Friday, October 25, 2013


A colleague just shared this posting from The Washington Post Answer Sheet blog. Over one hundred authors and illustrators of children's and young adult literature, in cooperation with  Fair Test, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to reconsider the role that standardized tests currently play in public education. I couldn't agree more.

As someone who believes that the Common Core Standards are a flexible continuum for K-12 literacy and content literacy learning, I get discouraged when they are considered synonymous with standardized testing. But for many teachers, particularly those in Race to the Top states, they are synonymous. Teachers are drowning in top down mandates, and have neither the time nor the "permission" to respond to actual student needs and interests. It is possible to be student-centered, creative, and standards-based. But growing readers and writers, and crafting curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is meaningful to children takes time, attention, and a sense of agency that too many teachers no longer have.

There is a clear disconnect between policy makers and educators. There is a clear disconnect between what children need from school and what schools provide for them.  There is a clear disconnect about the urgency of the problem, the number of children who are growing completely disengaged with school because it fails to meet their needs as people, as citizens. Clearly, Congress sees no urgency, as it has failed to act on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, more appropriately known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since it was first up for re-authorization in 2007.

Short of Congressional changes to the law, what can be done? For starters, the Administration can reconsider the role of standardized tests and the emphasis on competition instead of collaboration that runs through the Race to the Top program that it created and continues to promote. Moreover, school leaders, state administrators, and policy makers could provide tools that model authentic assessments, performance-based assessments, and the integration of engaging and age appropriate texts in K-12 classrooms, rather that pouring so much time and money into what PARCC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment consortia are doing.

Parents and engaged citizens can also add their voices of protest. Here is a complete text of the letter, courtesy of the Fair Test website. 

October 22, 2013

President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

We the undersigned children’s book authors and illustrators write to express our concern for our readers, their parents and teachers. We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your Administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers based on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.

 We call on you to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams. We also urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.

Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations. As Michael Morpurgo, author of the Tony Award Winner War Horse, put it, “It's not about testing and reading schemes, but about loving stories and passing on that passion to our children.”

Teachers, parents and students agree with British author Philip Pullman who said, “We are creating a generation that hates reading and feels nothing but hostility for literature.” Students spend time on test practice instead of perusing books. Too many schools devote their library budgets to test-prep materials, depriving students of access to real literature. Without this access, children also lack exposure to our country’s rich cultural range.

This year has seen a growing national wave of protest against testing overuse and abuse. As the authors and illustrators of books for children, we feel a special responsibility to advocate for change. We offer our full support for a national campaign to change the way we assess learning so that schools nurture creativity, exploration, and a love of literature from the first day of school through high school graduation.

Alma Flor Ada
Alma Alexander
Jane Ancona
Maya Angelou
Jonathan Auxier
Kim Baker
Molly Bang
Tracy Barrett
Chris Barton
Ari Berk
Judy Blume
Alfred B. (Fred) Bortz
Lynea Bowdish
Sandra Boynton
Shellie Braeuner
Ethriam Brammer
Louann Mattes Brown
Anne Broyles
Michael Buckley
Janet Buell
Dori Hillestad Butler
Charito Calvachi-Mateyko
Valerie Scho Carey
Rene Colato Lainez
Henry Cole
Ann Cook
Karen Coombs
Robert Cortez
Cynthia Cotten
Bruce Coville
Ann Crews
Donald Crews
Nina Crews
Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Laura Dower
Kathryn Erskine
Jules Feiffer
Jody Feldman
Mary Ann Fraser
Sharlee Glenn
Barbara Renaud Gonzalez
Laurie Gray
Trine M. Grillo
Claudia Harrington
Sue Heavenrich
Linda Oatman High
Anna Grossnickle Hines
Lee Bennett Hopkins
Phillip Hoose
Diane M. Hower
Michelle Houts
Mike Jung
Kathy Walden Kaplan
Amal Karzai
Jane Kelley
Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Amy Goldman Koss
JoAnn Vergona Krapp
Nina Laden
Sarah Darer Littman
José Antonio López
Mariellen López
Jenny MacKay
Marianne Malone
Ann S. Manheimer
Sally Mavor
Diane Mayr
Marissa Moss
Yesenia Navarrete Hunter
Sally Nemeth
Kim Norman
Geraldo Olivo
Alexis O’Neill
Anne Marie Pace
Amado Peña
Irene Peña
Lynn Plourde
Ellen Prager, PhD
David Rice
Armando Rendon
Joan Rocklin
Judith Robbins Rose
Sergio Ruzzier
Barb Rosenstock
Liz Garton Scanlon
Lisa Schroeder
Sara Shacter
Wendi Silvano
Janni Lee Simner
Sheri Sinykin
Jordan Sonnenblick
Ruth Spiro
Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Whitney Stewart
Shawn K. Stout
Steve Swinburne
Carmen Tafolla
Kim Tomsic
Duncan Tonatiuh
Patricia Thomas
Kristin O'Donnell Tubb
Deborah Underwood
Corina Vacco
Audrey Vernick
Debbie Vilardi
Judy Viorst
K. M. Walton
Wendy Wax
April Halprin Wayland
Carol Weis
Rosemary Wells
Lois Wickstrom
Suzanne Morgan Williams
Kay Winters
Ashley Wolff
Lisa Yee
Karen Romano Young
Jane Yolen
Roxyanne Young
Paul O. Zelinsky
Jennifer Ziegler

CC: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

For further information, contact:
Monty Neill, Ed.D.
Executive Director
Box 300204
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

Monday, October 14, 2013

Wow! It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Remember thematic studies? Classroom inquiries? Author studies? I’m talking about years ago during the Whole Language movement. Well…the good news is that thematic study is back, but now it has new very different supporters, which leads me to believe it is a very useful idea indeed. I almost can’t get over it. Thematic study is something progressive and conservative educators agree on. It’s a beautiful thing.

Which leads me to my very pragmatic question: What are we studying? None of the really fine new standards documents—with the exception of the Next Generation Science Standards— are dealing with content. They are dealing with process. The new social studies document, for example, The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of the K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (NCSS, 2013) has an inquiry arc, but what is being inquired about? Maybe I am still a concrete thinker, but I am concerned about how all the pieces fit together. And don’t get me wrong; I think this spanking new document lifts the level of conversation immensely. Still, I want to see how it works in real life.

So I am proposing a stopgap measure today—some nonfiction books that I think could jumpstart some inquiries right away.

1.     MALCOLM LITTLE: THE BOY WHO GREW UP TO BECOME MALCOLM X by Ilyasha Shabazz (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and MALCOLM X: A FIRE BURNING BRIGHTLY by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins, 2000). These are two picture books.

First of all, I am not sure that Malcolm X is a good choice for biography study in the primary grades, since his transformation as a thinker is quite significant and this is not dealt with in the first book at all. In spite of this, these two biographies are so vastly different that they should generate plenty of questions for inquiry. The first book, written by Malcolm X’s daughter is—as you might expect—a loving tribute to a father. Yet it leaves out a great deal about his life because (among other things) it concentrates on his childhood. The second book reveals much more about the controversial aspects of his life, and that too should generate questions. What is important to know about Malcolm X? Why?

2.     PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA by Claire Nivola (Farrar, 2009), WANGARI’S TREES OF PEACE by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2008), and SEEDS OF CHANGE by Jen Cullerton Johnson (Lee & Low, 2010) (All titles are picture books.)

These are only some of the books about the Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who did so much to plant trees in Kenya and alert the world to environmental issues However, they tell her story quite differently. How? What do these various accounts reveal? What do they leave out? What should people know about Wangari Mathai? Why?

3.     THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX by Leon Leyson (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

This moving memoir by the youngest survivor on Schindler’s List suggests that Oskar Schindler was a hero because he did, to quote Joseph Campbell,  “the best of things in the worst of times.” Should we consider him a hero? What is a hero? Can a person the author describes as “an influential Nazi” also be a hero?

            Of course, we want children to raise issues for inquiry, but we can also suggest questions and model the process. Right now the challenge is designing coherent, stimulating, manageable curriculum that puts the standards to work in our classrooms. The good news is that literature—fiction and nonfiction—will play a big role.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


If ever there was confirmation that the new Common Core Standards are not, in fact, asking that Language Arts and English teachers no longer teach literature, it is the arrival of the new standards for science and social studies. The Next Generation Science Standards, released in April, and the new C3 Framework for College, Career, and Civic Life, released in September, both provide rich opportunities for thinking through evidence, asking and answering meaningful answers, and using experiments, projects, discussions, and a range of other student-centered classroom practices to explore these two disciplines. 

Moreover, each is linked to the Common Core State Standards for literacy and content literacy, reaffirming the ways in which teachers, particularly at the elementary level, can integrate instruction to work smarter, go deeper, and fully engage students in inquiry-oriented learning experiences. These standards make it clear that the 50% informational text/nonfiction reading at the elementary level, and the 70% informational/nonfiction reading at the secondary level, can, and should, take place in all content areas across the school year and through the year. Relevant nonfiction reading in the context of the content, what that nonfiction is about, in science and social studies, in addition to relevant reading about craft and structure in the context of student writing in language arts, is the pathway to meeting the expectations of the Common Core and providing students with meaningful explorations of the genre in all of its manifestations.

Principals, curriculum coordinators, literacy coaches, and teams of teachers reading these new standards will see the ways in which integration is made relevant all over again through these standards. As long as curriculum has the opportunity to flourish in schools, rather than skills-as-test-prep in the name of curriculum, students will greatly benefit from these new expectations. There is a lot to learn and a lot to digest, but so many possibilities for capacity-building in school, to create deep, rich curriculum to explore science and social studies and bring in well-written nonfiction trade books and authentic student writing opportunities. I do hope districts, including parents, will push to see this kind of learning taking place in their classrooms.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Helping Us Think: Authors Promoting Historical Literacy

            When learning history, a major thematic understanding is time, continuity, and change. As those of us who work with elementary school aged children know, this understanding doesn’t come easily, and it does not come automatically. We teachers continuously point out changes over time, knowing full well that this understanding is slow to develop. Our students glimpse at the past, fining conditions there “strange and different” at best, and “weird and stupid” at worst. There is work to be done.

            Fortunately, there are nonfiction books to help us, and it’s important to seek them out and teach with them. One such book is Kathleen Krull’s Benjamin Franklin (Viking, 2013). Although there are already many fine books available about Ben Franklin, this book makes a unique contribution by showing readers how to think about Franklin in a way that promotes historical literacy.

            Krull helps young readers by sharing her thoughts about history and her unique historical interpretation. Here are a few examples:

·         Being explicit about the main idea of the book. In the introduction, she emphasizes Franklin’s passion for science. She tells us that even though he accomplished more as a politician, he had a lifetime fascination for science. According to Krull:

Certainly, a list of Franklin’s political accomplishments would fill a bigger book. And yet he viewed his career as a statesman as a leave of absence from his true calling—science.

… Ben Franklin never lost his excitement about science and injected it into everything he did for America.  (p. 16)

Unlike many other books about Franklin, this book, a volume in the Giants of Science series, focuses on Franklin’s scientific accomplishments.

·         Helping readers understand the historical context. Krull helps readers understand Franklin as “a man of his times.” When she tells us about conditions that readers are likely to find strange and even untrue, she underscores this information and explains it. Here’s what she says about Franklin owning slaves:

She [his wife Deborah] sewed his clothes, as well as the bindings on the books he printed, and did the bookkeeping and all the housework until they could afford servants and slaves. Yes, slaves. For many years, Franklin was a man of his times in accepting slavery, though unlike some other Founding Fathers he grew to abhor it later in life. (p. 35)

·         Comparing the something in past to something we know in the present.  Krull refers to Franklin’s access to information as access to an information superhighway. She writes:

Ben Franklin had succeeded in reinventing himself as something truly cool: the leading source of scientific information the America, how very own information superhighway. (p. 38)

There’s a lot more to this well-crafted, friendly, informative book. The style is friendly and interesting. The content is clearly organized into short chapters dealing with Franklin’s scientific endeavors. The pen and ink illustrations by Boris Kulikov capture the excitement of Franklin’s inventions and discoveries.

We often talk about helping kids “read like a writer,” an idea originally put forth by literacy scholar Frank Smith. To teach history, we need to read like a historian—thinking about such things evidence, point of view, and change over time. When authors share their expertise thinking like a historian and making their thinking visible, it’s a bonanza for teachers and children.