Sunday, April 28, 2013

YA Book Review: Jellicoe Road

Jellicoe RoadJellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Taylor Markham asks, "What's the difference between a trip and a journey?"

The answer offered is, "When we get there, you'll understand."

A few weeks ago I spent six hours in a car with a man I didn't know. Heading to the same conference, we carpooled. Six hours is a lot of time to talk about experiences, teaching, reading, and writing. One moment of the conversation resonates with me--we talked about the books we read.

We each had read Marilyn Robinson, but not the same novel.

We each had read some contemporary authors at the top of their game: Phillip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Cormac McCarthy--just to name a few. But, again, our reading stars didn't align. We hadn't read much in common.

And then I mentioned I also read a lot of YA literature--to keep pace with my students, to have recommendations, to be able to have conversations about the books they care about. I related a story of a girl stopping by my desk because she saw (on my sign outside my classroom door) that I was reading Crank by Ellen Hopkins. She wanted to talk about it because she had read it too.

While the teacher-student effort wasn't diminished, the nature of YA literature was with a "what are these books with slick plots that kids can slide right through with no challenge..." Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.

For all intents and purposes, that is what I heard over the last few hours--I tuned him out.

The Printz Award Winner Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta made tears well up in my eyes.

Marchetta took the loving friendships of five adolescents and wove them into a sort of Gordian Knot for the main character, Taylor Markham.

Abandoned by her mother, a relapsing addict, at a 7-Eleven, Taylor is raised in a house on the fringe of a private high school. Her guardian, Hannah, is writing a novel about five adolescents. Taylor reads it in pieces..sometimes at the behest of Hannah. Initially, Taylor does not realize that the novel is actually Hannah's story...and Taylor's mother's story...along with their friends who also attended this very same school on the Jellico Road.

More than a coming-of-age novel, this is story about relationships in all of their forms...and the fact that relationships are hard. Even the easy ones carry some hardness.

I love the fact that friends keep coming back for one another--friends keep fighting for one another--and friends always find common ground and forgiveness for each other.

Simply put, Jellicoe Road is gritty YA novel which holds friendship and loyalty supreme. I found the message moving and as relevant as anything I might pick up by Colum McCann, Junot Diaz, or Jennifer Egan. (Although I would like to place A Visit from the Goon Squad into my reading pile!)

You don't need to be fourteen to be moved by this book.

And you don't need to be fourteen to read a novel that teaches the reader a little something about friendship.

View all my reviews

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Five Reasons Why Computers Should Not Assess Writing

1. Computers Do Not Read With Understanding. By using algorithms based on components like sentence length, sentence structure, word frequency, computers substitute correlation for understanding. We write for the formula in the same way that we write for the scorer for the prompts found in state testing. As Robert B. Shephard commented after a Diane Ravitch piece about computers scoring student writing:
"Consider Noam Chomsky's famous sentence--Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. This would be rated very readable by most readability systems. But it is utter nonsense."
2. Context is Human. Imagine the following passage from Ernest Hemingway's "In Another Country" monitored by the algorithm:
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.
The sentence structure is repetitive or, thought another way, uses parallel structure to create a rhythm and craft a tone. Similarly, the use of the conjunction "and" appears seven times in six lines of text; the preposition "in" appears six times, and the noun "wind" appears four times in the span of thirty-three words.

Writing this paragraph above, I tried to think like the computer--as a writing teacher this was unnatural for me. My eye and ear was drawn to the beauty of the wind in the tail of the foxes and the crisp imagery of the setting. For all of the simplicity of the individual words and the frequency with which some appear, does not make any of it an error. The context of the passage takes those individual pieces and moves back, to allow our sensibilities to focus and regard the piece as a whole. No human writing teacher examines and criticizes word for word nor should one.

3. Writing is an Art. Imagine an algorithm written to examine the combination of mechanics used in art, such as brush stroke. Seurat's dots on a canvas might be assessed point by point--frequency, shape, thickness, and color--all could be criticized I suppose. But why would you? If you were teaching someone to paint and to develop their skills we don't burn our sweat over brush strokes. We encourage the artist to learn how to say something with those brush strokes.

Would we try to force every painter to work with the same brush strokes?

4. Confined to the Writing Prompt. While the same issue binds students on state testing, using scoring software muddles the most important part of growing into a good writer--writing about what matters to us. Students can not feed any piece of writing into the algorithm. It must be on the stated topic. By using this system over and over again we are feeding the beast--teaching to the test. And writing remains something that is just done for school or just done for testing.

Being confined to the writing prompt on a weekly basis suffocates any hope of developing a young writer. While, I agree, students need to learn to write to a prompt, a balance must be found. And when students write about subjects not found in the scoring algorithm, what is to be done?

Read them ourselves?

5. The Art of Conferring is Obliterated.
Bad writing is necessary, and we all do it. We have to do a lot of bad writing in order to mine and polish the good stuff. But we will never know what promise a piece has when all we receive from computer-generated scoring is a print out of pre-determined errors.

Georges Seurat - Peasant Woman Seated in the Grass
No conversation takes place.

A student must be able to look at the negative comments and try to figure out where they apply. Nothing is highlighted. No questions are asked of the student.

Ostensibly, the print out would be carried back to the teacher or a peer so that the two might engage in a conference about the piece. In either case, the essay still needs to be read so that a conversation about the computer's tastes can occur. And even if that were the case, what are we talking about? How to mold our writing to satisfy an algorithm? So my piece looks and sounds likes yours?

Worse, my fear is that computer-generated scoring means some may use it to replace ever engaging with students and their writing at all. The tool becomes deemed a time-saver and replaces human skill and compassion. At the risk of offending people, if you are teaching writing and seek ways to avoid reading papers and discussing essays with students then you are in the wrong classroom. If you lean on "time" as the reason why this computerized method of assessing writing then you need to reassess how you spend your time in the classroom.

This is not to say that anyone is a bad teacher, but the earmarks of bad teaching are all over the use of computer-scored writing. The worst possible scenario is that this tool becomes a hoop for students to jump through and all of the necessary and influential steps to becoming a better writer are lost.

Writing becomes a chore for our students. They write to the judge...Big Blue...not to an audience, and never for themselves.

In the process, we all stop reading and we all stop talking.

And when that happens, they stop writing.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why my classroom iPads are like William H. Macy

Combining digital technology with literature circles with research components, my students took me a step closer to what my new classroom will look like once the upgrade from a half cart of tablets to a full cart is established--sooner than later.


For all intents and purposes, digital technology has helped me place a finger on the importance and the pulse of access. And I found that the technology almost dissolves in the classroom environment as students work on those rich activities that we always seem to chase as teachers. The personal device has become the great supporting actor of the classroom. As David Thomson writes in The Guardian, "Supporting actors aren't just those familiar faces who can steal a film. They show a way for movies to portray real life."

In less than two weeks time my students read a common YA novel from a group of three, viewed short (2-3 min. videos) on topics related to the novel, read articles from periodicals on those topics, and explored relevant infographics. We brainstormed possible topics for persuasive essays, scoured the internet for more informative videos, infographics, and essays, and composed several short drafts before settling on one polished draft for submission at the end of the unit.

The Literature Circle Novels
Having finished Little Women and submitted our essay tests, I offered the classes enough copies of the following complimentary novels to read:

  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
  • Crossing Stones, by Helen Frost
  • The Red Umbrella, by Christina Gonzalez
Free to choose what they like, I was working from within the added bonus that my students had recently studied the turn of the century (ECT is set in 1899) and were currently learning about WWI and the Suffragist Movement (CS takes on both) in Social Studies. The only history we knew little about was Fidel Castro and the Revolution.

Digital Folders on Google Docs

Ahead of time, I prepared three folders in Google Docs. Each was labeled for a literature circle novel. Within each, I placed three articles, one video, and one infographic. Each was based on some of the themes we found in the novels based on class discussion.

The theme of "strong women" arose again and again, even in our discussions of Little Women. By the looks of their essay tests, strong women were still on the minds of my students so I wanted to feed some of that developing curiosity.

After taking a class to teach the concept of writing a persuasive essay built around "Five Things We Can Learn From______" or "Five Things We Can Do To________," students sat in groups of three by common book. Each group took an iPad
and explored the items in their digital folder in whatever order they chose. They wrote and discussed how each idea connected to the novel, but took each a step further by listing the things they still wanted to know.

Continuing Our Research
Students then dug into a wide array of topics with the iPads. They searched for more on the history of Cuba, or the U.S. relationship with Cuba. This developed into researching if the U.S. had similar relationships with other countries. 

The discussions about strong women developed into hunts for more articles on who the female leaders are today, or what is written about the suffrage movement today. Imagine the surprise on a 14 year-olds face when they discovered that women in Saudi Arabia will not have the right to vote until 2015. 

And then someone shrewdly asked, "Imagine what the Suffragettes would think about American women not exercising their right to vote today."

Lists, Lists, and more Lists
After developing lists of ideas for papers, we curated a digital list as well as a bulletin board of ideas. Initially, the ideas were basic and surface-level thinking...but we were moving in the right direction.

Students could add to the Google Doc at anytime, but mainly referenced it from home or the classroom to help them develop their own lists of ideas that they most wanted to write and develop.

As they continued to clamor over topics in their groups and share snippets of what they had written, I asked the students to start hunting for more videos, infographics, articles related to our brainstorming of topics.

Sharing Our Research
And now we were on our way to developing another shared document--a list of possible resources for our persuasive essays. Kids dug for and pulled all kinds of good stuff. Some needed help, some did not. But the end result was several pages of solid, accessible research. Some found current articles, others sought historical documents and photos.

As the students did this I found that my managing of the resource kept it from getting messy. As they emailed links to me I organized the page while keeping a running conversation going with the class. I tried to nudge them towards some great information...and when they didn't find it on their own I literally led some right to it.

"What other ideas might we try?"

"Did anyone find any policies?"

"Has anyone notice anything about Facebook and Awareness online?" (a minute later..."Hey I found something!")

The Depth of the Essays
The papers I received from students have been a pleasure to read and use as a teaching tool. Beyond the technical conspecifics of editing, the depth that the students dug into has been rewarding.

While one student, Lauren, titles her essay a breathless Five Things You Can Learn From the Children Who Moved to the United States During the Revolution in Cuba, her subtitled paragraphs left me (almost) speechless:
  1. The children's parents loved them
  2. Be brave
  3. Family Matters the Most
  4. If You Love Someone, Set Them Free
  5. Everything Has a Purpose
Another student, Jenna, took the character Frankie from The Red Umbrella and dug deep with Five Things You Can Learn From Frankie's Protective Nature. Her five paragraphs were labeled:
  1. Siblings should look out for each other.
  2. A good relationship between siblings is important.
  3. Countries should protect one another from harm.
  4. It is important not to desert people in hard times.
  5. Promises should be kept.
Everyone had research components, and everyone was encouraged...taught...told? to included citations within each of the paragraphs. Ok, that didn't always happen...but, like I said, we are moving in the right direction.

Technology Plays Second Banana
In an odd way, the technology took a back seat. In my subtitle I joke about it being a second banana, sort of the William H. Macy of a teacher's toolbox, but it really is in this case. When my principal came in to take a peek at the lesson, I felt like it was impossible for him to tell the kids were entangled with technology, and writing, research, conversation, and collaboration...because writing, research, conversation, and collaboration really took off, once technology gave the kids access. The personal devices provide the students access in way that I never could portray as the star of my classroom stage. Now matter how many tricks I know, how many great lines I cull over the years, I never ever portrayed access to real-life in the same way as the personal learning device in a student's hands.

I really believe my principal left the room not knowing that Willam H. Macy was even in the room. When another curious and interested administrator, aware of my lesson, wanted to see it in action, I literally took him aside to walk him through the steps of what the kids were doing...I literally put an iPad in his hand to show him the importance of the second banana. 

The hallmarks of good teaching won't change as personal devices permeate our classrooms. For me, it is about finding my comfort with the access that continues to be the key.

I tip my cap to my current students for showing me what my classroom of the future is going to look like...sooner than later.

Here I include an image of most of an essay written by one of my students--Uma. If you know the novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, or even a relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild, I think you'll find Uma's work pretty darn charming:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

An Alarming Disarming of Skills?

Lost among the many higher order skills my students demonstrate on a regular basis is a significant developmental weakness--many struggle with the concept of a table of contents.

As I plan for next week, I find myself making notes for my students that pin-point exactly where a particular story or essay can be found in their textbook. To a certain degree, their behavior has reprogrammed me.

Girl Reading, by Pablo Picasso
When I write the name of a story or essay on the board, students immediately want to know, "what page?" This is true whether we are reading something together in class or if I assign something for homework.  And, of course, when they ask, I tell them. And, of course, like any compliant rube, I head off those questions by anticipating them and writing the pages numbers on the board or on any notes I distribute.

When students have questions, I love it. But are these the types of questions I should a) be answering and b) avoiding by giving them the answer in advance?

Some would argue that I should give the students everything they need in order to have the best chance of success--including a page number in their textbook. Can't you hear the criticism, "Well you didn't tell him/her where to find the essay." or "Did you write down the page number?"

And then something has been happening over the last few weeks that dragged this issue to the surface: they have difficulty exercising a similar skill online.

We have been using a website and app called VoiceThread for some digital creation activities. Usually, when we work on it in class, the students grab the iPad, tap the VoiceThread icon, and everything is smooth.

And then they go home to try or sit at one of our school desktops to access it online...and one of two things falls from some of their mouths, "I can't find it" or "What is the website?"

Why can't some find a very easily found site online? Why do some need the specific page number when the book is right in front of them? Is this lapse in executive functioning developed by the current state of the world? Is it taught and encouraged by parents and teachers?

Irrespective of the cause, I see that a clear gap exists in this regard among some of my students--it doesn't matter if it is a paper and text world or a digital world--some students do not possess the ______________________ to find what they need.

What do you fill in the blank with?

  • patience...
  • knowledge...
  • stamina...
  • desire...
  • tools...
As I complete my plans for the week, I am starting at the specific page numbers, websites, and locations that I written...and I am questioning myself:

Am I arming them with tools or disarming them of skills?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Writing Driving CCSS Assessment

I spent Friday and Saturday in a workshop about the assessments educators will find emerging with oncoming Common Core State Standards. Along with 40+ educators from across Pennsylvania, the Institute for Learning (IFL) led us through several assessment models designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

The Department of Education has contracted PARCC who has in turn contracted IFL to assist with the creation and piloting of upcoming CCSS assessments.

I came to understand that many assumptions have arisen over the CCSS because not many firm answers or samples have been offered. The weekend workshop was a call to those involved on the inside to meet with some educators to share what the current models of assessment are looking like. My invitation to participate came to me through being actively involved with the National Writing Project. I believe six local Writing Project sites from the State of Pennsylvania were represented at the workshop. While not much has been officially released for public consumption, I found the weekend extremely helpful and will share the core of what I took from it.

The first message communicated was that the CCSS call for a 50-50 split of informational text to fiction at the middle school level is intended to represent a ratio across all subject areas. Some assumptions about the CCSS place the onus only an English teacher's shoulders. Additionally, many English teachers have lamented the perception that the strong call for nonfiction means an impending erasure of literature. 

As I understood the message, educators do not need to feel as though literature is being pitched by the CCSS. The co-director of the IFL, Anthony Petrosky noted that in the appendices of the CCSS it explicitly states that teachers should fill in the gaps of the CCSS--assuring us that this is a safety net to protect the presence of literature in a curriculum. While I have not read or heard that statement prior to this weekend, it did reassure me to some degree to at least hear it from someone involved on the inside.

The core intention of the CCSS is to see educators engaged in  regular practice with complex texts from outside the textbook-model as well as focus on academic language across all subject areas.

Often, math, science, and social studies courses do not offer opportunities for students to read and write texts beyond the textbook-driven lessons and questions. The observation is that many of these courses work through curriculums built like checklists of terms, events, and concepts without much opportunity for conversation, problem-solving, and deeper and more meaningful interactions with the content. The CCSS wants to encourage the building of knowledge in these subject areas through content-rich nonfiction. 

To help promote that end, assessments are being designed to measure a student's ability to read, write, and speak to the evidence found in a text--not pare a sliver of information from the many facts digested over a year. The PARCC's current design calls for three types of performance-based assessment types:
  1. Evidence based selection response
  2. Technology enhanced constructed response
  3. Prose constructed response
All of the assessment models that we experienced at the workshop advocated multiple reads of multiple texts within one unit or lesson. For example, one of our model units (Forensic Anthropology and the Science of Solving Crimes) was built upon two overarching questions:
  1. What roles does a forensic anthropologist play in the science of solving crimes?
  2. What methods do writers of informative texts use to convey complex ideas and information?

The experience placed a value on two details that can not be overlooked by education:

a. Learning is social
b. We must be the models of the lessons we teach.

In other words, the CCSS impels educators to be readers and writers of their content areas. The assessments somewhat divorce state testing from the current multiple-choice model. Every assessment we saw and used asked us to write and discuss. Again and again. This is a very Writing Project friendly approach.

Some assumptions bandied across the state suggest that writing is not a core component of the CCSS. This would be a grave mistake for districts to assume.

Writing is the mode on which the assessments are being built.

The CCSS's impetus to integrate reading and writing across all subject areas drives the dismissal of classes only using textbook-driven instruction...and their mirrored counterparts in current state testing. Textbook instruction often presents one type of question and one mode of learning--the CCSS assessments want to encourage a social component to learning that is integrated with ample opportunities for students to read and write.

It seems to me, professional development should start with helping teachers across all content areas tlearn how to write in their content area and find content-rich nonfiction to use in their classes. Additionally, all teachers need help in understanding how to encourage, direct, and read student writing. Research shows us that teachers learn best about teaching by talking about student work samples...and students learn best by having the opportunity to write and read their own thoughts in small groups--before opening it up to larger group conversations.

This is not a short-term process. Clearly, the CCSS is positioning educators to make a long-term commitment towards altering the way in which we teach and in how we see time best spent in our classrooms.

Much more information will emerge as the months pass--it has too--as we are inching closer to the CCSS adoption across the states--and this is not a quick (or easy) transition. However, if you lasted this long through my post, keep a firm grasp that it indeed appears that writing and the ability to extract and synthesize evidence from multiple texts is the essential component of upcoming CCSS assessments.