Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Sneak Peek at the Common Core State Standards Initiative from EdWeek

— Douglas Grudzina

Do you believe it’s been twenty-six years since the publication of A Nation at Risk launched a nationwide fury of standards-setting and assessment-writing, all with the ostensible goal of improving our students’ performance in essential disciplines like mathematics, science, and—of course—English language arts? Just about every state and territory did something—some better than others. Organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association developed their standards.

An entire generation has been born, entered kindergarten, graduated from high school, (attended college), and begun their teaching careers under America’s “new and improved” educational system.

But in a number of key ways and for a number of students, things did not get much better. A large part of the problem was that, while most states did something, few states did anything in concert with any other state. Delaware’s education system evolved in ways completely independent of New York’s, California’s, and Maine’s. This might pose no problem if we had any assurance that a student who entered kindergarten in Delaware would graduate from high school in Delaware, attend a Delaware college, and work his or her entire career in Delaware.

The fact of the matter is, however, that the typical American student attends from three to five diverse and independent school systems between kindergarten and grade twelve. Different sources provide different statistics, but between military and corporate moves, divorce and remarriage, and any number of other situations that require a family to relocate, a student beginning kindergarten in Delaware is not likely to graduate from high school in Delaware. By the same token, a student graduating from high school in Maine probably did not begin kindergarten in Maine. And a fifth-grader in Nebraska… (well, you get the idea).

In response to a perceived need for a more comprehensive and coherent educational system, the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—in partnership with Achieve, Inc., ACT, and The College Board—have been collaborating on what they call the “Common Core State Standards Initiative.” At present, forty-nine states and territories have signed-on to the process and have more-or-less agreed to adopt the final Common Core Standards as their state standards.

Four states have opted out of the initiative. (The renegades, in case you're interested, are Alaska, Missouri, Texas, and South Carolina). J The stated purpose of these standards is to “define the rigorous skills and knowledge in English Language Arts and Mathematics that need to be effectively taught and learned for students to be ready to succeed academically in credit-bearing, college-entry courses and in workforce training programs” (Preamble to the Standards Draft Document).

Anyway, the big news is that a draft of the standards has been sent out to various groups (including NCTE, you can read their response here). Yesterday, for whatever reason, someone at Education Week released a review draft which can be viewed in PDF format here.

Whatever you feel about standards in general, the idea of national standards, and so on and so on, it’s really in everyone’s best interest to be informed what the standards are, what they mean, and how they’re going to affect teaching and learning.

Even if you ultimately have no comment one way or the other, they’re worth taking a look at.

Oh, and it’s only 40 days ‘til Labor Day.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. What famous poet was known to his close friends by the nickname Junkets?
  2. What French novelist inadvertently provided actress Ruth Davis with her stage name, Bette Davis?
  3. What Shakespearean character was based on a London doctor who served as Queen Elizabeth I's chief physician until he was arrested and hanged for conspiring to kill her?
  4. What two great writers died on April 23, 1616?
  5. Which book did Americans rate as their favorite in the year 1900 (second only to the Bible)?

Last Week's Answers

What famous writer claimed she did most of the plotting for her books while sitting in a bathtub munching on apples?

Agatha Christie, an English writer equally famous for her novels, short stories, and plays, played an important role in shaping the crime genre. She has been quoted as saying that her over 80 detective novels and various other works all began as musings in the tub.

What American novelist was challenged to a duel and beaten by a woman he later married?

Jack London dueled with future bride, Charmian Kittredge, with foils, face masks, and breast plates.

Who was the inspiration for the popular sixteenth-century nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet?

Patience Muffet was the daughter of the poem's author, Dr. Thomas Muffet. Dr. Muffet worked as an entomologist and wrote frequently about spiders.

What future playwright was expelled from Princeton University by Woodrow Wilson when the American president-to-be was president of the university?

Eugene O'Neill was expelled for throwing a bottle of beer through Wilson's office window.

What famous author wrote under the pen names Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and W. Apaminondas Adrastus Blab before switching to the name with which he gained fame?

Samuel Clemens, who finally settled on the name Mark Twain.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Hobart Shakespeareans: An Inspiration to the Teaching Profession

— Paul Moliken, Senior Editor

Over the weekend, I settled in front of the television to watch the 2005 made-for-PBS documentary, The Hobart Shakespeareans. After having watched it, I believe this film should most certainly be in the Netflix cue of anyone thinking about becoming a teacher and on the must-see/mandatory viewing list for your classes. It's not a secret that a teacher can make a difference in kids’ lives every year, but
Rafe Esquith truly does in the lives of his under-privileged students. It just goes to show that truth, honesty, and hard work do, in fact, equal results.

Without going into too many details, I originally thought that the movie would be about teaching Shakespeare to young students, which it is, but there this film has so much more to offer. Rafe Esquith, a 49 year-old elementary school teacher in a deprived , mostly non-English-speaking Los Angeles neighborhood, not only has his students learning about The Bard, but also, more importantly, about what’s essential in life. The man is an inspiration to all teachers out there because his methods are perfectly suited to the subjects and the students he teaches. The students are involved, they understand, and (best of all) they respond.

In one telling scene, these ten-year-olds, many of whom live with violence and drugs in their lives, read Huck Finn out loud—the section in which Huck says that he’ll “go to hell” for deciding that Jim should be free—with tears streaming down their faces. They get it. Rafe (which is what they call him) then heightens their understanding by making them see that Huck is wrong in the eyes of his society, and that they must sometimes be themselves.

His job is not all easy, as we see when he disciplines three students, but the fruits of his labor are obvious: Some students return after a few years and help out, and others who have gone on to be financially successful donate money and services to his program to help pay for two trips during the year.

Within the film, we get to see the kids become familiar with a fair amount of Shakespeare. The class will put on Hamlet at the end of the year, and they’ll get it as well. Along the way, Michael York and Sir Ian McKellen visit the class. But it's obvious that Rafe is the star. He makes sure aspirants for the play know that being in it means, “Killing your TV” and “Working harder than you’ve ever worked before.”

One question: Do your students cry when the year is up because they will be leaving your class? It’s obvious that these kids love Rafe. The man is definitely an inspiration to those in the teaching profession.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Testing, Standards, and Good Teaching Practices

— Douglas Grudzina


We certainly seem to live and work in an alphabet soup (pardon the cliché) of standardized tests. You almost have to wonder where they all came from.

(Actually, we did do a neat little overview of the history of the SAT in May. The others just sort of snuck in over time, mostly in response to the 1980s panic that we had become A Nation at Risk).

Don’t get me wrong, I spent some of the best years of my teaching career helping to write state standards and assessment, and I (almost) wholeheartedly believe that there needs to be some kind of external audit of student achievement. Nonetheless, I will be the first one to admit that too much emphasis on “the Test,” and too little understanding of the intent of the standards can lead to some pretty awful abuses.

A case in point: Poof! Schools in Orlando Area, Other Districts Teaching Canned Phrases for FCAT Essays

Now, lest we be too quick to judge, and point accusing fingers at our friends in Florida, insisting that something like that could never happen in our state, let’s remember that every one of us in the classroom has faced text anxiety at one time or another; and threats of tying salary and job security to our students’ success on the Test does nothing to alleviate that anxiety (another discussion for another day).

But do many of us really believe that teaching our students a couple of pat phrases to toss into an essay is good writing instruction — or even good test preparation?

Clearly, the article is not talking about providing organizational templates like the five-paragraph format (which should be abandoned for more sophisticated structures no later than tenth grade!), or teaching and learning aids like frame paragraphs (which should also be abandoned as soon as possible). This article is clearly addressing the phenomenon of spoonfeeding the kids potboiler words and phrases: to score a 3 on your essay, use a sentence that begins with “Poof!” To score a 4, use the word kaleidoscope.

Officials can insist that such a practice is not “technically cheating,” but…come on. It’s the same kind of not-cheating as fasting on the day before your diet-group weigh-in, or showing up at your book club having read only the Cliff’s Notes. Yes, we want our kids to pass the test, but is passing the test the goal? The only goal? The most important goal?

Do we really believe that good writers will score badly on the test? Or do we simply want to mask the number of not-so-good-writers we have? Wouldn’t it be great if we could help those not-so-good writers become good writers?

Luckily, we can.

Good instruction—the kind that results in real student learning—and good test preparation—the kind that reduces test anxiety so that kids can really show what they’re able to do—are not mutually exclusive.

If test prep is your goal (and there is nothing wrong with priming your kids to reduce their anxiety), Prestwick House carries a large line of How to Prepare for the—Fill-in-Your-State-Test’s-Initials books. Each is written to its state’s standards and assessment. They’re all pretty affordable, too.

PWH also offers Excelling on the CAHSEE and Excelling on the FCAT. (Sorry about the other states with other initials; we’ll get to you eventually.)

If you’re in need of good materials for writing instruction—with strong implications for student success on standardized tests—we’ve got that too. If you haven’t looked at our Three Simple Truths and Six Essential Traits of Powerful Writing series, you need to. Book One encourages students to organize their essays along five-paragraph lines, but Book Two begins to wean them from that formula. And all four books provide instruction and practice in writing assessment-type essays.

We also offer Grammar for Writing and Maximum Impact, both of which have very successfully helped students develop the language skills at the root of high-scoring assessment essays. For more advanced students—those who are already likely to “pass” the test, but could possibly achieve top scores— Rhetorical Devices provides a much more effective means of spicing up your students’ writing than merely having them memorize and spit out a few key phrases every now and then.

So, whether your students are headed for the CSAP, the HSTEC, the PSSA, or the LMNOP, you don’t need to resort to questionable tactics that teach your students nothing more than that expedience trumps achievement. Take a look at one of our catalogues, browse our web site, or call one of our in-house curriculum experts at (800)-932-4593 and let’s find you the materials you need for your students to succeed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. What famous writer claimed she did most of the plotting for her books while sitting in a bathtub munching on apples?
  2. What American novelist was challenged to a duel and beaten by a woman he later married?
  3. Who was the inspiration for the popular sixteenth-century nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet?
  4. What future playwright was expelled from Princeton University by Woodrow Wilson when the American president-to-be was president of the university?
  5. What famous author wrote under the pen names Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and W. Apaminondas Adrastus Blab before switching to the name with which he gained fame?

In what writer's work did author Cicily Isabel Fairfield Andrews find her famous pseudonym--Rebecca West?

Henrik Ibsen's. Rebecca West is the name of the strong-willed heroine in his 1866 play, Rosmersholm.

What American writer, while a war correspondent, is credited with capturing a town single-handedly during the Spanish-American War?

Stephen Crane. The town was Juana Diaz in Puerto Rico; the resistance was nonexistent.

How many Shakespearean plays include mention of America?

The Comedy of Errors (Act III, Scene ii).

Which award-winning Jerzy Kosinski novel was repeatedly rejected by publishers when it was resubmitted under a different title 9 years after its original publication?

In 1977, as an experiment, Chuck Ross typed up a fresh manuscript copy of Jerzy Kosinski's novel Steps, which had won the National Book Award in 1969 for best work of fiction, changed the title, and submitted the work under his by-line to 14 publishers. All of them rejected the novel, including Random House, the book's original publisher.

In the English language, what are the days of the week named after?

In English, the days of the week are named after the Saxon gods (except for Saturday, which is named after the Roman god of agriculture). Sunday is named after the sun, Monday after the moon, Tuesday after Tiw, Wednesday after Woden, Thursday after Thor, Friday after Frige, and Saturday after Saturn.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Frank McCourt August 19, 1930 - July 19, 2009

"Stock your mind, stock your mind. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. In what writer's work did author Isabel Fairfield Andrews find her famous pseudonym Rebecca West?
  2. What American Writer, while acting as a war correspondent, is credited with single-handedly capturing a town during the Spanish-American War?
  3. How many Shakespearean plays include mention of America?
  4. Which award-winning Jerzy Kosinski novel was repeatedly rejected by publishers which it was resubmitted under a different title 9 years after its original publication?
  5. In the English language, what are the days of the week named after?

Last Week's Answers

What writer contemporary to T.S. Eliot nicknamed him "Old Possum"?

Ezra Pound, a poet, critic, and a major figure of the Modernist movement, famous for his work with major contemporaries such as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, and especially T. S. Eliot gave Eliot the nickname “Old Possum.” Eliot later used the nickname in his work Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

In later versions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the wicked Queen falls off a precipice and dies. How does she meet her end in the original Grimm brothers fairy tale?

She was condemned to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she died.

Where does the word abracadabra come from?

The word "abracadabra" originated in Roman times as part of a prayer to the god Abraxas.

What book was once banned by the Eldon, Missouri library because it contained 39 "objectionable" words?

The American Heritage Dictionary.

What cultural phenomena did psychiatrist Fredric Wertheim link to juvenile delinquency in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent?

Comic books. His book led to Senate hearings and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, which banned "all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, and masochism."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Great Teachers: Born or Made?

By Paul Moliken, Prestwick House Senior Editor

I went to an all-boys academic high school in Philadelphia back in the middle of the last century. The teachers there placed more knowledge into my head than 95% of the professors I had in college. While the emphasis was on learning, appreciation, and discovery, it was always clear that wit went hand in hand with wisdom when it came to teaching. The popular classes, the ones students craved to be assigned to were those in which the teacher did more than simply lecture. He or she was born to the task of stimulating the brains of intellectually curious adolescents. That ability cannot be taught in education classes, in standard deviations, or in bell curves, all of which are useful, but unnecessary in the hands of a skilled educator and dreadfully dull in the hands of a teacher who never deviates from prepared notes.

One English teacher foisted upon his classes 10,000 word essays on arcane and difficult subjects, which he graded on an upwards curve, making sure that the best actually were head and shoulders above the rest. He was extraordinarily difficult, yet admired and respected for his knowledge and ability to teach. Once asked if he threw the essays down the stairs and graded them at random based on where they landed, Mr. R_____ responded dryly, “No, I throw them into the air, and those that don’t come down get A’s.” He was among the most beloved teachers we ever encountered. How many teachers actually deserve that adjective? Those who are born knowing how to reach young minds.

Mr. D­____, a physics teacher, just out of college, spoke to us of the properties of simple machines [this is as boring as is possible to be boring to someone interested in poetry and language], but he once lectured while standing on his hands for at least ten minutes. I still remember: “Work equals force times distance.” We saw it in practice, as the physics was explained by a born teacher who knew how to inspire.

How was I going to grasp mole weights or memorize the periodic chart of the elements if I just didn’t care about the subject? My chemistry professor, Dr. B­­­­____, made his classes fascinating because each day he presented us with a riddle or told a long hilarious story that illustrated some principle of chemistry. Why was the night watchman’s gold watch discovered in the vat of hydrochloric acid, but not his bones? The answer is, not as one student responded, because “It took a licking and kept on ticking” but because “Noble metals are impervious to acids.” This man understood the power of a joke to make a point. He was born to teach.

The three anecdotes above are not meant to imply that students will not succeed through straight lecturing or memorization of facts; the stories are designed to illustrate my point that a bit of relaxation and a lessening of "teacher dispenses words of wisdom, and the students absorb them" will invariably help students grasp what the teacher needs to impart.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. What writer contemporary to T.S. Eliot nicknamed him "Old Possum"?
  2. In later versions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the evil Queen plummets to her death off of a precipice. How does she die in the original Brothers Grimm tale?
  3. Where does the word abracadabra come from?
  4. Which book was banned by a public library in Missouri because it contained 39 objectionable words?
  5. What cultural phenomena did psychiatrist Fredric Wertheim link to juvenile delinquency in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent?

Where does the term “salary” come from?

Part of a Roman soldier's pay was called salarium argentium, "salt money", which was used to buy the then-precious commodity, and so pay today is called a "salary".

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, Dr. Watson is said to have suffered a bullet wound during the war. Where was he shot?

Interestingly enough we are told in A Study in Scarlet that he has been shot in the shoulder, but according to The Sign of Four, he was shot in the in the leg.

What famous Russian novelist and short story writer had several butterflies named after him?

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, was also a distinguished etymologist. The genus Nabokovia was named after him in honor of this work, as were a number of butterfly and moth species including many of the genera Madeleinea and Pseudolucia.

What best-selling author opened the first Saab auto dealership in the United States?

Kurt Vonnegut.

What famous writer wished to ban Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn from American public libraries, stating it was inappropriate for "our pure-minded lads and lassies"?

Little Women author, Louisa May Alcott.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What Business and Education Can Accomplish Through Partnership

In conjunction with the Business, Industry, and Education Alliance’s annual Teacher Externship Program, Prestwick House was thrilled to host two teacher externs from area schools. Delaware teachers June Craig and Michelle Peeling both spent three days speaking with various members of the Prestwick House staff, viewing products, asking questions, and getting a general idea of what a publishing company is all about.

The externship culminated in a round-table discussion during which the Prestwick House staff was able to ask questions about the changing school environment and how we might improve our products to help teachers in the field. The discussion was very informative and generated conversations on everything from the changing trends in education and the evolution of teaching techniques, to ways teachers use technology in the classroom.

“It was great to be able to share the world of publishing with teachers, but we really got a lot out of it, too,” says Prestwick House General Manager, Keith Bergstrom. “The chance to just sit and talk about how and why we do what we do was really valuable, and talking about the way that dedicated teachers (like Michelle and June) do things in their classrooms both validates what we’re doing and gives us some great ideas on how to improve our products.”

“One of the key themes of the round table discussion was the fact that educators are facing more difficulties today than they were ever before,” adds Prestwick House Staff Writer, Stephanie Polukis. “The most important members of our community, who are teaching, training, and preparing the future leaders of America, are finding it increasingly more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Since Prestwick House's mission is to lighten the burden on educators and make products that will help English teachers, it is absolutely necessary for our company stay up to date with current difficulties and trends in today’s schools.”

Prestwick House Brand Manager, Jerry Clark, agrees saying, “I found the experience very informative, especially in the area of how technology is being used in the classroom. A number of creative ideas came forth for new products that are sure to fulfill a need for teachers. We’re excited to get a few new prototypes under development in the coming months.”

Following the experience, all teacher externs attended a closing meeting. When BIEA evaluated the program’s success rate through questionnaires and discussion, responses from teacher externs were overwhelmingly positive.

“The Teacher Externship Program is an example of what business and education can accomplish through partnership,” writes Lori Aldrich, of the Delaware Business, Industry, Education Alliance. ‘Outstanding’ is the definitive word that was expressed by educators to describe […] the experience.”

“You, along with so many other Delaware mentors, impacted over 100 teachers state wide,” writes Michelle Peeling regarding her externship experience at Prestwick House. “Thanks for your continuing support and for being such a valuable resource for English/Language Arts teachers nationwide.”

Prestwick House staff was honored to have the opportunity to host teacher externs and hopes to continue this program in future years.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

EduBlogger Favorites: My Twitter #FollowFriday and #TeacherTuesday Recommended Resources

In recent months, I have spent quite some time sifting through the blogs of some of my fellow Tweeters and members of the English Companion Ning. In looking for great content to share with teachers, I have found a few indispensible, go-to sources for great information.

These bloggers are teachers, administrators, or just plain old advocates for education who are interested in starting discussions on how to improve things in the educational realm. They are constantly piquing my interest and have given me many resources to pass on.

If you don’t see your favorite edu blogger, please feel free to suggest your favorites in the comments section, and I’ll be happy to add them!

English Companion Ning

I’ve already done my plug for the English Companion Ning both here at the Prestwick Café blog and in our most recent Footnotes Newsletter, but I feel the need to reiterate that it is an absolutely essential resource for those in the English education field. The variety of active forums, blogs, and groups in which you can discuss topics with other teachers is almost overwhelming and the quickness with which others respond to your inquiries is impressive. Answers and suggestions given here are always thorough and thought-provoking.

And while you’re getting your feet wet with the EC Ning, you should check out EC Ning creator Jim Burke’s English Companion Blog for even more useful information.

Larry Ferlazzo’s Education Blog

Concentrating in websites that will help you teach ELL, ESL and EFL, Larry Ferlazzo’s website is a great resource for all sorts of information on education. Specializing in Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced English Language Learners (as well as native English speakers) at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California Larry Ferlazzo has been a high school teacher for five years after spending nineteen years working as a community organizer.

In addition to writing this blog and maintaining his website, Larry writes regularly for In Practice, a blog created by Alice Mercer in 2007 and written by a group of teachers from around the world who teach in low-income communities.

The Edurati Review

This site, sort of a news feed for what’s going on in education, derives its name from edu(cation) and (lit)erati. 'Edurati' is used to refer to a “new wave of educators, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and activists driving catalytic innovation in public education.” My fellow tweeters, Chad Ratliff, Jason Flom, and Kevin D. Washburn are all contributors to this blog, and give a unique insight on various issues in education. This is one of the websites I check daily, and I am genuinely excited when there’s a new post to read!

Clerestory Learning Blog Spot

Speaking of Kevin D. Washburn, his blog is not only well-written and interesting but his focus on the quality of instruction is similar to Prestwick House’s (which makes it extremely fun for me to read). His “experience as a teacher in elementary through college level classrooms and positions in curriculum and instruction combine with his penchant for reading and research in both educational and scientific areas to uncover important implications for learning.”

New Teacher Resource Center

This blog was created by Dorit Sasson, freelance writer and ESL teacher, and is dedicated to supporting new teachers. There are constantly new posts and links on developing strategies for succeeding in the classroom including tips on lesson planning, classroom management, and discovering different learning styles and teaching methods.

Keeping Kids First

This blog written by Kelly Hines is witty, fun, and covers a number of interesting education topics. As stated in the title, this 4th grade teacher is adamant about kids and education and her blog is definitely a must-read.

Other Favorites:

Dana M. Huff’s English Blog

Shelly Terrell’s Teacher Boot Camp Blog

Burcu Akyol’s EFL Blog

Shelly Blake-Plock’s Teach Paperless Blog