Friday, September 30, 2011

Reading Levels and Reading Needs

Question: What are the problems inherent in equating reading levels of texts with the reading needs of students?

Answer/Quote: “In many classrooms, decisions about text levels may impact multiple aspects of literacy programs. The practice in which they seem to have most influence is guided reading. Indeed, the production and popular use of these leveled texts flourished as the practice of guided reading expanded, and now, leveling, has found its way into the bedrock of our literacy programs.” P. 209.

Quote: “When we began work with Bob, he was confusing reading levels [of text] with reading needs, and he was assuming that finding the correct level would move his children along. He was aware that there were problems with this small group, but his data told him the children were on the same level, and, as such, could be taught the same way from the same materials.” P. 121.

Quote: “While guided reading using leveled texts provides many opportunities for learning, it also has the potential to limit children’s exposure to challenging and grade-appropriate learning experiences.” P. 214.

Comment: Assuming that assigning reading levels means teaching the same thing to all the students in the group makes the complex reading experience too simple. In fact, we have to acknowledge that what individuals need is not the same thing as using reading levels to make reading instruction easier. Grouping has its advantages, but the individual reading needs of individual students must also be of concern. Limiting diagnosis to reading level deprives the instructor of information about the complex needs of each student. RayS.

Title: “Let’s Start Leveling abut Leveling.” K Glasswell and M Ford. Language Arts (January 2011), pp. 208-216.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wordless Picture Books for Immigrants

Question: How organize the reading of wordless picture books for immigrants?

 Suggestions for discussing wordless picture books for immigrants:

. Use a small-group format similar to literature circles.

. Try having groups focus on several books by the same author and then compare various authors’ styles.

. Organize students into linguistically homogeneous groups whenever possible….

. Use buddy reading, pairing students to talk. The two students can take turns interpreting and commenting on the images found on alternating pages.

. Keep the conversation open…. .What do you think about this page? What do you notice here? What is happening here? Why do think so? What else would you like to say?

.  Ask how they think characters might be thinking and feeling.

. Ask students to share their predictions.

 . Pay attention to the elements of art present in the book (e.g., the use of perspective, light, frames, color, lines, etc.)….

.Do not rush the discussion of the book….

 . Remember that inquiry can take many forms. It does not only mean direct questions, but can include wondering and guessing, such as ‘Maybe….’ And ‘I wonder if….’

. Create annotated pages….

 Comment: An interesting way to begin reading instruction with immigrant students. RayS.

 Title: “ [Reading Between the Pictures’: Immigrant students’ Interpretations of The Arrival” [By Shaun Tan]. CM Martinez-Roldan and S Newcomer. Language Arts (January 2011), 188-197.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Conversations" and Controversy in the NCTE

Question: What is it like to join “conversations” in NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) controversies?

 Answer/Quote: “It’s raining and cold. But you have stepped indoors, and you stand at the door of a room where a fire is blazing, the drinks are flowing, and friends, acquaintances, and intriguing strangers are laughing and talking cheerfully. They beckon you to join them, and soon enough, you are part of the conversation.

                “This scene could serve as an analogy for what we do as readers and writers in ‘rooms’ such as English Journal (EJ). Perhaps you have been a longtime reader, or maybe this is your first encounter with EJ. Regardless, by reading these pages, you are entering into a conversation that is already underway. But is the discussion here really like the scene I have portrayed?”

                “Is a heated discussion the kind of conversation you would like to enter? Is it the kind of conversation that unfolds within each new issue of EJ? Is it what you should expect to see from English teachers attending the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention, or in the online discussion forums?” p. 43.

                “Once again, I find that there are no easy answers to my…questions. And once again dissenting voices in EJ require me to think about what it means to teach and learn the English language arts. I am having to figure out for myself what it might mean if bothand … are right. I trust that others, too, are doing some of these same mental gymnastics, and that some of us will put our ideas forward here in EJ. There will be some disagreement, perhaps, even some heated discussion. If we can be smart and civil while letting the conflicts play out, we will help each other to hone our thinking. And if we do that, everybody wins.” P. 45.

 Comment: This article invites dissenting opinions about issues in the teaching of English, admits that the discussions can become heated, urges that civility be essential to the discussion. The NCTE adopts policies and its publications seem to favor one side of issues. It seems to create “either/or” arguments (phonics, grammar, writing process vs. product, the five-paragraph essay to name a few).

Members of the NCTE organization play politics: (“One Person’s Opinion” became “Two Persons’ Opinions” when I disagreed with the expression of the NCTE/IRA standards and I found myself, without any warning, debating the reigning president of the NCTE on the issue.) Ethics anyone? I’m glad that the author of this article invites dissenting opinions. Just be ready for negative consequences.

To Leila Christenbury (Editor of EJ at that time), I did notice your locking me into the debate with the president of NCTE, who stole my ending as her response. I just chose not to respond. I know when I’m licked. I still think your ploy was a dirty trick. RayS.

Title: “Contentious Conversations.” Leah A. Zuidema. English Journal (September 2011), 43-45.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cover Letter for Employment

Question: What are some examples of cover letters when seeking employment?

Answer: Three of these sample letters have obvious flaws. One is an effective cover letter.

Title: “’You’re Hired!: A Role-Playing and Real-World Writing Project.” Amy Estersohn. Classroom Notes Plus (January 2011), 12-15.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The 50's Counterculture

Question: Why were Beat writers the heart of the 1950’s?

Answer: Because they prepared America for the 1960’s. Readings include “America” by Allen Ginsberg. “I’m Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Chapter One from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

 Quote: “Students’ comments generally show that they have developed a deeper understanding of some of the social factors that led to the development of the Beat writers, and that they are able to identify and understand both the motives and the characteristics that typify Beat writings.” P. 6.

Title: “The Beats Go On: Teaching the Literature of the Fifties Counterculture.” Jeff House. Classroom Notes Plus (January 2011), 1-6.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Note: Received this in an e-mail. RayS.

PARAPROSDOKIAN: What is it? Here is the definition:

"Figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; frequently used in a humorous situation." "Where there's a will, I want to be in it," is a type of paraprosdokian.

 1. Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's still on my list.

3. Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

4. If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

5. We never really grow up; we only learn how to act in public.

6. War does not determine who is right - only who is left.

7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

8. Evening news is where they begin with 'Good Evening,' and then proceed to tell you why it isn't.

9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

10. A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops.. On my desk, I have a work station.

11. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.

12. Whenever I fill out an application, in the part that says, 'In case of emergency, notify:' I put 'DOCTOR.'

13. I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.

14. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.

15. Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.

16. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.

17. I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

18. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

19. Money can't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

20. There's a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can't get away.

21. I used to be indecisive. Now I'm not so sure.

22. You're never too old to learn something stupid.

23. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

24. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

25. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

26. Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

27. A diplomat is someone who tells you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip.

28. Hospitality is making your guests feel at home even when you wish they were.

29. I always take life with a grain of salt, plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.

30. When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Metaphors for the Function of Literature

Question: What are two metaphors for the functions of literature?

Answer/Quote: “Fiction is made up of mirrors and windows. The mirrors are full of settings and characters that are ‘just like us,’ while the windows take us beyond ourselves into another time, another situation, maybe even another world. If we look at the books that middle school readers choose over and over again, we’ll find that they are usually the books that combine mirrors with windows.” P. 48.

Title: “Mirrors and Windows.” Ed. Kim Ford. Voices from the Middle (May 2010), 48-49.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Young Adult Literature

Question: How can reading Young Adult mystery novels help students in content area classes like math, science and social studies?

Answer/Quote: “Further, once the class was immersed in the exploration of mysteries, Claudia realized that the skills the students were using in reading mysteries were the very ones needed in math, science, and even social studies. In fact, the students themselves ;pointed out these connections. For example, in math, when given a complex story problem, the students recognized the parallels between wheat they were doing as they read The Westing Game and what they were doing in solving math problems—identifyi8ng who was involved, where the problem occurred, what the events were, what data were relevant to solving the problem, and what strategy was needed to solve the problem. In effect, Claudia and her students became detectives across the curriculum. The study of mysteries provided a rich instructional context that helped to meet today’s rigorous curricular demands.” P. 27.

 Comment: Interesting parallels between mystery novels and math. RayS.

Title: “Exploring Mystery in Fifth Grade: A Journey of Discovery.” Claudia Sharp, et al. Voices from the Middle (May 2010), 19-28.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Standards-based Education

Question: What is another view of the goal of standards-based education?

Answer/Quote: “Yet we can agree that standards are essential for helping teachers develop a clear sense of purpose and direction, thereby improving quality of instruction. When appropriately implemented and applied, curriculum standards assist educators in bringing focus and intention to their teaching.” P. 395.

Comment: One of the things I have noticed as I read professional articles in English education is that authors are often very good at framing the problem to be solved. Unfortunately, their solutions do not effectively resolve the problem. RayS.

Title: “Locating Standards That Elevate Individual and Social Development.” M Elias, et al. Language Arts (May 2010), 395-399.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Standards-based Education

Question: What are the goals of standards-based education?

Answer/Quote: “…our strong belief that the goal of standards-based education is to improve the quality of instruction provided to all children, rather than to simply measure and report achievement or reward and punish students, teachers and schools.” P. 373.

Comment: I think the goal of quality instruction for all students has been lost in the second goal to “measure and report achievement or reward and punish students, teachers and schools.” RayS.

Title: “Fulfilling the Potential of Standards-based Education: Promising Policy Principle: KH Au and SW Valencia. Language Arts (May 2010), 373-380.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Rubric for Assessing Writing

Question: What is an example of a scoring rubric for writing assessment? (Oregon)

 Ideas and Content
1. The writing is unclear and seems to have no purpose.

2. The writing is somewhat unclear and has few appropriate details.

3. The reader can understand what the writer is trying to say, but the paper may not hold the reader’s attention all the way through.

4. The writing is clear and sticks to the topic. It holds the reader’s attention.

5. The writing is clear, focused and interesting. It holds the reader’s attention.

6. The writing is very clear, focused and interesting. It holds the reader’s attention all the way through.

1. The writing is difficult to follow. The reader has to re-read often and may still be confused.

2. The writing lacks a clear structure, which makes it difficult to follow. Re-reading may help, but sometimes the piece is too short to show an orderly development.

3. The writer has tried to present ideas and details in a way that makes sense, but the paper may sometimes be hard to follow.

4. Ideas and details are presented in a way that makes sense. The paper is easy to follow.

5. The writing shows careful planning. The order of ideas helps the reader follow and understand the paper from beginning to end.

6. The writing shows careful and effective planning. The order of ideas moves the reader easily through the text.

1. The writer seems to make no effort to deal with the topic, purpose or audience in an interesting way.

2. The writer shows little involvement with the topic, purpose, or audience.

3. The writer is not always very involved with the topic. The reader gets hints of who the writer is behind the words. The writer begins to match the way the message sounds with the purpose and the audience.

4. The writer is involved with the topic. The reader can tell who the writer is behind the words. The message sounds like it matches the purpose and the audience.

5. The writer shows strong involvement with the topic. The reader can picture the writer behind the words. The writer effectively matches the way the message sounds with the purpose and audience.

6. The writer shows deep involvement with the topic. The writer skillfully matches the way the message sounds with the purpose and audience.

Word Choice
1. The writer has a difficult time finding the right words.

2. The writer uses words that take away from the meaning and impact of the writing.

3. The writer uses words that get the message across, but only in an ordinary way.

4. The writer chooses words that help make the message clear.

5. The writer thoughtfully chooses words that make the message clear and interesting.

6. The writer thoughtfully chooses words that make the message unusually clear and interesting.

Sentence Fluency
1. Sentence that are incomplete, rambling, or awkward make the writing hard to read and understand.

2. The sentences that are often choppy or rambling make much of the writing difficult to follow or read aloud.

3. Most sentences are understandable but not very smooth.

4. Sentences make sense and flow from one to the other. The writing is easy to read aloud.

5. Sentences are carefully crafted and flow smoothly with a natural rhythm from one to the next. The writing is easy to read aloud and understand.

6. Sentences are carefully crafted; they flow smoothly and effectively with a natural rhythm.

1. There are so many errors in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and usage that the reader has a very hard time getting through the paper. Some parts may be impossible to follow or understand.

2. There are frequent, significant errors that make it difficult to read the paper.

3. Spelling, capitalization, punctuation, paragraphing, and usage show some minor problems. The reader can follow what is being said, but there are enough mistakes that the reader really notices them and may have some difficulty following what the writer is saying.

4. Spelling, capitalization, punctuation, paragraphing, and usage are mostly correct. If there are a few errors, they don’t make the paper difficult to read and understand.

5. Spelling, capitalization, punctuation, paragraphing, and usage are correct and make the writing easy to read and understand.

6. Spelling, capitalization, punctuation, paragraphing, and usage are effective and make the writing easy to read and understand.

Comment: I’m thinking, “dissect to kill.” I’m thinking, 'the use of “interesting' as part of the criteria is subjective. I’m thinking, " 'voice' is a muddy concept." I doubt if most published writers could live up to these criteria. I can’t. Makes writing too complicated. I suggest cutting the number of rubrics in half. The finer shades of the criteria are unnecessary. RayS.

Title: “Discerning Writing Assessment: Insights into an Analytic Rubric.” \LK Spence. Language Arts (Maya 2010), 337-352.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Assessment of ESL Students' Writing

Question: How should ESL (English as a Second Language) students’ writing be assessed?

Answer/Quote: “Assessment should take into account students’ home languages, how this knowledge is used as they write in English…and the time it takes to develop academic language. Students should not be penalized for their developing English, and assessment should not be used to compare them with fluent English-speaking students.” P. 346.

Comment: The authors believe that most state assessment guidelines for writing are designed for native speakers of English and are inappropriate for ESL students struggling to learn English as a second language. RayS.

Title:“Discerning Writing Assessment: Insights into an Analytic Rubric.” \LK Spence. Language Arts (Maya 2010), 337-352.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

English Teacher's Purpose

Q. What is the Purpose of the English Teacher Today?

A. Comment by RayS: I continue to maintain that the purpose of the English teacher is to work with words, to communicate with words, to read words, to write and speak with words, to create with words. I still think Joseph Conrad said it best: "My task is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see." I maintain that images, sound and video are most valuable when they support the words we use. I remember reading in the book version of Civilization that Kenneth Clark said he could not emphasize law and economics in the TV version of his survey of the history of civilization because he could not find visuals to support those topics. Of course not. Those topics consist almost entirely of ideas. And words are the key to expressing ideas.

We are English teachers. And our job is to teach the use of words. I have no problem with teaching how to use other media to support words. We need to emphasize words because words are ideas. Pictures may be worth a thousand words as the cliché goes, but no picture will ever replace words as the best medium to express ideas. The NCTE and I do not agree on the centrality of multimedia. I maintain that to the degree that emphasis is taken away from words in our English classes, students' mastery of literacy will be significantly weakened.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writing Memoirs

Question: What is some advice for writing memoirs that people will read?

Quote: “For starters, analyze your motivation. Does this book have to be written? Why? To leave a legacy for your kids? Tell a story of overcoming odds to inspire others? Come to terms with family issues? Teach or expose something important? Launch a career? Bad motivation: To make a quick buck. To get revenge on an ex.” P. 30.

Quote: Do your homework. For memoirs, research the genre. There are ‘My Horrible Childhood’ confessions, addiction stories, career tales, political screeds … illness-overcome books, daddy books, crime admissions, Holocaust memories, first-person self-help guides, sociological studies, timely ethnic slices of life, and more. Which subgenre are you aiming for?” P. 30.

Quote: “…nobody wants to hear your entire chronological story from birth. Many books focus on one year, or a specific time period in a subject’s life. Figure out what’s most exciting, unusual, timely, brilliant, incredible or helpful and start there….” P. 31.

Comment: I wish I had read this advice when writing my memoir. I would have approached it significantly differently, especially “nobody wants to hear your entire chronological story from birth.” I set out to write the entire chronological story of my teaching career. Mistake. RayS.

 Title: “Secrets to Selling Your First Book.” Susan Shapiro. The Writer (April 2011), 30-32.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rejection for Writers

Question: How can writers deal with rejection?

. Have a rejection party.
. Start a rejection slip file.
. Send your material to the next publisher on the list.
. Write something else.
Quote: “Remember, there is something worse than rejection, and that’s never writing (or submitting) anything to be rejected in the first place.” P. 27.
Comment: In short, rejection is not the end of the world. I keep telling myself that. RayS.
Title: “How to Cope with Rejection.” Moira Allen. The Writer (April 2011), 26-27.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"Knots" in Writing

Question: How do you untie “knots” in your writing”

Quote: “I draw a distinction between writer’s knots and writer’s block. A block is not knowing what to say; a knot is having too much to say. A block can be psychological; a knot is almost always structural. A block is a lack of information to deliver; a knot is a problem of delivering information.”

What can you do to untie “knots” in your writing?
. Start with a summation.

.Perform a crime-scene investigation. “Write out in just a few words the function of each of your paragraphs.”

. Reverse-outline your story. “A reverse-outline begins by collecting a list of the first sentences of each paragraph, the so-called topic sentences. Check the list for an orderly progression.”

. Chunk out your story. “Chunking means breaking down your story into its basic components—beginning middle, and end….”

 .  If all else fails, complete a write-through. “A ‘write-through’…means writing full-out, noon-stop, beginning to end, the Big Sloppy Revision. Don’t edit. Just do it.”

Comment: This sounds like a short-course in how to revise. RayS.

 Title: “How to Untie Your Writing Knots.” Jeff Shear. The Writer (April 2011), 215-215.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rules for Writing

Question: “Could you suggest a few rules for writers that you believe are essential to follow?”

Answer. David Wroblewski: “Very, very little falls into an absolute category like that. For every rule, there’s someone who has been very successful who has not followed that rule. The only one that seems somewhat universal is to write every day. But then, there are some writers who don’t do that but still write very well. For myself, I try to write every day.” p. 22.

Comment: From a writing teacher’s point of view, writing every day does seem to improve written expression. In my classes, I developed 10-minute essays for two purposes: the first was to correct grammar. The second was to teach students the characteristics of standard written English. If you’re interested in how I used ten-minute essays, write to me at RayS. .

Title: “Finding the Right Design”: An Interview with David Wroblewski. Luke Reynolds. The Writer (April 2011), 20-22.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Personal Essays

Question: What is the point of writing personal essays?

Answer/Quote: “Personal essays are just that: personal. It is your job as a writer to illuminate your experiences so that readers think about their lives in more meaningful ways. If you learned a lesson from the event you’re writing about, your readers can learn from you—the very point of personal essay writing.” p. 13.

Comment: For those of you thinking of writing a book about your parent or another loved one, begin with a personal essay. RayS.

Title: “5 Ways to Develop Personal Essays.” R Eddey. The Writer (April 2011), 18.

Personal Essays

Question: What is the point of writing personal essays?

Answer/Quote: “Personal essays are just that: personal. It is your job as a writer to illuminate your experiences so that readers think about their lives in more meaningful ways. If you learned a lesson from the event you’re writing about, your readers can learn from you—the very point of personal essay writing.” p. 13.

Comment: For those of you thinking of writing a book about your parent or another loved one, begin with a personal essay. RayS.

Title: “5 Ways to Develop Personal Essays.” R Eddey. The Writer (April 2011), 18.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bad Writing

Question: How do you define bad writing?

Answer: Vernon Lott found some terrible poems he had written as a youngster and turned them into a documentary on bad writing. He discussed the subject with several professional writers.

Quote: “The point of the film isn’t so much to make fun of bad writing as it is about embracing where it comes from and recognizing that no writer is immune to it.” P. 12.

Comment: The point of the article is that all writers have defined “bad writing” for themselves, perhaps unconsciously. The thought of defining bad writing never before occurred to me. Defining bad writing might be a good discussion starter for the classroom. RayS.

Title: “A Documentary on ‘Bad Writing Explores the Creative Process.” NM Sylvester. The Writer (April 2011), 12.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Question: What is the purpose of technology in the classroom?

Answer: “When used properly technology can ignite students’ curiosity in a subject and dramatically increase the quality of their experience.”

Comment: This question and its answer appeared in The New Yorker, in an advertisement for The University of Phoenix. I thought the answer  was worth thinking about. RayS.

Title: “The Conversation on the future of Education in America Continues.” Advertisement in The New Yorker. (I failed to note the date of publication Sorry. 2011.)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Standardized Tests, K-12

Question: “What role should standardized tests play in K-12 education?”

Quote: “Students come from different backgrounds with different learning needs; thus to hold them accountable under one spotlight does not make it equitable or fair. Standardized tests also promote the notion of teaching to test over teaching to learn. It takes away the joy and creativity of teaching for teachers and it takes away the process-oriented approach in learning and steers students toward an outcome approach.”

Quote: “I am a certified teacher and have dealt with standardized testing. I believe that standardized testing should be used as a guideline for teachers and parents. The results can be used as an aid to identify areas where a student may be struggling.”

Quote: “I graduated from high school in 2005 in New York State after years of what felt like one standardized test after another. Needless to say retention of that material wasn’t the best in the years to come. Then I experienced what college was like with no state-mandated test at the end of each semester. Syllabuses were created with rich material that was just as living and breathing as the students. That sort of creative freedom allowed us to continue learning after the course ended because we were learning for our own good, not for the standardized test.”

Comment: This question and its answers appeared in The New Yorker, in an advertisement for The University of Phoenix. I thought the answers  were worth thinking about. RayS.

Title: “The Conversation on the future of Education in America Continues.” Advertisement in The New Yorker. (I failed to note the date of publication Sorry. 2011.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Feedback on Writing

Question: “At what point should I show my work to someone?”

Answer/Quote: “A good general rule is to wait until you have taken the draft as far as you can on your own.” P. 8.

Comment: I have found it most valuable, after I have called on someone I respect to help, to specify what the reader should look for in my writing.

My wife often reads my material in draft, but I specify, “Please look for whatever is confusing to you and put question marks in the margin.” I also specify that I don’t want her to judge my work, either negatively or positively. Judgments don’t help, questions do. In addition, I ask her not to point out misspellings, grammar mistakes or typos. I will take care of them when the time comes to edit. RayS.

 Title: “Ask the Writer: At What Point Should I Show My work to Someone?” Brandi Reissenweber. The Writer (April 2011), 8.