Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why Teacher and Learner Agency Matter: We Are Harming Kids


Last week I was observing an Expeditionary Learning lesson being taught to third graders and what I saw gave me pause.  I suspect it might have you pausing too.

There's a fair amount of rhetoric being voiced and revoiced by some state and district administrators, ed pundits and reformers, and some teachers too that says something to the effect that we do not need to worry about children reading texts too difficult for them.  These worries have been for naught.  All we need to do is give them "complex texts" and for those who struggle we should "chunk" the text and then all of the children will be able to read and comprehend.

So I was thinking about this line of talk as I interacted with a group of third graders who had been assigned to read a section from My Librarian is a Camel (Lexile Level 980). The children I interacted with were given two pages that discussed how children in Thailand receive library books.

Below is the two-page spread.

from here.
Second page, from here

I watched as the children attempted to complete their "first close read" in which their teacher had told them to circle unknown words. (In fairness to EL, this was not part of their lesson plan.) As the three children I was sitting near worked it became obvious that the text was significantly difficult for them. One child was trying to read the text softly to herself.  Another had her lips moving as she read.  I interrupted and asked how she was doing with the text and she told me she didn't know what she was reading cause she doesn't know a lot of the words. Nor did she know about Thailand (that it was a country) or where it was located.  She was unable to make meaning from most sentences, such as: "A number of these villages can only be reached by foot."  We worked together and I scaffolded her reading, apparently a faux pas on my part, as the struggle is supposed to be good for her.

She was the best reader of this text in the group.

Seated to her right was a boy who was copying letters from the text in his attempt to locate words he did not know.  For the entire time I had worked with the other two children, he was painstakingly copying. He did not copy whole words. Rather he was reduced to copying letter by letter. When I asked him how he was managing the text, he told me quietly that he could not read any of the words.

"I can't read anything. I have to pick some words and write them," he said, showing me a post it note where he had recorded two words: Onkoi (Omkoi), regon (region).

"How about I help you understand the text you've been assigned to read?"

He nods okay.

When I ask him to try the opening, he tells me the words he can read:  In, a, on for of, the and then stops.  I tell him a little bit about the text explaining that he will be learning how children in the mountainous region or area of northern Thailand and one of its cities, Bangkok get library books to read.  We talk about how he lives in the northern region of his city.  We make our way through the text, with me reading it aloud and the two of us discussing what I have read at the close of each paragraph. We make use of the photographs at key times and it becomes evident that although he had great difficulty reading, he thinks well.  He was surprised there were homeless kids in Bangkok. He had thought homelessness was something limited to his city.

This is a child who can learn to read.

Below is an example of a text he can mostly read, although words like, where and said, might still stop him. He might need some support (decode by analogy for example) to help him problem solve words such as nest and lost.  

Text level 7/8 from here.
Again, this is a boy I know can learn to read.

Unfortunately, this child attends school in a district where the teachers have been banned from conducting guided reading by the district leadership (not school administrators). This is the new edict making its way among the uninformed. There's that belief again that if the teachers would only teach well using the scripts they've been given, and adhering to the pacing guide the district created, then the children will all learn.

This child, like many of his peers, are doomed unless that leadership leaves and leaves quickly taking with it its edicts that are not informed by any juried research. The children are banned from consistent high quality, reading instruction that is necessary on a daily basis. Rather, he and many of his peers spend their days, circling unknown words and copying letters onto post-its that they lose as quickly as it took you to finish this sentence.


After the children leave, the teacher and I discuss the children in the class who are severely struggling to read.  She confesses that if she deviates from the script and someone from "downtown" shows up (which has happened) she can be marked unsatisfactory for not being in the correct place on the pacing guide. She works in an atmosphere of fear given the tenuousness of tenure and the widespread closing of schools. Years ago, I had been invited by the Philadelphia school system to review their ELA program for K-5.  They too had a created a pacing chart for ELA that they were intending to mandate for all of the schools. Every minute of every school week for the entire school year was accounted.

Have you ever taught anywhere where unexpected interruptions did not occur?

My feedback was perhaps less diplomatic than it might have been.  Pacing charts given to 200 schools for teachers to enact without deviation will harm learners. Agency must matter for teachers and learners.


Teaching scripts are shorthand for:
We do not trust teachers to teach yet we pay them to enact scripts that other people at other times who may or may not have ever taught, who may or may not have any actual experience or content knowledge, who do not and cannot know the actual children, but who did receive a ton of money which must mean that the work they produced has to be great, has to be the answer we've been seeking, our bit of manna straight from Heaven. 
This is insanity and it's our tax dollars footing the bill. (Did I mention that the finest teachers I've known are running for the exits?  They are seeking not other schools where they might work, but rather other careers, early retirement.)


There are no short cuts to high quality public education.
Repeat that.

There are no programs, no scripts, no technologies, no secret formulas, no better tomorrows on the horizon that can be used to educate your child or mine in the absence of the teacher.

Teachers are often the product of their workplace. The culture in which they work shapes them.

High quality public education requires that we privilege teachers--that their agency, like that of the learners, is ensured.

Anything less ensures servitude.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Little Black


A Little Black

 - Brendan Constantine

The children of Juarez have run out
of red crayons. There’s so much blood
in their eyes; the bodies of mules
dumped in their schools, hands & heads
by the road, blood in pools, blood
in stories of blood. Before I know it,
I’m planning my own crime, the worst
a poet can commit: to steal suffering,
call it mine. How vivid, I think, what
a strong detail on which to build.
I open my computer, the great self-
making book of our age, search for
more of the story, for the words run
out of red crayons. I find children
out of red in Pakistan, in Haiti, no red
left in Afghanistan, none in Georgia.
The children of Sierra Leon have gone
through pink to purple, in Myanmar
they’re down to brown. I thought I had
something to add. I have nothing to add
but a little black, the color of the line,
color that consumes all others.

Monday, October 27, 2014

How I Didn’t Get Myself to a Nunnery

Looking (M.A. Reilly, 2009)

from 11.3.14 The New Yorker
How I Didn’t Get Myself to a Nunnery 

That girl they found ensconced in mud and loam,she wasn’t me. Small wonder, though, they jumped.To a conclusion. Water puffs you up,and we pale Slavic girls looked much alike—back then. Deprivation smooths you out.Yes, that was the season of self-drowned maids,heart-to-hearts with skulls, great minds overthrown.And minds that could be great if they could justcome up for air. Not in that town. Something stank.
But me, I drifted on. I like rivers.And I’m all right with flowers. I floatedon a bed of roses—well, O.K., rueand columbine. It bore me up not down.That night I made a circle with my thumband finger, like a lens, and peered through itat the moon—mine, all mine. My kissed-white moon.“Moon River wider than a . . .” Mancini/Mercer wrote that, sure, but I wrote it first.
You wonder where I’m going with all this?Where water goes. It empties into sea.Sold! I’d take it—the sea or a fresh life.Some other life. A good man—good enough,fair—fished me out. He’d come to quench his thirst.No sun-god prince, of course, like him I’d loved,still loved. (Some loves don’t die; not even murderkills them.) I married his thatched hut, hatched chicks—kids running underfoot. Don’t cry for me,
Denmark. I’d learned the art of compromiseback there, in the black castle—then came blood,ghosts. Something in me burst. If not lover,father, king, then whom can you trust? Alone,I took up some playing cards. I played theminto skinny air. A voice said, Swim or drown.It said: Your house caught fire, flood, caught fear—it’s coming down. No one loves you now, here.By land or water, girl, get outta town.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Not Being College and Career Ready: A Way of (re)Learning

Sisyphus (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

What I most need to know is that journeys cross divides.


The young man is of an age where the shift from paper to networks as a means to gather, organize, analyze, and communicate information was more known than not; less truth than surprise. He has seen how hierarchy must give way to adaptation, rigidity to flexibility. The need for such accounting has passed.

Poised between, many of us still carry what it means to be human in the age of paper.  We have not lost this sense of self and it (in)forms our priorities, necessities, and policies.  This way of knowing allows us to utter small, untruths about the importance of being ready.


Some days I hear my son when he tells me (by what he values) that we need not be bound to the paper mythologies that have given us definition.  There are newer ways to (re)learn.

Newer ways, I think. And so I repeat, like a weak mantra, like a mother unsure:
The individual is overrated, romanticized. 
Readiness is a fixture of modernity. 
Prescription is not a synonym for description.
I repeat all of this as he tells me going to college is not a road walking. What I need to remember is that he is not lighting out for the territory, ahead of the rest. The need to be first is a need best forgotten.


What I most need to know is that when we enter into cleared, unstriated spaces the desire to reterritorialize is strong. Seductive. Present.  This is the way it has always been. Our need to code and recode is formidable.

"A discarded necklace is a map of love. A dagger is a map of betrayal" (Masny & Cole, 2012).

The need to map is powerful.


What I most need to know is that people journeying are (re)naming, making new maps, becoming fixed and unfixed.  Living.
Becoming is infinitely more interesting than being.
Being ready is an untruth my son has been told by his teachers, his father, me.
Being ready is mostly about a suspension of breath.  An educational apnea.

There is no being ready.  There is now.

Even as we loosen ourselves from that which binds us, our ideas and actions can still be colored by historical (mis)understandings.
There is no readiness for a boy's future. 
Maps have no beginning and no end.  

My maps have been fraught with false stops, the legacy of paper, the legacy of readiness.

"What maps will our children make?" is the better question to pose.


Masny, Diana; Cole, David R. (2012-06-14). Mapping Multiple Literacies: An Introduction to Deleuzian Literacy Studies. Continnuum-3PL. Kindle Edition.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pleasures that Are Final

Gliding (M.A. Reilly, Ringwood NJ)

"Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is this not among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards— their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble— the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”  Virginia Woolf,  How Should One Read a Book?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Testing as a Silo/Solo Act: We Can Do So Much Better

A Chance of Crows (Reilly, 2011)
I. Life in the Silo

In the United States, we test each child ages 8 and higher as if he or she lived in a silo. And we say that the results of these siloed experiments will let us know if the child is career-ready, college-ready. 


We seem to think that ideas are located in single minds, not in what gets made between and among people. Knowledge is composed among and between people.  James Gee (2008) expresses this well when he writes:
Our knowledge is not something sitting passively in our heads (although this is the common view of knowledge); rather what is in our heads is just one aspect of larger more public and historical coordinations that in reality constitute 'our' knowledge (p.220).
Yet, we insist on testing each child, separating him and her from all resources--human and technological, while thinking this process will yield an apt expression of the child's intellectual capacities in school-based reading, writing, and mathematics.  We posit knowledge as that which gets retrieved from our head through some prompting, such as test passages.

Could we be more wrong?

II. Crowd Sourcing Ebola Care

Last week, I received the email below from the National Science Foundation:

The call-out to researchers to submit proposals via the NSF's RAPID proposal process speaks to the idea of leveraging the many to address matters of urgency. This got me thinking about the use of crowdsourcing and video games to help solve world health problem. From serious games like Foldit to Nanocrafter, gamers are playing together in order to solve medical issues.

The Guardian reported:

In 2011, people playing Foldit, an online puzzle game about protein folding, resolved the structure of an enzyme that causes an Aids-like disease in monkeys. Researchers had been working on the problem for 13 years. The gamers solved it in three weeks.

My purpose in mentioning these games is not to promote them as much as it is to highlight that collaborative play is at the center of solving real word problems. Knowledge is made across players.  And yet we refuse to emulate this understanding of knowledge making at school and in fact spend billions of dollars annually to test children as if the possibility for collaboration in their adult learning and work was at best a ruse. 

Our myopic attention to testing children individually renders them less college and career ready. Our methods are antiquated. Our attention on the individual is at best, romantic. In 2014, we isolate each child and remove the full power of connectivity even as we make the child sit at a computer/tablet in order to read/view the test and record his/her answers. 

Could we be anymore 19th century like?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Losing Your Way

Calvary (M.A. Reilly, South Dakota, 2010)

Pat, Tina, Robert and I spent part of a summer on the road, leaving Brooklyn and New Jersey well behind and making our way up the Maine coast and back to Boston. We had no real destination in mind.  I can't recall whose small car we road in that summer, but do remember it was a tight fit what with all of us, our stuff, and a tent--and now and then someone we met along the way.

There's something to be said for traveling without an agenda. Without a destination.

We had just a handful of dollars that gave out as we hit Boston and we spent the night trying to sleep on Revere Beach. The neon lights of the bars along the boulevard made that a difficult task. We traveled that summer with just the barest of acknowledgements that somewhere at the long end of August we would be returning to college--a different one for each of us and though we would stay in touch our lives would wind in unpredictable ways. For me, it marked that last summer hurrah as I finished college early and the year after would find me bartending at a local hot spot with my shiny art and lit degree in hand and living with a new roommate in an apartment that cost me $115 a month including the utilities.

It was in that apartment, a 3rd floor walk up, that my brother would leave a note taped to the door letting me know my mom's youngest brother had died. He wrote that they had tried to ring me several times (this was in the days before cell phones), but I was out more than home. We finally did connect and even now, decades later, I still see her hollow expression at the loss of her last brother. She had six siblings and now only she and an older sister remained. 

After the crowds at the wake had thinned, we sat together and I softly recited Emily Dickinson's The Bustle in the Housethinking about the many years she had read to me.  It was a prayer of sorts. A poor offering to the woman who had taken in a scared friend of mine when she had an abortion at 15 and couldn't go home.  Roe v. Wade was still so new. I remember asking her how she reconciled her very Catholic stance on abortion with Steph's needs and she said sometimes you learn to be conflicted and act anyway. 

I knew my mom had been so mad at me when I left home. She came back from Europe to find me packed and gone.

"You're just 18," she would later say.

The distance between us that evening at the wake felt large, looming, unbridgeable. I had broken something, I thought.  I wanted her back, not knowing she had not left--I had. It is impossible to understand a mother's love. I know now she forgave all my trespasses--she forgave them without me having to ask.


A few months later would find me at another funeral--one my parents would attend too--a service on a cold March day with just a handful of people in attendance.  A friend, Joann, had died in a wreck. Her car hydroplaned on a highway crossing the median and hitting an oncoming car. A few weeks before her boyfriend had broken her jaw. The day she died she had been fleeing him again. It was rush hour and the pregnant woman in the other car--the car Joann's car had crashed into, died too.  

Joann's best friend, my roommate, would not attend the service. She was too sad, she said and certainly too drugged to get there. 

This was a time of such wreckage, a time that reshaped what I might have been, what I was becoming. 

I know that now. 

After college I drifted, unsure. No picket fence. A careless woman with careless friends.

Two years after Joann's death would find me married and teaching high school--a poor attempt at respectability. I was teaching Gatsby to my last period 10th graders and the words on the page resonated. It's that moment when Daisy and Nick are speaking and Daisy says:

"I am careful."
"No, you're not"
"Well, other people are," she said lightly.
"What's that got to do with it?"
"They'll keep out of my way," she insisted. "It takes two to make an accident."
"Suppose you meet somebody just as careless as yourself?"
"I hope I never will," she answered. "I hate careless people" (p. 63).

I wish I could write by then I had it together, but I know now that I traded uncertainty for security. Oddly, teaching high school English for a decade helped me to become less careless, more attentive, empathetic. 

And a decade of analysis helped me to become more (other)wise.  


I think about those days now and then and realize that it's easy to lose your way.  
Perhaps, even necessary.  

I try to remember that, to bear that, when I look at my son.