An Open Letter to Secretary DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

First, you should know that I did not support your nomination to be Secretary of Education. I suspect you come to this position excited to be tapped to hold such a noteworthy position and adamant in your support of education for children. I had hoped for a Secretary of Education who stands firm in her support for public schools, has worked in public schools, been a parent of children who attended public schools, has experience as a teacher, understands laws around public schools, and has published articles and/or books for teachers and/or administrators about teaching. I want the Surgeon General to be a doctor; I want the Attorney General to be a lawyer; I want the Secretary of Education to be a teacher. Nonetheless, you had credentials that the Republican party found made you the nation’s single most-qualified person to lead our public schools.

And so here you are. Please know I’m here to support you. I need you to support our public schools because that is your position. You might wonder what in the world the two of us have in common. I admit, I do not have your financial pedigree, but I do have decades of service to public schools and public school teachers, and I am a public school teacher. We disagree on the role of charter schools, but I suspect we would agree that without the best schools possible, our nation falters. I suspect we agree that our children of today are our best hope for a better tomorrow. I believe we would find common ground in the belief that our nation’s public school teachers are one our nation’s most precious resources. I bet both of us wanted an education for our own children that helped them be prepared for whatever this world throws at them; I would hope we both would agree that we want that for all children and that given the right resources our public schools can provide such opportunities. I would hope that you want to educate yourself about all that the Secretary of Education must understand and support regarding public schools.

In short, I would hope we might find more in common than we might have initially thought. So, I want to apologize for the way you were treated when you tried to visit a Washington, D.C., school. I want you in every school. I want you to sit in classrooms, talk with teachers, watch students, visit with administrators. Though you lack the credentials to stand before students and teach, I want you to sit through classes, go to lunch, head to P.E., stand in bus duty, take on lunch duty, visit the school libraries, sit with the school nurses. I want you to see the excellent teaching and joyful learning evident in our schools. I want you to watch teachers share their own money so kids can buy lunch. I want you to see teachers wipe away tears as children sob because Dad didn’t come home or Mom lost her job or a grandparent has been diagnosed with cancer, or a sibling is missing, or no one could take her to the store to buy the poster board the science teacher wanted. I want you to see teachers stand before thirty-five students who read at different levels and have only one textbook written at one level to hand to them. I want you in that school and every school. I want you to meet band directors who beg for any dollars to provide instruments for students, watch choir directors work after school with one more student who wants to try-out for district choir, see one more coach help one more kid. I want you to watch teachers deal with administrators who tell them to “get up test scores” when they know that teaching to the test means not teaching to the child. I am ashamed of the way you were treated and apologize. You are our Secretary of Education and we need you in many schools, immediately.

So, I’m here. Let’s talk. Let’s find our common ground – and I suspect that ground will be a larger parcel than either of us would have imagined. Let’s figure out how you can best support the people who each day walk into our nation’s schools and work hard to do their best, to ready our nation’s children for today and for tomorrow. And let’s figure out how I and many others can best support you. Let’s start today making our nation’s public schools what we all want: the best place for our children to reach their potential.

My best to you,

Kylene Beers, Ed.D.
Secondary Certified English Teacher
Past President, National Council of Teachers of English
CEL Outstanding Leadership Award
Comer School Development Program Senior Reading Researcher, Yale University
Author, When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do
Co-Author, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading
Co-Author, Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Signposts, and Strategies
Co-Author, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters

What We Do Next

Dear Teachers,

So many of us are deeply disappointed in the committee approval of Betsy DeVos. We’re disappointed because we believe that the Secretary of Education ought to have deep understanding of educational issues and laws. We’re disappointed because during the hearings, DeVos did not demonstrate that she has that understanding. We must depend on that hearing because she does not have a history of work in public schools, at being published in peer-reviewed journals or by educational publishers. She hasn’t presented at state or national conferences, written educational blog posts, worked on textbooks, served on national councils, or been a part of the national conversation on educational issues. She doesn’t come to the job with the history of being a teacher, a supervisor, an administrator, a professor of education. So, it was the hearing that showed us, showed the nation, the depth of her knowledge of educational issues.

And that depth was shallow.

And so we wonder what it means that she might be our Secretary of Education. We wonder what it means that our Congress thinks she has the expertise to lead our nation’s public schools.

Here’s my answer: I don’t give a damn what Congress thinks. Congress seems to not care enough about what happens in schools to make sure the Secretary of Education actually understands what happens in schools. So here’s where I’m putting my effort: I’m putting my effort into helping you. I care what you think. I care what you do. I care what happens each day in your classroom.

And that means that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that I need you to walk back into your classroom and teach students. Do the best job you have ever done. Look at each child and see that child as your own. Look at each child and know that one of them will cure cancer; figure out how to make polluted water clean; find a way to make sure no one is ever hungry; become a teacher or a fireman or a chef or a lawyer or a preacher or an actor or a mom or dad. That squirrelly child who can’t find a pencil might someday serve in our armed forces or become a policeman/woman or a plumber; a farmer or a pharmacist; a grocer or a salesperson. And one might decide to take on leading this nation and go into public service. Those children you teach are our tomorrow and for our tomorrow to be the best it can be, we need you to be your best today. Spend more time talking with colleagues about what is working and what isn’t. Read more. Read more. Read more. Push harder. Don’t ever give up.

Make sure you know who your local school board members are. Can you name them? Do you write them? Do you let them know what is working and what isn’t working in your district? Do you know who your state school board members are? Do you reach out to them? Do you create the time to write to them? Do you reach out to your local newspaper and describe all that is wonderful that your students are doing? Do you write for your state journals? Are you a member of your national content association such as the National Council of Teachers of English?

In other words, worry most about your kids. They deserve the best you can give. And worry a lot about what you know and don’t know. Work with your colleagues to learn more. Always learn more. And work hard to make sure you are active at your local and state level.

And call your Congressmen and Congresswomen. Respectfully share why you think our educational system deserves a Secretary of Education who actually understands and believes in public education.

And go tomorrow into your classrooms and teach. Shut your door and teach. And I’ll keep doing all I can do to support you.

You are, for so many of our nation’s children, their best hope at a better tomorrow. Go teach.

Reflecting on Tomorrow

Dear Teachers:

I have teachers to be with tomorrow, on November 9, and that is where I want to be.

What I have learned tonight is that the anger and hurt in this country is deeper and stronger than I understood.

I am a teacher. I am a teacher. I tell children “Don’t bully. Respect others. Don’t call people names. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t lie. Work hard. Prepare for important things. Study. Read. Think before you speak.” And yet tonight I sit here and watch how those qualities matter less than I thought they would, they should.

And so I sit here tonight and cry. I cry for the teacher who told me today that her colleague is Latina and has said she and her family have their escape plan to Canada because of a family member who is here illegally. I cry for the taxi cab driver in NYC who told me his eighth grade daughter is afraid to go to school the day after the election because they are Muslim and students at her school have said “You’ll be kicked out, you terrorist.” I cry for my friend’s son who is afraid his mom will die if Trump “gets rid of the healthcare my mom needs because she has cancer.” I cry for my friend whose son is disabled and he has wondered why people like a man who “makes fun of people like me.”

Dear teachers, some of your students will arrive sad and scared. And some will arrive boastful and willing to share that walls will be built and terrorists will be kicked out. And in one classroom they will sit looking at each other. And then they will look to you. If you are like me, you will wonder “What now do I do?”

Turn to books. Books have always saved us and they will again.

Our kids must read Wonder to sob at the way we treat those who are different and never, never, read that book to identify vocabulary words. We must read Speak to find our own voice and not to compare and contrast characters. We must walk across the bridge into Terabithia to stand in awe, not to answer a multiple-choice question. We must read Ira Sleeps Over and watch how one confronts fear. We must read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and wonder how, oh how, could we have ever have made those mistakes. We must read to laugh; to cry; to learn; to grow; to get lost and to be found.

And we must write to discover who we are as we hide in an attic; as we walk along a dusty road; as step through a wardrobe. We have turned literature into a multiple-choice test and writing into a chance to earn points on a rubric and in those moments we have forgotten that literature and writing heal; literature and writing never give up; literature and writing give us voice.

If we read to go places we have never been, then we write to become what we never knew we wanted to be. We must read and write more. More. And then more again.

So tomorrow, let your kids read. Let your kids write. Let your kids discover their voices. Let your kids know that kindness still counts.That bullying – in your classroom – is not tolerated. That stories can heal.

Tomorrow will be followed by the next tomorrow and the one after it and the next. And each day, you will help kids learn that words – those they read and those they write – can help them through the hardest of days.

So proudly, I stand beside you. Today. And tomorrow.

Tough Times, Tough Texts

Perhaps it’s time we all think about helping our students understand plagiarism, responsibility, and copyright violation. All of us. The use of Teachers-Pay-Teachers often shows teachers taking work from published authors and repurposing it (making a new anchor chart, for instance) and selling the material. When those teachers are confronted, some have responded, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what plagiarism meant.” Though that’s disappointing, perhaps from some it is true.

Most importantly, we can’t go back to schools thinking students have not watched what is now happening at the RNC. Some will come back questioning. Some will come back convinced they too can do the same and then just repeatedly claim, “no, it’s not plagiarism” or “it’s not my fault” or “it was 93% true.” And some will simply come back confused.

So, what are the conversations that can be had? I think there are three – moving from most concrete to most complex. You should decide which ones are most appropriate for the students you teach.

The Easiest: What Plagiarism Looks Like 
1. The side-by-side video and text comparison of First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech and Mrs. Melania Trump’s speech will allow students to have a conversation about plagiarism, attributing sources, paraphrasing without attribution. Because the focus was home, family, children, and big dreams, we should be able to do this as an a-political conversation. While there are many sites showing the comparison, I like this one. It lets you listen to one speech, while the words in question appear. Then you hear the next speech and the repeated words are highlighted. Kids can quickly see the exact lifting and then can have a conversation about paraphrasing. Then you might ask “Even though the Obama administration has said it has no comment, how do you think Mrs. Obama might feel?” For kids ready to have a more complex conversation, there’s the added layer that Melania claims to have written the speech mostly herself while others point out that big speeches such as this are handled by speech writers. Who did the plagiarizing? Who’s responsibility is it to check for this? Who should have stepped up and claimed the mistake and then assured it wouldn’t happen again?

Harder: Taking Responsibility 
2. President Obama plagiarized his good friend Governor Deval Patrick in a speech when he (Obama) was running against Clinton (the primary). When the similarities in the two speeches were pointed out to Obama, he immediately said he “should have given Patrick credit.”

He explained that he and Patrick had discussed Obama using the same structure and comments for his own speech and he should have said that in the speech. Patrick went on TV confirming that he had given Obama permission. Still, at the moment that Obama used the material without attribution, it was plagiarism and when pointed out, Obama admitted wrongdoing. Students (by sixth grade) could easily read this article (same link as  immediately above link) and then compare that to this article that shows how the RNC and Donald Trump’s campaign are responding to the current situation.

While we all know that the point isn’t to create a classroom climate of “rephrase and repent,” an honest explanation of how something happened and ownership of wrongdoing is never a bad lesson to learn.

Even Harder: Copyright Infringement and Decency
3. The entrance of Trump at the convention on Monday night to Queen’s hit “We are the Champions” was done with legal permission given to the stadium to play the music but without permission of Queen for Trump to present a situation that appears that Queen endorsed Trump. While copyright lawyers will point out that the license to play the music was given to the location and therefore anyone using the place can request the music, Queen had already reached out once to the Trump campaign and told him to stop using that song at his rallies. This particular song, with lead singer Freddie Mercury’s powerful voice, is a strange choice for Mr. Trump (or minions) to have chosen for his entrance. Freddie died of AIDS in 1991 and “many argue [he] would not have been a supporter of Trump.” The entrance of a public figure in a dramatic moment with a particular song can be seen as an endorsement of the singers. And, since Queen has already reached out and said their group does not give explicit or implicit endorsement to any politician, then one would wonder why Trump’s campaign would not honor that request. Why do something when you’ve been asked to stop?

The best article I’ve found that explains the multiple perspectives on this particular situation is here. This article certainly does give the reader the chance to be surprised, to see places where the author assumes some background knowledge, and a most importantly, places to challenge, change, or confirm thoughts. This article should be read and discussed by students grades 8 and up. It’s a complex text – more because of content and ethical considerations than vocabulary – that will certainly continue to be a part of our lives in this web-based world.

These are tough conversations to have with kids. But they should be had. It’s not a political conversation; it’s a conversation about identifying plagiarism; ways of accepting or rejecting responsibility; and, the nuances of copyright infringement and decency toward one another. Our kids need us to have these conversations with them.

Teachers change tomorrow, each and every day.

 

Why we must read literature . . .

Literature offers our students the chance to think not only about the characters they meet in the pages of the books, but also about their own lives. At a time when our own lives are
bumping up against those of people across the globe, at a time when divisive language can be heard in almost any venue, when a superintendent could deem passing a test to be the most important goal of the year, when a boy would feel such despair from his roommate’s actions that jumping off a bridge is his salvation, when almost daily more gunshots have been fired and more lives have been lost, then I fear that the standards we have set for ourselves as a nation are far too low—common standards,
indeed. 

We want better for our schools, far better for our students. We want students considering situations from another point of view, experiencing things they have never before
experienced; we want them developing empathy. We want them reading literature.

Literature addresses the interesting and eternal questions about human experience. It asks readers to think about what they value, what they reject, what they accept, and what they would fight for. It takes the kid who has always fit in and lets him, lets her, at least for a while be the outsider. And it helps that kid who feels hopeless, find hope.

It takes the white boy and lets him be a young black girl walking along a dusty road in the early 20th century. It lets us hide in an attic because we are Jewish or be for a moment
the gay kid or deaf kid or orphaned kid or …well, whatever we are not, literature lets us become. We become a part of the characters’ lives and through their lives learn more of our own.

Reading literature, as quaint as it might seem, is a needed skill in this 21st-century world.

The Whole-Class Novel: To Read Together or Not?

Recently, a post on the Notice and Note Book Club page generated lots of responses. This post asked for articles that would help support the position that teaching whole-class novels does not help students become better readers.

I was pleased to see several folks in this group jump in and mention Nancie Atwell’s strong commitment to choice reading; others mentioned the smart work from Donalyn Miller who also supports choice reading. A few mentioned the very important book Readicide by Kelly Gallagher. Obviously, some teachers are doing a lot of reading on this topic and have given it much thought.

There really isn’t a clear-cut, gold-standard answer because so many things interfere in the research that might answer this question. Primarily, answering this question means we all share the same vision of what it means to be a better reader. For some, “better” means more engaged. For others, it means one is able to read at a higher Lexile level. For even others, it means one is better able to support thoughts with evidence from the text. “Better” is in the eye of the beholder. So, the research study that compares how kids respond to interest surveys about reading when reading a whole-group novel versus kids reading self-selected books yields different findings than kids who are tested on something such as vocabulary development.

The study that I turn to over and over again was done a LONG time ago: the Coryell study. (This study as well as a more recent replication of this study can be accessed here.) At first glance, it appears that the Coryell study managed to look at both interest and comprehension. But what it was really measuring was AMOUNT of time spent reading a single book. It found that students who read one book for six weeks didn’t score any better on a comprehension test over that book than students who read that same book in a shorter amount of time and then went on to read other books that they chose. What did matter, though, was when asked about attitudes toward reading, kids who read more books in that six weeks had more positive attitudes toward reading than kids who only read one book. That’s worth remembering: intensive study of a single book negatively affected reading attitudes while extensive reading of many books positively affected reading attitudes. Both types of reading yielded similar scores on the same comprehension test.

Now, did the kids who only read one book have more negative attitudes toward reading because they didn’t like the book the teacher chose or didn’t like having to read the same book for so long or were just frustrated at not getting to choose which book they read together? We really don’t know. The best we can say is that the intensive reading of a single book did not result in a significantly higher score on a comprehension test over that one book than when compared with kids who read that same book in a shorter amount of time. It did, however, lower their attitudes toward reading. That’s critical.

So, where does this leave Bob (Probst) and me? We – as we have stated in Notice and Note and Reading Nonfiction – believe there is room for both whole class reading AND choice reading. We think the problem isn’t that we all read the same book; it’s that we expect kids to read it the same way. We all must be on chapter two at the same time; answer the same questions; have the same conversations. We suggest this “I’ll-tell-you-what-to-read-and-how-to-read-it” attitude is the problem. Just this morning, Bob and I both agreed to read Tony Wagner’s new book Most Likely to Succeed. Bob immediately downloaded it to his Kindle. I bought the print version. I’ll read it in the evenings, with a glass of wine. He’ll read it on an airplane with a Bloody Mary. I’ll read it in one or two sittings. He’ll digest smaller chunks. I’ll want to talk about it as I’m reading. He’ll prefer to wait until he’s done. He’ll mull over specific sentences, sometimes focusing on individual words as he wonders why this author chose this word and not that one. I’ll read first for bigger picture and then return to do that more leisurely mulling. (It’s amazing we get anything accomplished together.) My point: we’re a class (ok, it’s a small class) that has chosen to read the same book; but we will read it in different ways.

We think in-common reading in a classroom is important. It’s something that as adults we all enjoy doing – if not, Oprah’s book clubs wouldn’t be so wildly popular and folks wouldn’t join together to study Readicide, Amplify, Reading Ladders, Book Love, and maybe one of ours. We find community when we read books in common and we learn from one another. When I hear Penny Kittle or Teri Lesesne explain why something resonated in a book we’re reading at the same time, that changes my thinking. When Paul W. Hankins and Tara Smith offer a comment about a book I’m reading, I’m smarter. Reading together helps me grow in a way that I don’t grow when I read in isolation. Reading is a solitary act that has a strong social connection.

But reading in-common does not and should not mean reading the same way. We don’t need to crawl through a book at a snail’s pace. We don’t need to labor over every chapter, learn every new word, answer dozens of questions about each chapter. Two weeks to get through the reading and one week for conversations: more than enough. And did you notice that I said Bob and I decided together what we would read next? We’re having in-common reading but we still had choice. We choose what book to jointly read and we’ll each decide how to read it. What if we saw our classrooms as book groups and we let kids choose which one book they will read together this semester and which one book they will read together next semester? We think that even when having in-common reading we need to give kids choice as often as that’s possible. Give kids a short list from which they can choose and then set a date by which the book must be read. Accept that some will race through it; some will need to sit with you to move through it together; some might need to hear parts read aloud. If you are thinking “But the kids won’t read it unless I’m forcing them through it,” then it’s the wrong book to read. Read the same book that kids agree they want to read; don’t read it the same way.

Yes, some of you will say “But I don’t get a choice on what kids have to read so I can’t give them a choice.” If that’s the case, ask to visit with the person who established that policy and talk through the advantages of giving kids at least some ownership in choosing between two books or among three. I say talk to the person who established the policy because you can’t have a conversation with a policy. You can with a person. Don’t let an administrator or supervisor say, “but it’s the policy.” Policies were written by people. Get to the person and then you can have a conversation.

But build your program on kids having choice. Choice means voice. Sometimes that choice means I’m reading what no one else is reading. Other times it means I’m reading what I agreed to read with a small group. And sometimes it means I’ve joined the larger community called our classroom and together we’re reading one title. Not for six weeks or several months. And not all reading it the same way. But we all read; we all talk; and together, we learn from one another.

When Teachers Learn

On April 4, high school teacher Jennifer Drury did what teachers do so well. She thought carefully and reflectively about some of her teaching practices regarding the teaching of literature she now doubted and as a result of her reflection, decided to make a change.
 
I know this because she wrote about her thinking and shared it via a letter she wrote to me and and posted on my Facebook page. It’s a beautiful letter and it reminded me, again, why I think teachers are indeed our best hope for a better tomorrow: you think; you reflect; you question what you know and what you are doing; you learn; you grow.
 
Jennifer’s basic concern was that she had let teaching to the test become too important – even though this was never her goal. This reminded me immediately of a line in the preface from Dov Seidman’s brilliant book titled How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything. In that preface, he explains that there “is a difference between doing something so as to succeed and doing something and achieving success” (p. xxxvi). Jennifer found herself doing something “so as to” succeed and she decided no more. NO MORE. 
I applaud Jennifer and know that our teaching profession is filled with teachers just like her – you pause, rethink, reflect, consider, and when you decide it’s time, you change. I also think we sometimes need a way to begin that process. So, if you and some teacher friends are ready for a conversation, I’d offer the following process you might follow (with a glass of wine, of course!):
 
2. Read an article I wrote that was published in Journal of Adolescent and Adult Reading in 2013 titled “What Matters Most.”  I’ve attached a PDF of it below
3. Talk with colleagues about both.
4. Create, with your colleagues, your own what matters most document.
5. Put your thoughts into action.
Teachers change tomorrow each and every day. Thank you for all you do each and every day.

Rigor and Talk Checklist for Nonfiction Texts

In a school last week, a teacher asked if we could share with her what it is Bob Probst and I listen for when we’re assessing student conversations. “How do you know if they are talking at a surface level or really digging deeper?”

We thought it was a good question. In fact, a couple of years ago as we left a classroom, congratulating one another on the small group conversations students had conducted, we found ourselves wondering much the same thing as Bob asked the critical question, “What made their talk rigorous and what should we do next time we are with them to encourage even deeper thinking?”

He was responding to the number of times we had said (to one another) “Wow, the kids did a really good job” and “They were really super today” and “That was a great class.” Those general statements couldn’t help us actually plan what we needed to do next. They captured our excitement of the moment, but those comments couldn’t really help us think about what we should do next to encourage even deeper thinking.

So, we set about doing something that occasionally seemed silly to us – we created a checklist of behaviors we could watch for to help us identify the rigor of the conversation.  We say it sometimes seemed a silly endeavor, because, of course, rigor can’t be reduced to a checklist! At the same time, though, we wanted a list of behaviors that we could watch for (listen for) as we observed student conversations. Such a list would help us move from “That was a really great conversation” to “The students were using the vocabulary of the topic and turning to the text for evidence, but are not yet (for instance) showing the patience we want as students share ideas.” Eventually we settled on a list of behaviors that became the Rigor and Talk Checklist for Literary Texts that we included in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (and that list has been published on this blog in a previous post).

When we began working on Reading Nonfiction (and we’re counting DAYS until it is released!), we decided to rethink our checklist focusing now on what we wanted to hear in conversations about nonfiction.

Reading Nonfiction correct title jpeg

Though this checklist (see below) appears in the forthcoming book, we wanted to share it here, now, so it is perhaps helpful as soon as possible. Again, we use this as we’re listening to students, noticing what it is they do well and identifying areas we need to encourage.

Rigor and Talk for Nonfiction

Texas Workshops Fall 2015

I’m always happy to spend more time in my home state of Texas and that’s happening this fall as I run three workshops in Texas. These workshops will all focus on the close, attentive reading of nonfiction. They are most appropriate for teachers 4 -12, though primary teachers often attend my workshops and they tell me they easily adapt strategies to work for their students.

Here’s a list of when and where. Sure hope to see online friends at one of them!

Saturday, September 12. Keynote workshop speaker for the West Houston Area Council Teachers of English. Though sponsored by an ELA organization, all teachers are welcome. Location: Sugar Land, Texas. Registration info: http://whacte.org. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 11:00 a.m.)

Wednesday, September 30. Keynote workshop speaker for Region 13 in Austin, TX. This is part of the STAAR Distinguished Speaker Series. Registration is at Region 13’s website. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:00.)

Monday, October 19. Keynote workshop speaker at the Texas Association for Improvement of Reading fall conference at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Registration is found at the TAIR/Baylor site. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:30.)

All of these workshops will share the information my coauthor (Bob Probst) and I present in the forthcoming Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Strategies, and Signposts (Heinemann, 2015). All content area, resource, and ESL teachers are encouraged to attend as well as literacy coaches, supervisors, and administrators. Math teachers – please know that while I include some information that will be helpful in math class, this is most appropriate for ELA, reading, social studies, and science content.

Hook-em Horns!

Reading Nonfiction correct title jpeg

Reading Changes Lives. Period

If children need to learn vocabulary, they should read.

DSC_0759

If they need to develop fluency, they should read.

If they need to learn about a topic, they should read.

If they need to be a person they are not, they should read.

If they need to write, they should read.

If they need to grow, to stretch, to dream, to laugh, to cry, to find a friend, to vanquish a foe, they should read.