Fact Check From the Democratic Debate

Fifty Top Literacy Statistics

There has been a great deal of attention and buzz about former VP and current Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s rambling response to the education question posed at the end of last night’s debate. For the uninitiated, a record player is what we old-farts used for streaming music in our youth.

Beyond the Friday morning commentary though are some facts that were mangled and should be given some consideration and attention. A huge gap in vocabulary and language acquisition exists between children whose families are more affluent and those who live in poverty. Children living in poverty arrive in our public schools with huge vocabulary deficits of a thousand words – and actually many times over a thousand. This is a significant factor impeding academic growth.

The statistics cited above are ones that we, as a community and a caring responsible society, need to know and address if we are truly serious about education as a pathway for lifting children and families out of poverty.

I’m not sure I’d agree with Mr. Biden that the solution is to turn on the television or “record player” to add more vocabulary and intuited syntactic learning about our language and literacy, but I do believe there are ways to equalize the socio-economic differences that impact academic achievement. One of those ideas I believe in is that a universal PreKindergarten experience must and should be offered to every family.

So while the news is abuzz with talk of record-players, let’s not lose sight of the facts – the statistical facts – that our students are highly impacted by economics as well as academics, and that needs to also be part of our response to improving educational outcomes.

First Book/AFT Kicks Off Lowell’s Books on Wheels

FB TruckI’m really excited about this project!

When the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts (AFT-MA), our local union’s state affiliate, approached our local union a year ago about hosting a First Book/AFT Books on Wheels event, we were intrigued, but the timing was just not right. We may have had to put the project on a back burner, but it was never forgotten. And here we are at the start of a new school year, ready to launch for an event to take place in less than 8 weeks.  Things just got real!

The premise is really simple.  First Book is a national non-profit with a mission to provide new books to children in need, addressing one of the most important factors affecting literacy – access to books. Through a unique partnership with American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national affiliate of our local United Teachers of Lowell, we are planning to bring a semi-tractor trailer of new books (ages 0-18) – that’s 40,000 to 44,000 books – to distribute absolutely free to our teachers, schools, programs, and families right here in Lowell.

What is needed in return are 2,000 email addresses of programs and educators working with those children and families in need. By registering an email address, the owner can then access First Book’s Marketplace where brand new books are available for 50-90% off list prices. I personally used First Book’s Marketplace when I was in the classroom to round out my classroom library purchases (yes, teachers do indeed buy many materials) or to create a study set of a book a group of children were reading.

Our efforts toward earning the Books on Wheels Truck of 40,000+ free books kicked off last Friday with the newest faculty members at Lowell Teacher Academy orientation.  We will begin recruiting all returning staff – teachers, administrators, coaches, paraprofessionals, custodians, cafeteria workers, therapists, librarians, school clerks, and tutors – beginning on Monday morning.

We know this is a unique opportunity to increase access to literature for our families. While a truck loaded with 40,000 plus new books is a.w.e.s.o.m.e. by itself, we are hoping to make this event even better.  We’ve also established a gofundme effort to raise $5,000 which will allow Lowell’s English Language Learner expert teachers/coaches to select literature from First Book’s Marketplace of Books.  Click this LINK to access our gofundme page and please, feel free to share with friends and neighbors.

8/28: (Calling out our First Book Lowell crowd funding link here: www.gofundme.com/firstbooklowell)

We will use any funds raised through gofundme to purchase books that are reflective of the cultural and language diversity in our community.  If 500 people donate just $10, we will meet our goal, and if we exceed our goal we’ll be able to purchase even greater numbers of culturally appropriate books for our families and readers.

Our goal is to have everything in place for a Book Distribution on Saturday, October 22 at the Rogers STEM Academy. We are appreciative of Superintendent Khelfaoui’s support of this effort and especially grateful to Principal Jason McCrevan and his team at the Rogers STEM Academy for offering to host this event. More information on the Book Distribution and how you can help will be coming in a future post.

It takes a village, or in Lowell’s case, a city to make this endeavor a success. We are counting on everyone to help our village bring books to our children that will embrace the diversity of cultures and languages of our community.

Inferring Vocabulary

Kids can latch on to words in the most incredible ways. And second language learners really keep a teacher thinking.  As an English speaker, I give almost no thought to words and phrases we use every day that have multiple – and often unrelated connections – to meaning.  As a teacher of ELLs, however, that becomes part of the plan for each lesson. And as a teacher of a classroom made up of nearly three-quarters English Language Learners, it is a way of life.

This week, as we explored inferring unfamiliar words, that last point was brought to the fore with the following exchange:

Did China people eat off special plates on the Titanic?

This question did make me stop and wonder for several seconds – what in the world was this kid referring to? We had just finished looking for text clue to help infer the meaning of demitasse found in an article we were exploring from Harvey and GoudvisComprehension Toolkit Source Book entitled  “Titanic’s Legacy“. Where was this question coming from?

As it turns out, the question was not so out-of-left-field as I thought at first. One of the other illustrations found on the page we were studying was of a “China Serving Plate”. Which led us to a whole tangential discussion of the word “china”.

Never underestimate the power of words. Or the challenge of vocabulary.


Adventures in poetry

I’m afraid we didn’t get very far in “diving deeper” into today’s poetry selection. Mostly, today was a lesson in multiple meanings of words. By that, I mean, a word that meant one thing in the mid- to late-1800s (when this poem was written) and the colloquially accepted meanings that kids hear today.

First of all, there was quite a bit of twitter about the fact that the poet of our first selection – Emily Dickenson – has a name that makes immature minds go into hysterics. Because, you know, her name has DICK in it. At that point, I knew this selection would be trouble. I just didn’t know how much trouble I was in for.

Here’s the text of the poem:

Emily Dickinson

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

I anticipated “gayer” would cause a reaction, so I spent some time explaining that “gay” had another meaning when the poet was writing.

Of course the little congregation of 9-year old boys at the back corner of the rug thought “nuts are getting brown” was hysterical. They couldn’t contain their delight — definitely wanted to share their unique perspective with all sitting within earshot.

Maybe now that we have worked out all the vocabulary minefields, we can study this poem as the curriculum developers intended. Or not.

With An Apology to My Students…..

This is a tumultuous time to be a teacher – many, many new mandates are arriving this year making for a lot of teacher discomfort as we try to make sense of things.

My own personality is that I am an early adopter – not always a good thing I’m sure, but I do tend to try new methods and materials out fairly readily. We have been struggling with Interactive Read Alouds (IRA) and Writing About Reading (with the unfortunate code name WAR in this district – just saying).  The changeover to a more strategically envisioned IRA lesson seemed like a natural extension of the Making Meaning  program we’ve used in our district for about 10 years.

Writing About Reading (sorry, can’t say WAR – I grew up in the 60s) also feels like what our students need. But the message we’re getting, whether intended or not, is that we need to have our students up and proficient for their grade level expectations nearly immediately.

In the rush to get our students performing at higher levels, it is far too easy to forget that the students may not be prepared to be successful. So sometimes they are not. Even with pressure on educators, whether perceived or real, can make for a tricky mix – we want our students to do well, we want them prepared for the new and increased demands on them, and we feel like it should happen NOW.

Last week, I needed to submit an independently produced written response so my grade level could practice applying the district rubric with consistency. So I did and the writing was AWFUL. I had been explicit with students about how to plan for the writing and then set them loose. Bad!

What I didn’t do was about as devastating as what I did do. I didn’t gradually release the responsibility for writing to my students who had not had this writing experience before.

So I did what most teachers do – I backed up, apologized that I hadn’t shown them or given them what they needed and started over.  We took a short text from Gouvdis and Harvey about animal adaptations, posed the essential question (“How do different animals adapt to hear in their environments?”), and went to work with a shared modeling. We talked – this is a 75% ELL classroom so we talk first – we made notes together on our planners, we shared our ideas for a topic sentence and a closing sentence, we found the (required) 3 pieces of evidence supporting the topic and then we turned our notes into sentences and paragraphs.

The take-away from this is that asking kids to do something for which they are unprepared is wrong. I now realize that I had been asking my students to do something they didn’t yet know how to do; something we needed to work on so that gradually the responsibility could be released to them.

Sorry kids. I promise to do a better job of teaching you from now on!

Teacher as Learner

I have long gotten past being the “sage on the stage”. If educational gurus hadn’t already convinced me that students learn best from peers and self-exploration – constructing the meaning of something themselves from experience – anecdotal evidence from the classroom would have.

This week I arranged with our school’s Literacy specialist/coach, Pat Sweeney, to have her model peer writing conferences.  Knowing how much language we need to build into any speech-based activity with English Language Learners, help in supporting my students is always welcome.

Pat started by engaging my students in thinking about why an author may want to ask a peer  for advice. First Pat laid down the ground rules for the author (read your work and listen to peer input), the peer group (listen and then offer 1 compliment and 1 suggestion).  The rule of compliments (always start the sentence with “you or your”) and suggestions (“I think…..”) was next.

Then kids then looked over and clarified a list of compliments and suggestions that Pat had placed on anchor charts. Having previewed some independently written narratives my students were working on, Pat selected two students to be the first to try out peer conferences in a whole group.

I was pleasantly surprised at the level of constructive criticism my students had. They offered compliments and useful suggestions about the plot of a story, the beginnings, the endings, descriptive languages. Pat wrote down up to 3 suggestions for each author – fitting them on a 3×3 stick-on note – and then instructed the author to keep the note with their original work so when they later conference with me, we can both see which suggestions were incorporated into their pieces. Self accountability – brilliant!

Several days later, when Pat led our peer conferences a second time, she gradually released the conversation to the students. And the students were much more willing to sit in the author’s chair or offer suggestions and compliments. As we continue this process, my hope is that students will move eventually to arranging with a smaller peer group of 2-3 students or even with a critical friend.

As for me, I’ve learned that I have a habit of offering a compliment but linking to the suggestion with the conjunction “but” – which negates the power of the compliment. I’m also going to need to do some work to remember beginning compliments with “you” and not “I think”. I also was delighted to see the authors who had been through the peer conference check in with me (“Do you think I should rewrite this or just write this part on my draft?”) — how many times have teachers given students a writing suggestion and then notice it never makes its way in to the final copy?

Having a valuable critical friend for my own teaching is not a luxury, it is a necessity. We learn from each other – just as the students do.