Friday, April 21, 2017

My Rules for Reading

I was at a presentation by friends Lara Searcy and Josh Flores where they talked about their personal rules for reading...they challenged me to compile my own rules.

My mother always told me on those long middle-of the night feedings when I was a newborn, she'd hold me in one hand, nursing, and hold her current book in the other. I used to joke that I absorbed my love of reading through mother's milk. Years later, I found a line from Steinbeck that said much the same thing, and I gasped in recognition:

"Some literature was in the air around me. The Bible I absorbed through my skin. My uncles exuded Shakespeare, and “Pilgrim's Progress” was mixed with my mother's milk."

I pretended to read before I was in school, memorizing my Golden Book version of Cinderella. I can remember the first word I read by myself: "morning". I used the picture clue in the early reader and the context clues. In our house, everyone had a book...or two, and everyone read.

So, you'd've thought that I'd have my rules for reading right at my fingertips. But no. It took some thinking, combining, crossing come up with my rules. They are eclectic. They will make some readers cringe. Shake their heads. Roll their eyes. And I love that.

Once we learn to read, the very act of reading becomes our own. I learned early on I was not a phonetic reader, so I never tried to sound out words. I'd use pictures and context clues, like I did with "morning". If that didn't work, I *gasp* skipped the word and went on reading. And I did OK.

So, my rules of reading:

1.  Never, ever, apologize for your books. Read whatever you want. Every book makes you a stronger, more insightful reader. I have always read whatever I want. As a teen, I read Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, when my mother wanted me to read Dickens. I read Cherry Ames, and I read Dickens. I reread books. I read books that are too easy, and books that are too hard. I sometimes challenge myself, reading unfamiliar authors, about unfamiliar places.

I read trash and I read treasures. My parents never censored my books...but Mom did try to hide Peyton Place from my sisters and me (unsuccessfully in my case). Reading widely, reading bad writing and good writing, helped me hone my tastes. In my class I made sure my students saw me reading widely and indiscriminately. They saw me read.

2. Have several books going at the same time (now, for me, this includes Audible books). I can then look at my books and decide what I'm in the mood for. I'll usually have at least one novel, a young adult book (or two), a nonfiction, and a professional book, all unfinished, waiting for me. . So, I look at my titles, and grab the book that whispers to me.

3. Read the ends of books without shame. Sometimes I've been known to read the end of a the bookstore, before I buy it.

I met author Norma Fox Mazer years ago and I told her I'd just bought her book, had read the first chapter and the end. She stared in horror and asked me why, in the world, did I do that? I stammered out that I wanted to know where the book was going to take me. She whipped out a tiny notebook from her back pocket and jotted down a note. I always feared I would see myself in a book as the crazy lady who only read the ends of books.

But, that's the truth. I want to know the end of the journey, often before I've taken the first step. No guilt. Just a fast way to sort through all the books competing for my attention. Most of the time I will choose to read the book, knowing the conclusion. That way I can savor the book, the language. I can see the foreshadowing clues. Enjoy my read.

4. Never feel impelled to finish a book. I usually do finish books, but if I don't, I can toss them aside without a qualm. I listened to my students talk about giving a book 10 pages, or 50 pages, or 5 pages. I've got no arbitrary number -- I just know when it's time to put one book down so I have time for another. The two that instantly come to mind for me are Enigma and A Simple Plan. Life's too short to read books that don't engage you.

5. Read actively, with a pen, markers stickies and two (not one) bookmarks. I have one sticky bookmark at the page I started reading that day. I move the second bookmark as I read that day. I learned that trick from a student who placed one bookmark on the last page of the current reading assignment and another marked his progress toward that goal. I just happily hopscotch my bookmarks day by day. I use stickies to mark beautiful passages, insights, figurative language. Good writing. Before I used stickies, I dog-eared the pages I wanted to remember. With not an ounce of regret.

My reading buddy and I have agreed that if we borrow someone else's book and want to mark or highlight, we just do it...and then buy our friend a new book, keeping the one we read and marked.

6. Claim the book as your own. I have intense conversations with the book and the author. I write notes in the margin. Once a book is in my hands, it's my book, and I'm in charge of how I read. One student brought up an old copy of Jane Eyre, laughing. I'd read it, and had made angry comments about Rochester in the margin. On one page I'd written, "Jerk!" She agreed. At that point in the novel, he was a jerk. And I needed to document that fact.

I make a book mean what I need it to mean. I read slowly; I read quickly. I skip the boring parts (long paragraphs of description) and skim until I find dialogue. A conversation reminded me of the books through which I skipped the most: Fellowship of the Rings -- especially the first time I read it. I would warn first-timers to Tolkien that there will be a lot of walking and a lot of's ok to skip. When I read Grisham's The Firm, I skipped and skipped, saying to myself, "OK -- it's a chase. I get it!" And then there's Clancy...Dear Lord. I can never make sense of his techie writing about gadgets and weapons. His books are where I learned to skip and find a conversation. Nowhere in the contract between reader and author does it say I must read every word. My book. My choice.

I reread favorite passages. I reread favorite books and learn something new every time.

I fell in love with Joy Luck Club when it first came out. I read it from cover to cover (yes, after I read the ending). Then I read it again, this time reading all the mothers' stories together, then the daughters' stories. Then I read it again, reading the mother-daughter stories together. Each rereading added meaning for me. I was in charge. I could read as I pleased

7. Respond to books. I laugh out loud. I gasp. I cry. When I read with my students, I always warned them that at least once in the semester I'd cry. Their job, if they saw me, was to roll their eyes and smile indulgently. Once, in class, while reading the ending of Twelve, I just about cried off my makeup. I didn't realize it, but a student had been watching me. When I put the book down and tried to compose myself, she tiptoed out of her desk, crept to my desk, picked up the book, returned to her desk, and started reading. I laughed so often that we began to call those books that elicited laughs, "Snork Books." Students often asked for a Snork Book. My emotional responses to my books did as much to sell books to teens as any book talk.

8.  Return to the beginning of the book and reread or copy your beautiful passages. So often, when I do that, I find I've identified important insights, themes, symbols. Without trying to. I just mark words that sing for me. My students could (and did) decide which of my books was worthwhile by seeing how many stickies I had in the book.

9. Take the time to think about your books and write about them. Once for my birthday a friend gave me a book journal. I loved it. I read and wrote in front of my students. The act of reading became more meaningful because as I read, I was thinking about what I wanted to say about the book. What quotes I might include. This was my last reflection of the book, and it helped me put it in a bright focus. I filled up probably 10 journals until I discovered Long before I joined Facebook, I was showing the site to my students. One told me goodreads sounded like Facebook for book nerds. And it is. It's a place to think about and write about books, and to see what your friends are reading. Just this month, I've had conversations with former students about our books, and what we might read next. More than my solitary journal, goodreads reminds me that reading is very social...when we find a book that moves us, we really want to share it with someone. Goodreads will link to FB and to Twitter, so friends can see what I'm reading.

10. Return to your TBR stack (or, for me, my kindle or my audible application -- yes, I'm an omnivorous reader. Love my audible when I walk, my kindle when I travel -- instead of filling half my suitcase with books so I'd always have one, my 'real' physical books when I want to return over and over to those meaningful favorites) and decide what I'm in the mood for, and grab the next one.

My rules are not particularly academic or systematic or logical. But they're mine.

I'm interested, what are some of YOUR reading rules?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

SB393 Keeps Sailing Through the Legislature.

Just days after watching Representative David Brumbaugh urge and cajole and charm SB393 through committee last Thursday, he died of what I've heard was a massive heart attack. I'd not had reason to speak with him in the past, but seeing the sincere mourning of prominent Oklahomans, I can see he was well-respected. My heart goes out to his family on such a sad day for them.

There are days that leave me scratching my very old grey head, trying to put contradictory stories and experiences into some kind of sense. Today is one. A wacky Thursday.

I attended the General Government Oversight and Accountability Committee meeting today…to hear an education bill. An education bill that was not going to be heard in the Common Education Committee, so it was reassigned to this committee I’d never heard of before. The bill? Senator Brecheen’s ‘Teachers Teaching Intelligent Design and Climate Change Denial’ bill. SB393.  And I read an article about a truly generous Oklahoman who will make a huge difference in our state.

Some history on SB393 from my notes:

I attended the Senate Education Committee when Senator Brecheen introduced his bill. I noticed that he was very distracted at the beginning of the meeting. He conferred with the Assistant Chair of the Committee, Senator Ron Sharp, and then caught the attention of the Ginger Tinney, the Executive Director of Professional Oklahoma Educators, who was sitting in the room. Brecheen and Tinney left the chambers together and returned, talking about a paper the senator held. I wrote in my notebook: “Brecheen and Tinney working something?”

Then minutes later, Senator Brecheen was asked to explain and present SB393. I realized that all the scurrying around made sense. He started his presentation by telling us that Louisiana and Tennessee both have similar bills, and they have not been sued.  Interesting way to introduce your bill, huh? He then got down to business. His bill protects teachers. Empowers teachers. He read from a paper (the one I saw?), quoting a survey from POE that teachers felt pressure when they avoided teaching certain subjects in science. 7% of those surveyed felt ‘pressure’ when they taught climate change denial, and 21% reported ‘pressure’ when they taught a form of intelligent design. No word on the size of the survey. We know POE may have 7000-10,000 teachers as active members. Not all of them would have contacted about a science survey. So, the question I have had since that first day is, “21% of how many returned surveys?” I think it’s a valid question that deserves an answer, since we seem to be about to make law based on those 21% surveyed. Instead of working on the budget.

Lots of lip service was given to ‘both points of view…looking at both sides…the full realm of science.” We were told that “Indoctrination (I assume this is current science teaching) is not critical thinking,” and the pathway to a Leftist-leaning agenda. We were assured this bill allows teachers, with no liability, to share documents about ‘both sides’ of ‘the argument.’ Senator Brecheen promises that this will build better scientists…and even used Galileo as an example…sorry, I lost the thread. Only one senator voted no…thank you, Senator J.J. Dossett. I cannot share the words I wrote in my notebook that day…they were vitriolic.

I was NOT there when the bill passed the Senate, but pass it did. This time, 10 senators voted no. Thank you, Senators Bass, Bice, Dossett, Floyd, Holt, Matthews, Paxton, Pittman, Sparks, and Yen.

The bill was then assigned to the House Common Education Committee, but the Chair chose not to hear the bill. Since this is the last week for bills (that originated in the other House) to be heard in committee I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping we were finished with this bill.

But then Senator Rob Standridge, my senator, wrote an op-ed piece for the Daily Disappointment Oklahoman extolling the merits of the bill, as ‘a man of science. Senator Standridge is a trained pharmacist and runs an international business, Health Engineering Systems, from Norman.

That set off alarm bells…why would a seemingly dead bill get such a glowing review? Well, the answer is the bill wasn’t dead. It wasn’t even badly wounded. It was suddenly reassigned to this committee I visited today: General Government Oversight and Accountability. Which meets on Thursday, the very last day of legislators’ work week (funny how some are Hell-bent to force schools to be in session five days a week, when they’re not).

I did not get the memo that ‘the color’ of the day was red…we were first going to wear green…so I was a mossy blot in a sea of red.

Representative Brumbaugh, a caucus leader, is the House author and he came in armed with lots of hand-written notes. I was close enough to see that, but not the notes themselves. Rep. Brumbaugh extolled the virtues of this bill: It would promote thinking skills while giving teachers immunity. He told us it was about academic freedom. He also told us that Louisiana and Tennessee are leaders in this push (Don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily want to trip down the lane with those two state’s school law as my guide). He wants teachers to teach ‘all’ theories, promote no doctrine, and somehow keep wackoos from teaching (more on that word later).

He faced questions: Why was this bill, clearly an education bill, assigned to this committee? Lots of soft-soaping about timing, as this is the last committee meeting on Thursday. Discussion of the term “shall prohibit,” questions about limiting school boards and schools’ personnel decisions. Representative Cyndi Munson brought up my biggest concern: our students will be ill-prepared for the ACT and for higher education, for any kind of STEM profession if they’ve been taught by teachers who ignore the standards and curriculum.

Brumbaugh talked about the wonders of learning, of improving education, of open discussions, of critical thinking, of ‘circular thinking’. He promised this would contribute to educated youth.

We are grateful to Rep. George Faught for allowing public comments…five minutes for those opposed to the bill. Five minutes for those in favor. The room was packed with those of us who are opposed, but four chose to speak. One, a trained scientist, spoke of the giant skeleton discussion in her child’s science class. She argued this bill will not enhance critical thinking. Another, a retired educator, spoke to the standards and curriculum that were expected to be taught, and about the loss of local control with this bill. Another, a local science-education professor warned passage of this bill will lead to ill-prepared STEM students in higher education. Another said this bill will open up ideological, non-scientific opinions that will take time away from the classroom.

One speaker supported the bill: Professor Don Ewert, a medical researcher. His field is hearing loss research. He also beat the drum for critical thinking in an ‘intellectually safe place." He extolled freedom of interpretations, and warned about the limitations of the scientific method. Then he attacked current science textbooks as ‘slanted’. He promised that all discussions in classrooms would be fact-based. Then he brought up Neo-Darwinism, which made me scurry to Google. I am grateful to reader, Bob Melton (see comments) for finding Professor Ewert's name on the list of 100 science skeptics. How convenient for Rep. Brumbaugh that he's right here in OK...and since the Chair allowed my friends to speak, Professor Ewert was given five minutes to speak.

At the conclusion, one representative asked Rep. Brumbaugh, point blank, “Do you give your work that nothing wacko will be taught in science classes?” Brumbaugh promised. How very easy that promise came from his lips.

The bill passed the committee 4-3, with one member absent. No votes (I have already sent my thanks): Cyndi Munson, Greg Babinec, and Roger Ford. Representative Tadlock, the other Democrat with Rep. Munson did not attend the meeting.

There was a passionate young high school student at the meeting, who would have also made a great witness. As we stood in the hallway, sharing our frustration, he spoke up. “He kept talking about circular thinking as a good thing. I was taught it’s one of those logical fallacies.” You’re right, young man. That’s not a good thing, circular thinking. On closer inspection, there’s circular reasoning (which, if this is what Rep Brumbaugh meant, is pretty funny), and circular thinking (which sounds kinda…wacky), and circular thinking (now I’m confused), and circular thinking (whaa??).

So, now we have to see if the House leadership has cooler heads…whether it makes it onto the House calendar, and whether we have to drag ourselves up to 23rd and Lincoln one more time to fight for our students’ right to be taught the standards of their discipline, to be prepared for that ‘college and career’ future we all want for them all.

I said this was a head-scratching day.

As I was trying to put SB393 into some kind of sense, a friend shared a story of an Ardmore man who was moved by the fact that the Oklahoma State Science Fair would be unable to hold a contest next year because of state and federal cuts to STEM education.  James Young reached out to his representative, Pat Ownbey, about how to donate to the Science Fair. Mr. Young wrote a check for $50,000! Rep. Ownbey spoke glowingly about the opportunities this donation will afford Oklahoma students to further their education in STEM.

I’m assuming with his great commitment to STEM education, I can count on Rep. Ownbey’s no vote on SB393.

Some days just make you just roll your eyes and scratch your head. Or bang your head on your desk. 

Today was one.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dear Swish -- Letters About Testing

One of the joys of social media is keeping in touch with my former students...I see pics of their families and get to interact in their lives. Invariably, our conversations come around to books and reading.

I received this message from a former student, Amy...our conversation about testing, and what young parents need to know about testing, grew. I'm sharing (with her permission), our discussion.

Educator friends, What did I miss? What other advice do you have for Amy and other parents sending their children to public schools? I want all 'my' parents to approach public education with their eyes open, asking the right questions. My words to Amy are in italics.

Hello Swish!

I hope everything is going well with you! I want to ask your advice. My son, E,, is six. I've been homeschooling him for preschool and kindergarten. We are wrapped into a great home school group with park days every Tuesday and nature days every Friday, plus he gets to see his all-ages friends in plays, and we do a Shakespeare festival twice a year where the kids act out scenes, recite sonnets... It's awesome.

HOWEVER. I am tired. And I know it's only going to get more academically demanding as the grades go by. I want to be 'just mom' instead of trying to be everything. So I'm putting him into our local public school for first grade in the fall.

We're in California so I'm not sure how similar the standardized testing is to Oklahoma's, but that's what I wanted to pick your brain about. You've had a front row seat to that. I think you and I share the same view of them; they are a poor assessment tool, stressful for kids, undermine a teacher’s methods and take away time from other worthwhile subjects and classroom opportunities.
I'm waffling between starting a local opt-out movement at this school, or just having him take the tests and not worry about it. I don't believe there's any testing here before third grade, but if I'm going to make any waves it's probably better to start early than late.

What's your advice about standardized testing to an individual parent just getting their kids started in today's schools?

Anyway, that's the question. But I'll tell you some fun stuff since I'm already here. E. is six, and he's a bit wild, but very funny. J. is three now, and she's very sweet and sings a lot. E. LOVES to be read to. My husband or I read to him for almost an hour every night. He loves chapter books, especially if they are slightly age inappropriate, and will hardly look at picture books anymore! J. also loves to read, but she loves Dr. Seuss. She loves him so much that she has memorized The Grinch and recites it to me in the car pretty often. We all go to the beach and on little hikes often. There is so much cool stuff to do here, it's a fun place to raise kids.

I've been reading a lot. Finally got the bookshelves of my dreams lining the wall in my bedroom. And now I'm just trying to make a dent in all the books I have on them! It's been wonderful. I'm on a Norse mythology kick right now.

Hope you are doing great. I think of you often, and I'm glad I get to keep up with you a bit on Facebook. 

Love, Amy

AMY!! It doesn't surprise me that you're a hands-on, reflective parent! Your life with your kiddos sounds grand.... You've packed a lot here, and I'll need time to look for resources. There is a national opt-out group, so you might search to see if there's a CA group. You want to know if test scores are used to: *Grade schools *Evaluate teachers *Promote or retain kids. Those are all bad, bad, bad.


Then, we talked about books (as my students know we will!)…Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology—Amy has always been a passionate reader, and I remember with fondness the books we would read together and discuss…I miss her, and all my other students…


So, Have you gotten any info about what test scores will be used for? That's important information, because it predicts the direction of the pressure on parents to NOT opt-out.
If the state has some kind of school grading system (we have A-F), counselors and principals will be after high-performing kids to test...since their scores will contribute to the school's grading system.
 IF there's a 'value-added measure' which evaluates teachers on the 'growth' students show on standardized tests, kids who are 'teachable' -- most apt to show growth (NOT the very low or very high-performing kids) are the ones a teacher will who can show growth. Think of it. Gifted kids who are already at the 98th or 99th percentile have NO room for growth!! So that could adversely affect a teacher's evaluation. Teachers will be 'fighting' for those kids in the middle who have room to grow, but are NOT high-maintenance' to teach.
IF the state requires (as we do) that all 3rd graders pass a specific test to be promoted, then those kids who have NOT had the rich toddlerhood your little ones have, who are just developing a little slower than the norm, who are traumatized in the countless ways kids can be traumatized, will suffer.
In OK, 3rd grade reading and 8th grade reading are high stakes FOR KIDS. No drivers license until you have an 8th grade reading level. NO 4th grade unless you pass the third grade test. Problem is, neither of these are tests that measure a reading level...they just count the number of questions correct, and students must match a 'magic' score to prove proficiency. Oh, but wait!! That magic score, also called a 'cut score?' Teachers and students don't know what that score is when they're testing...everyone takes the test, scores are recorded, AND THEN the cut score (pass score) is set and students learn if they ‘passed’ or not.  Lunacy.

NOW, you need to find out if CA has an opt-out tests are used beyond the intended use: a snapshot of a student's achievement at this moment in time. Then you you want to opt out, or opt in?

One more thing you should know: because many states have stakes for schools, for teachers, and for students, attached to these standardized tests, they add 'benchmark' tests to check identify kids who struggle and lag behind...lots of benchmarks!! LOTS. OF. BENCHMARKS. That's the way schools can be prepared for the bad news of kids not making the grade on a test that will have high stakes for someone. And, these all take valuable time away from teaching and learning, as you mentioned above.

SO, it's not just the 'spring' tests themselves, and how they're's all the “cover-your-a** benchmarks so as not to be surprised at the end” tests. It's all the practice for the tests. That takes more time away from instruction than the actual tests.

ONE MORE THING you need to check is the state's and school's schedule of testing. No Child Left Behind Act (and its replacement, Every Student Succeeds Act – doncha love those titles??) requires states to test all kids in reading and math every year, and one science test, 3-5, 6-8 (reading and math every year, one science test). And then once - reading, math, science- in high school.
Oklahoma added MORE tests – social studies, tests every year 3-8. They also added the high stakes for kids in 3 and 8...and added End Of Instruction tests (SEVEN, when the feds only required three) for kids in high school. And they added the high stakes – students had to pass 4 out of 7 in order to graduate. Last legislative session in OK, they did away with the EOIs and the high stakes, but because of federal law, they still must test reading and math and science one time...we are not sure what this will all look like. But a bill is wending its way through the legislature that will require all high school students to take and pass a citizenship test. One more hurdle place in students’ ways by our state lawmakers, when we have been trying to lighten the load.

You have some homework: ask your school about the testing schedule and any high stakes attached. Ask about benchmark testing (they may call it something's the interim testing before the spring tests.). Google to see if your state has an opt-out group. If so, they will be very helpful in providing information and guidance.

Yeah, I've had a weird educational journey with my kids so far. Preschools out here in CA are crazy expensive, and I met and became close to a homeschooling family while I was actually pregnant with E. So right from the beginning I was researching and reading tons of material on homeschooling methods, educational philosophies (Charlotte Mason!), and curriculums.

There is so much about homeschooling that I love, and think is ideal for learning, but for my particular family it has been just too hard. I spend way too much energy on it, and I feel like for me it's made my children into part of a 'project' instead of just letting them be my kids. So I'm able to see that it's not ideal for ME, but I still have a lot of fear about putting E. into a traditional school. I wonder what is ideal for HIM, and how much sacrifice on my part that should require.

My hope is that our local school will be awesome, and that he will love it. And all the best homeschooling things are things that we can do as a family anyway. Reading, visiting museums, learning about our local plants and animals, artist study, nature journaling... So, I think it's going to work out. And I'm so excited to get a little bit of mental space back when I'm not constantly thinking about homeschooling. So. There's that.

As an English teacher I bet you constantly have old students telling you their life stories, don't you? 

I love it when I can stay close to you all...I'm so stinking proud of all of you and who you've become. Listening to your story, I'm not surprised you threw yourself into being the best teacher/mom you could be. And, yes, it's so tiring. Your first and most important and permanent job is to be their mommy. You'll always be their first teacher and their advocate. BUT you can't be your best if there's nothing left of you at the end of the day. Does that make sense? I love the way you go into a new project with your eyes and heart open, ready to learn. And eager to teach...

Absolutely. They can have many teachers, but they only get one mom. That's exactly the problem, I have nothing left to give them at the end of the day, and nothing left over for myself!
So, I'm taking this thing off my plate and I think we will all be much happier for it.