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.






Common Core Director to You: “No One Gives a S**t What You Think or Feel.”

Huh. I had planned on discussing my district’s new grading policy this week, but that post is being interrupted for a moment of outrage.

That title above? It’s a ver batim quote from David Coleman, the co-author of the Common Core, and a man described by our former New York State education commissioner as being “at the center of the account of educational reform in this country”.

Please–don’t believe me. I’d be grateful if that were your first reaction. It was certainly mine.

But let’s back up a bit.

The Source

I first stumbled across its mention in a recent, fiery piece of Susan Ohanian’s on Coleman’s April 2011 presentation of the Core to educators in my home town of Albany, NY. Susan, for those of you not in English Language Arts circles, is an award-winning, tireless, crazy advocate for the primacy of literature, the importance of the aesthetic,  and the autonomy of the educator. For the sake of objectivity, though, I felt it was important to read the transcript of the session myself, which she provided in link form.

The Context

It’s imperative to read David Coleman’s full statement.

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a **** about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

Later, in a related statement on academic vocabulary, he further remarks:

 The most popular 3rd grade standard in American today…is what is the difference between a fable, a myth, a tale, and a legend? The only problem with that question is that no one knows what the difference is and no one probably cares what the difference is either.

You can see clearly that this is a more nuanced opinion that one might think just by looking at the sentence with the “bad word,” which makes the situation better.

However, you can also see clearly that Coleman’s opinion is one which could easily dismiss a truckload of information students need to comprehend and write aesthetic, narrative text. (And not just narrative, either. At the seventh grade level in the Core, for example, the word “synonym” is denounced as “esoteric”.)

At the same time, Coleman’s convictions place the needs of the marketplace definitively over those of a holistic approach to personhood and education.

And all of this makes the situation much, much worse.

The Real Problem

After I got over my amazement, I realized the central problem with Coleman’s **** statement is not actually the “s-bomb”– after all, we’ve all slipped and made language choices with students that were not the most appropriate. Nor, on the other hand, is it the possibility that Coleman chose this language deliberately for its earthy shock value. Many intelligent, ethical speakers take this rhetorical route. In fact, if you study the transcript, it’s obvious that this is exactly what Coleman was doing. Permutations of other terse, down-home phrases such as  “Let’s be honest, ” Forgive me, but…,” “Let’s be blunt,”  and so on, appear at least six times in his speech on literacy. You could compare this, in his favor, to the significant number of times he makes also self-effacing statements such as “There are people more intelligent than I in this audience.” (This tendency has been noted in other presentations of Coleman’s as well.)

None of this is the problem. The problem is this: David Coleman is wrong.

My basis for this claim? I could cite research about the irreplaceable subjective connections in how we actually learn and comprehend our reading (which Coleman calls, demeaningly, “hovering around the text”), about the neurological primacy of narrative (which Coleman would near eliminate in the upper grades), or the cross-disciplinary necessity of effective metaphor (which neither Coleman nor his Core mention at all). All of these things, categorically, point to the reality of people “giving a ****”– not only about our internal opinions and emotions, but the aesthetic ways in which we convey information to one another.

I could do that. But instead, we’re going to talk about a real life example.  No slimy unbathed beat poets, 99 Percenters, Sufi mystics, or Nobel-winning authors. Our example is Steve Jobs, possibly the most successful businessman and lauded entrepreneur in America’s history.

Steve Jobs loved literature. (And art. And music.)

As documented in Walter Issacson’s biography on Jobs,  Jobs’ music collection contained material from 29 albums of world-renowned lyricists Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and others. The literature that inspired him included poetry, Moby Dick and King Lear.  His favorite class in college, according to him? Calligraphy.

Consider this, then: if The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez had been educated under the Common Core, would their art exist?

Without Shakespeare, Herman Melville, or Dylan Thomas– who, by the way, may have written the most compelling account of one’s childhood on the planet, in the poem “Fern Hill”– without these artists of the written word, would Steve Jobs even exist?

Consider, too, the genuine love and loss expressed by this country upon Jobs’ death two weeks ago. You may say that it’s because we can’t live without our iPods anymore, but I would argue that it’s because Steve Jobs was someone who could say this, at Stanford in 2005:

“…the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

Type this quote into Google, and you’ll receive over three million hits.

These are not the words of evidentiary argument. They are the words of a man who knew his heart– and knew how to express it.

To Be Fair

Coleman and his Core pay some attention to aesthetic and narrative. It’s a far sight less than one would think, though, given that Coleman earned a master’s degree from Oxford University in– wait for it– English Literature. However, a glance at his circulated biography confirms that he has had equal, if not far more extensive, experience in corporate America. It’s an understatement, and a deeply disturbing one, to say that it shows.

Sheet Happens?

But perhaps the most telling, if accidental, fact about Coleman’s presentation comes directly from the transcript I viewed.  The phrase which angered Susan Ohanian so much, and which comprises the title of this post, is recorded there as follows:

“The only problem…is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sheet (sic) about what you feel or think.”


As a seventh grade English teacher, I tell my curious and clever students that the profanity that they occasionally encounter in our reading exists for a reason. Its non-gratuitous use is to express a deep, overwhelming emotion or conviction: so deep that it can only be reserved for the Anglo-Saxon or Norse versions of our words. That, I tell them, is how profanity should also be used not only in their own writing, but in real life.

It is easy to infer that David Coleman has turned his back on the nexus of power in language. Perhaps we don’t need to beat a dead horse by letting his transcribers do it too.




I Have Been Demoted

Me (to class, solemnly): Today, it is time to discuss grades.



More on grading in my long-in-coming  inaugural School Year 2011-12 post next week, which has taken a turn for the worse with the introduction of a new district policy… or better? Stay tuned.



I pulled a pie out of the oven last week and rammed my forearm into the edge of the 450 degree oven. The last time I burned myself like this I was ten; I was so proud of my perfectly round pancakes that I brought the entire griddle into the living room and raked it across my right wrist showing them off to my mom.

Enthusiasm hurts.

Plans for the blog this year include a blow-by-blow play of teaching in a school in a Race to the Top state, where change– always last minute in teaching, and always a given– is still coming faster and thicker than I’ve ever seen it, and will require careful thought. We’re a Title I school now. Tenure as we know it has been abolished. Summative measures will not only dictate my job security, but will now compromise 80% of my students’ grade. We have no subject director.

But reflection before reaction, as the song says. (See below. Trip hop is awesome for classroom cleaning, and if you listen very carefully, you’ll hear that this neat tune samples an equally amazing one– “Eminence Front,” by The Who.)

So it’s my hope that those posts will be useful to others in the same situation.

But today, our “summer work day” at school, I feel empty; scoured out. It’s hard to put my finger on it. I can’t tell whether the depth of the change has already deadened my emotions in self-defense, or whether I am finally moving past the over-the-top angst I often feel before the school year begins. Or whether I am just sleep deprived. We have a new ten week black Lab in the house. I am grateful for her warm, happy little life in the living room, even at 2 AM.

The skin under my burn is healing, as shiny and delicate a pink as the inside of our new puppy’s ear. I catch flashes of the scar-to-be as I work my way through a two foot pile of filing today. It’s almost beautiful.

And when I am interrupted, several times, by future students coming by with their parents, there’s no irritation. I’m just sincerely glad to see the kids, and keep them longer than necessary, talking about books they’ve read over the summer. I love how the faces of my seventh graders are still so responsive and bright. I look into their eyes, and am surprised to feel no pain.