Sunday, April 29, 2012

Values can't Hide from Wordles, Thank Goodness!

I love wordles – these word clouds reveal the author’s purpose in visual ways that help both the author and reader make new value judgments about the piece.

You copy a text (I’ve used my own writing, political speeches, passages from the Bible) into the wordle website and the site analyzes word frequency. The more often the word is used, the larger it will appear in the wordle. The site lets you play with color and font and layout, and most of us know the moment we’ve found our favorite.

Recently I wordled two documents, one, in deep frustration. I studied the state of Oklahoma’s State Department of Education’s new A-F School Grading rules and wanted to see what the SDE valued. I’ve already written about my finding…

I always assign students a self-reflective midterm, and this semester most of them turned in their reflections. They’ve set goals that need to be revisited, they need to observe patterns in their reading choices and record and analyze the books and pages they’ve read so far in the semester. The last question I asked on the midterm was, “Tell me something that makes you proud of your work in Reading for Pleasure.” I wanted them to have the opportunity to think about what they'd accomplished through the nine weeks we've been together.

I went through the papers and copied all the statements, cleaning up grammar as needed. Then, I took that seven page document and wordled it.

I posted it on Facebook, and Christie Paradise, a great friend, found the SDE wordle and posted it alongside the students’ wordle. Differences popped out at all of us.

Often when I see something developing in my work that interests me, I turn it over to my students so they can observe and comment. That’s what I did. I shared both wordles and asked them to copy the words that popped out at them – and then simply write their observations.

Nearly every student saw the difference in what was valued…they identified the warm emotions of their own list and the emphasis on scores and grades from the other.

Several students’ responses are worth sharing.

“It’s kind of jarring, the difference between the two lists. Not that I expected a school-board generated policy to have the words ‘love’ or ‘proud’ in it.”

“The goals we set for ourselves are so much more genuine.”

“I don’t want to be standardized. I want to be proud of my achievements and love what I do.”

“The R4P wordle invokes a sense of discovery.”

R4P: “Students have learned to read at home, to pursue…discoveries. Most importantly, students have grown…This is awesome.”

OK A-F Grading wordle: ” means to an end, empirical, mechanical parts of a machind that creates unhappy, unmotivated puppets.”

OK A-F: “There was one word I was looking for but could not seem to find: teachers. Nowhere to be found. Their complete absence suggests they are independent of this formula…that means they ought to be independent of its consequences, of its inevitable fallout. But something in my gut tells me this is not the case.”

OK A-F: “Learning is about the numbers and not the kids.”

My kids get it. They understand setting personal learning goals and monitoring progress. They know how to take pride in achievements, even if it’s finishing, as many do, their first book read for pleasure. They know learning (and achievement) occur when both the head and the heart are fully engaged. They know joy and achievement should be partners.

What am I proud about? I’m proud my students strive for their personal learning. I’m proud they come to class with books, and read and write and talk about books. I’m proud they care about their work and are eager to share it with me.

How can we share this pride with our State Department? How can I help them sustain that pride as we turn students into test-taking automatons? How can we tell the State Department we’re preparing ourselves to be life-long readers, to be parents who read to their babies when they become parents, to be adults who can always talk about the book they’re reading at the moment?


  1. Your student comments are powerful.

  2. What an extraordinary experience! You have captured what everyone wants in education, and you did it with authentic evaluation. I particularly loved the comment from a student noting the "absence of teachers" in the state grading Wordle. There are ways to get this message out there, and together we will find them.