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The Relationship Between Analaysis and Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life (Reading Modes Series Part 4)

At this point in the series I hope it is clear that all three the modes of reading I have discussed actually work together to increase students’ depth of understanding about a text. In this post I will discuss the final relationship between analysis and “big idea*” reading.

As I discussed in post 2 of this series, having students investigate the meaning of various literary devices can actually help illuminate a deeper understanding of characters and plot. Similarly, a close analysis of literary devices (or “writer’s moves“) in text can also illuminate theme or personal connections to the text for students. A close study of the lines where Iago compares jealousy to a “green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on” gives students opportunities to think about how jealousy can take them over at points in their life. This will lead to a nuanced understanding of jealousy than simply asking the to write about a time they “felt” jealousy independent of this complex metaphor.

I have also found that focusing on a “big idea” in the text that is related to students’ own lives gives them a real purpose for investigating literary devices. Using this same example, students are for more interested and invested in figuring out the meaning of Iago’s metaphor when the point is to compare his meaning to the meaning of jealousy in their own lives. Just deciphering the metaphor for the sake of deciphering a metaphor simply does not hold the same power as when they can see the process as part of their rehearsal for their real lives.

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Using short passages of text for analysis has been a powerful tool in my classroom for many reasons and this relationship between analysis and “big idea” reading is one of them. When I have students just analyze short passages from larger texts that we read, there were always some kids who were purely interested in the puzzle of it, the search for the literary devices or the untangling of metaphorical meaning. However, when I started to tie this puzzle to their own lives I found much more engagement. One of example of this is the story The Lottery which we start the year with, mostly because our Essential Question is partially focused on the influences of society in our lives. The Lottery really makes a point about why societies do what they do, and why some problematic practices persist under the guise of “tradition.” One part of the text where this message is readily apparent is in the first description of the lottery box.

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

I could have students simply analyze this text and explain what literary devices are at play here (especially the description in the last sentence). They could probably identify a literary device or two. But without explaining the point of the literary device, the exercise seems to be mostly a waste. When I am able to have them make a connection between the use of description and the idea of traditions, a theme about traditions is illuminated. When they start by writing about traditions in their own life, and then use this passage as a mentor text in order to write a description about a traditional object  in their lives, suddenly the start to think more deeply about the role of tradition in society. This, of course, is ultimately the point of “Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life.” When students make connections between the big ideas in the text and how they live and understand their own lives, we are fulfilling the promise of literature to not only entertain, but to make us think and ultimately be empathetic and thoughtful people

*“Big Idea” reading is another term I use when speaking about “reading as rehearsal for real life

 

The Relationship Between Comprehension and Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life (Reading Modes Series Part 3)

As I discussed in part 1 of this series the “Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life” reading mode (also called the “Big Idea” reading mode) is where one is reading in order to think about the big ideas in life, developing empathy through identifying with the characters, or even just rehearsing one’s real life decisions through the characters choices. In this post I will discuss the relationship between comprehension of the text and understanding these “big ideas” that readers use to rehearse their own lives.

At some level it is obvious: you must have a basic comprehension to make connections between text and big ideas. For example, you have to know what the characters are doing in order to compare your choices to theirs. This is why you can show students the movie based on a book, or have them watch a play, and they can still have discussions, or do writing, about real-world connections with the story, even if they never actually pick it up the book. But what about a deeper level of comprehension, one that requires you to make inferences about character motivation, to understand the relationship (through subtle dialogue) with characters, or even just descriptions of setting that create a certain tone about a place, which in turn develops theme? Well, what I have found is that this level of comprehension enhances students ability to “rehearse for real-life” with a text far more than simple plot awareness. Once students move toward a deeper understanding of nuances in a text, the real-world connections become far more interesting.

On the flip side, one of the most obvious ways that real-world connections support comprehension is that making personal connections to the text provides motivation and interest for students. When students read The Hunger Games a discussion or writing assignment about Katniss’ motivations at every point in the book can lead directly to questions about what motivates students to make difficult decisions in their own life. When students read Desdemona’s speech at the end of Othello, where she plans to stay with him even as she has reason to fear him, amazing insights can ensue about why she will essentially “stay” with him, and gives students a reason to consider what to do when they feel uncertainty about all types of relationships. By connecting the text to their own lives students are encouraged to find deeper understand of character motivation, character development, or even just thoughts about what things like pride, love, or jealousy mean in both their text and their world.

So, comprehension at a deeper level, especially around character development, can enhance a student’s understanding of how a text connects to their lives, and motivate them to read in the first place. On the flip side, a focus on the big ideas or character motivation in the text can help students reach this understanding. If students have a deeper understanding about what a text is saying about abstract ideas like love, hatred, dehumanization, joy, power, etc. they will be better able to see how the same ideas connect to their lives. If students are being asked to compare a time they felt pride with Othello’s speech about falling in love with Desdemona in Act 1, they have a reason to read closely and figure out what the speech is really saying. If students are being asked to compare a time they told a lie to the way Katniss and Peeta present themselves at rallies in Catching Fire then they have all the more reason to figure out the nuances of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. In this way a focus on “Big Idea” reading actually motivates and enhances comprehension of more subtle points in the text.

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So, the question is, how to capitalize on this relationship between comprehension mode and big idea mode in the classroom.To be perfectly honest, this is something I am still struggling with as I often find myself getting bogged down in comprehension and pushing students back to the text to find meaning rather than just sharing personal experiences they think are tangentially related to ideas in the text. Essentially, I am constantly watching out for the trap where “rehearsal for real life” discussions fall into the trap of being just about life, and not being informed by the text. However, I have found that a pattern of read, write, discuss works well to have students make these connections between the books we read and their own lives. It seems somewhat obvious, but I have students start with the text. They might do one of the following:

  • choose a line that stand out and explain why
  • translate a complex Shakespeare passage into “modern” English
  • find a line of dialogue that illuminates something about a character
  • put a star next to something interesting/surprising

Then, students write. They may write just their opinions of the section of text and/or character, they may try and connect the text to a specific event in their lives, or I might have them explain the connection between that section of text and a “big idea” (like love, pride, jealousy, dehumanization, societal pressure, etc.). One of my favorite ways to do the writing this year was my commentary assignment. But the key step is discussion. Be it in small groups, whole class, inside-outside circle, etc. students use discussion to bounce their ideas off each other and really start to make those new real-world connections. To be totally transparent, discussions (especially whole class ones) is an area of my teaching I’m very focused on improving next year because I struggle with them. But what I found fascinating in the last couple years is how many students vividly remember our discussions at the end of the year, even if those discussions were infrequent and inadequate in my opinion. Discussions stick out to students, and also help important ideas stick in their heads, which makes them the perfect vehicle to get students to make the link between comprehension and reading as rehearsal for real life.

The Relationship Between Comprehension and Analysis (Reading Modes Series Part 2)

In this second post of the “Reading Modes” series I will discuss the connection between “comprehension mode” and “analysis mode.”

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Like so many other folks I know, I used to believe that students needed to comprehend a text fully before they could analyze it. Often we would read a whole-class book all the way through and discuss each chapter in painstaking detail before I would even think of asking them to go back and analyze any part of it, let alone the work as a whole. However, after I started working on analysis through short, focused analysis paragraphs about short, focused passages, I realized something interesting. When I asked students to analyze a passage of a longer text, they would often come to some kind of comprehension realization as they analyzed. For example, this year my students read Night by Elie Wiesel. Here is an excerpt of one of the passages students analyzed:

“The night was pitch-black. From time to time, a shot exploded in the darkness. They had orders to shoot anyone who could not sustain the pace. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of the pleasure. If one of us stopped for a second, a quick shot eliminated the filthy dog.

I was putting one foot in front of the other, like a machine. I was dragging this emaciated body that was still such a weight. If only I could have shed it! Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that there were two of us: my body and I. And I hated that body. I kept repeating to myself: ‘Don’t think, don’t stop, run!'”

The prompt I gave them to drive the analysis was:

In this passage Wiesel is describing the effects of all the dehumanization and suffering he has experienced. What does his use of figurative language suggest about the ultimate effects of dehumanization?

In the act of investigating the figurative language in this passage student noticed that Wiesel was comparing himself to an automaton, and that he referred to himself and the other concentration camp prisoners as “filthy dogs.” This was in contrast to earlier passages when they had noticed the SS soldiers as the only ones making these dehumanizing comparisons. Through the act of analyzing Wiesel’ use of figurative language in this passage students came to understand how Wiesel is showing internalized dehumanization in the memoir.

Now, this passage represents an important shift in the book as we start to see the way Wiesel is internalizing the dehumanization he has experienced. This is normally something I would want a student to pick up on during a “first read” of the book; essentially, it is something I think they should get when in comprehension mode. However, I have rarely seen students pick up on this transition in previous years as we have read this section in comprehension mode. In this instance the act of analyzing actually enhanced their understanding of the flow of the text, even as it also pushed them to explain the meaning of figurative language in this section.

Now, it could be argued that students might have also picked up on this transition if we had simply paused and read this section more closely in class, even without the analysis focus. However, I will say that many students really found the way Wiesel was internalizing dehumanization only after analyzing these specific metaphors. Other students who picked a different part of the passage to analyze did not pick up on the transition so readily. It seems that the act of analyzing the text also enriches the students understanding of the text overall. When we pause to analyze specific passages students are sucked in by the author’s use of interesting language and literary devices. Many feel like they are solving a puzzle as they start to see how figurative language here, and alliteration there, work together to develop a tone or message. In this way the act of analyzing while also “reading to comprehend” enhances both the analysis and the comprehension.

So, how do I negotiate between these two modes in my class, especially considering that I have to set priorities? What I am currently working with is a system where we read the beginning of the text as a whole class and pause to analyze specific passages along the way. Sometimes all the students respond to the same prompt about the same passage. Sometimes I give them a choice about which passages to analyze and then their share their learning with the class. Often as we move to the end of the book students find passage that stand out to them and then analyze those based on which writer’s moves they noticed in the passage. Either way we constantly move back and forth between comprehension (which is always needed at some level) and analysis as we move through the book. I’ve learned that analysis can’t wait until we are “done” with comprehension. Instead, it is a vital part of the reading process.

Teaching Reading with Reading Modes (Reading Modes Series Part 1)

As an English teacher I am tasked with the goal of teaching my students how to read, understand, and analyze a wide variety of texts. As one of my colleagues often says, a major struggle for English teachers is the “all-at-once-ness” of it, and the teaching of literature is no exception to that. I used to think that having students do “literary analysis” consisted of three steps:

  1. read the text
  2. re-read sections of the text to “look for evidence”
  3. write a paper using the evidence to say something about theme, character development, etc.

However, the longer I teach and the more I learn, the more I see that this is not a linear process, but instead a recursive and spiraling one. The task of reading, and then writing about what they read, requires students to engage in distinct modes of reading, but often simultaneously.

As I’ve puzzled through issues around reading in my classroom, I’ve begun using a framework based on three major mode of reading. These three modes have become organizing principles for my classroom, and have helped me make sense of the way I am asking my students to get through the texts we read in a meaningful way.

This post is the first in a series about these modes of reading in which I will explore how my students use these modes when engaging in the text, and how thinking about reading through this lens heightens the interconnectedness between modes of reading, rather than seeing reading in a linear fashion. In this post I will define the modes of reading as I see them.

Mode 1: Comprehension

This mode is the most obvious. Readers are in comprehension mode, most, if not all, of the time. This applies to reading for pleasure (such as the thriller I couldn’t put down last night) or reading for academic purposes (such as an essay by Alice Walker in one of my college courses). When we are reading in comprehension mode, we are trying to understand the basic plot or argument in the text. We are also making inferences, some that are more obvious, and some that are less obvious and require more in-depth thinking. A mis-conception that I used to have is that reading had to be done in comprehension mode “first” before any deeper thinking or different modes of reading about the text could occur. However, the longer I teach, the more I realize that other mode of reading can support comprehension, which shifts comprehension out of the role of “first step” and makes it part of an ongoing process.

Mode 2: Analysis of craft

There are many example of type of “analysis” that happen both in and out of English classes. However, the type of analysis I focus on most in my class is a close-reading related to author’s craft. Essentially, when my students do analysis they are looking at the way the author use specific literary or rhetorical devices (aka “writer’s moves“) to further a point, develop a character or theme, etc. Often this involves focusing on specific short (1 page or less) passages from the text, and reading and re-reading them closely to discover these interesting literary or rhetorical devices, and the writing about and discussing the effect of those devices.

Mode 3: Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life

The name for this mode is taken directly from Kelly Gallagher. In his book Readicide he argues that one of the main benefits for teaching classic literature is that it provides students with opportunities to grapple with real human dilemmas, allows then to develop wisdom and essentially provides them the opportunities to go through imaginary rehearsals for the real world. This is the mode of reading that I both think is most important, and that I also often find myself skipping when we are pressed for time in my class. It is an interesting paradox. The ultimate point of reading, in my mind, is to develop empathy, to become a part of a larger society, to have a deeper understanding of the world around us, to become better citizens, etc. Essentially, reading should make us more human and more connected with our world. Obviously comprehension and analysis are part of this process, but the idea that we read because it is enriching and helps us understand more about ourselves should be a cornerstone of the work that happens in English class. I both believe this deeply and have to remind myself to build this mode of reading into every text we read, because it is too easy to let it slide when we are stuck in the weeds of figuring out which character said what and writing analysis paragraphs.

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These are the three primary modes of reading that my students and I use to engage in the texts we are reading. We sometimes focus on one more than the others for certain texts, or even just at different points when reading a long texts. We do not move through these modes in a linear fashion. Instead, I use their interconnectedness to move through a text in a meaningful way. In the next few posts I will focus on the way in which these three modes are interconnected and support one another in my real-life classroom.

Let’s Put Out Money Where Our Mouth is.

Note: I wrote this piece with my students as we all wrote “editorials” for their last writing assignment. I cannot overemphasize the power that comes from writing WITH my students. My students read this piece and gave me feedback, which helped me revise and improve it dramatically. So, it’s a bit long, but has been workshopped well by some fantastic people. Enjoy!

There are very few things in education that we do not argue about. School start times? Here comes the sports-after-school debate. Should students have electives? Bring on variations of STEM, STEAM, and a discussion about the term “enrichment.” Standardized testing? Get out the riot gear.

But here is one thing that I have found educators almost universally agree on:

We want students to read a lot. We want students to learn and be enriched through reading. We want students to (gasp!) enjoy reading.

So, why are we doing things that get in the way of student reading? Why are we basing so much of our students’ “achievement” on short, out of context, readings, some of which are absurd to the point of ridicule (see “The Pineapple and the Hare”). “But” you may say, “those are just for the tests. Of course teachers are having students read more books in class! Students must be going to the library and checking out books for enjoyment, or to learn about interesting topics”

I’m here to tell you that, unless teachers and parents are actively encouraging and supporting a reading habit, a student is unlikely to pick it up by osmosis. As Penny Kittle has said “If they are not reading (and writing) in front of us, they are probably not doing it on their own.”

I could write for pages about how to launch and independent reading program, or how to conference with students and help them find the perfect book for them. In fact, if you do want to learn about this, read The Book Whisperer orBook Love. But here is what all the experts, and even the laypeople, know about getting kids to read:

You have to put books in their hands

At the bare minimum, here is what it comes down to. If we want kids to be readers we have to give them access to books. The more books we have, and the wider variety of books we have in our classrooms, the more likely that our students will become these readers.

This connection between book access and academic achievement is not just common sense. In 2014 a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill study showed that “the number of books in the family home, exerts a strong influence on academic performance in ways consistent with the cognitive skill hypothesis, regardless of the nation’s ideology, political history, or level of development.” (Evens)

Books matter, especially in low-income school districts where students may not have access to a stack of books at home, or may not be able to go to their local library between school and work. More importantly, they need to have access to books in the same place as they have access to reading mentors, be they parents, teachers, librarians, tutors, etc. However, our school library hours just got cut, and funds for basic supplies like paper is at an all time low. And I know my school is not alone. So what are we to do?

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The reality is that books cost money, just like lab supplies for science classes, salaries for teachers and paper and pencils for students to write with. But, if we want students to become stronger readers, having actual books in the classrooms is a necessity that is absolutely worth paying for.

And lest you think that there is simply not enough money to supply our students with books, you need look no further than the standardized tests that have become so polarizing.

According to a WBUR article “In 2013, school officials figured it will cost $29.50 per student to test English and math using the PARCC. The MCAS costs $46 per student to test the same two subjects.” Now, we know that Pearson (who has written and runs the giving and scoring of the PARCC test) makes quite a bit profit off these tests.  In fact, according a 2015 Boston Globe article,  “With more time and more tests, that means more money for testing companies. According to Politico, Pearson, the company who won the bid to deliver PARCC tests, could earn more than $1 billion over the next eight years if enough states adopt the test.” Now, that 1 billion is just profit for the company. What if we encouraged Pearson to start acting like a non-profit since they are now entrenched in PUBLIC education. If they shaved that cost of each test from 29.50 to $20 by simply putting some of their profits back into PUBLIC education, that would leave $9.50 per student every year. I have about 100 sophomores in my school. That give around $950 to use for student books every year if we decided that students actually reading is as important as testing their reading comprehension.

If this example seems a bit facetious to you, or even just unrealistic, consider this: Schools are currently spending vast amounts of money on technology at the expense of librarians and teachers, mostly in the name of computerized tests. If that choice sounds less absurd than Pearson putting some of it’s testing profits back into schools in order to actually improve reading, then I think we need to reexamine our priorities.

Obama recently shared a plan he has to get 10,000 e-books into the hands of US students. This is a great start, but it is still not enough. In education, as with everywhere, we are constantly faced with the choice about how to spend scarce resources. Everyone, from parents, to teachers, to administrators, to politicians to the writers of the Common Core Standards value student reading development. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is. Standardized tests have a place, but do we really want to fund the coffers of a for-profit corporation like Pearson at the expense of getting good books into the hands of our students? Because, ultimately, no matter what complications we discuss, or nuances we debate, the bottom line is that no child ever learns to read without access to books. We have the means to provide that access if we have the courage to make the right choices.

Works Cited

Ben, Chapman, and Monahan Rachel. “Talking Pineapple Question on State Exam Stumps … Everyone!  .” NY Daily News. N.p., 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 07 May 2015.

Even, Horowitz. “Say Goodbye to MCAS. There’s a New Test in Town. – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. N.p., 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 07 May 2015.

Evens, M.D.R., Jonathan Kelley, and Joanna Sikora. “Scholarly Culture and Academic Performance in 42 Nations.” Social Forces (2014): n. pag. Web.

“PARCC, MCAS and the Future of Standardized Testing in Massachusetts.”Learninglab. N.p., 09 Oct. 2014. Web. 07 May 2015.

Writers’ Moves (and how they move writers)

When I started teaching I really struggled to help students understand that writers use certain words, phrases or structure in their writing either to be aesthetically significant or purposeful in meeting a writer’s purpose. When studying literature this usually means discussing the “literary devices” in the text, and when studying other forms it might mean analyzing the rhetorical strategies. Essentially, however, we are looking at a writer’s craft: how does a writer convey and idea or message? How does a writer both subtly and not-so-subtly choose evidence that make their point more persuasive? What I found to be the, initially, most challenging part of teaching students to identify and analyze writers’ craft was getting students to understand that writers were often making deliberate choices about how to use language to convey meaning or meet a purpose. It truly seemed that no matter how much students went through their own writing process of pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing, they still thought that the texts we read came out of some magical place where perfect truth are printed on the page fully formed. They weren’t seeing how the language writers used in the texts we read were a form of craft, rather than simply formula. While I have attempted to make several shifts to address this, one of the most powerful has been changing the language

What moves will you use?

I use to talk about these literary and rhetorical devices. I frame them as “writers’ moves.” At the beginning of every year I do a short mini-lesson in which I compare basketball moves to writer’s moves. The hoop is the “purpose” or “theme” and you can use a variety of moves to get to that hoop: head-fake, crossover, etc. While this one lesson doesn’t magically transform student analysis of text, it does lay the groundwork for how they understand the literary devices and rhetoric. Once we have established there are many writers’ moves, such as metaphor, hyperbole, using evidence in various forms, alliteration, etc. students start to see how a writer develops a text and uses these devices towards some larger goal. One students see the relationship between the “writer’s move” and the larger goal of the text (be it theme, claim, characterization, etc.) that is where their analysis starts to improve. The simple language switch from “literary device” to “writer’s move” has made a huge difference for my students, in large part because it helped me understand analysis differently. Rather than seeing analysis of text as something I do to other writers, it became a way for me, and my students, to learn moves from other writers and apply them to our own writing. Now when we analyze a text we are mining it for “writer’s moves” and thinking about what “moves” we will use in our own writing. And that is where the magic really happens.

4 reasons to switch to holistic rubrics today!

I recently finished a marathon of grading portfolios, and grading revised portfolios for my students. It’s a stressful and busy time, but one thing I’m very happy about is the way that my use of holistic rubrics allows me to focus this grading work on student growth in reading, writing and thinking.

A few years ago I used analytical rubrics*. These are the rubrics that function more like a checklist, where students can get 10 points for their thesis statement, and then get 7 points for their use of evidence. A holistic rubric however, generally describes what a product (such as an essay, analysis paragraph etc.) looks like at each level, such as this example from my “Analysis Writing” rubric:

BCLA 10th grader (Meets Expectations)

Qualities:

  • Student identifies details that are relevant to the text overall1 and that clearly connect to each other, although the connection might be less interesting or clear than at the Honor Roll level.
  • Student accurately describes the literary device(s) (aka “writer’s moves”) discussed
  • Student clearly and accurately describes an important idea from the text overall1, though the idea may not be a nuanced interpretation. However, the interpretation is still abstract, but not clichéd.
  • Student cites evidence correctly, and attempts to use us in the most useful way
  • Student completely explains the connections between details (evidence) and the text overall in part by attempting to use signal words to describe relationships between ideas

 

While the bullet points make this rubric look a bit more “analytical,” the reality is that I use it in holistic way. I have just found that students fine it easier to grasp a rubric that is broken up into pieces, rather than two long and complex sentences that describe essentially the same idea.

After using these rubrics for two years (with some minor revisions in language)  I have seen them help students grow far more than my analytical rubrics ever did, even though I don’t spend much time “teaching” the rubrics to my students. Here is why I’m now such a fan of these holistic rubrics and how they are actually facilitating the improvement of student writing rather than simply recording it.

1) Feedback, not grades, is the goal. Holistic rubrics support this. Through most of a term I give students in my class tons of feedback on their writing and minimal feedback via grades. They can get a 100 out of 100 for simply completing an essay, even if it still needs tons of development. Because my rubric is holistic and tied to terms like “Meet Expectations” rather than giving points for different parts of the writing, it is easier for students to understand how their first draft needs substantial revision in order to “meet expectations” even though their completion grade (which uses points instead) is 100/100.

2) Good writing and mediocre writing can receive the same score on an analytical rubric. I’ve run into this problem time and time again.When I used analytical rubrics to grade essays I often found that simple, formulaic writing with a 1-sentence thesis statement and some basic evidence with a little bit of explanation often received the same point value as writing where the student made a more nuanced point, or used more interesting evidence that connected to the thesis in interesting ways, or even more important developed from the beginning to the end. Often this was because the categories I measured were really just parts of the essay: one category for thesis statement, one category for evidence, one category for reasoning, etc. With all these parts separated there was no good way of assessing how well the writing flowed or was developed. It also meant there was no good way on my analytical rubric there was no good way to capture how students were taking risks, and important part of writing development.

3) Holistic rubrics are just better at assessing the way that the parts of an essay work together. When the whole essay (or any piece of writing) is described together it became easier for me to parse out what was strong and weak about student writing. Take a recent example: I was giving students feedback about a pretty standard essay about the memoir Night. As I was reading student essays and considering what feedback they needed to move up ion the rubric, I quickly realized that their reasoning and explanation of their evidence needed more work. More specifically, students were basically paraphrasing their evidence rather than actually explaining how it supported their thesis. When I used to use analytical rubrics I would have thought this was an isolated problem in the “reasoning” section. However, because I was using a holistic rubric and looking at the essay more as a whole, I realized that part of the reason the student reasoning was lacking was because their thesis statements were overly simplistic. When you have an overly simplistic, obvious thesis statement it is hard to develop interesting reasoning because, really, what was their interesting to say? Thanks to this holistic view I was able to give students feedback that helped them develop a stronger thesis and then revise their reasoning accordingly.

4) Last but not least, holistic rubrics make grading simpler and faster. There are far fewer decisions to make about a student grade when they get one overall score rather than five or seven different scores for each part of a writing piece. Fewer decisions means faster grading. While I would love to tell you this faster grading leaves me with more time for personal pursuits, the reality is it just leaves more time for giving more meaningful feedback, focus on trends I see in student writing by class, etc. While I might not be able to escape work, I am able to make work more meaningful, and it certainly helps to make grading fun and enriching.

*Check out this description of the different rubric types for more detail on the difference between analytical and holistic rubrics

My Reading Autobiography

I recently had the privilege to hear Donalyn Miller at the WriteNow conference in North Conway NH. Her talk was inspiring, and reminded me of why independent reading is such an important part of my classroom. She also invited participants to talk about their own reading histories, and what reading means to them, and to consider how their own reading experiences influence the way they guide their students in the students’ reading lives. I did an abbreviated version of this with my department colleagues this week and I was reminded of the power of our personal stories, and how my our own experience influence the messages we pass on to our students. On that note, I wanted to share my own reading autobiography here, both to share where my perspectives on things like censoring and choice originate from and to share a model that anyone can use when thinking about their own reading lives.

My Reading Autobiography

I remember reading very early on in my childhood, but I don’t remember learning HOW to read. I know I learned to decode somewhere at some point because my mom still tells the story about me going through parking lots trying to “sound out” license plates. But I remember reading books in early elementary school and getting lost in them. I remember being excited to find books in the school library that I had seen on Reading Rainbow. I remember crying when reading Shiloh, and thoroughly enjoying Bunnicula. I read books fast, and I considered that a positive thing, especially when I was done reading before my other group members in my third grade reading groups.

Books have been my main form of recreation and entertainment for as long as I can remember. While I dearly wanted to play video games and watch TV like my friends did, those forms of entertainment were pretty restricted in my house. However, I don’t remember turning to books as a “last” resort. As far as I was concerned books were always there, and I was always in the middle of reading something. I would get in trouble for reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (I totally wanted Frank to be my boyfriend. I never figured out why Joe was so popular with the ladies). Late at night when I should have been in bed. I zipped through the Babysitters Club. By 5th or 6th grade I was starting to branch out into books that matched my reading level, but perhaps not appropriate content. I remember reading a Sweet Valley High book in 6th grade and asking my mom to define “seduce.” I’m not sure exactly what she said, but I do remember the stammering involved and feeling a bit embarrassed when I finally “got it.” I also remember getting into Stephan King and my first “big” book. It which has given me a complex about clowns every since.

I think those moments, when almost any adult (my parents, teachers, etc.) could have stepped in and said “you shouldn’t be reading that!” were key. Reading was one of the few parts of my life where I felt like I had choice and ownership, those precious commodities for a blossoming teenager. Books are what I returned to when I was angry, frustrated, or stressed. Reading was the way I re-centered myself and got some time alone. Books were my sanctuary and provided a realm where I could read whatever I wanted and feel some sense of control in my life.

By high school I very readily identified as a “reader.” I would talk to my friends about books. I always read all the books in English classes. Later, I realized that many of my classmates weren’t, which frankly puzzled me. Why wouldn’t you read the books? It was the easiest and most fun homework that was assigned in my opinion! In fact, when I entered 9th grade I went so far as to find the list of books we were going to read in 9th grade English, and I read them over the summer. I enjoyed Fahrenheit 451 the most and couldn’t wait to talk to the teacher about it. When I met Ms. Sullivan I proudly told her about my summer project. And she promptly told me to go read a different book than the class. Specifically sent me out to buy Ender’s Game.

Ender’s Game is still my favorite book. I have read it over again, at least 7 times.

This is the first book where I was as in love with the plot as I was with the character. This is the first book that I both enjoyed for fun and enjoyed analyzing. I made copious notes in my dialectical journal about what I thought about Ender and how I noticed Orson Scott Card creating that character with his amazing use of language. This was the book that made me start to feel like I was maybe worth something under my confused, awkward and grossly misunderstood teenage skin. It appealed to my sense of adventure, my love of science-fiction, and the feeling I had of being a burgeoning adult inside the body of a child.

I already loved books. But Ender’s Game made me love literature.

downloadSure Ender’s Game wasn’t part of the classical cannon of literature. But I analyzed the exact same way I went on to analyze The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. My first lessons in how a writer creates characters and worlds came from a boy fighting buggers, and for that I am eternally grateful to Ms. Sullivan.

Now I’ve managed to get myself into a career where reading the best of young adult literature is part of my job and talking to kids about books is a daily occurrence. While I work hard to teach my students how to analyze text through our whole-class texts there is still a part of me that hopes they find themselves within Percy Jackson or Katniss Everdeen or June Iparis the same way I understood myself a bit better with Ender Wiggen. I still believe that there is the right book out there for everyone, and my job as a teacher is to make sure each kid gets that book in their hands.

Bananagrams and Bonding

Last week was testing week. All the “test prep” was done. Students were working hard on a stressful test during the first four hours of each day, and then they brought their fried brains to class ready to talk, move, generally relax. Teachers through the building are taking it “easy” in their rooms. Some rooms had movies. Some had puzzles. In my room we had Taboo and Bananagrams.

In past years I’ve shown a movie during this strange time, but this year I only saw students for “class” one or two times. It’s not enough time to actually finish a movie, which made me feel silly starting one. So, I brought the games I had at home that were vaguely “word” related. Taboo is always a hit, and that table is always quite excited. But the surprise hit, for me was Bananagrams.

You play Bananagrams by essentially taking tiles and making your own scrabble board in a race with other players who are doing the same. Every time you fill out your board you get more tiles that you must work into the words you have. It’s not the most verbal or community-oriented game. Most of the action happens individually as you try and sort the mess of letter you get into some semblance of order. And lord help the person who gets the “Q” and the “Z.”

On Wednesday I had my must challenging class in the afternoon after testing. This is the class that is often derailed by a student who won’t stop swearing, or the inability of the entire class to be quiet for more than 30 seconds. This the class where I have to shake some students awake, and sometimes can’t get through the mini-lesson because I am spending too much time either telling students to put phones away or calling for a student support person to come and take a student out for refusal to give me their phone.

Yeah. It’s that kind of class.

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The Farce of Test Prep

It’s testing season again at my school. In a few weeks my 10th graders will wrap their unit on Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir about the Holocaust, and turn their attention to explaining to students how they should answer a short-answer question based on the book Rats. Some of my students will be pulled out of class for “MCAS support” which involves reading and answering questions about short passages devoid of any authentic purpose.

Before the PARCC and other Common Core related “initiatives” signaled the intensified attempts of corporate takeover of education in our country, I did see some benefits of standardized tests in my students’ lives. As an urban English teacher I saw how the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) led a few educators to teach more reading and writing when their students started being required to meet a level of testing proficiency. Additionally, as one measure of student skills, a standardized test provides useful information about students’ skills. However, this type of standardized testing has quickly become the only assessment that educators talk about when we say “data-driven instruction” and the primary assessment we use to distribute school resources. Now that multiple choice and short answer test are the primary measure of students’ literacy skills, we have a problem. The scant resources schools receive go on to feed the testing beast as schools spend money and time on materials that purport to prepare students, not for real-world reading, but for more standardized tests.

I’ve taught English in low-income urban schools for 10 years, and I’ve studied adolescent literacy. What we know about teaching reading, especially to adolescents who are on the path to being fluent readers of higher-level academic texts, is that they benefit most from . . . you guessed it.  More reading (especially purposeful reading), coupled with explicit reading strategy and vocabulary instruction. They learn vocabulary from reading a wide variety of books. They develop increased reading stamina and comprehension from reading a wide variety of books. They learn about themselves and the world around them from reading a wide variety of books.

So why do we persist in saying that reading test preparation means reading short, un-engaging texts and answering multiple-choice questions?

I’m starting to think the reason we engage in this practice of test triage that runs counter to what we know about reading development is because we are in an education world where the odds are stacked against us. I meet my students at the beginning of their 10th grade year, the year they will take their MCAS, the test they must pass to get a high school diploma. They take it extremely seriously, because they know how much it counts for them. My vocabulary and explicit teaching of reading strategies might help a student move from a high “needs improvement” score to a low “proficient” score, but my teaching at this point is unlikely to take a struggling reader who reads at a 4th or 5th grade level from failing to proficient; not on the reading portion of this test. Yet we feel the need to do SOMETHING that looks like we are making a difference for them. Enter the last minute test-prep, where student’s are pulled out of regular classes to work on a practice MCAS packets and learn about the different types of answer choices on the test, or do some additional vocabulary flashcards and maybe answer a long composition prompt or two.

And herein lies one of the major problems with these high-stakes tests. Instead of these tests being one measure amid others, the test is the measure that matters most, especially to outsiders. People don’t want to know how many books our students read for intellectual enrichment this year; they only want to know our Reading and Open Response scores. People don’t want to know what students said in their speeches about the most effective strategies of the civil rights movement. Instead they want to know how many students summarized too much (and therefore got a 0) on the long composition. If these assessments were all seen as pieces in a larger picture of student achievement, we would do pull-out interventions for students to develop their debate responses for a huge history debate, or add after-school book clubs to support readers who are struggling to finish their independent reading books. But instead, the interventions we to focus our resources on are the ones that simply make it look like we are preparing kids for a standardized reading test.

I would love to teach in a system that had a standardized, multiple choice reading test as one component of our data-driven instruction. In fact my reflections on this type of data has lead to important improvements in my vocabulary and writing instruction. But I also want our local, state and federal educations system to do more when we focus on “data.” I want to read student annotations of complex texts to see how they are using a variety of reading strategies to grasp the complexity of the author’s nuanced arguments. I want to look at the ways students explain their thinking behind solving complex multi-step math equations. I want to watch video of students debating who was a more effective leader: W.E.B. Debois or Booker T. Washington. I want the system that Susan Engal describes in this fantastic article “7 Things Every Kid Should Master.”

I want authentic reading, inquiry, the ability to collaborate and leadership all to be valued as much as those multiple-choice scores. But as long as our testing months are dominated with last minute test-prep, we won’t have time to study, let alone teach such lofty skills, at least not without a bit of defiance in the face of testing demands.

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