Monday, April 23, 2012

Current Events

There are many things going on in Massachusetts education right now. Most of them connect to literacy instruction and learning either directly or indirectly. So, I thought I would take some time to help my region be up-to-date.

By now, most of you are aware of the RETELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching of English Language Learners) initiative. Information is available at on the Department's Web site. There you will find information on the SEI (Sheltered English Immersion) Endorsement and the latest recommendations with regard to current and past Category training. The public comment period on RETELL ended Friday and the Board of Education will vote on proposed regulations at the April meeting. Information on the Board is available on the Home Page of the Department's Web site as well. WIDA (World-Class Instructional  Design and Assessment) is expected to be able to be put in place in the 2012-2013 school year. WIDA aligns with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and therefore with our new Framework for ELA and Literacy. More than that, WIDA provides academic language instruction in Math, science, and social studies as well as social and instructional language. Keep up-to-date on time lines and trainings at the Web site above or check out WIDA at

Our Race to the Top (RttT) project for developing model curriculum units with embedded performance-based assessments met and worked for two days during the first week in April. Members from schools and districts signed recommitment letters while a second cohort of educators was being recruited from member-districts. There is a full week session scheduled for August and in the meantime, content specialists and experts from our partner states will review the work so far with an eye to providing valuable feedback. The group with whom I worked has been diligent and collaborative, making good progress and with the unit complete, is putting the finishing touches on the lesson plans. It has been exciting to make visible the literacy work involved in the science units based on our literacy standards for the content disciplines.

Enhancing Content Learning with Disciplinary Literacy, Grades 6-12 is a session designed for district staff responsible for implementing/training others to consider how the literacy standards for the content disciplines have implications for all subject-area instruction. They are being offered through the Readiness Centers throughout the state. No dates are announced yet for the Southeast but you may find information at I will send out notices when the Southeast dates are arranged.
I hope you are all following the progress of PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) at You may wish to sign up for periodic email updates. Currently, ESE is working on the application process for Massachusetts PARCC Educator Leader Fellow Team of 24 K-16 educators. These educators will work with PARCC, ESE and DHE (Department of Higher Ed) to learn everything there is to know about PARCC resources and assessments. They will then disseminate that information within Massachusetts. I expect to know more next week - stay tuned.
ESE has decided to work with USED (US Department of Ed) to develop curriculum maps for the new standards in math and ELA. An RFQ has been posted to identify a provider for professional development, based on the USED model, for the next two years. These opportunities will combine face-to-face as well as webinar venues.

Our regional literacy network meetings for Grant 738 - Literacy Partnership Grant - will be held on April 30 and May 21. This message should have been received by the district grant contact.

Original Message:
Dear Literacy Partnership Colleagues,

We hope you enjoyed the statewide Literacy Partnership event on April 3. We are looking forward to seeing you at the regional sessions. In these sessions, participants will continue their work on reading comprehension in K-3 with experienced presenters focusing in breakout sessions on specific areas such as oral language instruction, the reading/writing connection and informational text. Regional meetings will focus on these topics in both sessions. As you know, both meetings in your region are a requirement for all PK-12 Literacy Professional Development Partnership Grant recipients. Please register for the events in your region. 
As always, we appreciate your commitment to your work with your PK-12 Literacy Professional Development Partnership Grant. Should you have any questions about the upcoming meetings, please feel free to contact Dorothy Earle of Jane Myers. Dot can be reached at 781-338-6265 or Jane can be reached at Questions on how to register online should be directed to Alexia Cribbs at 781-338-3581 or

Regional sessions will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at:
Holiday Inn, 700 Myles Standish Blvd, Taunton, MA ~ April 30; May 21
The agenda for each event will be:
8:30-8:50 Welcome
8:55-11:30 Breakout Sessions; 11:30-12:30 Facilitated, guided discussion.
Dorothy Earle, Office of Literacy Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education 75 Pleasant Street, Malden, MA 02148 781-338-6265,
 If you are not a 738 Grant recipient and wish to attend please let me know and I will check on availability.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Come Back to Comprehension

Usually you would tweet from a conference, but today I will blog from the Statewide Literacy Partnership Conference. Sharon Taberski is the keynote speaker. At our table, the comments keep going back and forth among the participants - sometimes agreeing with Sharon and sometimes taking exception to all or part of her ideas.

We all agree that making meaning is the most important goal of reading and listening. Comprehension requires the use of a constellation of skills and strategies that the brain connects to previously acquired knowledge, to make sense of what is read or heard. In addition, we add the new knowledge to our store of background knowledge. Sometimes we gain knowledge from life experiences, sometimes from reading and listening.

Why do we ask students to predict before they read? Do we predict before we see a movie? We may make an assumption before we spend money on a movie but it is not a requirement to make a prediction about the movie in order to enjoy it. I think we should teach students right from the beginning to think about what they already know about a topic before a reading/listening experience, but more importantly, to generate their own questions to see whether or not the author answers those questions. Sometimes we read to find out something we did not already know.

Watching a video to illustrate the DRTA (Directed Reading Thinking activity), my table mates and I were having a hard time sitting still. "When do the students get to read the book?" one said. Routines that the teacher was using, set up winners and losers - those who can get classmates to agree with them; those who cannot. After a long discussion about the topic, they finally look at the Table of Contents. Next they looked at the pictures. By this time the students were having trouble sitting still and there had been several opportunities for students to take their classmates off on tangents. Meanwhile, one of the students was reading the book surreptitiously under the table. Isn't that the point? The children need to read.

Next Sharon illustrated her use of "talk moves". She pointed out text in the book and the need to get students to pay attention to words that limit - some, all, never etc. She pointed out that she mentioned to the students what "good readers" do. Can we ban the phrase "good readers"? I have already done so for me. We are all readers - some very experienced and others not so experienced. If there are good readers, there must be bad readers. There are no bad readers.

Q: "How does your philosophy fit with RtI and working with struggling learners?" A: "I don't know anything about RtI. Strugglers need more time, more good instruction, more of the good stuff, need to read voluminously - books that are just right. It's not that complicated. We will read the complex text to them" ME: It is that complicated! The students need to learn to read complex texts - that's the whole point of the new standards.

Q: "How do you assess background knowledge? A: "I don't think you do. We need a new orientation. We need to take seriously our job of bringing content into reading and reading into content area instruction." ME: Another complicated idea that needs careful investigation and support for its implementation. We do need more content in what we ask young readers to consider. Background knowledge is not one thing. It depends on the knowledge area.

Sharon walked us through Hart and Risley. It is important to know/consider your audience. This audience, I think, have seen this many times. We need answers, solutions, our schools (and families) need help with this, and the economy in Massachusetts and in our country is only getting more challenging for more people.

What can we do?
  • use rich, robust language; teachers are models all day long [purposefully or not] (Johnston, 2004; Kegan & Lahey, 2001)
  • provide children with the beautiful language of good books (see Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards at
  • provide small group oral language intervention for students who need practice (Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, 2008)
  • provide opportunities for purposeful conversations (Zweirs & Crawford, 2011)
  • engage families in the work of educating their children (Evans, 2004).

Continue to work together to share ideas that work and the success that comes from collaborative effort. The conference participants are a savvy group of educational professionals. I trust that my colleagues in the Southeast can separate what was beneficial reinforcement of what we know to be true and dismiss what was not helpful. Our network meetings this spring will be planned and presented by our partner, the Collaborative for Educational Services (CES). I have provided feedback and suggestions, as I hope you did as well, and hope that our meetings will support your challenging work in meaningful ways.

Reminder: our dates are April 30 and May 21. According to our English Language Arts and Literacy Framework, those who are college and career ready,"comprehend as well as critique. (they are) engaged, open-minded - but discerning - readers and listeners...question assumptions...and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning." (p. 9). I look forward to joining you in this important work as we address the challenges and opportunities provided by our new standards.


Evans, R. (2004). Family matters: How schools can cope with the crisis in childrearing. San Francisco, CA. Josey-Bass.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse learners. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children's learning. Portland, ME. Stenhouse Publishers.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work. San Francisco, CA. Josey-Bass.

Massachusetts curriculum framework for English language arts and literacy, grades pre-kindergarten to 12, incorporating the common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. (March, 2011). Available at .

Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME. Stenhouse Publishers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Authentic Reasons to Write

In March I took a long vacation. Along with visiting friends and family members, sightseeing and sunning, reading occupied a significant part of the time. Several items in particular caught my mind's eye. Even when you vow to get completely away, when you love your work and are as steeped in it as I am, you never fully forget. After all, literacy is the plate so learners are always experiencing new thoughts and ideas through reading, writing, and engaging in conversations.

Three texts that I encountered during my vacation surprised me and prompted me to write. I finished Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn. Kuhn looked at the life of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis through the books that she chose to read, especially as a young person, and those she chose or agreed to edit as a professional editor during the last twenty years of her life. The second text was given to me by my brother-in-law. It was a copy of a letter written to the editor of a local newspaper in New Hampshire by his grand-daughter, my niece. And the third one I found in the March edition of the inflight magazine. It was another opinion piece that crafted an elegant response to author, Jodi Picoult's ["Note to Self" from 12/2011 entitled "Calculus. Trust me: You will never use it."].

Of course, all of these are examples of authentic reasons for writing by adults in the real world in our present time. The book was inspiring as it showed that as persons we try, and even think, that we are the creators of our own lives. Yet anyone may come along in the moment, or after our passing and reinvent us in a particular light. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through Jackie's history as a reader and a supporter of writers, I could not help but wonder what an intrepidly private person would have thought about such an unveiling of what mattered so much in her personal and professional life.

My niece, an eleventh grader, felt compelled to refute the assertions made publicly by her former Kindergarten teacher. Essentially she admonished the teacher for pigeon-holing some students based on the family situation, poverty status, or ethnicity. The teacher voiced an opinion that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was ill-conceived when asserting that it should not matter where a student is from, that the child has a disability, or what the child's status/ethnicity is. Every child should have the advantage that comes from her teacher's high expectations. My niece asserted that it took her several years to overcome the lack of instruction she experienced in Kindergarten. My niece was quite articulate when she stated, "People are individuals who learn in different ways and live their lives according to how they learn. The difference is the early childhood teachers, and whether they have taken their time and effort to teach you how to use your innate talent to learn." There are some poignant reminders here. We are reminded that every teacher counts; those K students know very quickly how the system works. We are teaching a hidden curriculum every day. The question for each of us is, "Which one am I teaching?" Differentiation matters. Teaching is a very hard vocation. However, recognition of each person in the class as an individual with talent and energy is the first lesson that every preservice program should teach.

"All those lovely synapses formed during math class may unconsciously help Jodi formulate the plots in her best-selling novels.", wrote M. Kandel. As an elementary teacher I taught math as well as all the other core subjects. Whenever I could, I taught math at the start of the day. Over the years I taught, the wisdom for teaching math changed and I was a champion of math thinking. When I took math as a graduate student, I was frustrated to learn that my preparation had been woefully inadequate. I did not know how to think mathematically. I was angry with teachers who simply taught me rote formulae. So, I read everything I could get my hands on to prepare for the class before it started. And my math life started in my twenties. I loved the changes in math instruction that involved open-ended problems. They made us all think more and provided many opportunities in the classroom for rich, exploratory conversations and elegant, albeit fourth grade, proofs.

So I am not sure of all the lessons that I learned from my vacation reading, but here are a few. Though I already know this, it is good to know so many people agree - teachers matter greatly. They can make a huge difference in ways that they may not know. Jackie taught several people that they had important books to write and nurtured them through the process. The books were very different because the authors were different individuals. Students are people who are individuals with talents and energy that need to be nurtured. That's the vocation of the teacher. No learning is unused. It can make us more alert, creative and vibrant. Marjorie Kandel, letter to Jodi Picoult author said, "...the difference between training and teaches us specific skills; education teaches us to think."