Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Necessity of Silence and Empty Spaces

Being There (2012, M.A. Reilly)

we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of the world.  
- Octavio Paz, "January First" 
(Translated by Elizabeth Bishop)

Wishing you silence and vast empty spaces, today.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012


From my perspective, probably the most important digital divide is not access to a box. It’s the ability to be empowered with the language that that box works in. Otherwise only a very few people can write with this language, and all the rest of us are reduced to being read-only. Elizabeth Daley as quoted by L. Lessig, Free Culture, p. 37

I tweeted this earlier.

I think it connects with what Elizabeth Dailey is quoted as saying in Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture. Consistent empowerment is more important than any literacy lesson we might offer, for alongside empowerment are the beliefs we have about learners, as well as the beliefs about self that learners compose, in part, based on our actions.

It is alongside these beliefs that children's intellectual lives are fueled and sparked or diminished and underfed. This is what rests in adult hands. What we make of it is most telling. We need only be constrained by our own imaginations, dispositions, faith. Not even the CCSS need constrain us (or them).

In Franki Sibberson's (2012) The Joy of Planning, she writes, "The Common Core, or any standards for that matter, give us a goal--what we want our students to be able to do at a certain point in time. What they do not give us are the ways to help our students meet those goals" (p. 13). I see hope in that statement.

If you think of the CCSS as goal statements (impoverished goals in some ways especially as we think about new literacies, but that is another post), then maintaining local jurisdiction with regard to the methods one uses to learn should remain a priority--one that is shared between learner and teacher. In accepting that, we must remain wide open to the fact that we know so little about each learner. In an unstable and ever changing world, our understandings must be seen as yesterday's news (at best) and within that slim and present space, possibilities abound.

That's where we need to reside.

I don't doubt that I will fail to see the bright shine of a learner.  I am often dull and fallible. This is why I keep myself wondering when I work alongside children.  I know I will underestimate them and so I resist knowing best.  It is from a stance of not knowing and wondering that I remain most open to what I failed to see at first (or second...) glance.

The children never fail to teach me, so long as I remain teachable.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Composing are Acts of Not Knowing & Wanting

Stop Stealing Dreams (2012, M.A. Reilly)

I. Acts of Faith

Fred Leebron closes the essay "Not Knowing," saying this:
Readers suspend disbelief and writers suspend disbelief because writing and reading are acts of faith along the path to knowledge, not just one particular knowledge but any knowledge that is part of the essential truths lurking to be shared by the reader and the writer and all those people in that story, that are coming to not just one conclusion but many conclusions, that follow not one path but many paths, because the writing and the story are not just about one thing but many things, and in this essential multifarious way writing is an embrace of all the complexity of not knowing and wanting to know and all the contradictions that reside therein, and that has been our task, on these paths, all of us--writer, reader, character--to embrace those contradictions (p.56).
His depiction of the tangle we know as reader, writer, and character--provides a stark contrast to how writing and reading are situated at many schools.  One of the terrible by-products of high stakes testing has been the way that certainty is privileged in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment decisions and enactments.

One might even argue that certainty is the content, regardless of the discipline.

And we are not the better as a result of this.

II. Test Based Writing

If writing is largely a matter of discovery, what do the children who are fed a steady diet of test prompts as a substitute for good writing engagements come to know? What does it mean to be a writer in such rooms? There, knowing is THE given. Writing happens from a stance of already having your three ideas at hand, or plugging into an already scripted response the particulars from the prompt.  Such tasks have little to do with writing and a whole lot more to do with compliance.

Is it any wonder that many of the children in such classrooms fail to write with any agency, power, or faith?

III. A Better Way

Throw out the test prepping that substitutes for engagements.  Build the writing alongside the children, looking for natural places where wondering might be made more concrete through written/visual/auditory text making.  Teach the 'essentials' within such contexts and watch learners bloom.

Annie Dillard said it well in The Writing Life.

Process is nothing. Erase your path. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs. I hope you will toss it all, and not look back. 
Let's be bold enough to toss the years of high stakes testing preparation that we have substituted for writing engagements.  It is only then, when there is enough room to not know and still want, that writers might take up the pen without us.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Not as We Think They Are, But Rather as They Connect

Utopia (January 2012, M.a. Reilly)
"All things are bound together. All things connect." Chief Seattle
I. Un-situated Wholes

Understanding how things connect is the most important shift in learning I am undertaking.  I used to spend a considerable amount of time believing in the singularity of things: this is the way a thing is, and then working to assign significance to thing x.  I have been conditioned to think that things exist as singular states.

But nothing is, that is not in some manner connected to/with something else. When we fail to understand potential, possible connections we tell ourselves a partial story we believe to be whole.  Now telling partial stories is all we have. A challenge though is when we believe our stories represent the decontextualized whole of something.

Situating our noticings as separate entities may well lead to believing the stories we tell are representative of the whole of something.  There are no un-situated wholes.

II. CCSS and the Pre-fab Lesson

It is this absence of context that most worries me about the way we seem to be responding to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)--as if this document somehow represented a completed whole that we could pick up and apply directly to children like a topical cream to an itch. I keep returning to the video of David Coleman offering a model lesson "about what it might look like to take the Common Core State Standards in literacy seriously in a daily classroom and begin to show what kind of shifts that might mean." What continues to astound me is that any teaching and learning model could be offered that fails to include students.  Mr. Coleman delivers his model without the students.  One of the most important maturation shifts I see in teachers happens when they shift their attention from focusing rather exclusively on what they are teaching, to focusing on what children are learning and how they are expressing that learning. This shift represents important learning.

Mr. Coleman offers us a rather incomplete model, but truly it is not his offering that concerns me.  Mr. Coleman is not a teacher and to expect deep understanding of something as complex as the connections between teaching and learning is to expect too much.  Rather, I am deeply concerned by the large number of educators, such as state commissioners, superintendents and other administrators who have watched this model and have failed to articulate how partial an offering Mr. Coleman serves.

The absence of students in a national model lesson is a fundamental problem, not a semantic difference.  We need to ask ourselves:  Do we see teaching as connected to learning or do we see it as a solo act? 

III. Egg Cartons

In some ways this dilemma is akin to that which Dan Lortie (1975/2002) described years ago when he wrote about schools as egg cartons.  Lortie described schools as being more like "collections of independent cells" rather than "tightly integrated 'organisms'" (p. 16).

Standards seem to have been made and supported by those who posit schools as colletions of independent cells.  The single set of standards is used as a method to distribute culturally ordained knowledge to the masses.  There is a logic here that suggests that separateness can be maintained, while culturally determined things to know are spread across schools.  Such schema has an odd Plessy vs. Ferguson echo.

For those who understand learning as highly contextual and unfinished, the presence of a set of standards is seen as an unnecessary intrusion; one that disrupts learning by substituting a completed story for the story that must be made by those walking.  Here, the importance of understanding connections cannot be understated.

V. Art Making/Theory Speaking

The shift from thinking about how things are to understanding how things connect undergirds and frames much of the talk about public education and reform.  Understanding how things connect is theory making. As such, it will not fit in the pre-made box, as there is often an insight gleaned that could not have been predetermined as things align in real time.

Take a moment here and consider this: how often do you rename things already boxed?  Can prefab ever be an apt substitution for a thing made?

Each time I make a collage I hold in my hands this supple truth: how we connect thing to thing (in)forms how ideas get named and by whom.

Work Cited
Lortie, Dan. (1975/2002). Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

How to Be an Explorer, Elaboration 1

From here.

I had gotten this book (How to Be an Explorer of the World) a few months ago, tucked it away for a better day and found it again (on what must be that better day).

Ten things about where I'm sitting right now that I hadn't noticed when I sat down.

  1. The speckled brown and yellow leaf on the tree outside, dead.
  2. The sound and feel of air moving through the house with all its windows open is soothing, almost impossibly too beautiful.
  3. The sound of water running in the sink.
  4. How anticipation feels like wind through the trees.
  5. Late day light and the pattern it makes of the window pane on the shade.
  6. A cricket sounding, an insistent repetition running beneath these thoughts.
  7. The smoothness of the round oak table where I am sitting.
  8. The sound of keys pressing on a laptop and the hardness of the chair beneath me.
  9. The comfort of repetition: ice cubes being dropped, as if they were on a conveyor belt, one after another after another.
  10. The inevitable whining drone of a weekend warrior bringing tameness to a lawn.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Coming 2 Know Readers vs Relying on Lexile Levels

from Lexile Website
Now it may simply be a lot of coincidences, but something is very wrong.  During the last few days I have had the opportunity to confer with scores of middle school youngsters about themselves, their reading habits, the texts they read/avoid/abandon, and to listen to them read aloud passages from self selected texts.  Like most work of this sort, it has been eye opening.  One oddity that has arisen is connected to lexile scores that have been generated based on student performance on Scholastic's SRI Interactive, a computer based reading test. What I have noticed is that so many of the students' lexile scores are significantly lower than what I am seeing as I sit alongside each learner.  For example, one sixth grade boy had a score of 278, which would indicate he was reading like a first grader (see chart).

Because students are encouraged to read texts that correspond with their lexile test score, this student was rather challenged to find a book he actually liked.  I encouraged him to forget about the score and instead select a text based on a topic he might care about.  I can't recall the first book he selected, but he read sections of it aloud and discussed it with significant confidence and insight. As we worked together, I introduced him to Laurence Yep's Hiroshima and later to Saki's short story, "The Open Window." Needless to say, this is a sophisticated and rather talented young man. Next week, we will be reading Poe's "Tell Tale Heart" and also Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw." He has a thing for the macabre.

The difference between a learner reading a typical first grade book, such as Rylant's Henry and Mudge and one who can read and comprehend Saki is so incredibly vast that it leaves me a bit speechless.  Keep in mind that Henry & Mudge which has a 340 lexile level would have been above the student's 'reading level' according to the test results.

Here is a visual comparison from the opening of each text:

First Page from Henry & Mudge, Lexile 340

from The Open Window, Lexile 850

The Smarter Balance website has recommends the Saki story for 10th grade.

Word Count: 1214
Flesch-Kincaid: 7.3
Lexile: 850L, grade 4-5
This literary passage is recommended for use at grade 10. The  quantitative measures suggest a lower grade level, but the language, complexity of sentence structure, and setting in a  former time make this passage more appropriate for an older grade level.

More than half of the students I worked with demonstrated that they read much better than the single test suggested and there was another occasion where the difference between a student's actual performance and the test score was more than 7 years.  I have suggested to the teachers I worked with that sitting alongside a child and hearing him or her read aloud from a text they actually are enjoying and then discussing the text together yields the potential for significant insights.  It costs nothing additional to do this, can help to build community, and because it involves choice and performance, allows the teacher to build a more complex understanding of the learner, while affording the learner an occasion to deepen his/her metacognitive understanding.

The other potential problem with reliance on a computer generated 'reading level' is that some teachers and learners begin to doubt their own insights, especially if the test score is overly privileged.  Whereas it's wonderful to help students make appropriate text choices and a test score can in some cases be helpful, we should not lose sight that lexile levels at best hint at performance.  Prior knowledge, interest, confidence, and choice greatly influence how one reads.

My advice: sit alongside and come to know.

Intervening in Reading Difficulties with Adolescents

I am experimenting.

At a school site where I am consulting I have been hired to work with middle school students--the majority of whom are unable to access the necessary skills, strategies and dispositions to read with power.  These students have met with significant failure and many have experienced retention.  I spent  8 hours yesterday teaching one-to-one while their teacher observed. Between students we conferred as I made notes about each child. During this process, I began to use my iPad and not surprising, the results were significant.  Young teens with very faulty alphabetic knowledge began building item knowledge as they worked with a few apps. The students' intensity (no ADHD in sight as they focused keenly for 30 to 45 minutes) demonstrated a few things:

  1. The students met with actual academic success (something in short supply given their school histories).
  2. They built item knowledge necessary to read.
  3. They revealed a brightness and capacity to learn that teachers often have not seen. Revealing students' intellectual promise is the most critical work we need to do.

I will be posting more as I learn.  The beginning impressions though are rather positive.

Curious if others have used the iPad as an intervening reading tool with severely behind middle school readers.  Would love to hear from you.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cleaning Up Writing Skill Errors: Recommended K-2 Skill Outcomes

In working with intermediate grade teachers and children, I am noticing that important writing skills we would expect to be secure in the children's writing are not.  In this post I make some grade specific recommendations for K-2 writing.  Please note that these skills do not represent a full writing program, but rather specifically address composition skills.

Kindergarten: Expected Writing Skill Accomplishments by End of the Year

Correctly print first and last name.
first word in a sentence
 names of people and specific places (i.e., home city/town).
Recognize and name end punctuation.
Correctly read and spell high frequency words (see list by grade level)
Spell: a, and, I, the, can, is, we
Read: a, am, an, and, at, can, come, do, go, he, I, is, in, it, like, me, my, no, see, so, the, to, up, we, you
Write a letter or letters for most consonant and short-vowel sounds (phonemes)
Recognize all upper- and lowercase letters  and be able to print most upper and lowercase letter (at least 40) using correct letter formation.
Form regular plural nouns orally by adding /s/or /es/ (e.g., dog, dogs; wish, wishes).
Understand and use question words (interrogatives) (e.g., who, what, where, when, why, how).
Be aware of specific print concepts when participating in interactive writing or shared writing: Capital/lowercase letters, directionality, the use of finger spaces between words, and the use of text wrapping at the end of a line (return sweep).

Grade 1: Expected Writing Skill Accomplishments by End of the Year

Print all upper- and lowercase letters.
Use common, proper, and possessive nouns.
Use singular and plural nouns with matching verbs in basic sentences (e.g., He runs; We run).
Use personal, possessive, and indefinite pronouns (e.g., I, me, my; they, them, their, anyone, everything).
Use verbs to convey a sense of past, present, and future (e.g., Yesterday I walked home; Today I walk home; Tomorrow I will walk home).
Use frequently occurring conjunctions (e.g., and, but, or, so, because).
Use frequently occurring prepositions (e.g., during, beyond, toward).
Uses capitalization rules from Kindergarten
days of the week, months of the year
names of people and places
Write in complete sentences.
Use end punctuation for sentences.
Use commas in dates and to separate single words in a series.
Use an apostrophe to form contractions.
Write 63 high-frequency words automatically and read the first 100 words automatically.

Grade 2: Expected Writing Skill Accomplishments by End of the Year

Use collective nouns (e.g., group).
Form and use frequently occurring irregular plural nouns (e.g., feet, children, teeth, mice, fish).
Use possessive pronouns (e.g., its, theirs).
Use subject pronouns (e.g., she vs. her; I vs. me).
Use reflexive pronouns (e.g., myself, ourselves).
Maintain subject/verb agreement.
Maintain consistent tense, especially past tense.
Form and use the past tense of frequently occurring irregular verbs (e.g., sat, hid, told).
Use adjectives and adverbs, and choose between them depending on what is to be modified.
Produce, expand, and rearrange complete simple and compound sentences (e.g., The boy watched the movie; The little boy watched the movie; The action movie was watched by the little boy).
Uses capitalization rules from previous grades
product names
geographic names
first word in dialogue.
Use commas in greetings and closings of letters.
Uses some quotation marks in dialogue.
Uses colon when writing time (e.g., 12:30)
Use an apostrophe to form contractions and frequently occurring possessives.
Write and read 150–200 high-frequency words automatically.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

And Heaven's Not Far: Photographic Musing and My Father

This is a lake by where I live.  When the weather turns just a bit cooler, there is almost always fog early morning and on some days I am able to watch the sun burn through that fog.  On the day I made these images it would have been my father's 95th birthday.  I'd like to believe that along with the fog and light, I captured his beautiful spirit.

The landscape shifts, emerges and heaven's not far.

Happy birthday, Da.

Silence (9/2012, M.A. Reilly)

Emerging (9/2012, M.A. Reilly)
 A Touch of Blue (9/2012, M.A. Reilly)
A Bit of Land (9/2012, M.A. Reilly)
Sky and Lake (9/2012, M.A. Reilly)
Suspended (9/2012, M.A. Reilly)