Archive for February, 2008

Oil and Anger

Feb 28 2008 Published by under borderland,literacy,politics,technology

Sometimes an intersection of possibilities comes along for teaching a lesson, and this one has dredged up a lot of painful memories for me.

Oiled bird

There was a hearing today in the US Supreme Court about whether Exxon should have to pay punitive damages for the Valdez oil spill in 1989, nearly 20 years ago. I also happened to notice a story about the oil spill in a literature anthology we have at school. The kids read it and made lists of the environmental effects mentioned in the text:

  • Beaches became tar black.
  • Oil covered birds washed ashore.
  • Sea otters licked their fur and died.
  • Bald eagles lay paralyzed after diving into oily water.
  • An official count of 36,468 birds died, officially, but that may be only 30% of the total number.
  • Bears ate clams and seaweed poisoned with oil.
  • Oil seeped more than 12 inches into beach sediments, and storm waves sent oil more than 50 feet above the high tide line.
  • Oil spread more than 400 miles south of the orginal spill zone.

The human impacts are incalculable. Yet, the oil company argues that the punitive damage award of 2.5 billion dollars is excessive, and that all compensatory damage claims have been resolved. This is not the sentiment among Alaskans.

The kids were incensed. Many of the them didn’t know this ever happened, it was so long ago. And when I told them about the Supreme Court hearing and the position that Exxon is taking, they got pretty worked up. One of the other teachers suggested that we write letters to the Justices, and when I mentioned this to the students they were surprised: “We can do that?!”

Never mind blogging about it, they want to speak directly to the Court. I put together some web resources they can use for research, and I went to the library after school today to see if they had any videos I could use to let the kids see and hear what it was like. Surprisingly, nobody else has checked them out. Watching them at home this evening, they stirred up a lot of sad memories for me.

One of the fishermen in an interview pointed out that if any Alaskan, for example, shot a stellar sea lion, his vessel would be seized and he’d be jailed. But Exxon goes to court for 20 years and argues that they’ve already cleaned up their mess. Even still, oil lays just beneath the surface along hundreds of miles of rocky beach:

This pretty much expresses my point of view on what this is all about:

…it’s about more than an oil spill, the world’s largest oil corporation, and a small fishing community in Alaska. It’s about America’s failed legal system that inherently cannot dispense justice in the face of corporate globalization.

So I’ll be doing some persuasive writing instruction. A few of the kids wrote about it already, and I’m curious now to see if their writing becomes more critical after we work on this. We should have those letters to the Justices in the mail before the end of the quarter, next week.

[Link to additional video]

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The Right Way to Teach

Feb 22 2008 Published by under borderland,literacy,politics,reading wars

This little bit of personal history is inspired by Alice Mercer’s post about scripted reading instruction, which sounds to me like a relatively simple way for school districts to train teaching personnel instead of promoting real professional learning opportunities. I like Alice’s recommendation: “Be clear in what the program is doing, what you are doing, and what needs to be done.”

Mostly what I learned from my preservice teacher education was how to follow a teacher’s manual and how to organize student activity. My first teaching job was with second-graders, and teaching reading was fairly simple. I met with reading groups (low, middle, and high) for 30 minutes each day where we read from leveled basal readers while the rest of the class did “seat work” or rotated through “learning centers.” Because each group met with me for about half an hour, I had to let most of the class fend for themselves with independent assignments for about an hour. In the reading group we did phonics and vocabulary drills from a chart, round robin reading from the basal, and fill-in-the-blank workbook “comprehension” exercises. The basals contained abridged versions of chapters from trade books.

That was Reading instruction as we knew it. I trusted the manual to tell me what to do. It was how everyone did it, and most kids learned to read pretty well, though some struggled. We did other things, too, of course. There was journal writing, spelling, reading aloud to the class, and SSR (sustained silent reading). None of it was especially scientific, but it appeared to work.

The whole language movement caught up with me when our district adopted a new curriculum. I’d been teaching about 5 years. After whole language was officially adopted we traded the leveled basals and the workbooks for non-leveled basals and different workbooks with longer blanks for the kids to fill in. We did phonics and vocabulary drills from a chart, partner or round robin reading from the basals, and we used the workbooks. I also did creative writing projects and brought in books from the library on topics related to the basal selections. I had little festivals where I checked out all the books from the library by a particular author, and we’d do reader’s theater presentations and puppet shows. Fun stuff.

As before, most kids learned to read pretty well, though some struggled. The reading difficulty of the basal wasn’t always appropriate to every kid’s need, but neither were the basals we used in the reading groups. The main difference between the old and the new curriculum was that there were fewer textbooks and no reading groups under the new regime. All the kids read and wrote at the same time. I didn’t have to turn them loose for an hour hoping they’d complete a pile of sloppy worksheets that I had to collect and grade after school. And the room was noisier when all the kids were reading out loud at the same time.

The implementation of this new curriculum, though, was not smooth. There was little to no professional development regarding what “Whole Language” really was, and the teacher’s manuals were quite thin. We discussed among ourselves in meetings after school how we were supposed to be teaching reading without so many blanks to fill in. The district didn’t want us to use phonics workbooks any more, but some teachers hung on to them and used them anyway. People missed their workbooks. The community was in an uproar over the whole thing. There were numerous public meetings. Some people said that the Holt Impressions series promoted witchcraft. It was all very dramatic. It also wasn’t whole language, since the idea of using basals is antithetical to whole language philosophy.

Anyone interested in a basic introduction to theories of reading instruction would do well to read Frank Serafini on Theoretical Perspectives on Reading. It’s a quick and comprehensive look at literary theory applied to reading instruction. Serafini explains 3 main ways in which reading is conceptualized. He sees the current skills emphasis as rooted in modernist notions about meaning, which is believed to reside in the text, and which the reader must be taught to correctly identify. The modernist perspective is contrasted with the transactional and the critical perspectives in which meaning is constructed either psychologically, or socially, or both. From a transactional or critical point of view, literature becomes a “way of knowing,” and helps us make connections to the world around us.

Conceptions of teaching are likewise variable and problematic. The idea that there is a single “right” way to teach, just as there is a single correct meaning to any text, creates tension around discussions about public policy since control is a central concern of policy advocates. Scripted teaching programs are all about tightening control, and the problem with them is that not everyone responds similarly to the same approach, and more importantly, not everyone believes that it would even necessarily be a good thing if they did. Returning to Alice’s advice, “Be clear in what the program is doing, what you are doing, and what needs to be done.”

Or as Serafini says:

As literacy educators we should shift the focus from trying to find the right method for teaching children how to read, to determining whether the reading practices and experiences constructed in classrooms are addressing the broad repertoire of practices required in today"™s society. Because of this, reading education has to go beyond scientific considerations to include the social, political, and cultural dimensions, if our students are to become the kinds of readers we want in a democratic society.

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Feb 11 2008 Published by under borderland,technology

You take the good with the bad.

Most notably, it’s been cold. Even for the Alaska interior, the birthplace of cold, it’s been cold. It’s was minus 30 to minus 45 degrees for a week until yesterday, when it warmed up to zero for a while. It was -72 in Chicken. Really, there’s a place called Chicken. With the cold weather, a certain grim determination kicks in for most of us, and we know that if we’re lucky – and a little careful – it will pass soon enough without incident. But certain procedures have to be followed.

Recess is canceled at minus 20. For the elementary teacher, that means kids are in the classroom all day. They can go to the gym, but they don’t all want to. Some of them sit in the classroom and play games. They get kind of wound up doing this day after day, and we all get a little bit edgy.

At home, a moose started hanging around the yard. My wife named her Zeus. Zeus the moose. She was bedded down near a big spruce tree on the driveway Monday afternoon, and she popped out from behind the tree right in front of my truck as I drove up. She was big. My truck is pretty big, but I remember looking UP at her flying by my front bumper. Moose don’t really care who they bother, and they can hurt you if they get it into their heads that you are the one bothering them. So you can’t really run them off. They go away when they want to, and in the meantime, we pick the kids up at school because we don’t want them meeting Zeus on their walk home from the bus stop.

Remember, it’s been cold, and the machines are under stress, too. We all have block heaters for the engines so we can start them after they’ve been parked overnight or all day at work. Even still, my truck had a case of the flashing check engine light the other morning. This place is a cold weather test lab. So we’re down to one vehicle now while the truck is in the shop along with everyone else’s. No big deal, we can make adjustments to our schedules, but we also use the truck to haul our water. Yeah. We carry a 300 gallon tank in the back and fill it at a bulk water place that sells water for about a cent and a half per gallon. This is kind of hard to explain, but for now I’ll just say that I figure we can go for about 12 more days with what we’ve got left in the storage tank. We’ve instituted a water conservation policy on long showers.

Then, yesterday, I got a call from a new internet service provider with a wireless broadband signal that comes in strong for us. We put our names on a list a few weeks ago, and today I went to town and picked up a little gadget that now brings us all the internet goodness we might want.

It’s weird. The cold weather keeps us inside days on end, a moose that we have to watch out for lurks outside in the yard, our water hauling truck breaks down, and a new blazing fast broadband signal starts bringing us more information than we need. And it all happened at the same time. The world we have to walk around in is messed up, but the internet blazes on. We call this progress.

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On Reading Skills and Strategies

Feb 09 2008 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

Skills is a word that gets a regular workout in discussions about education. I used it in my previous post about reading instruction, making a distinction between skills and strategies. I listed what I saw as examples of each in order to amplify this statement: “Good assessment techniques provide information about the skills and strategies students need help with.” But my thinking here fell into a semantic trap that was pointed out in an article from The Reading Teacher, Clarifying Differences Between Reading Skills and Reading Strategies [abstract]. According to these authors, skills and strategies are sometimes used synonymously, and sometimes they’re used to describe complementary behaviors. In any event, everyone seems to believe that whatever they are, they’re important for kids and teachers to have and know about. Presenting them as separate things, as I did, wasn’t really accurate. So this is an update on my thinking.

The nagging question for me this week has been, What is a skill, anyway? And, how is that different from or the same as a strategy? And then, of course, why would it matter?

Why they matter
Teaching reading skills or helping kids develop reading skills, however you characterize instruction, learning, development, proficiency and such is aimed at competent performances. And in the Age of Testing and Accountability test scores are used to rationalize claims about effective schooling – which boils down to skilled performances on tests. So from a policy point of view, skills are important, and they are being heavily promoted.

The Reading First people who push the science-of-reading model see reading skills as a set of building blocks. Having a set of blocks, however, doesn’t guarantee that a person will build things. And even if they do build things, we can’t guarantee they’ll build things the way we want them to. Another problem with building block models is that some blocks are lower in the pile than others, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that there is a proper order to their arrangement. There may be, but there may also be more than one. Skills are interdependent, and they’re acquired at different rates and for different purposes. Decoding words, for example, is a necessary but not sufficient skill for comprehending written texts. According to the National Reading Panel’s summary report: “Older children receiving phonics instruction were better able to decode and spell words and to read text orally, but their comprehension of text was not significantly improved.” So, yes, decoding is important. But how, and how much for each kid is a contentious discussion because everyone sees the role of particular skills differently.

The purpose of reading, after all, is comprehension. Mosaic of Thought described a format for strategic comprehension instruction based on several cognitive processes used by proficient readers. Strategic comprehension instruction lessons became a common feature in textbooks during the 1990′s, and were associated with constructive models of reading instruction. Researchers, however, report that these strategies (which include connecting new information to background knowledge, creating sensory images, asking questions, drawing inferences, determining what’s important, synthesizing ideas, and solving problems at the word level) are not being widely taught. Part of the reason for this may be due to the fact that they are positioned in textbooks alongside skills instruction as if they are independent of each other, which causes confusion (Afflerbach, Pearson & Paris). Also, the “scientifically based reading research” position emphasizes skills over strategies, and that view is currently in rhetorical ascendancy.

What’s the difference?
Skills and strategies have an important relationship to each other. Our understanding of skills is rooted in behavioral psychology, in which skills are routine habits which have been acquired through practice and repetition. Strategies, on the other hand, are goal-directed and deliberate. Both are necessary, and the problem with separating skills and strategies into separate features of learning is that we overlook the ways in which they are both directed to the same end, which is fluent and efficient performance. Afflerback, Pearson and Paris make a great point in noting that strategies are what we turn to when we lack the skills to accomplish something and that, “even ‘basic’ skills benefit from being taught as strategies initially,” because strategies are how we manage difficult tasks.

Strategy instruction is a means to skillful performances, and not an end in itself any more than skills themselves are. In order for kids to learn to become strategic readers, they have to learn to identify what is hard for them, and then have a repertoire of responses they can turn to. These can involve anything from decoding to making inferences, depending on the needs and purposes of the reader. Strategic comprehension instruction, then, should begin at the earliest stages of reading instruction because comprehension is the goal of all reading.

Teachers have to learn to recognize opportunities to model, describe, explain, and scaffold appropriate reading strategies so that kids can begin to see when and how to use them – when their skills won’t carry the day. Presenting isolated skills to students is as unlikely to establish an effective reading repertoire as showing them strategies for solving problems they haven’t learned to recognize. And for this, we need to see the difference between the two so that we can learn where and when to make connections between them for students.

As I think about this, the application of this view has a lot to say about skills and strategies specific to teaching itself. As a teacher, I wonder, what comes easily and automatically for me? And when things break down, what do I do? When do I model, explain, or scaffold? Watching what I’m doing a little differently now.


Afflerbach, P., Pearson, P., & Paris, S.G. (2008, February). Clarifying Differences Between Reading Skills and Reading Strategies. The Reading Teacher, 61(5), 364"“373.

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Reading Teacher Mojo

Feb 03 2008 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,reading wars

Since I may be one of the “smattering of yoga/raga/tofu/mojo/mantra folks” Garrison Keillor mentioned in his wrongheaded critique of reading teachers, I’ll go along with Ken Goodman, who says, “NCLB is not about reforming schools. It’s about making public education look like a failed ideal.”

Rather than dwell on that discussion, though, we should talk about how effective reading teachers do get the job done. Being a good reading teacher is mostly about having a broad instructional repertoire. An International Reading Association position paper, Excellent Reading Teachers, outlines what we know about effective reading teachers:

  • They have a strong influence on students’ motivation to read.
  • They see reading as a complex system for making meaning that requires strategies for connecting vocabulary with background knowledge and personal experiences, as well as the ability to decode unfamiliar words.
  • They use a variety of assessment tools, including student conferences, oral reading, samples of written work, running records, observational checklists, written notes, and student self-assessments. They combine this information with their knowledge of each student’s literacy background to make instructional decisions.
  • They use a variety of instructional materials and strategies, including flexible grouping.
  • They’re good reading "œcoaches" and provide help strategically, as needed.

And from an article in The Reading Teacher, “The Effective Teacher of Reading” (Blair, Rupley, and Nichols, 2007), we are reminded that “…one cannot expect students"™ reading achievement to improve simply by increasing the frequency of assessment.” Good assessment techniques provide information about the skills and strategies students need help with.

Skills might be word-level routines that require phonetic or structural analysis. Or they may involve contextual analysis, sequencing, identifying the main idea, author’s purpose, etc. Using an index, and reading a graph are also examples of necessary skills. Strategies such as making predictions, summarizing, making inferences, and reacting critically to texts require more abstract thinking. Each type of learning requires a different instructional approach. Skill learning requires more practice and teacher direction. Strategies are more student-directed. Explanations, modeling, and guided practice help students learn how and when to apply the various skills and strategies they are learning to use.

Putting all of that together is a tricky business, since no two kids need exactly the same kind of help, and there are a lot of kids in the classroom.

I’m thinking about this now because I’ve reorganized my schedule to have an extended period for a reading-writing workshop each afternoon. The kids like to read, and they settle in and really do read when they have time. I read aloud each day so we have a shared book that I can use to model comprehension strategies, and the students will have time to read independently or in small book discussion groups. They have notebooks to write and draw in, and they can use computers for research and publishing. A retired English teacher was recently hired as an aide, and he’ll be coming in every day for the last hour to help me conference with the kids. This is good.

Blair, T.R., Rupley, W.H., & Nichols, W. (2007, February). The Effective Teacher of Reading: Considering the "œWhat" and "œHow" of Instruction. The Reading Teacher, 60(5), 432"“438.

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