia website contains a wealth of features, including the online version of their magazine. You can also receive a free subscription to the print copy of the magazine. Edutopia is sponsored by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.]

Saturday, March 31, 2007

"Matching Readers to Texts"

I just read this in a technology e-newsletter I get:
"The Arizona Department of Education has inked a deal with MetaMetrics to link the state's "Instrument to Measure Standards" (AIMS) to the Lexile Framework for Reading. The agreement will impact about 500,000 students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10 beginning in the 2007/2008 school year"

For the lucky, uninitiated among you, lexiles are supposed to measure a text's difficulty and are used in leveled reading programs to, as their slogan proclaims "Match Readers to Text." Grade levels are assigned to lexile score ranges. Visitors to their website can search the database for the lexile score for a particular book.

Just for fun, assign these titles a grade level:
1. Stargirl
Midsummer Night's Dream
3. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
4. The Outsiders
5. The Giver
6. Memoirs of a Geisha
7. The Bad Beginning
8. Hatchet
9. Hamlet

Answers further down. . . . . .

The titles are already listed in ascending order. Stargirl and MND are tied at 590 (3rd grade); Sisterhood - 600 (also 3rd grade); Outsiders - 750 (4th grade); Giver - 760 (5th grade); Memoirs - 1000 (6th/7th grade); BB - 1010 (7th/8th grade); Hatchet - 1020 (7th/8th grade); Hamlet - 1390 (college junior/senior)

The scary thing is that I did not pick and choose, listing only the most ludicrously inappropriately "leveled" titles. There are the only titles I searched. This is matching readers to text? Readers waiting 4-5 years before enjoying or appreciating The Bad Beginning, Hatchet or Hamlet? Third graders reading Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? The Giver may be appropriate at the word, sentence, and plot level for 5th graders, but even students in later grades struggle with, sometimes even rebel at, the ambiguity of the ending.

A contrast: I just finished reading Nancie Atwell's The Reading Zone. If Arizona really wanted to make an impact on a half-million kids, the Department of Education should buy every English/language arts/reading teacher a copy and should also make sure each teacher has an adequate classroom library. Nancie wields some authoritative studies to back up her basic assertion that giving time and choice is the surefire way to skilled readers who continue to read. (remember Mark Twain's quote?)

If you're looking to match kids with texts, s
croll down the Kids Recommend page on her school's website and you will find an impressive array of authentically challenging and enriching reading, all nominated by the students and updated each year.

If the Arizona Department of Education officials were especially perceptive, I'd also suggest they buy those teachers a subscription to Voices from the Middle for Kim Ford's Student to Student book reviews and Teri Lesesne's column Books for Young Adolescents.

But I know it's a pipedream. If education officials were that wise, they'd never "ink" deals like this in the first place.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Starting in the Middle

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

This six-word story was written by Ernest Hemingway who claimed, it is reported, that it was his best work. This genre has sprouted in countless websites and blogs. In November 2006 Wired magazine featured 6WS like these, written by famous (and not so famous) authors:

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
- Orson Scott Card

Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.
- William Shatner

There's even a book of six-word memoirs coming out from HarperCollins in 2008. The website lists this one from Daniel Handler:
"What? Lemony Snicket? Lemony Snicket? What?"

Hold this thought. The point of this introduction will become clear in a minute.

Welcome to the NCTE Middle Level Section blog. We hope it will be a virtual teacher's lounge where the conversation about all things Middle, like the cappuccino machine, is always on. Middle Level Section Steering Committee members Nanette Bishop, Jim Johnston, and Susan Houser will be joining the conversation on topics of current interest as well as to stimulate discussions in YA lit, literacy coaching, and Adolescent Literacy policy. We will also be joined periodically by featured guests who will add their areas of expertise.

You can receive notices of updates to this blog through your email by subscribing using the box in the upper right corner of this page. Even more importantly, join in the conversation by clicking the "comment" link at the bottom of any blog entry where you'd like to add your thoughts. Help us make this space as lively as the students we teach.

Now, the point of the introduction, a six-word story from an anonymous blogger:
"I blog daily. Only God reads."

Please don't let this be the fate of the Middle Section blog.