About Kylene Beers

Teacher, writer, speaker, and wanna-be tech-savvy thinker, I'm interested in helping struggling readers, thinking (and rethinking) about the literacy demands of this quickly changing world, and encouraging and extending the conversation about improving public schools.

And School Begins

You’ve been getting ready for this soon-to-begin school year. You have been reading books, attending workshops, thinking about lessons, collaborating with colleagues. You have arranged your classroom; put out books; hung artwork; organized supplies. You have thought about this next group of students, students you will come to call “my kids.” You have wondered if you know enough to teach them; hoped that you have stored up enough energy to love them.

And then Charlottesville happened. With their anger showing, white supremacists marched, proud in their racism, torches in hand, guns slung over shoulders, words shouted in unison “Heil Trump,” “You will not replace us,” and “White lives matter” and suddenly all the preparations for Monday —whenever your Monday is—didn’t seem quite enough.

Some children and teens will enter your classrooms over the next few weeks more knowledgeable than many adults about what created that weekend. These students will understand that, all too often and for too many, white identity has long been tied to making sure non-white groups don’t succeed, or at least don’t succeed as much as they do. A country born of leadership that felt compelled to explain that all men are created equal though some men are only three-fifths human was bound to face problems.

And some—because of youth or because of protective parents or because of just not knowing—won’t comprehend what just happened. They won’t know that white supremacists marched bearing clubs and guns, that counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by one of the protesters, that the former Ku Klux Klan leader attended the march and explained that this protest “represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back . . . .” Some students will arrive Monday in your classrooms and not know.

Yet all of your new students—those who know and those who don’t—will sit together in one classroom and look to you. They always look to you. The whole nation—even when they don’t realize it—looks to you. You are our nation’s teachers. In all likelihood, you didn’t sign up for this. You wanted to share your love of science, your excitement over math, your joy of reading. You wanted to share Charlotte’s Web, not Charlottesville’s pain. You expected to remind little ones—and bigger ones—to be kind; be fair; be nice. Share. Listen. Respect one another. But perhaps you didn’t expect those lessons to be so critically important; so immediately necessary. Perhaps you hadn’t expected the anger, the confusion, the frustration, the racial violence to be part of their young lives. To follow them to school.

I can’t help but think of the two questions that guided what my colleague Bob Probst and I kept thinking as we wrote Disrupting Thinking (Beers and Probst, Scholastic, 2017):

  • What needs to change?
  • What assumptions make those changes hard?

As I think about those questions, I realize that I need to amend the first one: What needs to change about me? It would be far easier to ask that broader question, “What needs to change?” Then the answer can be out there, about someone else, about another town, another race, about other people. Those racists, those people. Them. Not me.

But if I always blame someone else, I never give myself the chance to grow, the chance to become better; I never give myself the chance to be a better person in this world and in my community, a better person as I stand next to those who don’t look like me, a stronger person who learns how to better speak up and speak out against racist words and actions. What needs to change about me? That’s a harder question for any of us about any topic. But when the topic is racism, I believe it’s a critical question for white people—this white person—to ask. People of color did not ask for racist acts to be committed and they do not benefit from sustaining them. We must ask – I must ask – who benefits when any person of color is kept oppressed in any manner, by any other person. The answer is so very obvious. (Some will say that this is true of any group that is oppressed. I agree. But this post is about racism.)

Some changes will require deep reflection, heart-felt conversations, raw honesty, and bravery. Perhaps you might start small and build from there. Perhaps this list could be a guide:

  1. Hearing our names matters. Can you pronounce your students’ names? Don’t say, “I’ll just call you . . .” or ask ,“Why’d your mom give you such a hard name?” or laugh aloud as you mispronounce a child’s name. Ask for help. Ask the student to tell you how to say his/her name.
  2. Seeing ourselves matters. Take a close and critical look at the reading (and viewing) materials in your classroom. Who is represented? How is that group represented? Who isn’t there? What does this say to each student? Don’t forget to look at those inspirational posters on your walls and the walls of your school. Who is represented in those posters? Who is not? And look at the staff in your school. Do students see teachers and administrators who look like them? If not (or if rarely) do you talk with students about this inequity? How can you and colleagues change who students see in your school?
  3. Having a chance to speak matters. Who speaks up in your classroom? Who needs help finding his or her own voice? How do you encourage all students to speak, to be heard, to listen, to participate?
  4. Being brave matters. What’s your response to colleagues who say, “Those kids just can’t do this” or “I teach white students, too, so shouldn’t they be represented in the curriculum and on the posters in my classroom?” or “We can’t worry about racism issues; that’s for families to discuss” or “That’s not my job. I’ve got standards to cover” or “If those parents would just speak English” or “I didn’t oppress anyone. This isn’t my problem.” When you hear those comments—and you probably will— silence is not an answer; silence is an agreement. Use your voice and speak up. Start a conversation. Remember that disruptions require that we ask ourselves what assumptions make change hard.
  5. Listening matters. Listen to your students’ stories. Ask them if they’ve experienced unfairness. Are they afraid? What could the school community do to change things. What could you do? What could they do? What conversations would they like to have in school?

This list is just a first step. Websites such as the following offer important resources and support:

A podcast by leading educators Sara Ahmed, Sonja Cherry-Paul, and Cornelius Minor is worth every minute you’ll spend listening: http://www.heinemann.com/blog/the-heinemann-podcast-dismantling-racism-in-education/

It’s critically important to look closely at the books in your classroom. When students of color look through the books on your shelves, how often will they see a book by an author who looks like them, a book with characters who look like them? Can your LGBTQ students see books about them? Your Muslim students? Your Jewish students? Do you expect one or two (or three) authors of color to represent the entire range of experiences of everyone of that race? (Likewise, do you expect that of the students of color you teach? That one colleague in your department?) We all need to do better with diverse books. If you have yet spent time at the following website, I encourage you to do so:

As you are looking at the books in your classroom, note where the “diverse” (as one teacher called them) books are. Are they on a shelf or in a basket labeled “Diversity” or “Multicultural” or “Culturally Responsive” or some other such designation? Why? If this is to make easily visible a large number of books that you know your students want to read and should read, be sure your students know that is the reason. If it’s to highlight the few books you have, invest in more. If it’s to say to students or visitors, “See, I’ve got these books covered” then there’s an assumption that needs to be checked.

I’ll close this post with an excerpt from Disrupting Thinking, words written long before Charlottesville, but that now resonate even louder with me.

“The last few years—and particularly the 2016 Presidential election year—have shown us brutality, racism, sexism, misogyny; hateful language and acts toward members of the LGBTQ community; increased bullying in schools; vitriolic language and unsubstantiated assertions via Twitter, personal blogs, YouTube videos, and online news sources. Because the Internet allows a level of anonymity, some people may feel “safe” being vulgar, dismissive, and hurtful. But the words are still there and the impact—whether inflicted by an unknown person or a prominent political figure—is still painful.

We [Bob and I] think that developing more compassionate citizens is a desirable goal in and of itself. But not only is compassion a desirable characteristic of people, we also think that it is a necessary characteristic of readers. The more capable readers are of compassion, the more likely it is that they will be able to read well. Compassion should sharpen the readers’ ability to see other points of view, other perspectives, and to imagine the feelings of those who hold them. It should enable readers to take, if only momentarily, the perspective of someone else and thus better understand motivations and thinking.

Ultimately, we are teaching children to read the text of their own lives. We want them open to possibility; open to ideas; open to new evidence that encourages a change of opinion. We want them using reading and writing as tools that help them in the re-vision of their own lives. We want them to have a better tomorrow. You are, for so many of these children, their best hope as schools stand as gatekeepers of a better tomorrow. As always, we are proud to stand beside you, though truly, as we have said before, we stand in awe of you.”

Those students—all students—will sit and watch and wait to see what you do and say. I have always placed my faith and trust in teachers. I do so again, today.

A Letter to Teachers as Summer Begins

June 2, 2017

Dear Teachers –

It’s summer. Some of you have already taught that last class; others of you will do that very soon. I’m thinking of you as I begin my summer of workshops with many of you, and I wanted to wish you each a summer that leaves you renewed for the fall.

I hope you each find time this summer to walk some, nap some, and read some. Actually, I hope you read a lot. Read something – lots of somethings – for pure escape, and read lots of things to learn a lot. Read way, way below your Lexile level (if you even know your Lexile level) and occasionally read above it.

I hope you watch a favorite movie one more time, make popcorn the old-fashioned way, don’t give a damn about how you look in a swimsuit and jump into the pool with a splash. I hope you’ll find a group with which to discuss hard issues. I hope you’ll find a group with which to enjoy a bottle of wine, or two. I hope you’ll fall in love with something. And if you haven’t fallen in love with someone, if that happens, I hope you fall head over heels and enjoy the giddiness of the time. And if anyone stares at who it is you care to love, hold her hand or his hand tighter and look the other way. That person staring at you, well that person isn’t worth your time.

I hope you’ll try something really hard and fail at it. Yes. Fail at it. Failing helps us all remember what it’s like to be that kid who fails, no matter the effort put forth. So find something you can’t do and try. Try and fail. And remember how that feels. And then imagine failing every day. Imagine how that feels. You’ll go back to school a different teacher.

I hope you’ll bake a cake from scratch. I hope you’ll laugh until you cry. And I hope when something hits you hard, you give yourself permission to cry, to sob, to feel in that moment all you truly should feel. I hope you sleep past an alarm; I hope some mornings you won’t set an alarm. I hope you learn a lot. Love a lot. I hope on rainy days you stay in PJs and I hope on sunny days you play outdoors.

And for those of you this summer who face hard days and nights as loved ones face illnesses or you battle your own; as hearts break and lives move apart; as parents die or friends part or children face problems none should face, I hope you always find those around you to offer solace, to offer help, to offer a steady hand.

For those of you taking a child to college, breathe. You’ve done your job. Breathe. Be proud. Don’t cry until you get in the car. And don’t text; well don’t text a lot. And don’t get a dog. Seriously. Don’t fill that empty nest too quickly. You’ll love that dog, but give yourself some space to enjoy this next phase of life. Then get a dog.

I hope you have wonderful dinners with great friends; get closets organized; rooms rearranged; garages cleaned; flowers planted – or that you give yourself permission to do none of the cleaning and just have more dinners. I hope you find the time to help someone who wasn’t expecting it; encourage someone who needs it; provide a warm embrace for someone who feels alone or lost.

I deeply hope you have a summer that when you look back you see that you embraced every moment of it. Felt every day of it. I hope that eventually, you look back and remember this summer with clarity, this summer that gave you the time to become so much.

My best to you all —


Thailand, Day 3

What I didn’t write about while in Thailand but I will remember the longest.

On day 3 of my Thailand trip, I didn’t go to the school where I was working, but instead I stayed at the hotel to work with my colleague, Bob Probst, who had arrived the day before. We wanted to make sure we had all of our keynotes and workshops in order for the weekend conference.

We headed to the 31st floor of the Landmark Hotel to work together. It’s a big space with comfortable chairs and tables and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out to the stunning landscape of Bangkok.

In the states, this floor might be considered the “executive lounge” floor and only accessible for folks with certain Hilton or Marriott status levels. But in this hotel, access wasn’t limited to anything, that we could tell, so I met Bob there and we set up our computers, got our coffee, and began to work.

And then I noticed something odd. A 60-something-year-old man walked in with a teenaged-looking Asian girl on his arm. He sat down and said to her with a dismissive waive of his small hand, “Go get what you want” as he pointed to the buffet breakfast. He was speaking English, but not with an American accent. Pot-bellied, balding, and smugly confident, I was positive he was not her husband, father, or benevolent uncle. Within minutes another man – same description – arrived with another very young, wide-eyed Asian girl. He, too, sent her off for food. Seated near them, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.

SOB #1: Yours looks like a high-flyer.

SOB #2: She’s great. Was getting another tonight but will keep this one.

SOB #1: Mine, looks aren’t so great, but she is fa-bu-lous, if you know what I mean.

Me to Bob: No, you can’t throw them out the plate glass window. 
Bob to me: Watch me.

Two other “business” men joined them and the four of them moved to another nearby table and discussed something that I’m sure made their small parts feel bigger. I swear, if I had heard with enough clarity the type of work they were doing or the company they were with, I’d blast either or both all over the web. The young girls with them, both sitting at other tables, ate hungrily, never looked up, and said nothing to each other. They both sat. Waited. Not anxious. Not anything other than waiting. I kept trying to catch their attention. That would have required that they look up.

Bob and I left. I couldn’t stand being there and Bob’s idea of throwing the men through the plate glass windows of the 31st floor didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Yet, it seemed the perfect thing to do. I wanted to rescue those young girls. They didn’t act as if they understood anyone thought they need rescuing. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, and I completely understood it. I was sickened and heart-broken.

I told one of the conference organizers what I saw and she was as appalled as I was, but admitted I wasn’t the first American to see such a thing at that hotel. She explained that they had put other Americans at that hotel and another speaker – also a women – had encountered a very similar situation and now refuses on subsequent visits to stay there. I will, too, should I ever go back.

The problem, as it was explained to me, is that this hotel is located in the business area and some foreign business men enjoy sex with young Thai girls. That’s it. They enjoy sex with young Thai girls and it’s not illegal and the hotel is near the what the men want – where they conduct their business and where they can find the girls they want.

Sex-trafficking in this area is a huge problem and prostitution is not illegal. As one local explained to me, many families consider that when their young daughters are good enough for “town work,” they are able to move out of working in the opium fields. This is a step up. What I saw was a step up.

The most important association I might have right now is with Pam Allyn‘s work with LitWorld. This global organization helps girls worldwide find their own voices, discover what it means to be valued, figure out what it means to value themselves. What Pam is doing can help change the lives of girls. Everywhere. I deeply appreciate that Pam has invited me to serve on her advisory board. This board isn’t worried about Lexiles or state tests or leveled libraries. This board is worried about the lives of children, and especially of girls. There are girls out there in the world, in 2017, now, tonight as you read this, who have been convinced that a step-up is accomplished by lying down. With old men who leave their wives at home. Shame on those men. Shame on them. Shame. On. Them.

And as I condemn those men, I realize that I have done so little in this world. I have done so very little.

Yes, I want to go back to Thailand. I want to show all those girls that the next step up is there for them. That giving yourself to someone who does not value you, does not respect you, does not care for you, is not the next step for you.

And if you want to help, then donate today to http://www.litworld.orgbecause when girls find their voice, then girls find they have a choice. It’s one of the organizations my husband and I support. I encourage you to do the same. Any amount. You will be changing the lives of girls.

And as you do, those SOBs, and all their friends, will discover that they are only sad, fat, old, pompous, desperate, cheating, lying, bald men. Alone. On the 31st floor.


A Brief (Not Really), Critically Important (Absolutely) History Lesson

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Be clear about this -the ESEA was a Civil Rights law with President Johnson saying that “full educational opportunity” should be “our first national goal.” It offered more than $1 billion dollars a year under its Title I section to help with the cost of educating disadvantaged youth. This new act provided:

1. Grants to districts serving low-income students
2. Federal grants for textbooks
3. Federal grants for school library books
4. Federal funding for special education
5. Scholarships for low-income college students
6. Grants to improve elementary and secondary education. (see information at Dept of Ed)

Enter NCLB

This education act has been reauthorized repeatedly since then, with one reauthorization probably best known: in 2002, it was revised and reauthorized under the name No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This law, authorized under President George W. Bush, expanded the Federal role and focused specifically on holding schools accountable for student progress. If states did not comply with the new assessment measures, they risked losing their Title I dollars. (see No Child Left Behind: An Overview)

Under NCLB, states were to test all students in grades 3 – 8 and one time in high school and were to show how groups such as ELLs, children with special needs, children of poverty, and racial minorities were progressing. By 2013-2014, all students in all states were to have reached “proficiency” though each state could decide what that meant.

Another Reauthorization: ESSA

In 2015, President Obama signed into law the reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB and it was known at the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This bill was a strong bi-partisan effort with both sides claiming victory. Republicans liked that it returned a lot of power to local/state control. Democrats liked that equity was still a critical issue. The best side-by-side comparison of NCLB and ESSA I’ve found can be accessed here.

A few things to note about ESSA – our current law:

1. Codifies that districts must allow students in underperforming schools the opportunity to transfer to another school – if permitted by the state. So, this level of school choice is ALREADY LAW.

2. Requires that DISTRICTS (not federal government or state) develop their own evidenced- based strategies for school improvement. This is LOCAL CONTROL.

3. Requires that STATES implement their own actions for schools in need of improvement. Again, this is a return to STATE CONTROL.

4. Prohibits the Secretary of Education for prescribing any specific school supports or improvement strategies. (RETURN TO LOCAL/STATE CONTROL)

5. Requires that the annual state report card include a description of the state assessment; a list of schools identified (by the states) as needing improvement; graduation rates; NAEP results; per-pupil expenditures.

6. Eliminates AYP and the 100% proficiency requirement.

7. Prohibits the Secretary of Education from prescribing any part of an accountability system.

8. Allows STATES to decide how much weight to give to tests and what consequences if any should be attached to poor performance. (STATE CONTROL)

Understanding Regulations

Now, laws don’t provide all the details needed for people to be able to follow them. Congress writes a law. The President signs it. And then agencies fill in details. For those of us in education, that agency is the Department of Education (if looking at the Federal level). These details or rules are called regulations.

On May 31, 2016, the DOE published a draft of the regulations that would guide accountability under ESSA. (Don’t you feel smart using all these acronyms!) The DOE invited comments on proposed regulations and 21,000+ were received. Push backs on several areas resulted on the DOE being responsive and revising several areas of regulations. Eventually, Chris Minnich, who is the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (so think the 50 state superintendents) praised the regulations saying, “It is clear the U.S. Department of Education listened to the feedback from state education chiefs across the country and made several important changes to ensure the accountability provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act can be implemented in all states” (See this report.) So, the STATES were happy with what the regulations told them they needed to do.

And so the states started writing their plans that needed to be submitted to the Secretary by April or (if an extension was given) by September of 2017. Things were going well. For a while, at least.

Enter Trump

Now, the Trump administration has decided to put its own stamp on education. And here’s where things get tricky.

In early February, 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order that said that for every one new regulation issued at least two prior regulations must be eliminated and “the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations, to be finalized in fiscal year 2017 shall be no greater than zero.” Law experts agree that this order not only lacks details on how to accomplish this, but that it will probably result in a “de facto moratorium on issuance of many major rules” (http://educationnext.org/what-happens-if-obamas-essa-regul…/). What the heck does this mean? Basically, if you get want a new regulation, you have to get rid of two. Keep that in mind. You have to get rid of two.

Getting Rid of Regulations with an Obscure Statute

Usually, it’s hard to get rid of regulations that are part of laws. There’s a public notice time and a public response time. That often brings about some legal wrangling. This is because regulations are slow to be accepted and so tossing them out ought to require public response.

While we were all focused on Secretary DeVos’s hearings (and that “we” most certainly includes me), the US House of Representatives voted to roll back regulations found in ESSA. The Senate is expected to vote to do the same this week and President Trump has already said he’ll sign this. The House decided to eliminate regulations in ESSA concerning accountability using “an obscure statute called the Congressional Review Act, used only once before in 2001 by President George. W. Bush” (see previous citation).

The CRA allows Congress to repeal regulations by a simple majority. It also requires that any new regulations (pay attention to this) cannot be “substantially similar” to the regulations that were struck down. So, removing regulations on assessments via CRA means you can’t tweak the language; the new regulation must be substantially different. And, because of the Executive Order, only one regulation can replace two that are removed and the cost of that one must be zero.

Breathe. There’s more

So, ESSA was made a law; through a series of conversations, the DOE established regulations that the CCSSO liked. Now states and local districts know what to do regarding accountability if they want to receive federal funds. Currently, states must submit their accountability plans to the Secretary by April (or with an extension) by September 2017. And yet, the regulations that let states know what rules to follow, are about to disappear.

Secretary DeVos sent out a letter to the State Chiefs her third day in office and affirmed the April and September deadlines and said that “I am writing today to assure you that I fully intend to implement and enforce the statutory requirements of the ESSA.” She went on to explain that “Congress is currently considering a joint resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) (5 U.S.C. §§ 801- 808) to overturn these regulations. If a resolution of disapproval is enacted, these regulations ‘shall have no force or effect.'”

And Thus the Problem

So, we’ll probably find ourselves in a terrible conundrum if the Senate continues down this path. With an Executive Order that offers few details on what to do when regulations are repealed and an obscure act that allows for repealing of regulations with no discussion, and a demand that new regulations be substantially different, states are about to find themselves needing to prepare documents that help them receive needed Federal funds with no regulations to help guide them. The Secretary’s hands will be tied because of the Executive Order. State-level work that has gone into creating plans that specifically address teacher preparation and accountability are now in limbo.

The repeal of ESSA as handled by CRA repeal of regulations when seen in tandem with this Executive Order spells problems for local and state education agencies.

Call your Senators. Tell them not to repeal ESSA. Or tell them that using this obscure CRA provision will create more havoc than anyone wants. And remember, ESSA has its roots in ESEA, an act that wanted to assure that a full educational opportunity belongs to all. Education: a Civil Right.

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,

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.