This week, perhaps inspired by Brutus or Julius Caesar, let’s think about heroes.
You have three choices here, but if you want to go in a different direction, you may. Just make sure your response is clear, thoughtful, and well-written.
1. Does a person have to have extraordinary abilities to be a hero? Think of at least three qualities you think a hero must have, and write a job description for the position of “hero.”
2. Every culture has people in its history or stories who are considered to be especially strong or wise. What can we learn about a culture by learning about its heroes?
3. Compare one of the heroes you have read about this year to a hero from our community. How are the heroes alike? How are they different?
I can’t wait to see what you come up with!
This week’s topic is Truth and Reality. Use the following prompts to guide your thinking. You may choose to address one of the prompts, to combine multiple prompts, or to create a response that addresses the topic without explicitly using one of the prompts.
An advanced response (level 4) will make a coherent statement on the topic in an engaging, well-written, clearly-organized response of sufficient length. An advanced response will also connect the topic to literature in some way.
1. Is it always easy to recognize what is real and what is not real? Create a list of Things That Are Real and another list of Things That Are Not Real.
2. Although people change their minds all the time, everyone has a group of ideas that he or she believes to be true. Create a list of at least five things you believe to be true. Choose one, and explain why you believe it is true.
3. People often say, “I will believe that when I see it.” Could something you see not be true? Explain.
4. Science-fiction and fantasy stories often feature unrealistic or impossible elements like talking animals and creatures from other worlds, yet many readers find these genres to be fascinating and profound. How can fiction tell the truth about the world?
5. Sometimes people decide that things in the world around us need to be changed. Choose one character from literature and explain how that person changed the “reality” around him or her.
Be creative and have fun! I always enjoy reading your blog posts, and I’m especially looking forward to this one. Don’t forget to include an image and two links, as always. Comment below when you’ve read the prompt.
Reading Instruction at ____ High: From Good to Great
Over the past few years, I have increasingly begun to see reading as the key to student achievement in high school English language arts courses. As this belief has grown, I’ve done a great deal of reading in this arena, attempting to refine my classroom practice to have the greatest possible impact on my students’ reading achievement. As ___ High looks toward increasing literacy for all students, I thought it might be beneficial for me to share what I have learned.
A Framework: The Flywheel and the Doom Loop
In his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t, Jim Collins compares the habits and attributes of wildly successful companies with those of mediocre companies. One key finding is the idea of the flywheel. Companies that became great applied sustained effort in a specific direction over a long period of time. Collins relates this effort to pushing a flywheel—an immensely heavy rotating object (Collins 165). There was no big break for these companies, no miracle cure. Rather, they underwent “a deliberate process of figuring out what needed to be done to create the best future results and then simply taking those steps, one after the other” (169). It isn’t easy or quick, but according to Collins if an organization keeps pushing, it can attain amazing momentum and achieve significant success.
In contrast to the flywheel, Collins identified the habits of the mediocre companies as something he called The Doom Loop. Instead of applying sustained effort in a particular direction, companies in the doom loop would push in one direction, stop, change course, go in a different direction for a while, stop, change course, and then try another new direction, etc. and so on (178). These companies never achieved momentum, because they never built on what came before. Instead, they were constantly looking for the big miracle that would propel them to success. Collins describes several signs that your organization might be in the Doom Loop:
- You attempt to skip the development or buildup process
- You attempt to implement big programs suddenly
- You look for a miracle moment or savior
- Your efforts are marked by “fads and hoopla”
- You demonstrate inconsistency
- You jump into action without disciplined thought
- You use acquisitions to create, not sustain, momentum (Collins 183).
Unfortunately, the doom loop is uncomfortably familiar to educators. When a purported quick-fix fails to achieve desired results (usually after too little time and effort have been devoted to it), another program is attempted, typically again failing. Schools aren’t businesses, but it seems that adopting a flywheel approach could be as beneficial for education as it is in business.
Reading is Not a Skill
Before we can solve the problem of low reading achievement, we must understand the cause of the problem. The most important and most prevalent misunderstanding about reading is that reading is a skill. This fundamental misunderstanding drives the reading curriculum and reading assessments, but it is incorrect. If reading is a skill then anyone who possesses the skill should be able to read any document. Clearly, this is not the case. Reading skill varies from task to task, depending on the amount of background knowledge a student has about the topic (Hirsch 8). Research shows that students with high reading scores are students who have a large amount of prior knowledge (Willingham). In one study, two groups of subjects were matched on every criterion except nationality: one group was Indian, one was American. Both groups were asked to read one text about an Indian wedding and one text about an American wedding. The Indian group showed high comprehension of the Indian wedding text but low comprehension of the American wedding text. The American group showed the same pattern—good comprehension of the material with which they were already familiar (Hirsch 18). These results make intuitive sense; most people have had the experience of struggling with a text which appears to make no sense because the reader is unfamiliar with the topic being addressed.
The solution to the reading problem, then, is not going to come from drilling EOC practice questions. Even teaching reading comprehension strategies provides only a one-time boost to test scores (“Teaching Content is Teaching Reading”). Instead, to improve reading performance it is necessary to build students’ background knowledge. But as E.D. Hirsch says, “Schools will never systematically impart missing background knowledge as long as they continue to accept the formalistic principle that specific information is irrelevant to ‘language arts skills’” (Hirsch 111). Specific information is exactly what students need to read better, and it’s exactly what they aren’t getting in a test-prep curriculum. Put another way, it isn’t possible to remediate students on a skill such as finding the main idea, because finding the main idea is not a skill. The process a student uses to find the main idea of a text is heavily dependent on the content of the text.
Prior knowledge, the key to reading comprehension, is built through conversing with knowledgeable people, reading serious magazines and newspapers, reading books, and studying a content-rich curriculum at school (Willingham). The greatest possible impact of the language arts course will be on the materials students read.
Building prior knowledge then is undoubtedly important, but it will be a slow, inefficient process. Thankfully, there are steps the classroom teacher can take right away to help improve students’ reading. According to the What Works Clearinghouse, the following five practices have been shown to improve adolescent literacy:
- Explicit vocabulary instruction
- Comprehension strategy instruction
- Opportunities for extended discussion of texts
- Increase motivation and engagement
- Intensive and individualized intervention by trained specialists. (“Improving Adolescent Literacy”)
The first three recommendations have long been hallmarks of successful language arts classrooms. The fifth is the most expensive and difficult to implement and is beyond the scope of this paper. It may be with the fourth recommendation, increasing student motivation and engagement, that the reading war will be won or lost.
So what can schools do to increase student motivation and engagement for reading? In her book 99 Ways to Get Kids to Love Reading: And 100 Books They’ll Love, Mary Leonhardt presents ninety-nine recommendations to do just that. Leonhardt’s major recommendations fall into a few basic categories:
- Give choices about what kids read
- Match books to the student’s interests and personality
- Increase the convenience and comfort of the reading experience
- Reduce the hassles and nagging—keep it fun
- Dedicate time to reading
- Provide real incentives for reading
- Allow kids to spend time in libraries and bookstores
While these recommendations are aimed primarily at parents, these suggestions may be valuable in the classroom as well. Educators know from experience that taking the opposite course—not giving choices or time to read, nagging, making reading difficult and unpleasant, etc.—is almost guaranteed to reduce student motivation. It should be noted that most school-wide literacy initiatives available for purchase do not address most of the recommendations listed above.
What Comes Next
A search of the What Works Clearinghouse maintained by the Institute of Education Sciences reveals five programs with potentially positive effects on literacy at the ninth and tenth grade level. Reading Plus showed “potentially positive effects,” increasing student reading scores by about two percentile points. Purchasing one of these programs could be a smart way to improve literacy at ___, or it could be a contributor to the doom loop. As it happens, another literacy program was purchased two years ago—Accelerated Reader was used with several classes of struggling readers. How did the program impact student achievement? What were student and teacher attitudes toward the program? What rationale was used to discontinue the program? Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to any of those questions. Before we move to purchase another program, I believe it would be beneficial to reflect on the benefits and drawbacks of the Accelerated Reader program. From my point of view, the AR program had two key benefits: a focus on real books, and a means of assessing comprehension to show progress.
Pulling together the insights gained from all the sources previously discussed, my ideal literacy program would include the following:
- A focus on real books of high quality, those most likely to increase students’ general knowledge
- Class sets of books at various reading levels, particularly high-interest/low-reading level texts that appeal to struggling readers
- Books in various genres, including nonfiction
- Access to an assessment instrument that can measure reading achievement and progress
- A focus on student choice and motivation throughout the reading curriculum
- Emphasis on vocabulary instruction
- Room for teachers to apply the best practices in different ways according to individual teaching style and the courses being taught
- Teacher collaboration to share what is and isn’t working in our classrooms
- Serious, evidence-based professional development on the best practices to reach struggling readers
- Targeted, high-quality intervention for students who don’t show gains in the classroom
We know that the classroom teacher has a greater impact on student achievement than any other in-school factor. Ten thousand dollars spent on one year of a reading program could instead fund 667 hours of teacher meetings for collaboration, reflection, and debriefing (calculated at fifteen dollars per hour per teacher). A department of ten teachers could be compensated for sixty-six meetings outside the school day, or a team of five teachers could meet 133 times. Alternatively, how much high-quality professional development could those funds purchase? Or how many texts could be purchased for a faculty-wide book study? Our very limited funds must be applied to the flywheel, not the doom loop, if we are going to make a difference for our students.
Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. New York: HarperBusiness, 2001. Print.
Hirsch, E.D., Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.
“Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices.” What Works Clearinghouse. Institute of Education Sciences, 2008. Web. 5 Feb. 2012 <ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practice_guides/adlit_pg_082608.pdf>.
Leonhardt, Mary. 99 Ways to Get Kids to Love Reading: And 100 Books They’ll Love. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997. Print.
“Teaching Content is Teaching Reading.” Core Knowledge. The Core Knowledge Foundation, 2012. Web. 5 Feb. 2012 <www.coreknowledge.org/teaching-content-is-teaching-reading>.
What Works Clearinghouse. Institute of Education Sciences, 2012. Web. 7 Feb. 2012 <ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc>.
Willingham, Dan. “Willingham: Reading is Not a Skill—And Why This is a Problem for the Draft National Standards.” The Answer Sheet. The Washington Post, 28 Sep. 2009. Web. 5 Feb. 2012 <voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/Daniel-willingham/Willingham-reading-is-not-a-sk.html>.
For Nikki, and anyone else who missed them:
Click to download, then open in Windows Media Player.
Throughout the book, Rubin discusses several rules or tips she lives by. Some of them she calls the Secrets of Adulthood, others are the Splendid Truths, and the most important category are her Personal Commandments. Her most important personal commandment is to Be Gretchen (her name is Gretchen, see?).
Rubin repeatedly returns to this commandment, describing both how important it is to figure out what she really wants in any given situation, and how important it is not to do something just because it seems like the right thing to do or like the thing others would do. For example, she says she wishes she enjoyed skiing. Many of her friends enjoy skiing, it seems like good exercise, it would be a great activity to get her daughters involved in. Unfortunately, she has to face the fact that while skiing is fun for other people, it wouldn’t be fun for her. She enjoys being indoors and warm, preferably while reading a book. So even though she wishes she were different, she has to Be Gretchen and do what’s right for her.
I started thinking about this personal commandment when my kids and I were reading a picture book called Wink: The Ninja Who Wanted to be Noticed by J. C. Phillips.
Wink is a kid who desperately wants to be a ninja, but he keeps getting in trouble for doing things that make him stand out. Ninjas are supposed to be stealthy, right? His grandmother repeatedly tries to cheer him up, suggesting a visit to the circus might be really enjoyable, but Wink just keeps resolving to try harder to do what his sensei asks of him. But toward the end of the book, Wink comes across a young circus performer trying to perfect his act, and Wink is able to help him. The circus boy’s family is hugely impressed by Wink’s skills as a performer, and give him lots of attention and applause. The book ends perfectly, with Wink joining the circus to do ninja tricks and be applauded by an audience.
Wink’s sensei sees the show and says something like, “Running water will always find its way,” which to me is just another way of saying we will end up doing what we are truly called to do, even if something else seems better or more worthy.
Books are awesome, aren’t they?
- Post weekly. There will generally be a specific assignment to post on, but if there isn’t, you will be expected to choose your own topic related to our classwork or your reading.
- Posts are due by 8:10 am on Friday mornings.
- There will not be a post due during your spring break.
- Comment on two of your teammates’ blogs and two blogs of non-team members each week.
- All significant writing assignments you do for class will be posted to the blog. You will be expected to comment substantively and productively on each other’s essays just as you do each other’s reading responses.
- Include a properly-credited image with each post. We will discuss how to do this in class.
- Include at least two links in each post. Within reason, link to everything you discuss.
- Our blogs are completely transparent to the public and can be accessed by search engines. To maintain an appropriate level of security/anonymity, always use only your first name (and last initial, if desired). Do not make specific references to the name or location of our school or community.
- Never post anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want posted on a billboard in town.
- I encourage you to invite your friends and family members to read and comment on our blogs.
- Your comments should be thoughtful and should add to the discussion. Take care that your tone remains respectful and friendly at all times. Before you post a comment, ask yourself if it adds to the discussion. Would you feel comfortable discussing this comment with Mrs. Ratti’s grandmother? Would you feel comfortable sharing it with the grandmother of the person you’re addressing?
- You will be able to sign up each week to use the mobile lab in our classroom until 4:00 on Tuesday. You also have access to library computers each day during your lunch period. It may be possible to use the library before and after school as well. You should see the librarians about this and let me know if you need help arranging library time.
- Do not make excuses. Plan ahead, and solve problems. Meeting your deadlines will be part of your grade.
- Each person will receive an individual grade at the end of the nine weeks. This grade will be based on the following components:
- Control of standard English (spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc)
- Writing style
- Content—are your posts thoughtful, interesting, and thought-provoking?
- Use of multimedia (images, links, etc)
- Meeting deadlines
- Each group will receive an overall grade based on the same basic criteria as listed above. HOWEVER, group grades are only for your information and are not part of your English grade. Instead, we will give blog awards in the following categories (tentative):
- Best blog
- Level 4 blogs
- Best blogger
- Level 4 bloggers
- Best posts
- Best comment
- Best “About Me” page
I know we are going to run into bumps along the way (metaphor), and I expect that we’ll end up somewhere different from whereI expect (paradox), but we’ll work it out together. What I need from you is some honest effort to do good work, work worth showing off. I know you all are smart and awesome and able to do amazing things.
Post your thoughts and questions in the comments, and ALWAYS remember you can email me (or send a message on Engrade) with any questions or concerns. I think this is going to be fun.
I am re-reading The Happiness Project, a nonfiction book by Gretchen Rubin.
I stumbled across Ms. Rubin’s blog several years ago, before the book was published, and while she was actually doing the project. I looked forward to reading it each day because it seemed like she always had something interesting, thought-provoking, or inspiring to say. Most of the posts were about being happier, obviously, but they were specific with insights from literature or science. I found myself applying some of her rules and advice in my life. As the publication of the book got nearer, I became really excited to read it and actually ordered it in hardback! This is a big deal for a cheapskate like myself!
As 2011 recently rolled over to 2012, I found myself wanting to make some resolutions. Actually, I found myself wanting to be happier, and I thought living differently might help me achieve that. It’s not that I’m UNhappy– I love my life! But I am often frustrated, tired, and distracted, and I always feel like I could be doing better if I were just trying a little harder. I have three children and a demanding job, plus a house and yard my husband and I have to take care of. There are always chores that need to be done, and I never seem to get enough sleep.
Ironically, I felt like I was too frazzled and tired to think straight enough to make resolutions that would help me be less frazzled and tired and think straighter. (Ironic. See what I did there?)
So I found myself wanting to re-read The Happiness Project. In the book, Rubin tackles a different topic each month and makes resolutions related to that topic to help improve her happiness. January is energy, February is love, March is work, and so on. Throughout the book she talks about other people’s theories of happiness and reports on how her efforts worked out for her.
So I picked up the book last night and read the first three chapters compulsively. I already felt more clear-headed and had a better idea of where to start. On almost every page there was a passage I wanted to discuss in class. Try this one from pages 35-36:
To feel more energetic, I applied one of my Twelve Commandments: “Act the way I want to feel.” This commandment sums up one of the most helpful insights that I’d learned in my happiness research: although we presume that we act because of the way we feel, in fact we often feel because of the way we act. For example, studies show that even an artificially-induced smile brings about happier emotions, and one experiment suggested that people who use Botox are less prone to anger, because they can’t make angry faces. The philosopher and psychologist William James explained, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” Advice from every quarter, ancient and contemporary, backs up the observation that to change our feelings, we should change our actions.
This kind of blows my mind. We all think we act angry because we feel angry, right? But there’s evidence to suggest that if you act differently–calm and patient instead of angry– you can actually change the way you feel. You can make yourself less angry by NOT punching things. Whoa.
As I re-read this fun book, I plan to make my own resolutions chart for the year, focusing on one major resolution or area per month. I think there’s an app for that so I won’t have to keep up with an extra notebook. I’ll let you guys know if I end up happier or not.
Friday we got several papers back and today I handed out a conversion sheet that shows you how to translate your 1′s, 2′s, 3′s, and 4′s into letter and number grades.
Friday we took a few notes (act, scene, roman numerals, stage directions, and dialogue). Today we added lots of vocabulary words to our vocab list.
Also today, we finally started reading the play. We got about halfway through the I.1 (Act One Scene 1). We are hoping to finish the first act by Wednesday and have our quiz on Thursday. Hopefully it won’t snow.
Yesterday (Wednesday): Honors classes did the “lite” research described below. 3rd, 5th, and 6th periods finished their vocabulary stories. Click Here to get the vocabulary list if you lost yours.
Today (Thursday): Everyone is taking a quiz on Shakespeare’s background and the vocabulary. Anyone who doesn’t make a 3 will take it again.
We are also studying the prologue to the play and discussing our expectations. We’re also discussing PUNS! I love puns! Here’s the sheet I gave out in class, and here’s the other list. There are also lots more puns here. Enjoy! (Warning: sometimes people don’t like people who love puns, so you may want to keep it to yourself if you’re a punny gal like me.)
Tomorrow, believe it or not, we will actually start reading the play. I know, it’s about time!