Saturday, October 14, 2017

Text rigor, and other nonsense

When I hear the word "rigor" these days, it makes me twitchy.

Teachers are often told to focus on making sure they are using rigorous texts.  Students are forced to pick out books based on Lexile level.  For some reason, we have come to believe that complicated = rigorous = better. 

I was talking to a student recently who has high aspirations for college.  I asked her what she was reading for fun. As I Lay Dying, by Faulkner.  (Yes, I am serious.) Why would any 17-year-old choose that book for pleasure reading?  Because she has been fed the lie that complicated = rigorous = better. 

And that is what it is: a lie.  

You can do a close reading of anything.  There is some really amazing YA lit that can be picked apart and examined a dozen different ways.  Look at what the vast Harry Potter fanbase has done with that series?  One need only step foot into a deep discussion with fans of The Kingkiller Chronicles to realize that such a book can be read for fun, and also analyzed, digested, ruminated upon, discussed, and torn apart with each reading revealing new and more complex ideas. 

Case in point:

I went into over a dozen classrooms K-5 and read Red, a Crayon's Story. The premise is that there is a blue crayon with a red wrapper.  

He tries to color in red, but can't. 

The narrator is a pencil. 

All of the characters are art supplies. 

And the discussions these classes had would knock your socks off. 

Kindergarteners didn't understand why nobody could tell he wasn't blue. It was obvious. 

One fifth-grader asked for the author's name and the publisher (HarperCollins) because she wanted to share some of her thoughts with the author. 

Many kids were hyper-aware of the cruelty of the other crayons who called Red lazy, implied he wasn't very smart or trying hard enough, or were critical of him when he was sitting right there. 

Several kids were horrified at the suggestion--made by the pencil--that Red needed to be sharpened.  How painful!

A lot of kids appreciated how helpful the teacher was, even if the problem clearly couldn't be solved with effort and coaching. 

In every single class, (and I do mean every one. Kindergarten through fifth) the students gasped aloud when a new crayon asks Red to draw a blue ocean. The startling revelation that this one simple question from a friend could show Red his purpose and help him find his worth. All of that from a kind word from a friend. 

One teacher, when I closed the book, whispered, "What a wonderful book! There are so many levels to it."

It is a 40-page book with a Lexile level of 380 (late kindergarten). 
The narrator is a pencil. 
The main character is a crayon. 

And the discussions that flowed from it naturally were rigorous. 

Text complexity is made up of thee parts: qualitative, quantitative, and reader/task.  We spend all of our time talking about the quantitative: Lexile. AR points. How many pages? How many chapters?  How many syllables in the longest words? 

In that, we miss out on the qualitative aspect. And, more importantly, the reader and task aspect.  

This short picture book had those latter two in spades. Depth and breadth. Symbolism. A great illustration of metaphor.  The idea of a third-person-limited narrator. Anthropomorphic characters. The idea that the shorter crayons are the older ones and why that is. Looking at the differences in attitudes between the crayons that are rounded nubs and those that are sharp and precise. 

And beyond that, how did they treat each other?  What was Red's problem?  As the kids kept pointing out, it was absurd to presume he should ever have been able to do anything in red; he was blue. Why did all the other crayons ask that of him??  And this almost always led to a great discussion of societal expectations. One student even said, "I look like my dad, but I am much more like my mom. Nobody realizes that." 

The richness and beauty in the observations of an 8-year-old who has spent her life being told, "Oh! I know your sister!" and all the implications that come along with that, for better or much much worse. 

I have read many books to many kids, and I have never had a student ask for the information to contact the author. Ever. 

That is rigor. That is the idea of engaging the reader and allowing their background knowledge to be used and expanded upon.  

Kids understand failure. 
Students understand the expectations people have of you. 
Many kids know what it is to feel like they can't do anything right. 
Far too many kids feel like no matter how hard they try, it is never good. 
Entirely too many kids have heard people whisper that they are lazy or dumb or difficult.  

This is a book that speaks to the experience of students and allows them to examine those complicated ideas of societal expectations and failure.  They can see the difference of an intervening authority who is compassionate, and kind. They can know that some problems really can only be made better by the intervention of a peer. 

That is rigor. 

That is beautiful

One need not read Faulkner to find text complexity and rigor.  

One need only look at this story with a Lexile of 380 told by a pencil. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Good Cry

When people ask for a book recommendation, I always start with the same question: How do you want to feel?  Are you looking for something that will make you laugh? Cry? Be scared? Learn? 

For me, that answer is never "cry". I liked to be moved by a book, but I rarely seek out a book hoping to cry, though I know a lot of my student do. I often hear "I want a sad book", but that is never my thought. 

When I read the Kite Runner years ago, I recall crying so deeply that I had to set aside the book for a bit.  I was a mess.  After I finished it, it was days before I could read anything else, and even months later, though of the haunting sadness and devastation came back to me. These were in ways that made me think about larger issues, not just the suffering of individual characters, but the sorrow lingered.  

The Kite Runner is a beautiful book, and I do not regret reading it at all. But I  rarely go looking for a cry. 

That's the great thing about serendipity: that
time you randomly pick up a book you know nothing about and it ends up changing your life.  That has happened many times for me.  American Gods was that way.  When it was written, Neil Gaiman was less well known than he now is.  Wth the TV show based on the books reviving his fame, I have many times thought of how odd it was that I picked up American Gods, not really something I would typically read, and was blown away. 

Serendipity is beautiful, 

But it takes a measure of trust.  Trust in the process. And trust in ourselves. 

And I know my limits. I can't read books where kids have cancer (Sorry, John Green).  If I realize that's what I am reading, I will actually set a book aside. I know my limits. I have previously mentioned my issues with Challenger Deep. I wanted to finish it, but couldn't. 

Which makes it odd to me that I recently read
(in one day, staying up far too late) A List of Cages. 

I wept through that like a baby. 

But I kept going. 

And I am glad I did. With a warning of a mildly spoiler-ish nature, one of the characters has had a difficult life.  And faces struggles that are unimaginable during the course of the book. 

There is also something beautiful and triumphant about seeing someone deal with difficulties, find personal strength, find allies and such. 

But this is a hard book to read. Not difficult in terms of Lexile level, but hard. Heartbreakingly, rips-your-guts-out hard.  The suffering of others is difficult. And some is downright unbearable. For me, the thing, I think, that made this so difficult, is that it was so real, so possible. And so devastating in its possibility. 

So I kept reading it, and I am glad I did.  

My eyes hurt. My heart hurt. My soul hurt. But I am glad I read it. 

I didn't want to cry, rarely do, and certainly wasn't looking to. But I guess that is the great thing about books. It isn't just living vicariously through others, but really grasping the difficulties of others, that humanizes us.  It softens our heart to know man's inhumanity toward man and seeing that each of us has the possibility of being a balm to another facing that inhumanity. 

I suppose, whether we know it or not, sometimes we can all use a good cry. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

High Stakes Testing and the Human Heart

I loathe high-stakes testing. 

I really do.  

As an educator, I loathe it because it takes away from instruction time.  It is used to judge teachers, even though the test often doesn't really show how a teacher does or what a student has learned in class. It is used to judge students, even though there are far better ways to assess student ability, achievement, and progress. 

As a citizen, I loathe it as a waste of money. Testing companies and publishing empires (cough *Pearson* cough) are making millions of dollars off of a run-schools-like-businesses model that is harmful and foolish. Once for-profit corporations are involved, nothing is objective, nothing can be trusted in the same way.  

But as a human, a mom, a person with a heart, I despise high-stakes testing. 

Have you ever seen a child cry because they were given a math problem that they have never even seen before?
I have. 

Have you seen a child's spirit broken because they feel like they should know how to do a question that is beyond their ability simply because it is on their test that is based on grade level, not ability level? 
I have. 

Have you seen a child totally overwhelmed by a question that is needlessly complicated or wordy?
I have.

Have you seen a child fumble through a test because they have difficulty operating a mouse or mouse pad or some other technological device that has nothing to do with reading or math ability?
I have. 

Have you seen a student question themselves, their intelligence, their ability, their future, because of a test question that they have been told is crucial to their education but is really not?
I have.

Have you ever seen a child burst into tears because they didn't understand part A of a math problem so they, by default, couldn't do part B (graph part A) or part C (explain your answer), leading one mistake to feel like three, a cascade of failure?
I have.

Why do we do this to our children? 

The answer is because we don't trust teachers. 

Children's teachers know how they are doing. They know who understands and who doesn't. They teach, assess, reteach, reassess all year long.  

That should be enough. 

But it isn't. 

So, instead, we are harming our kids, taking away instructional time, adding needless worry and stress, and crushing fragile self-confidence. And for what? 

A test that does one of the following: 
A) Gives results nobody cares about
B) Gives results that are useless or invalid
C) Gives corporations data that they can use to gain greater influence in the money pool of education while not enhancing education at all. 
D) All of the above. And more. None of it good or valuable. 

The answer, of course, is D. 

A heartbreaking, soul-sucking D.  And it should infuriate everyone. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Silence and Cowardice

I am a coward. 

It has been a rather difficult couple of months, with a lot going on for me at work.  Not difficult in terms of library stuff, but in terms of knowing how to handle impossible situations.  My technique for dealing with them has been to vacillate between quiet avoidance and quiet outrage, always tinged with a note of fear. Notice the theme of quiet.   

I have written about it, then squirreled my thoughts away, not wanting to rock any boats nor attract any attention. 

Like I said: I am a coward. 

Then, through the natural way of things, I picked up the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan
Kiely. And I was hit squarely between the eyes with the realization that I am a coward. My silence is cowardice.  I don't want to spoil an absolutely amazing book, but there is a theme of action vs. quietly sitting aside, and it kept confronting me. Again and again. 

My silence is cowardice. 

So, with that in mind, I am going to publish here what I wrote.  I am not going to edit it except to make it current and accurate, and also to add pictures.  


My office door is covered in stickers, signs, and photos of things are important to me as a person, as an educator. Some are funny (a comic about a boy getting his first dog and needing to name it wisely because that name would serve as a password reminder for the rest of the boy’s life). Some are motivational (A “She persisted” sticker).  Some are nerdy humor (a funny punctuation joke about the Oxford comma) (I actually have two of those). Some are educational (A printout of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement on what Feminism is and why it is important) Some are promotional: the covers of books I am reading or have read so students know.

And some are statements of who I am, what I stand for, and what students can expect from me.  I have a rainbow ally logo, so that student know that the library is a safe place for LGBT students, I will protect them, and I will not tolerate slurs or hate speech.

I also have a Black Lives Matter logo up, again, so students know that the library is a safe place for minority students, I will protect them, and I will not tolerate hate speech or slurs.

I have had the BLM sticker up all year. Then, on Tuesday, February 7, I noticed that someone had vandalized my door.  They had taken down my BLM logo, physically cut out the word “black”, written “white” on my door in permanent marker, then hung the sign back up so it said, “white lives matter.”  

I was really upset about it.  Upset that someone had vandalized school property.  Upset that someone had thought it was OK to cut out the word black.  Dismayed that whoever did it didn't come to me to talk about what is on my door and instead thought this was an appropriate way to handle it.

The next day I replaced the Black Lives Matter logo.

Since that time, in addition to continued vandalism and theft, I know there has been a lot of discussion about my door, about Black Lives Matter.  

One comment I often hear is, “What about white lives? Do they matter?” Of course they do.  

When someone wears a pink ribbon in support of breast cancer patients and research, nobody follows them around shouting “All cancers matter!” The pink ribbon doesn’t mean they think other cancers don’t matter or that we should fund breast cancer research more than any other.  They are just bringing attention to an issue that is important to them--breast cancer research--and making sure it isn’t overlooked, as it was historically.

When the constitution was written, white lives mattered. Slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person. Constitutionally. Black people could be owned, bought, and sold.  Black lives irrefutably did not matter, on a systemic national level.

When the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments were passed, white lives mattered. But Jim Crow legislation passed, and black people were prevented from voting.  Black students had separate schoolhouses, black Americans had separate water fountains and entrances to buildings. Colleges and clubs and businesses could reject black people.  Black lives irrefutably on a national scale did not matter.

In 1954, white lives mattered.  But it took a supreme court ruling in Brown v. BoE to desegregate schools, and even enforcing that required the National Guard. Educationally, black lives didn’t matter.

In 1986, white lives mattered, but it took a supreme court case (Batson v. Kentucky) to say that prosecutors could not use peremptory challenges to dismiss jurors based on their race. That was in 1986. In my lifetime, people were getting kicked off juries based solely on race. At that time, in my lifetime, black lives didn’t matter equally to white lives.

In February of this year (2/22), the supreme court ruled that a black death row inmate in Texas could have a new trial because his own lawyers had stated at his trial that he was more likely to be dangerous because he is black. Chief Justice Roberts stated, "Our holding on prejudice makes clear that Buck may have been sentenced to death in part because of his race.”  That was just last week. At least in part, in the justice system, black lives do not universally matter.

Black lives have not always mattered. That is irrefutable and supported by centuries of evidence. That is not my opinion. It is measurable fact supported by data. Lots of data. So, it is important to me that students, all students, know that, to me, black lives do matter.

Now, this doesn’t mean white people don’t suffer.  They certainly do.  White people experience poverty and unemployment and difficulties in life.  But institutionally, universally, systemically, white lives have always mattered in a way that black lives either did not at all or did not to the same extent as white lives.  That is not my opinion.  That is objective, measurable fact supported by data and history.

I have heard that some are upset because they say that BLM is a terrorist organization.  This is untrue. If you go to the BLM homepage under their Guiding Principles here are a few:

  • Diversity: We are committed to acknowledging, respecting and celebrating difference(s) and commonalities.
  • Restorative Justice: We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people….
  • Loving engagement: We are committed to embodying and practicing justice, liberation, and peace in our engagements with one another.

These are not the principles of a terrorist organization.

Do people come to BLM rallies and do things other than this?  Sure.  But that is not what the organization stands for.  There is so much tension in the country today, virtually every rally of any sort attracts people who are intent simply upon causing unrest and destruction.  But that is not what the Black Lives Matter organization stands for.  

Have individual members said things that were hateful or egregious? Sure.  But that is an individual member, not the organization.

I appreciate when people do not judge me, as a Christian, based on some extremist who blew up an abortion clinic. That extremist doesn’t speak for all Christians or for Christianity, just as rogue BLM members do not speak for the BLM organization.  

So, I have a Black Lives Matter logo on my door to let students--all students--know that to me, black lives matter. I will support them.  I will protect them.  They matter.

My students matter to me.  Deeply. All of them.  And I recognize, as any teacher does, that sometimes, for some students, you have to go out of your way to let them know they matter. There are some students who are lonely, have been excluded, have been abused, have few friends, or who are suffering from some situation.  Educators go out of our way to let those students know that we understand, we care, we are here to support them. For me, in a high school setting, that includes adding to my door signs of support for students and student populations.  Because they matter.

When the vandalism first happened, I put the BLM logo back up, then added another that said “Check privilege here,” although I left the graffiti visible, so it appears to say “check white privilege here.” This is a reference to the landmark 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.

This article talks about ways in which people who are not minorities may benefit without even trying. These benefits come because of the systems in this country, the centuries old systems that have, as I mentioned before, always valued white lives, but not always valued other lives.  The article includes a list of 50 questions the author asked herself about her daily life and brings attention to things she never has to deal with or even think about, simply because she is white. Years ago, when I first read the article I was struck by all the things that I had never thought of before,  the ways my life has silently been shaped by race.  

  • I have never been pulled over just for being white.  
  • I have never been called a “credit to my race.”
  • I don’t have to worry about my race working against me when I get a mortgage (though that is well-documented for members of minorities).
  • It is not difficult to find my race portrayed well on TV or movies or in books.  
  • Nobody ever asks me to speak on behalf of my race. “How do you feel about this as a white librarian?”  
  • I can be pretty sure that when I am in a business, school, or restaurant, if I ask to speak to the person in charge, that person will be the same race as me.

This doesn’t mean I or anyone else should apologize for being white.  This doesn’t mean I or anyone else should be ashamed of being white. This doesn’t  mean I haven’t had hardships. This doesn’t diminish my own hard work or achievements or those of any other white person.  

White privilege isn’t my fault or the fault of any other white person. It is just the way the system works. And I benefit from it. I benefit from it in a way that many other people don’t. And I want to be aware of these factors, these inequalities.

This doesn’t mean my life is easy or the life of any other white person is easy.  Of course, many many white people suffer from terrible circumstances and horrible problems.  But they typically don’t suffer from things because they are white.  

That is white privilege.

Since the original incident, my door (which is school property) and my personal property have been vandalized or stolen 7 times (2/7, 2/9, 2/15, 2/16, 2/22, 2/24, 2/24) Late last week, my door was again vandalized. After putting the stickers back up, again, I sat in my office and briefly thought of how easy it would be to just walk away.  How easy it would be to just leave the signs down and leave the conversation on race be.   And I was struck by the fact that this is the perfect example of my enveloping myself in white privilege.  I have the choice to walk away from a discussion on race. I, as a white person, can say, “You know what, I don’t want to deal with the issue of race today,” and that will happen.  A black or Hispanic person can’t say, “You know what, today I don’t want race to be an issue in my life.”  

So I hung the stickers back up, including the one referencing privilege. And I did that because someone thought is was completely appropriate to destroy someone else’s property and vandalize school property in order to remove the word “black” and replace it with white. Then that person thought it was completely appropriate to steal items they disagreed with from my door.  

I eventually had to put both images on the inside of my office window because the student continued to vandalize and steal my property, even saying that no matter the consequence the actions would continue.

As long as these are the actions anyone thinks is appropriate, then there is still a discussion that needs to be had. And I don’t want to shy away from difficult discussions.  I want to engage in them: ask, talk, listen, think, and grow.  These are the very conversations we need to be having, and I hope that they are ones that we can have with respect and dignity.

Monday, January 9, 2017


I love physical books. I love the feel of the page, the heft of the book. I love to run my fingers over the dust jacket and feel the bumps and divots. I love physical books. 

And, I am not proud of it but there was a time when I was only a fan of physical books.  I was, I am ashamed to admit, very anti-ebook.  

The reasons aren't hard to imagine. 

Tech can be threatening, especially when it is a rival for something that is beloved.  I think it was probably overwhelming and scary to imagine something digital taking over something so fundamental, beautiful, and tangible as physical books.  

Looking back, I now know this was an overreaction, absurd and alarmist, but it came from a good place. 

Ebooks are not a threat to physical books.  Will they be one day?  Maybe, but I don't see it really.  And that is due in large part tot he fact that the ebooks people can't get their ducks in a row. 

There are too many devices.
There are too many formats. 
Copyright regulations are too outdated. 
The idea of leasing vs. buying is a pox that they can't seem to grasp. 
Highly illustrated books don't translate well. 
Ebooks just can't compete in an all-out scorched earth competition. 

That being said, I really love ebooks.

Full disclosure: We are a Kindle family.  Every member of my family has one and uses it regularly. The PaperWhite is incomparable tech, Kindle customer service is top of the line, and for all of Amazon's ills, they have got it figured out in terms of ease of purchase, ease of use, and ease of sharing amongst family/account members. 

Adding to the Kindle's dominance is the fact that they now own OverDrive, and while the audiobook part of OverDrive has been a glitchy mess lately, the ebook checkout's working with a Kindle is seamless and robust.  

So what happened?  How did I go from someone who swore I would never own an e-reader to such a fan? 

One word: Access. 

My disgust with ebooks was visceral, as a defense of the physical book, and it clouded my perception of the true beauty of the ebook. 

Readers with vision concerns can really be served with an ebook.  Most libraries can't afford to keep a large print section that parallels the main collection.  I know my district doesn't spend anything at all on large print.  So if a reader needs it, we have to search for a book on ILL. 

But with an ebook,  the ability to change the size of the font is instantaneous and highly customizable.  It makes reading possible for those with low vision in a way a physical book never could. 

You can even change to contrast to white print on black background.  

The access this provides for readers with vision concerns is unparalleled, and it is an important factor.

For many readers with dyslexia, books are a daunting hurdle.  However, thanks to the Dyslexie font that comes standard on most e-readers, books are far more accessible.  With a click of a button, a reader can switch from Times New Roman to Dyslexie, and I have personally witnessed more than one reader immediately report being able to read better with this change alone.  

With most public libraries (and some school libraries) having access to OverDrive or another digital book platform,  the ability to check out and download books 24/7 is now available to anyone with a stable internet connection. 

I have had a child who needed a book after the library had closed.  I was able to go into OverDrive, find the book, check it out, send it to the device, and have my child reading in under 5 minutes without ever having to leave my house.  

When traveling, whether it is to the store or around the world, there is no way to compare carrying an e-reader (whether a dedicated device or an app on a phone or tablet) to carrying a physical book.  This makes ease of access simply better.  For those with limited mobility or those with limited room in their luggage, ebooks can solve a problem for a lot of people.

So then where's the love?  I am forever getting cartoons shared with me that are pro-physical book/anti-ebook, and while I do chuckle,  I never re-share them. I never argue or berate people, but it is my show of solidarity with ebooks and the access they provide. 

I can see how those who love physical books still feel threatened by ebooks or, at a minimum, don't personally love them.  That's understandable. Nobody has to love ebooks. 

But nobody shoulddisparagee them either.

I always tell my children, "Whatever floats your boat and doesn't sink someone else's." And, for me, this is an issue of sinking someone else's boat.  If a reader needs larger font, a dyslexic compatible font, or ease of access in general, ebooks are often right on the money.  And as a person who is passionate about access, in all its forms, this is an issue that strikes close to my heart. 

It is hard for me to admit when I am wrong, but on ebooks, as a hater, I was dead wrong.  

And that in no was diminishes my love of a physical book. Unfortunately, it also doesn't mean that in my small library I am spending money on ebooks. It just isn't a wise use of resources.  But I do look for ways to get my students access (often through a partnership with the public library) and encouraging them to try the format.

This situation is one of equality, access and fairness. 

In the battle of physical vs. ebook, it doesn't have to be either/or.  Both/and works quite well.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

My helper

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This post brought to you by Penelope, the Hedgehog.  (I was making sure she was awake, friendly, and active for a classroom visit when she climbed up on my keyboard.) 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Let's Talk Turkey

Not long ago I was reading through some Facebook posts and came across a crafty video about making a turkey out of an old book.  Hot glue, cutting, folding, rolling, voila! Centerpiece!

It is a cute idea and a really cute turkey. 

Then you get to the comments.  

I know, I know. Never read the comments. I really did quite by accident, but either way, I read them.  

And boy howdy!  People were becoming unhinged.  


Because this project involved the destruction of a book. 

I will be the first to admit that I love books.  I mean, I really love them.  The look of them. The smell of a new book. The feel of the edges of the pages. (I especially love a book with deckle edges.)  Or some of the newer publishings that have color on the edges of the page. I love looking at the binding, seeing if the book is glued or sewn. 

I also love well-loved books.  I am the person who will write in the margins of a book.  It helps me, especially if I am ever planning to reread. (And not just books I teach from; my copy of Blue Like Jazz is positively filled with notes.)  


Books are things.  Special things. Wonderful things. But things, nonetheless.  And physical things have a useful life span.  They are created, they are used, and then, essentially, they reach the end of that useful life.  

We try to preserve things that are rare or personal or done by hand, but generally speaking, books, like other things, can reach the end of their lifespan. 

And that is not bad. Or evil. Or wrong.  It is just life. 

When people are nervous about the idea of pulling old books from the library, I try to gently remind them that we are not the Library of Congress.  Our mission isn't to house every book. Nor is it to forever keep every book we ever get. 

We don't have that kind of space, and every old, worn-out, mouldering book on the shelf is taking the space that could be housing a book that a student really wants.  

If a book hasn't been checked out since 1968 (I came across one of those a few weeks ago), it probably needs to go.  If a book is incorrect or outdated or in poor repair, it just needs to go. 

And that is OK.  

And if that is the case, what better usage than living on as a cool, decorative turkey?