The Year’s Beginning: Miss Perky

This is the first year that I’ve been christened by a student in September, versus christening them.

But… Miss Perky? I think the fact that this moniker’s just a shade off from Miss Piggy might be upsetting me subconsciously.

However I also wonder if it is a sign of the general tenor of the building this year. “There’s plenty of… new,” my Health colleague comments in the hall, restrainedly.

And there is, about which I have much bloggéd. New York State is a Race to the Top recipient, and has signed on full bore to the Common Core. We have new evaluation systems, new paperwork, new assessments, new meeting loads, a new online grading system, and a new contract. And while much of this is based in simple good teaching practice (for example, the systematic review of student performance in the program Response to Intervention), much is not.

And all of it, like new wine into old wineskins, is being poured into a spatial and temporal infrastructure which will likely not support it without significant change.

Which explains why my Math team colleague, with a new baby, has dark circles down to her chin, and why my Science colleague is already fretting about lagging behind in her curriculum, not two full weeks into school. And why I am Miss Perky, perhaps.

I don’t know why I’m Miss Perky to these guys.  It might be because I consciously refused to give up the Ten Days Kickoff  Unit, which does not race to the first quiz, but is all about multiple intelligence surveys, reading interviews, procedures for using bean bags while reading independently, and co-writing behavioral contracts and communication guidelines. It might be because despite the implications of low value-added scores in New York, I have finally grown enough to acquire the rhythm of clown, colleague and critic to which seventh graders respond with trust.

And it might be because– for reasons as yet mysterious to me–I still can have my day completely turned around by the fact that Jack and I hit on a perfect book for him on the first try, or by all of us enjoying the clear, cool fall rain falling on the bus circle.

Or, indeed, I admit somewhat grumpily, by being called Miss Perky.

Krista Tippett writes in her book Speaking of Faith that after a long depressive period, she was amazed at her capacity to still feel joy. It is stronger, and fiercer, she writes: but it still comes.

That’s the way it is with teachers who have it in their bones, I think. Joy still comes, even now.



Four Myths About the ELA Common Core Standards

Cheryl Dobbertin and I take on some of the Core in this Ed Week piece, just posted. I think it does a good job of sifting through what I continue to think of as the hot mess of the ELA Common Core: some of it solid and necessary; some of it highly questionable; and all of it requiring teachers to be 100% on their critical thinking game when using it. Which, of course, is one of the most touted skills in the Core. Irony? Let’s hope not. I’d rather it was synchronicity.

James Kennedy: The _Order of Odd-Fish_ Interview

Two things surprised me instantly about James Kennedy.

First: at ten a.m. on a Sunday morning, after a chock-full weekend at the Rochester Teen Book Festival, we entered the coffee shop where we were to conduct the interview and he ordered, not the weary intellectual’s double espresso latte, but a berry smoothie.

Second: on a whim, I brought along a deeply nerdy book about signals of divine transcendence in the world—one of which is laughter.  I thought I might, perhaps, slowly hand it over, with the proper hint of social embarrassment, and discuss it with him in light of his very funny book, The Order of Odd-Fish. This would be long after he finished his double espresso latte, of course, which would have softened him up for philosophy. No need,though. He noted the book’s cover before we even sat down.

“What does it say?” he asked, hungrily.

And that about sums up our interview, and James Kennedy. Who needs coffee, when you can have ideas?


Odd-Fish and Religion

Let’s jump in at the deep end. You’ve talked in other interviews about wanting to sidestep in Odd-Fish  the influence Christianity has on fantasy. This intrigued me intensely, because I’m a spirituality wonk, and I actually don’t think you escaped it completely. For example, I wanted to get your take on the idea that laughter is actually a sign that there is a metaphysical reality out there.

I don’t know if I agree with that, but it’s a really interesting idea. Laughter as an expression of not being quite at home in the universe…

… and you’ve had training as a physicist, so you’re also coming at metaphysics from several critical angles.

Yes. Although I actually became a novelist in part because I wasn’t going to be a good physicist.

What led you to that conclusion?

My grades. (laughter) My parents were very kind about it, but they did say, “You will finish this undergrad degree in physics.”

I actually don’t think Odd-Fish does escape Western religion, though. It’s a Western-style novel, written by a Westerner who was raised Catholic. You really can’t get beyond that cultural influence. Many of the tropes of storytelling, the basics of crisis and rebirth, have their strongest and most influential expression in our culture through scripture. So my main character Jo has a Passion, of sorts, though I only really realized this after I’d finished writing the book. She enters Eldritch City much the way Jesus enters Jerusalem. Someone even pointed out to me that the name “Ichthala” is very close to “ichthys”—

–the Greek word for “fish,” and a Christian symbol.

Right. When I wrote the book I just wanted to make a creepy-sounding word that sounded as scary as Madeleine L’Engle’s “echthroi,” which was also taken from the Greek for “enemy.” Mostly, I just wanted a word that sounded icky.

(Note: check here for some very cool research on how vowel sounds can scare the heck out of us.)

But I made a very deliberate aesthetic decision to stay away from overt ties to Christianity. Fantasy is arguably dominated by Christian writers —and science fiction by Judaism– and I wanted to get beyond that in the book. An aesthetic decision, but not a moral one.

Is there a universal principle to which you would give your assent?

Community, I think. We’re obliged to live together, no matter what we believe. Jo, who felt out of place and really lonely in the world, finds a home with the Order of Odd-Fish.

I also noticed that she shares the climax with her friend, Ian. Jo would not have been able to overcome the massive obstacles she faces in the book without handing over the reins at a critical point to him.

Yes. Community is a controlling idea in the book.  It’s really in direct contradiction to some of the facile libertarianism going on right now in the world.

It’s also why I like the writer G.K. Chesterton. I don’t always agree with his ideas, but I love the way Chesterton plays with them in writing. It is an agile mind at play. It’s about joy.

Or “style,” as Sir Festus of the Odd-Fish puts it.

Yes, that’s right.

To what extent does your own experience as a teen play into the idea of community? Did you also seek community?

I moved to a new school after 8th grade.  My parents wanted to ensure that I got a good education at the time, and I did, but the adjustment was difficult.  I suppose I started to find my niche there: I became the copy editor for our yearbook, and my goal was to create as weird a publication as I possibly could.

Later, when I went to Notre Dame for college, I realized that I was somewhat “among the enemy”: dudes who defined themselves through sports. I got hooked up with the college radio station, and found a home there. WVFI: The “Voice of the Fighting Irish”!

Do you think teens who feel outside the norms, who seek community, are also drawn to your book?

It’s hard to say—that’s a highly personal judgment, and what do I really know about my readers? The stories I write will probably never have monstrous mainstream success, but it would be a dream come true to find my own little corner of the culture and work that niche, the way David Lynch or Neal Stephenson did. I just hope to cultivate a small, committed band of people who like my books and… who will help send my kids to college.


Things I Didn’t Realize I Wrote

I noticed, trolling through the multiple book reviews and interviews on Odd-Fish (and then went ahead and did it myself), that we all tend to describe the book as a mash-up: Kafka, Monty Python, Lemony Snicket, Roald Dahl…

It’s funny, because I actually set out to write something normal. I held myself back a bit. I have noticed some teens on reviewing sites like Goodreads describe “Odd-Fish” in terms like “this is the weirdest book ever!” but I’ve come to discover that only a small group of people want to read “the weirdest book ever.” I tried to give it a particularly strong British flavor of humor, though, and indeed for a little while it actually seemed like Odd-Fish was going to be published first in Britain, and not the U.S.

(Note: more on that below.)

I think it was Umberto Eco who said, “The author should die after finishing his work, so as not to trouble the path of the text.” Has anyone surprised you with their literal and/or symbolic reading of your work?

One that sticks out in my memory came from a student when I was speaking to a YA lit class at a university. One of the students asked me, “Why don’t you characters have blogs?” At first I thought she meant, why don’t your characters maintain real blogs or have Twitter feeds as a kind of promotional tool for the book? But on further questioning, I discovered that she meant that she didn’t understand why my characters didn’t use social media in my book. As if being in the Internet is the default state of human experience.

She was an exchange student from China, so I was certain at first that I had misinterpreted what she’d said, but after careful questioning, I found that’s indeed what she meant. The moment gave me a curious weightless feeling. Has the Internet become that pervasive? A couple years later, I’m wondering if she was just messing with me.



You tell a story of walking away from the first book deal for Odd-Fish.

Yes. The first publisher to offer a deal wanted to cut the book in half. Long-form fantasy doesn’t sell, they said. I knew it was a risk to turn it down, but I’m glad I stuck to my guns. My wonderful agent did some four-dimensional agent jiujitsu by getting an offer for publication in Great Britain and then turning that around to get a strong offer at Random House with an editor who was really great for me.

What about Odd-Fish would not have survived a half-cut?

It’s a world-building book, you know? It takes time to do that.

Additionally, it depends on its dithering—its seemingly aimless wanderings. Dithering is another controlling idea of the book. What society deems as aimless has a beauty and value all its own.

For example, I actually spent quite a bit of time in my physics studies learning about various discredited theories, and finding them almost as fascinating as the real science. My advisors had to pull me back from that line of inquiry, but it inspired the research of Sir Oort of the Odd Fish Knights.

I wanted Odd-Fish to be like a haunted house. It’s a closet you open, and all this stuff falls out. Less like a tightly controlled roller coaster, which is a better description of the book I’m working on now.

You’re talking about The Magnificent Moots.

Yes. I’ve finished it, but the first draft wasn’t exactly what I wanted. There was some big post-modern game-playing in it that I now realize doesn’t work. Luckily much of it is easily excised. That’s fine. To write a novel you have to try a lot of ideas and be comfortable with many of them failing. The trick is to learn how to fail faster and put the next idea out there right away and learn more quickly. I learned a lot from writing Odd-Fish, but as a result my challenge now is not to overthink the drafting process on the current work.

And you’ve written the sequel and prequel to The Order of Odd-Fish as well?

I have them planned out. It’s been three years since I published Odd-Fish, so I know I have to get something out there! I did have children in the intervening time, though, and I’ve also been working hard on getting the 90 Second Newbery Competition off the ground. Next year we’ll be screening in New York and Chicago again, so I’m excited about that.

My daughter (nine) is shaping up to be a reluctant writer. (Quote, when I mentioned to her I was interviewing you: “I like stories, but I don’t like to write them. All the punctuation and spelling and capitalization. Oh, my gosh!”  What advice do you give kids like her? How do you encourage them to take creative risks?

I read somewhere that Roald Dahl was an infamously bad speller. But he was a brilliant storyteller. Don’t let the mechanics of writing get in the way of the joy of storytelling. Many great storytellers have been illiterate! They are two separate skills. My advice would be to read a lot of stories and always keep writing. If you read a lot of stories (and if you’re serious about writing, you must) you will probably unconsciously internalize all the rules you “have to remember.” They will become second nature almost without effort.


A thoroughly lovely morning. Thank you, James.





James Kennedy, _The Order of Odd Fish_, and Me

The crazy, wonderful book, equal parts Monty Python, Kafka, The Simpsons, Italo Calvino and fever dream: The Order of Odd Fish.  (Download a treasure trove of teacher information about it here.)

The crazy, wonderful author, who recently concluded a (fictitious?) feud with Neil Gaiman, to Neil Gaiman’s delight: James Kennedy.

The crazy, wonderful thing I never expected would happen: I’m bringing James Kennedy to one of my favorite coffee shops on this Sunday morning.

He’s in town for the Nazareth College Teen Book Festival. I’ve already canvassed my seven and nine year old for questions to ask him, which yielded the following:

MY DAUGHTER: “Ask him if he’s a mythical being in disguise.”

ME: “You’re still reading The Bailey School Kids, aren’t you.”

I would love for blog readers to leave comments or shoot me messages about what else to put on the docket for discussion.

Wondering how to get kids excited about reading? How to write with two toddlers in the house? Dipping a toe into Japanese culture and anime?  Leave a comment, spread the link. The more voices, the better. This Renaissance Man is yours for an hour.

Or mine, actually. I’m a tiny bit worried about being left alone with him for that long.


Thought for the Week: Thou Hast Cleft My Heart in Twain

My district has a complete gem in our current professional developer, Cheryl Dobbertin. I mean, honestly. Warm, funny, relevant, challenging, and respectful: the rare kind of educational presenter from whom you actually take, you know, something useful. She was a teacher before she was a trainer, and she has never forgotten it. Her bailiwick is differentiation, as a student of the equally warm and relevant Carol Ann Tomlinson; all of us have published in ASCD recently, and it’s a true honor to be among them. (Check out Cheryl’s article on experts, and Carol Ann– well, she’s a giant over there.)               

You can tell how Cheryl’s students must have felt: cared for, competent, and connected. It was a fairly drug-like experience of hope sitting in her training today, given how dour educational conversations can be these days. It made me realize, once and for all, that there are two visions of education that are yet in bloody battle– and no, I don’t mean Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee.

I mean a fundamental clash between valuing growth, versus grades.

Growth is what Cheryl, Carol Ann, and differentiation are all about. It’s about meeting and respecting students where they are. Differentiation doesn’t throw curriculum standards out the window, but it gives kids every opportunity to maximize their strengths on their journey towards meeting them, and it doesn’t fault them if they don’t. On the contrary. A student who doesn’t meet standards is not a failure, but only someone who needs even more intense respect and attention paid to them as individuals– as human beings. Differentiation, unlike many other pundits’ suggestions for improving schools, also strives to make that attention scalable and sustainable, even with a student load of hundreds. In that sense, I find it to be one of the only truly promising methods of education out there for those of us on the secondary level.

Grades, however, are still the beast at the center of the labyrinth. The infrastructure of public schools remains based on them almost entirely. Think about it. What gets reported to families? What gets rewarded? What gets punished? It’s not growth, in the vast majority of public schools. It’s grades.

Even a district such as mine, engaging in an honorable and necessary struggle to revise our grading practices, has still not figured out the vast repercussions of a commitment less than cosmetic to differentiation. They have not seemed to have figured out, for example, as my colleagues did recently while merely sitting in a team meeting, that in order to maintain status quo grades while honoring growth, two entirely different report cards are actually needed.

They haven’t figured out that honoring growth instead of grades would require the revamping of every number-driven academic carrot and stick we have embedded into education. (Pizza parties? Acceleration requirements? Honor Roll? Summer school? Retention? Promotion?)

They haven’t figured out that as long as kids know– and oh, boy, do they know– that insofar as tangible educational consequences are only attached to grades, growth has no currency. It’s like handing them a thousand dollars of  Monopoly money.

And most sadly, schools haven’t figured out that hiring gems like Cheryl doesn’t mean half of what it could mean, as long as her sparkle serves in a system which is not yet designed to honor, reward, or support growth in any concrete, consequential way.

Could we get there, though? Despite the wariness (weariness?) of this post, I want to ride out on the hopeful note I came in on. The continued presence of the Cheryl Dobbertins of education, while breaking my educator’s heart in some ways, also hold out the potential for making it whole again.

The Ivory Castle?

Salon publishes a fire-breathing dragon article this week about superintendents who don’t live in their districts or send their kids to public schools; such people, David Sirota writes, are

“…a permanent elite that is removing itself from the rest of the nation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education — a realm in which this elite physically separates itself from us mere serfs.”

Which is funny. Because it seems that David Sirota, who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, may have attended William Penn Charter School in his youth: one of the oldest, richest, and most exclusive schools in the nation.  So I wonder if the evidence indicates that the phrase “us serfs”, while polite, may not be exactly accurate when it comes to Mr. Sirota’s education.

Nor is it accurate to lambaste public education officials simply because they choose to send their children to good schools that may bypass the public system– as it seems Sirota’s own family may have done. Public officials with children are, after all, parents, like many of us. Would David Sirota dream of writing a Salon column eviscerating low-income parents who move in order to send their kids to public or private schools where they won’t get shot? Would he accuse them of abandoning their communities? I doubt it.  The reverse discrimination implied in this column is both disturbing and fruitless.

A key point, however, is that David Sirota is critizing public officials. And there’s the rub.

Superintendents, mayors, lawmakers, and others who govern schools are not “parents.” They’re not even “rich parents.” They have agreed to become something other than parents: to be held to different standards. One of those is the highest level of publicly verifiable consistency: an unbroken chain between the decisions those officials make for the health of others, and the decisions they make for the health of themselves.

No fair-minded person would ask anyone– even a seven figure superintendent– to send their sons and daughters into a gang-ridden failing public school as a gesture of solidarity. Isn’t the whole point of the education debate to not sacrifice our kids to our political and social prejudices?

But what a fair-minded person can– and should– ask is why the rules public officials make for the schools under their care can be so vastly and inexplicably different from the ones that govern the schools of their children.

They can ask how those officials are balancing the safety and health of their kids with making sure they are working their asses off to give the very same rights– not privileges– to the families they serve.


As is my lot in life, I have emailed Mr. Sirota to get his take. I’ll let you know if I hear from him.

Tom Hoffman on the Common Core: It’s What You Need to Know to Get a “C.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, particularly on the ELA side of things. Tom explains more below. Bolded emphases are mine.


The primary goal of the Common Core English Language Arts standards is very specific: To create high school graduates ready to pass their freshman college courses.  Literally (if uncharitably), what do you need to know and be able to do to get at least a “C” in all your community college courses?

The research base of the standards, such as it is, focuses on that question: what do college freshmen need to know?

This approach is somewhat disarming to teachers, because almost all would agree that college readiness is an important and worthwhile goal.  The problem is that in the CCSS it is essentially the ONLY goal.  And they are narrowly drawn even within that, as the standards do not consider the needs of, for example, the future creative writing major.

If you are wondering, “Why is X not in the standards?” ask yourself  “Can a student get a passing as a freshman in community college without X?” and if the answer is “yes,” then you know why X isn’t in there.

The problem of course is that this isn’t what we used to think of as the goal of public education, it is radically narrower than the objectives of higher-performing countries, nor is it the result of some kind of robust public discussion of our nation’s educational philosophy.  This shriveling of our educational goals has been imposed on us by the 1% working through a system of bought and paid-for non-profits and politicians.

Within the context of college readiness Common Core English Language Arts standards are mostly about one thing:

Generating academic textual analyses of complex texts.

And within that, it is textual complexity uber alles.  There has been a lot of discussion about reading lists and fiction vs. non-fiction, but when the rubber hits the road, it will all be about text complexity and comprehension.

For each text, there are between seven and nine applicable analysis tasks.  These are very narrowly defined, for example, “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of several word choices on meaning and tone” and they don’t change that much over the years or text type, so students will get PLENTY of practice coming up with a passable answer for texts they can actually comprehend.

The limiting factor for most students will be comprehension of complex texts.  The curriculum and assessments will emphasize increasing text complexity.  Value-added scores determining even high school teachers’ evaluations will primarily be determined by reading level as determined by text complexity.  English teachers need to think about the implications of this for their discipline as a whole.

Finally, it is important to emphasize the narrowness of the individual reading standards.  Some people look at a standard like “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of several word choices on meaning and tone,” and think “Gee, that’s pretty broad.”  But it is not.  It is very specific.  It is essentially the template for writing a test question. What your students need to do is very specific: answer multiple choice questions based directly on that standard or respond to that prompt with a written response.

~ T0m Hoffman


Tom’s blog can be found here, a staple of many teachers’ online reading. Go give it some love.

Text Complexity, Reading, and The Real Answers

The story is “Slower Than the Rest” (pdf of the text here); the author, Cynthia Rylant, who writes deceptively simple sentences such as

Leo was the first one to spot the turtle, so he was the one to keep it…

…thereby foreshadowing, in one elegant swipe, the entirety of this story of a disabled boy struggling in school. It’s the story I use regularly to test my kids’ command of analyzing narrative; Rylant’s writing is sparse enough grammatically to not lose my readers who are below grade level, but richly nuanced in theme, character development, and voice.

This is not, sadly, what the United States is now defining as “complex text,” despite Rylant’s obvious and demonstrable complexity. The Common Core and Lexile seem to have a very cozy quantitative understanding along those lines, going so far as to align and re-align their sample texts to each other’s academic visions–versus, say, peer-reviewed research.

Despite the Core’s assertions to the contrary, I find no pragmatic documentation of an equally friendly relationship with the work of the mother of defining text complexity, Jeanne Chall– who also warned consistently against the overly narrow use of metrics such as Lexile.  E.D. Hirsch has a clear and lovely piece summarizing the dangers of the Core’s approach here.

But I digress. Or perhaps I don’t. Because sitting in this Starbucks, grading tests before I go home to prep for our New Year’s celebrations, I find the real answer as to whether ”Slower Than the Rest” is complex: that is, adds value to my students’ knowledge, via an extension of their own experiences using critical thought. 

This answer is from Maurice, student with special needs. He waits for me before homeroom, and makes sure I am listening to him in class by reaching out and tapping my shoulder gently.

Identify a type of conflict, using details from the story, I ask Maurice.

It’s “person versus self,”  Maurice writes. “Leo (the main character) is slower than the rest. so was I. but I talked to the teacher and she whent slower and I caht up. so I am noe able to stay ‘ahead.’”

“The psychological difficulty of a text is determined less by its computer-measurable syntactical features than by the reader’s relevant prior knowledge,” Hirsch writes.

Happy New Year, everyone.







The Chicken Direction

On each of my unit tests (which are rare), I place a direction buried in the text of the explanation. It usually looks something like this:

Who is the protagonist in this story? Who is the antagonist? You do not need to write in full sentences for this one, but you must include enough details to make sure your answer is clear and well-supported. Stand up and squawk like a chicken for an extra bonus point.

The primary reason is to test– and ensure– how well my students are actually reading the exam directions.


“Thank you, Alicia.”

Some quizzical looks. But the silence floods back in almost immediately. We have a test to take, after all.


“Thank you, Terry. ”

“HUH?” the class surfaces collectively now, confused.

‘What was that all about?” James understands that I don’t always run things conventionally in here, but he’s a stickler for rules, particularly during high-stakes assessments.

Which is the other reason this technique works– to convey the message that this is NOT high stakes. This is not yet another in the ever increasing line and ever more ridiculous history of ill-developed, inauthentic, anxiety-driven instruments for collecting “data”. It is simply what it is– a test.  You show me what you’ve got. Afterwards, if needed, I help you further in getting it. That’s all.

“SQUAWK.” Jenna adds flapping wings to her imitation.  (A bonus of this technique is also encouraging kids to act independently on their knowledge, when convention and peer pressure give the message to do otherwise.)

“Thank you, Jenna.”

Laughter is now rippling full scale through the room, but James and a couple of other stressed kids don’t like it at all. “Why is this happening?” James complains. “An excellent question,” I muse aloud, and say no more.

But I’m not off the hook. Conversation is rising unexpectedly about whether to “squawk,” “bawk,” or “cockle doodle do.”

“I’m getting distracted,”  another girl says, and I have to smile at having the school lingo salvo.

“All right,” I acquiesce. “Number one: this is happening for a reason.”

“WHY?” James howls.

“I am not at liberty to say. Second, I do want to honor those kids who feel like they can’t concentrate. So please, when you are ready, come up to me and very quietly give me your chicken squawk.”

“You’re being antagonists,” James mutters, which tells me more than the exam does about how well he has absorbed the material.

The giggling finally subsides– until James hits the direction.

“OH,” he exclaims.

And we all bust out, James included, one last time.