Monthly Archives: September 2012

Literature, Informational Texts, and the Common Core

An Open Letter to Rock Quarry Middle School Language Arts Teachers:

Dear Jaguars,

I’ve been hearing a long of concern from educators (not any of you) who are afraid that Common Core spells the (eventual) death of literature, its instruction in public schools, and more far-reaching implications. This chatter has prompted me to write this post. Just so you know, this is as much about learning out loud for me as it is about communicating with you.

First, I deeply admire your (voluntary and independent) decision to begin teaching to CCSS this year even though Alabama is not officially adopting the LA standards until next year. It occurs to me that the struggles your math colleagues are enduring this year probably had something to do with it. Math teachers who are reading this let me say here that you are my heroes – you did not have even a fraction of the preparation through PD that you needed and deserved. Ultimately that lack was my responsibililty. I am sorry. You make the toothpicks you were handed look like pneumatic jackhammers. Back to ELA – again, I like the idea of taking a running start at Common Core. In my experience, the local, bottom-up nature of your work this year will stand you in excellent stead moving forward.

Let me address the literature vs informational text tension that many seem to be feeling. Before that, though, let me back up and underscore a point I have made before. No piece of literature is so inherently life-changing that just reading it is magical. I’m referencing a practice I have seen with at least SOME teachers in every state and school in which I have worked (3 and 7+ respectively): too many English teachers (and systems, through their curriculum documents) seem to think that “covering” certain pieces of literature is more important than carefully selecting texts that will serve as excellent tools for learning. When I was teaching Language Arts myself, I thought that our slavish addiction to muddling through Uncle Bill’s plays didn’t always make sense – especially when I was trying to use them to teach tricky literary concepts to struggling readers. Too often I have seen teachers faced with this dilemma allow their classes to devolve into meaningless “finish the ‘study guide'” exercises. Having cited this extreme example, let me be clear: literature and the love of reading DOES have inherent value and we SHOULD find ways to make those outcomes a part of our instructional objectives.

As a result of my reflection on this issue, I have been convinced for some time that students need explicit instruction in reading non-fiction (“informational”) texts. I think it’s possible to make the case that many students will struggle to survive adulthood without this skill set; they need these skills in life/work situations more than they need to know lit skills. Again, I’m not denying the value of literature – 90% of the books I own are fiction and I would much rather read one of Orson Scott Card’s book than any non-fiction text. I do think we love our fiction so much, though that we spend most of time enjoying those texts and rarely get to informational texts.

So, back to the question: will Common Core force more informational texts into ELA classrooms … and literature out? Here’s my take: I hope we do find a way to teach informational texts well more consistently. However, there’s no reason for literature to be deemphasized. Here are just a few ideas about how to pull off this balance.

1. Use texts as tools. If you select a piece of literature because it is chock-full of irony, perhaps nothing bad will happen if you don’t also plan an activity or discussion about all the personification in it as well.
2. Use fiction and non-fiction texts together. This can work at least two ways – you can plan thematic units (teach different standards around texts with a common theme) or you can teach the same standard in both fiction and non-fiction texts. Either way, it seems to me that this makes both planning and learning smoother.
3. Speak up. Some of you are on the system curriculum committee. All of you are highly knowledgable professionals participating in our local curriculum work. Your voice matters. Be thoughtful about this process and act as a true Professional Learning Community.
4. Remember that Bryant-Denny stadium wasn’t built in a day. Even if you accept Common Core as exactly what your students need, your execution need not be perfect immediately. Reflection and growth count a lot more than a great dog and pony show in my book.
5. Remember why you are teaching. Never fall into the trap of thinking that we come to work to check boxes … or to take tests. I refuse to let it be about that, and so should you.

I look forward to much more discussion on this in the coming months.

Andrew Maxey

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It ain’t about the tool … but it helps

We decided to start using Edmodo in a serious way at our school this year. Edmodo is a digital tool that is a hybrid of Facebook and Blackboard. It allows teachers to set up and invite students to groups – typically classes. Assignments can be posted to the entire group or to individuals. Submitted assignments can be annotated, graded and commented on privately. In-program polls, quizzes, links, and libraries are tips of the Edmodo iceberg. I’m not getting paid to talk up Edmodo, though, go check it out yourself if it sounds intriguing.

The cool thing is that our faculty had a mass (grassroots) conversion to Edmodo this summer. I mean, the PE/Health teachers are rocking this thing, not to mention an overwhelming majority of the core teachers. One great aspect of this movement is that everyone is using it in a context that best supports their class. One math teacher uses it for his spin on flipped instruction by posting his (interactive white board) lessons each day. Many require essay and project assignments to be uploaded here. Others use it as a safe and sometimes curated discussion board. There aren’t any “Thou Shalts” though. That might be why it’s working well so far.

To be perfectly clear, we aren’t all Edmodo all the time. It’s just one tool in our bag. A very versatile, user friendly, powerful tool. But not the only one we have.

I was prompted to write this post because I just finished “checking” lesson plans on Edmodo a few minutes ago. We decided to stop killing so many trees this year. Teachers submit lesson plans on Edmodo in a group I set up. It took us a while to get calibrated, but I read every lesson plan submitted and sent SOME reply to every one. Many were rather thoughtful reflective questions. Some were long. Some promised a thoughtful response soon (or next week). Here’s my confession: this is the first time I have EVER read every single lesson plan submitted to me. I’ve never commented on or responded at all to more than a few. I’m not saying Edmodo makes me a better principal, but I did something this week that I have known for years would benefit my teachers. So maybe I’m letting a digital tool compensate for a professional weakness – I think that’s okay. If it helps one teacher grow enough to help one student it’s worth it.

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Why Not

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for a while.  Actually, I’ve been thinking of why NOT to blog for a lot longer.  Topping the list were “when would I possibly find the time” and “what do I have to say that’s worth the effort?”  I let go of both arguments with one realization: since I don’t have (and am unlikely to build) a huge following, huge revelations are not needed.  Simple thoughts – or even questions – might be worth someone’s time every once in a while.

So here it is.  If you are reading this, you probably already know me.  Let me give you my education background, just in case, though.  I grew up in Nigeria as the son of missionaries and was home-schooled through 10th grade.  I graduated from a Christian boarding school in Jos, 10 hours from home.  Under-grad in English Education from Indiana Wesleyan University, Masters from San Diego State University, National Board Certified in Middle Adolescent Language Arts.  Taught 2 years of high school in Indiana, 4 in San Diego, 3 in Alabama.  Since then I’ve been an administrator at all three levels (elementary, HS, MS).  I am currently the principal of Rock Quarry Middle School.

I am passionate about young people.  They make me weep.  Frequently.  Sometimes because my heart breaks for them; sometimes because they say beautiful things to me.  I hope that I have the guts to retire the day after this is no longer true.  Actually, I hope with all my heart that this never changes.

Here are some other things to share:

  • I’ve never wanted to tell people what to do – I’d much rather equip them to do excellent work on their own.  Maybe I’ll talk about being a glass tube maker at some point.
  • I believe that the lines between technology and every other part of education have to be erased if we are to stay relevant in the future.
  • I believe that classroom assessment is the key to excellence.  I’m working to help teachers become masters of this difficult skill.

One last thing – I’m a newly connected educator.  If I run afoul of any blogging etiquette, I’m probably not trying to be provocative – just green.

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