Monday, April 29, 2013

New 'Gatsby' cover provokes strong reactions

by Derek Spencer

F. Scott's Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby is getting the big-budget Hollywood treatment, and the literary world is all in a tizzy over the cover for the movie tie-in edition of the book. The New York Times details what all the furor's all about:

NYT - "Judging 'Gatsby' by Its Covers"

Palpable outrage from some! Open derision from others! . . . And also some, you know, reasonable discussion. It's a cool article.

When Gatsby was first published, none other than literary luminary Ernest Hemingway denounced Gatsby's original cover — the one now being ardently defended by those who despise the new cover. Is the old cover truly far superior to the new, or are we incapable of divorcing our analysis from the thing's sheer cultural weight? Are we allowing tradition to cloud our judgment?

Well . . . I would say the old cover is indeed superior. One of the best aspects of the traditional cover is that it suggests one of the motifs used in the novel: the billboard displaying the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. However, the eyes clearly belong to a lady — most likely Daisy Buchanan. The old cover has a timeless quality to it, one that the movie tie-in edition, with its emphasis on specific actors, cannot capture. The new cover is more like Gatsby's idealized version of Daisy: frozen at a specific moment in time.

And that's fine! While The Great Gatsby is a perennial favorite, the new film can only increase the novel's cultural profile and introduce this American Lit classic to a wider audience. If it takes some flashy images of Leo DiCaprio and co. to do it, well, I'm not too worried. Let's not forget: regardless of any book cover's artistic merit, the ideas on the pages inside are what counts. No new cover can change that.

(And at least the new cover incorporates some nifty Art Deco touches. It's not all bad.)

Which version do you prefer? Let us know what you think in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Differentiated Instruction: Ideas and resources for professional development

by Derek Spencer

Hi there! Perhaps you've heard a bit about Differentiated Instruction (or "DI" for short) in the past couple of years, but for those who haven't, DI is a teaching philosophy founded on the idea that different students learn in different ways. When we talk about people as "visual learners," or "auditory learners," or "those who learn by doing," we're talking about people who learn best when the instruction they receive is tailored to their unique strengths.

Each student's optimal learning style is just one variable that teachers must account for in a DI classroom, however. DI emphasizes knowing your students — the more you know about your students as individuals, the more effectively you can build your lesson plans and deliver quality instruction. In a DI classroom, your lessons should be structured to reach all of your students, not just a select few. So, one of the keys to true DI is incorporating material for several learning styles into each lesson you plan.

Students are people, and everyone's different; unless your classroom is completely homogeneous (the likelihood of which is minuscule), you're going to have to account for students of different ability levels. One common misconception about DI is that students of lower ability should receive instruction that is fundamentally different from that which higher-ability students receive — don't fall into this trap!

The primary objective for true DI is to get students of all learning types to achieve the same goals — regardless of ability level. All your students should be working toward the same learning objectives; your less-capable students might simply need more scaffolding to achieve those objectives. If you give them this scaffolding and help them develop their weaker skills, they won't be your lower-ability students for long. 


This page at The Center for Learning contains a webinar titled How can differentiation be achieved —without putting too much burden on teachers? It's a good introduction to and explanation of DI.

This webinar explains how DI and the Common Core can work together.

We offer many kinds of unit plans and resources for many different types of learners. The Levels of Understanding series is especially suited to a DI approach; it's based on Bloom's Taxonomy, and the questions within help students progress through lower-order tasks and acquire the ability to evaluate texts. If that sounds like something you could use in your classroom, pop on over to and give it a look.

As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How Do I Choose Informational Texts for my English Classroom?

by Derek Spencer

The advent of the Common Core State Standards has spurred a good amount of discussion about the role of “informational texts” in the classroom. But what exactly do the Standards mean when they refer to informational texts, and how do you choose informational texts of high quality? We’ll do our best to answer those questions in this article. If you’re teaching in a state that has adopted the Common Core, here’s a quick guide to what you need to know.

Standard 10: Range, Quality, & Complexity

Standard 10 details three aspects that educators should consider when selecting informational texts: Range, Quality, and Complexity. We’re going to tackle each of these items one at a time.


Standard 10 groups English Language Arts texts into two major categories: “Literature” and “Informational Text.” Informational Text includes a range of broad genres: literary nonfiction, historical texts, scientific documents, and technical accounts. The one thing these genres have in common is that they’re all nonfiction.

The standard divides these large genres into several subgenres, including arguments; essays; biographies; journalism; and historical, scientific, technical, or economic accounts. Texts in this last category must be “written for a broad audience.” We interpret this to mean that standards-appropriate texts in this category present the author’s ideas in language that people outside the author’s discipline can understand. Jargon should be kept to a minimum. Where jargon is necessary, it should be clearly defined and thoroughly explained when introduced.


Of these three aspects, quality is the most subjective. When you’re examining a text’s quality, one of the first things to consider is the text’s importance or significance, whether cultural or historical. For example, the Declaration of Independence is highly significant, both historically and culturally. These qualities, along with the Declaration’s complexity, make it an excellent informational text. As a general rule, a text’s importance correlates strongly with its quality.

Now, this isn’t to say that you should exclude contemporary works — certainly not. However, selecting contemporary texts may be more challenging, especially if a consensus hasn’t been reached concerning the text’s quality. Here are a few questions you might ask yourself while examining a contemporary text:

  • How likely is this text to be historically or culturally significant? 
  • Does this text say something important about human nature?
  • Does this text say something important about the natural world?
  • Does this text say something important about society?
  • Does this text present a philosophy/ideology/technological advancement that is likely to change the way people think, work, live, etc.?

This list is, of course, non-exhaustive; please feel free to add and discuss entries in the comments.


When it comes to the standards, we can think of complexity as a synonym for “difficulty.” As students progress through the grades, the complexity of the texts they’re assigned should increase. Supplementary information about the standards presents three attributes educators should evaluate when measuring text complexity: Qualitative factors, Quantitative factors, and Reader and task considerations.

Qualitative factors are those elements of a text that are best measured by human readers, e.g., irony, purpose, multiple meanings, etc. Consider Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. A human reader will discern that Swift is not actually advocating that the Irish sell their children as food; a computer will likely interpret the satirical essay as straight-faced economic advice.

Texts that have multiple layers of meaning, take unconventional structures, use figurative or ambiguous language, and/or assume a high level of knowledge on the reader’s part are complex. Texts that have a single meaning, use conventional structure and direct language, and always present the reader with background on unfamiliar concepts are not.

Quantitative factors are those elements of a text that are best measured by a computer, e.g., word and sentence length — items that can be counted. Several measures have been established to measure quantitative complexity, with Flesch-Kincaid and Lexile measures being two of the more popular evaluation tools.

Reader and task considerations are those best measured by teachers. As a teacher, you know your students best — you know who excels and who struggles when it comes to reading tasks, and the standard allows (and yes, expects) you to tailor your curriculum to your students’ specific needs.

You have the freedom to choose the texts you want to teach; as long as your texts meet the qualitative and quantitative requirements described above, you’re good to go. The Standards do include a list of what they call “exemplar” texts — texts that meet the qualitative and quantitative requirements — but you don’t have to teach a text if you determine it won’t be appropriate for your students.

Take Range, Quality, and Complexity into account when selecting informational texts for your English classroom and you'll never go wrong.

For further reading on text complexity, check out this link:

For a list of text exemplars and sample performance tasks:

If you’re looking for help in teaching informational texts we have a series titled, appropriately, Reading Informational Texts. Each book contains several passages from informational texts, complete with qualitative and quantitative measures of text complexity, annotations, contextual vocabulary definitions, and short-answer and essay questions. Take a look and see what you think!

We welcome friendly discussion in our comments section. If you see any errors or misconceptions, please let us know — we want to hear from you so we can serve you as well as possible. As always, thanks for reading!

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Brief History of Punctuation, Plus: Fun with Manicules

by Derek Spencer

Over at Shady Characters, Keith Houston presents a brief summary of the history of punctuation.

Very cool. I knew the function of the asterism ( , not to be confused with the "therefore" symbol used in logic, ), but I had no idea how the manicule ( ) was meant to be used.

In the case of the manicule, form follows function: it's used to point the reader's attention to important bits of text. Sadly, it looks just awful at smaller sizes — which surely contributed to its falling out of favor. Just look at the manicule in 12 pt type:

Yeah . . . this isn't so good. Sort of looks like a bird —
I'm thinking a cardinal.

The only way I've found to make the manicule look good is to enlarge it to a ridiculous degree. Here it is in glorious 100 pt:

Of course, if it only looks good at large sizes, using it on a regular basis is probably more trouble than it's worth. A shame for those of us who want to clothe our websites in ostentatious 19th-century trappings.

Stay tuned for Wednesday's edition — we'll be discussing the difference between general nonfiction and informational texts. Thanks for reading!

Congratulations 2013 Pulitzer Prize Winners!

by Derek Spencer

The 2013 Pulitzer Prize winners have been announced! Last year the board didn't award a prize for fiction, so it's great to see a novel recognized this year. Among the winners for 2013:


The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson

Reviewers say this meticulously researched novel gives readers a vital perspective into the lives of ordinary North Korean citizens. Propaganda, moral quandaries, and political intrigue abound. I haven't read this one yet, but I'm definitely putting it on the list.

General Nonfiction

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

by Gilbert King

Devil in the Grove details the circumstances surrounding the trial of four young men falsely accused of rape in 1940s Florida. Thurgood Marshall (the lawyer who would later go on to win the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education) takes up their defense in the face of intense societal pressure and threats on his life.


The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

by Tom Reiss

In The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas wrote some of the best-loved adventure stories of his time. It turns out Mr. Dumas had a fantastic model on whom to base his stories of derring-do: his father, a general in the French army. The Black Count details the exploits of the elder Dumas, a fascinating, principled man.

Are you teaching any of these texts in your classroom? Let us know what you think of them in the comments!

See all the winners at the Pulitzer Prize website:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Now Available! College and Career Readiness: Writing

College and Career Readiness: Writing -- Based on the Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness: Writing -- book covers

Our warehouse has just received the first two books in our new College and Career Readiness: Writing program!

Built from the ground up with the Common Core State Standards at the foundation, College and Career Readiness: Writing guides students through every step of the writing process, from brainstorming ideas to completing a final draft.

Students will hone their writing skills while they practice crafting excellent pieces across four genres: personal, informative, persuasive, and research writing. The Teacher's Edition details precisely how every lesson aligns with the Common Core State Standards, and it also includes a handy scoring rubric.

Find out more about how this outstanding new program will help you transform your students into amazing writers!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

College and Career Readiness: Writing — FAQs

Want to learn more about our new series, College and Career Readiness: Writing?

We sat down with the series creator, Doug Grudzina, and asked him a little bit about the program. Here's what he told us:

1. What is College and Career Readiness: Writing?
College and Career Readiness: Writing is a four-year writing series designed expressly to teach students the types and purposes of writing described in the Common Core State Standards as essential for a high school graduate.

Models and scoring guides at each level help students attain the high quality of writing necessary for their successful entry into college or a career.

2. What is “College and Career Readiness”?
“College and Career Readiness” is the phrase adopted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative to describe the ultimate goal of a standards-based educational program. In past state and national endeavors, the standard became an end in itself, and instruction was geared toward helping students “meet the standard.” The CCSSI, however, recognizes that the objective is not the standard but a state of readiness.

3. What types of writing are covered in the series?
Every type and purpose of writing described in the Common Core State Standards is covered: Narrative/Personal, Informative/Explanatory, Argumentative/Persuasive. Each assignment is designed to address the specific descriptors and criteria of each type of writing at every grade level.

Because the standards also describe long-term research projects as well as short, timed, and impromptu writing opportunities, these are also included.

4. Toward what grade levels is this series geared?
The complete series will be geared for grades 9 through 12.

5. Why did you begin the series in the middle with Grades 10 and 11?
The Common Core State Standards at the 9 – 12 level are divided into two clusters: 9 – 10 and 11 – 12. We decided to introduce our series by creating one book for each cluster, hence 10 and 11. When developed, the Grade 9 book will cover the introductory and “first-step” skills assumed in the Grade 10 book, and the Grade 12 book will complete what the student has almost mastered in Grade 11 to make him or her fully college and career ready.

6. Is this series sequential or recursive?
Like the standards themselves, the College and Career Readiness: Writing series is recursive. At each grade level, students revisit the same types and purposes of writing, but each level requires (and fosters) more mature thinking and reasoning, increased sophistication, and greater confidence and competence in every aspect of the thinking and writing process.

7. Who should use this series?
Certainly any school that is adapting its curriculum to address the Common Core State Standards will find this series essential as the core of its across-the-curriculum writing program. Even private schools and homeschool organizations that are not directly accountable to the standards will find that the instruction and assignments in this series will produce college-and-career-ready students by the end of twelfth grade.

In short, every student bound for college or a post-school career (and his or her teachers) will benefit from College and Career Readiness: Writing.

8. Is this book intended for use as core curriculum or as a supplemental text?
College and Career Readiness: Writing is intended for use as your core writing program, grades 9 – 12, across several disciplines, especially English language arts and social studies.

9. Can this series be used in an interdisciplinary writing program (writing across the curriculum)?
Absolutely. You will find this series especially useful in pairing English language arts and social studies reading and writing. Every type and purpose of writing covered invites topics from multiple disciplines. Many of the student models illustrate writing in non-ELA settings.

The research section includes two full research projects: an ELA/literary topic and something from another discipline.

10. Is this series compatible with the Common Core State Standards?
More than compatible, these books are written with the standards at the core of the instruction. Each teacher’s guide explicitly lays out the Common Core State Standard addressed by every part of every assignment. The language in the scoring rubrics is drawn directly from the standards to guarantee that everything the student writes — and the rigor with which it is scored — will foster the student’s meeting or surpassing grade-level and graduation-requirement standards as they are developed.

11. The standards are eventually going to be tied to a national assessment network or system. Will this series help prepare my students for success on these exams?
Absolutely. Several of the mini-lessons in the book address assessment essays with planning and timing strategies developed from our experience with SAT, SAT II, ACT, AP, and a number of state writing assessments.

12. There is a research component to the Common Core Standards. Is there a research component to these books?
Yes there is. Each book contains an extensive chapter on the Research Project, modeling the writing of two research papers, one on an ELA topic and one on a topic from another discipline.

The ELA project in every book models MLA-style citation and documentation. The non-ELA projects model APA and Turabian style.

13. Why isn’t this just another writing series?
First of all, this series is truly recursive. At every grade level, in the student models and in the scoring rubrics, growth is expected. For example, the type of thesis statement, depth of insight, or sophistication of organizational plan, that are perfectly acceptable in a ninth-grade essay simply will not receive a passing score in the eleventh (And this is explicitly explained to the students throughout the books).

14. My school’s students are advanced and brilliant. Must we start with the Grade 9 book in grade 9?
You know your students. If the instructions and models in the Grade 9 book do not reflect your students’ ability, by all means move them to a higher level. The series is truly recursive, so your students will learn and practice every type and purpose of writing every year. However, the instructions and models are rigorous, as the standards themselves are rigorous. The Grade 9 book might just be the right level for your students.

15. My school’s students are all working below grade level. Can I reasonably expect them to reach a state of college and career readiness?
Again, you know your students, their backgrounds, and their needs. Because the standards are clustered, and the books themselves are designed with those clusters in mind, you may find it beneficial to begin with the Grade 9 book and use it for two years; then transition to the Grade 11 book to use for two years.

All of the assignments are carefully scaffolded to help you take even a reluctant or challenged student to a higher level of achievement.

There you have it, straight from the man himself! Look for College and Career Readiness: Writing at our website on Thursday, April 4th.