Sunday, September 9, 2018

John Bel Edwards Ready to Buy Teacher Votes for 2019

After listening to Governor John Bel Edwards rant and rail about Louisiana's fiscal cliff all spring, and after listening to Louisiana politicians wrangle over a single penny for months, now things have changed.  Now we are looking at an election year and Edwards wants to buy teacher votes to ensure his re-election in 2019.

The budget crisis gripped the state all spring and into the summer: old people in nursing homes got letters of eviction; every program imaginable was threatened with loss of funding from TOPS scholarships to food stamps.  Eventually, after scaring everyone in the state to death, legislators agreed on a 4.45% sales tax rate to save the day, plus some other shell game moves.

The crisis averted, the governor now looks toward re-election in 2019 and where else to start loading his votes but on the backs of teachers. This plan worked so well for him in his initial run as his wife, a former music teacher, appeared on television asking all of her brethren to vote for her husband because he knows what teachers go through.  He believes in teachers, she said.

That may be so, but we still have John White as our State Superintendent of Education and because of that we still have canned, scripted lessons in our classrooms and for that I hold John Bel Edwards responsible.

Granted, Edwards did not hire White; that distinction belongs to Bobby Jindal.  And Edwards has at times seemed interested in questioning White's job security:

In a renewal of tensions, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday his office is reviewing state Superintendent of Education John White's job status.  
Edwards, in his statewide radio show, said White should have faced state Senate confirmation during the 2017 regular legislative session, which did not happen. "He needed to be confirmed to continue to serve," the governor said. "We are looking at that situation."  
Edwards, an attorney, said the issue may need to be litigated but that he was not prepared to make an announcement.

That was over a year ago.

Efforts through the courts to remove White have failed due to lack of standing; the efforts have not come from Edwards who, according to the court, is one of only four people who could challenge White's contract.

As a teacher, it's probably not in my best interest to criticize John White, but as a human being I do think that the current curriculum that White has implemented across the state is a failure, a mess, and is dangerous to the future of our students.

I know students who used to love reading and love English who now hate it.  This is true.

I will never, ever be a fan of a canned, scripted curriculum that strips autonomy from teachers, that removes the teachable moment from the classroom, that requires teachers to read from scripts, annotate thick binders of scripted teacher notes, produce said annotations on demand, display canned PowerPoint slides, or that requires students to read the same non-fiction speeches and texts over and over and over and fill out the same graphic organizers over and over and  over for each one.

I could go on, but I'll stop with that.

And for this, I hold John Bel Edwards responsible.

It is almost without exception that each election cycle the politicians use educators and first responders as pawns to get themselves back into office.  The only time anyone ever seems to care about paying teachers or police officers an adequate salary is during an election year.  Otherwise they threaten old people with loss of health insurance coverage and terrify college kids with loss of scholarships unless they get more tax dollars with which they can continue spending lavishly on pet programs.

It's no wonder I've lost my taste for political blogging.

I don't know who is running against Edwards yet, but I'll be looking their way and listening to what they have to say about curriculum in our public schools.

They can keep their bribe money; I just want my classroom back.


Further Reading:
Louisiana's Future First Lady Donna Edwards has her Husband's Ear on Education Issues (NOLA, January 5, 2016)
Louisiana House Approves Compromise Sales Tax (NOLA, June 22, 2018)
With Cuts Near, Edwards Says Time for Solutions is Now (U.S. News, June 18, 2018)
What is a Scripted Curriculum and How Flexible is it? (SIGIS, May 30, 2018)
The Effects of Student-Teacher Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students (Opus; NYU, 2013)
Meet John White (La DOE)
Teacher Slams Scripted Common Core Lessons that Must be Taught Word for Word (Washington Post, November 30, 2013)



Monday, September 3, 2018

Waiting for Gordon

Tropical storm Gordon

Last night as I was watching LSU’s trouncing of the Miami Hurricanes on television, I received a text message from a friend which included a screenshot of the new tropical storm in the Gulf, Gordon, with the question “Am I the only one who can feel a faster heartbeat and creeping anxiety over a pic like this?”

It’s an ongoing group text thread with some friends and every one of us knew exactly what she meant. I’d been watching that cone of probability all day long as it centered this storm right over New Orleans.

It’s only a tropical storm, it’s not a hurricane, and it’s probably not that big of a deal, but this is what living in Louisiana is like, especially after Katrina which was much in the news the past week with the thirteenth anniversary of that devastating storm.

Add to that last year's flooding along the south Louisiana coast with Harvey and, well, we can be forgiven if we look at tropical storm warnings a little differently than normal.

The New York Times has a story today about Hurricane Harvey and about how many poor neighborhoods in Houston are “slow to recover” :

A survey last month showed that 27 percent of Hispanic Texans whose homes were badly damaged reported that those homes remained unsafe to live in, compared to 20 percent of blacks and 11 percent of whites. There were similar disparities with income: 50 percent of lower-income respondents said they weren’t getting the help they needed, compared to 32 percent of those with higher incomes, according to the survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation. 

And while Louisiana escaped the brunt of Hurricane Harvey, areas along the coast received up to twenty-two inches of rain which just added insult to injury after the devastating 2016 Louisiana floods.  In August 2016 much of south Louisiana received devastating rain totals as a slow-moving storm drenched the state and left many homes uninhabitable.

 So, yes. Whenever we see those weather graphics with those cones of probability slamming right into our fragile coast, we get a little nervous.

It doesn’t stop us in our tracks, though. We are used to this. It comes with the territory (literally!) and the flooding and storms are part of our routine. We prepare, we wait, we watch, and sometimes the predictions are wrong. Sometimes they are right.

But I do believe that Katrina changed things for us. I’m in northwest Louisiana and so Katrina as a weather event didn’t affect me very much, but Katrina as a human drama certainly did. I’ll never ever forget the haunted eyes of those refugee children in my classrooms.

With this little storm, Gordon, who is making its way over the coast this week and later across the northwest corner of the state, what I worry about most is south Louisiana and our very fragile coastline and vanishing wetlands. I wonder why we have no better answers to protect them and I worry about places like Isle de Jean Charles, for example, that are already so endangered. What must those people be thinking as they look at the weather forecast this week?

In the meantime, we celebrate our LSU Tigers' performance last night, and I think I will go start a pot of gumbo and hope that the storm moves quickly through.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Classroom Library Project: Week 3

There is good news to report this week!  Not only are we still reading in all three of my classes but now many of my students are finishing their first (and second) books and asking for more!

If you are just now tuning in to my Classroom Library Project, you need to catch up!  Go here first for the week one update, then here for week two.

As I have done for the past two weeks, I stayed about an hour late after school Friday afternoon to read and respond to every student's letter in their Reading Notebook.  What was different this week is now they are asking for certain books, authors, and series to be added to the library! 

When I started buying books last spring and filling out the Amazon Wish List, I think I was pretty heavy on fantasy and gothic sort of YA novels.  I did NOT anticipate the huge love of manga and graphic novels.  I have now added lots of these to the wish list, as requested.  

I also am learning about my students and their individual interests.  I have one young man who wants to draw comics and he is obsessed with Stan Lee and Marvel comics.  He has asked for a couple of titles to be added to the Wish List that he would love to read, and so I have added How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way for him as well as Stan Lee the Man Behind Marvel.  

I have another young man who is burning his way through the My Hero Academia series and is reading them as fast as I can order them; he is currently waiting on volume 5 which I have on the way.  I have added other volumes to the Wish List.

I can't keep The Hate U Give on the shelf; both my two copies and the copy in the school library have waiting lists and so I went out today and picked up another copy.  Everyone wants to read it before the movie comes out next month.  As many book donations as I've received, trust me when I tell you I've spent a fortune out of my own pocket at both Amazon and thrift stores.  A.Bloody.Fortune.

No regrets.

There is another young lady who is currently reading Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Beals about the integration of Little Rock Central high school.  She's dying for more books like that one and so I've added some titles that she would read.

The bottom line is that they are reading and asking for more.  It doesn't get any better than that.  

In their notebooks this week, when I wrote back, I started prompting various students about titles they might consider for their next book because I know they are getting close to the end of their current book.  Additionally, I've started displaying books on the chalk rail with catchy blurbs to spark interest.  These books tend to get picked up faster than ones on the shelf, so I'm going to probably add to that and increase display area.

It's not all sunshine and roses.  I have two boys who will not open a book.  Both pull out the same book every day, set in on their desks, and leave it closed, staring sullenly into space.  I'm not sure what to do with these two.  They're not ugly about it at all, but they don't want to make an attempt.  Both are smart boys.  I've talked to both and both insist they are reading but I never see the books open and neither book ever leaves the room. I don't want their reluctance to spread to others so I need to find something that will catch both of them and spark interest.  I'm working on that.  It is my personal challenge!  Bring it on!

The best part of this whole thing is that I know the large majority of my students are reading and enjoying their books.  They talk to me about them and they tell me about their books.  I hear the gasps of surprise in those fifteen silent minutes every day and I see them pull their books out when they finish their work to read for just five minutes more.  

I have two Donors Choose Projects up - one for fiction titles and one for non-fiction.  I'm hoping some philanthropist will come fund them.  I have the Amazon Wish List which works better than anything else.  And I have a couple of grant proposals out there.  I'm going to keep this going and keep adding books, one way or another!

Read on!




Sunday, August 26, 2018

Louisiana's Criminal Justice Reform: Sheriff Prator Expresses Concern

Last week Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator visited with Erin McCarty and Robert J. Wright on 710 KEEL radio about Governor John Bel Edwards touted Criminal Justice Reform.

The bipartisan legislation revamping the way Louisiana deals with criminals and crime was passed in 2017 in an attempt to lower Louisiana’s notoriously high incarceration rate. The reform bill was authored by six Republicans, two Democrats, and one Independent. Those designations mean little though; in Louisiana all you have to do to get re-elected to the other side of the legislative chamber is change your political affiliation, if not your beliefs.

In a meeting with President Donald Trump in early August, Governor John Bel Edwards said, "In Louisiana, we're proud of the work we've done. It's been sentencing reform, prison reform, and a real focus on reentry and for the first time in 20 years, I can tell you Louisiana does not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation today."

In 2017, U.S. News and World Report listed the top ten states with the highest incarceration rate in the nation and Louisiana was number one, and designated the prison capital of the world.

Everyone agrees there is a problem here but consensus begins to diverge when we begin to nail down what those problems are and how to solve them. Senator John Kennedy, (R-LA) is one of those voices against the new reforms: “Well, the governor and I just disagree,” said Kennedy. “He thinks our problem in Louisiana is we have too many prisoners. I think our problem is we have too many people committing crimes.”

Sheriff Prator is more specific. In his visit on KEEL radio last week he enumerated several changes he believes are problematic. One of his concerns is that the re-entry programs that are supposed to help the newly released acclimate into society are not yet in place. “We’re designing the bus while we’re driving the bus,” he said, “and somebody is gonna get killed, and people are getting killed…”.

Sheriff Prator is referring to two prisoners who were arrested on drug charges that were released in November, who have now committed murder, and have been rearrested. One of these was in Ouachita Parish and the other in Bossier Parish.

These re-entry programs are supposed to be funded in part by the savings gained from lowering the incarceration rate. Sheriff Prator directs citizens to page 38 of the Practitioners Guide for the new reforms which explains that in the first year, 35% of the savings will go to the Office of Juvenile Justice for Strategic Investments and to the Department of corrections for the same purpose. Nobody has said what those strategic investments are; Sheriff Prator did not know.

Still in the first year, 14% of the savings will go to Victims’ services (this number drops to 10% after the first year.) Twenty-one percent goes to “Grants: community-based programs” (drops to 15% after year 1) and 30% of the savings from early release goes to the General Fund to be spent at legislators’ discretion.

What concerns Sheriff Prator a great deal can be found on pages 6 and 7 of the Practitioner’s Guide which outlines new thresholds and penalties for non-violent crimes. Apparently, we are not all in agreement on what “non-violent” means. For example, under the new law, a person could barge into my home with a firearm and could be free the very next day. This is now a probationary offense.

Specifically, the former penalty for this was mandatory five to thirty years. Now it is 1-30 years and the one year is not mandatory, according to Sheriff Prator.

 Another example: no longer considered a violent crime is “mingling harmful substances”; in other words, if someone drops a date rape drug in your drink, this is a non-violent offense. So is extortion and a drive-by shooting if you happen to miss hitting a person. See page 7 of the Practitioners Guide for these.

Here is the chart found on page 7 of the Guide:

Reducing Minimum and Maximum Sentences, p. 7

 Penalties for crimes have been drastically altered as well, such as debt forgiveness. One scenario described by Sheriff Prator would be that of a repeat offender for theft, for example. If the judge orders that person to reimburse the victim, the most they have to pay back is the equivalent of one day’s wage per month, and if they do that for one year the balance of the debt is forgiven.

 Additionally, third and fourth DWI offenses are now backed down to probation and may qualify for diversion, which means that it is not recidivism if it never happened. At least on record.

Nobody, not even Sheriff Prator, thinks our prison system was without fault before these reforms. Everyone agrees that change was needed. But perhaps we have once again passed a bill without really knowing what is in it. At the very least, we have passed a bill that releases prisoners without the safety net to keep them from reoffending. Those programs simply do not exist yet and that is not a good situation for the citizens of Louisiana or the newly released.

Read the Practitioner’s Guide; it’s not a complicated document. You can find it here.

Further Reading:
U.S.News and World Report:  10 States with Highest Incarceration Rates (7/26/17)
Two Louisiana Inmates released early under reform accused of murder: The Advocate (8/2/18)
Louisiana's Criminal Justice Reforms 2017: Pew Research Group (3/1/18)
Governor Edwards Meets with President Trump: WAFB (8/10/18)
Disputes over La. Criminal Justice Reform Continue: KTBS (8/16/18)
Sheriff Steve Prator Highly Critical Of Prison Reform Efforts KEEL Radio (8/22/18)
Louisiana's Justice Reinvestment Reforms Practitioner's Guide (8/1/17)
Equal Justice Initiative

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Classroom Reading Project: End of Week Two

Every single student is reading!
I sat at my desk after all the students left on this Friday afternoon and wanted to weep.  I was overwhelmed.  But it's probably not what you think.

I started Donalynn Miller's Forty Book Challenge this year after reading (devouring) her book, The Book Whisperer, this past summer.  Here at the end of Week Two, I am simply astounded.  I did not think that after twenty-three years in the classroom that my students could or would surprise me, but boy was I wrong.

I wrote about Week One here - you should read that before you go any further if you haven't already.

Briefly, I have dedicated at least twenty minutes, and perhaps more, of class time every single day for my students to read books of their choice.  I spent the summer collecting books through donations (thank you!!!!) and through my own thrift store excursions.  We now have almost three hundred unique titles and duplicates of about twenty-five more.

As our new school year started, discussions of books was part of the very first day and by the end of week one (which was only three days), I had ten books checked out already from our classroom library.

The next Monday, the first full week, we started reading.  We started at fifteen minutes every single day no matter what.  I don't want to signal that anything else is more important than reading.

I have one Creative Writing class, one regular English II class, and one Pre-AP English II class.  Last week I reported that perhaps five were not really on board with this reading thing.  In the meantime I picked up one new student who was not with us from day one and that changes the dynamic just a little.  He was not there for the Readers Interest Survey or the initial book frenzy that happened the first week.  He's a little reluctant.  Very polite, but for the past four days has had a book on his desk with the cover closed, sitting quietly until we are through reading.

This won't do.

So Wednesday I conferred with him before class and explained, this is what we do here in this class; we are readers.  We read.  "I promise, we can find a book here that you will enjoy reading."  He looked at me skeptically, nodded his head, and kept the same dystopian novel on his desk, unopened.

Thursday I stopped him as he entered the class and asked him if instead of reading today, would he mind filling out this Reader's Interest Survey and this Student Interest Survey that everyone else filled out on the first day?  He happily agreed.  So at this point, he was not just doing his own thing,  he was doing what I asked of him.

From his survey I learned that he does like sports and he is in fact not a fan of reading.  He has few books in his home.  He has not read a book since middle school.  But, somewhere in that process he became more open to what everyone else in the room was doing and today, Friday, he read a chapter in his book.  Not only that, he wrote about it in his Reader's Notebook which we turn in every Friday.  He's with us!

When I took up Reader's Notebooks last week, the response letters the students wrote to me were perfectly adequate and covered their bases, but nothing stood out much.  As I said last week, the responses were not superficial - I could tell they were reading, but it was obvious that the relationships weren't all in place yet.

This week?

Oh my goodness.

I stayed late (again) to read and respond to every single one.  The responses made me want to weep!

These kids are really reading.  Several have finished books already and are on their second or third books.  Some are relishing the books they have and said they don't want them to end.  Many of them asked for recommendations about what to read next:

"Mrs. Becker, I'm reading this book, and it's good and all, but I really don't know what I want to read next.  Suggestions appreciated.  And welcome!"

The beginning of a trusting relationship.  BOOM!  (I suggested five different titles for her.)

In these early weeks, I am reading with them: in her book, Donalynn Miller makes the point that kids need reading role models and she says she read along with her students for the first few weeks before she then began to move among them having little conferences with each one about what they were reading, making suggestions, and sharing thoughts.  I am currently reading What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World by Cat Warren.  (I love the irony of a book about dogs written by a woman named Cat.)

I'm going to make an analogy here - it might be a stretch, but stay with me on this.  In this Dog book, Cat Warren is discussing training dogs; she has a German Shepherd she has trained to be a cadaver dog.  In discussing this training, she compares the energy level and curiosity of working dogs to the "notion of human expertise":

"We watch playful children start out banging incoherently on the piano.  That's a start but it's the structured, guided practice and play with constant feedback over an extended period of time that can turn random notes on a keyboard first into 'Doe, a deer, a female deer' and ultimately into Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight'.  That is, if a parental figure doesn't ruin the sound of music by haranguing the child to practice.  Along the way, a number of the motor behaviors for playing the piano become automatic, so the child doesn't have to think about them. The fingers start to fly by themselves up and down the ivories as body memory pulls them along."

Why would reading be any different?  I don't believe that it is.

Warren goes on to explain that in training dogs, it takes time to develop the necessary skills and that they "need a chance to learn before their capabilities are dismissed."  It takes time.

And this is why we do not, and will not, skip our designated reading time every single day.  It's that important.  Students need to see that it is priority.  Their learning, their time, is priority.

Warren later explains about training her dog, Solo, to specific scents.  She describes hiding the cadaver scent in a series of buckets and to the dog it all seems like play, but of course it is through conditioning that the dog is rewarded when he finds the right bucket with the right scent.  Praised and rewarded, "he is hooked."

One of the trainers Warren worked with explained it to her:

"When people get interested, they can get hooked hard-core.  They don't like not being successful." 

He was talking about gamblers and comparing that drive to training dogs, but the analogy seems clear.

Students don't like not being successful either, and I believe that when they have choice about what they read the odds of success go up exponentially.

So, we read.  And we will read, every single day.

Watching this all unfold in my classroom over these past thirteen days has been the most remarkable thing.  I know it's early.  This could all still go crazy wrong.  I sure hope not.

This afternoon when I stayed until four o'clock on a Friday to read and respond to these weekly letters in their notebooks, as I said before, I wanted to cry.  Remember my boy I wrote about last week who told me he did not like to read, did not want to read, and he just looked miserable?  Last week I put Chasing Space on his desk with a sticky note that said, "Try this one!"

This week, this is what he wrote:



He is enjoying the book!  He's making connections to his own experience.  He's learning new vocabulary, background knowledge, syntax, and comprehension skills.

And you know what else?  The relationship is there.  Trust.  We have had several conversations this week about books, about what he is reading, and about school.  It's the most rewarding thing in the world.

It's why I teach.


And y'all - I think I'm going to need more books!  Here's the wish list if you want to send us something!  ;)

I am so excited about what this year will bring and about how much my students are going to grow! 






Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Classroom Reading Project: End of Week One

Because so many of you have donated, and are still donating, books to our new classroom library, and because I promised to let you know how this “reading in class” project was going, I’d like to take just a moment here at the end of the first full week and do just that.

The first day of school was typical meet and greet fare, explain the course material, class rules and expectations, and that sort of thing. I did talk about our classroom library and show students which shelves were fiction and which held non-fiction. We talked about their reading habits and I had them fill out reading interest surveys so I could gather information I could use to help suggest books for them.

By Day Two we were reading. Actually, at least ten students checked books out the first day.

I have started out with fifteen minutes at the beginning of each class. I hope to work up to thirty minutes a day. That sounds like a lot of class time, and it is, but I believe, and piles of research supports, that silent reading helps students not just with vocabulary acquisition but also with processing ideas. The more they read the better they will get at comprehension. Additionally, reading develops that critical background knowledge that so many lack.

I am still following my prescribed curriculum and covering the mandated standards that are tested at the end of each semester.

Overall, even at this early stage, I’m very pleased with how many are buying into this project and with the feedback they are giving me. I have about fifty-five students through the day and of those only perhaps five have not bought in to reading a book. I have three boys in particular who are resisting.

“I don’t like reading,” one says.

I believe that he just hasn’t found the right book! I keep putting books on his desk, suggestions based on information he has given me about what he likes and doesn’t like. So far nothing is sticking. Right now he is reading a book far below his ability “because it has pictures.”

I have another boy who isn’t as verbal about his dislike of reading but just grabs a random book off the shelf each day and opens it to any page, staring at it. I talk to him daily, trying to get him committed to a book. I know from our discussions that he likes science so I put a book on his desk
Friday about space. He read a couple of pages and kept the book; this is progress!

All five of my resistant readers are in the same class; I’m not certain how they will change the scope of this activity, or if I will alter anything because of them. Right now I am taking it day by day. I’m under the perhaps naive hope that they will see the rest of us talking about books and sharing good books and they will eventually fall in line. As I said, perhaps I’m being naive in this hope, but I’m going to stick with it.

I’m committed to this project and I don’t alter our reading schedule for any reason. We had to take a parish required Diagnostic test this week, but we read our books first. It is already becoming routine to them to begin their reading immediately after turning in their first five and in two of my three classes I no longer have to announce that it’s reading time or direct them to take out books. Even better, in all three classes I’m seeing students take their books back out and start reading when they finish their assignments.

Over the next couple of weeks I will reinforce the idea of finding reading time through the day and we will have discussions about all of those extra minutes in the day that you could read: waiting at the bus stop, waiting in line for school pictures, at lunch, before bed, on the bus on the way to and from school…, the possibilities are limitless.

I’ve given each student a Reader’s Notebook which I patterned after Donalyn Miller’s description in The Book Whisperer. In it, students have designated pages for their Reading Log and books they want to read. Most of the notebook is for correspondence with me about their reading: each Friday they write me a letter about their book and what is happening in it. They are expected to reflect on what they’ve read, get into a little character analysis or plot discussion, and then I write each student back a few lines.

They turned in their first letters yesterday, and every single student turned in a notebook. I stayed late after school yesterday so I could read each one and respond. None of them were so superficial that I felt like they were just making it up. Even my five who haven’t bought-in completely yet were honest about that and explained what they had attempted to read and why it didn’t work.

So, here at this very early date, I’m really excited about what is happening in my classroom and I know that something good has to come of this for my students. I know they are engaged, they are reading, and they are learning. We are sharing ideas and having discussions and building a really unique classroom environment where we are all readers.

I hope we can keep it going!

If you want to help us out and send us a book off our wish list, here is the Amazon link!

Further reading:
It's Not Complicated! by Donalyn Miller (April 22, 2018)


Sunday, August 5, 2018

Louisiana Schools to Pilot New Testing Program

I have a friend that refers to the endless cycle of education initiatives as "Stalin's five-year plan."

We've all seen them - from Kagan to Harry Wong to Whole Brain, one after the other meant to revolutionize and improve education and student performance.  Districts invest time and money in the programs, spend countless dollars on inservice, training, and materials, then the plan is abandoned for the next shiny thing that comes.  Repeat cycle.

That's why when I ranted and railed about the newest curriculum implementation, the Louisiana version of Common Core, my friend smiled sweetly and said, "Just remember.  Stalin's five-year plan."

And thus things keep changing.

At least nothing stays stagnant this way, right?

Last month, the Louisiana Department of Education's proposal for a new kind of testing was approved by the U.S. Department of Education:

This new pilot measuring students' knowledge of specific books, rather than texts they have not read before, the test aspires to build knowledge of facts and texts in students. "Research shows students need deep knowledge of a subject in order to effectively read about it," said State Superintendent John White.

This just seems like common sense, right?

Louisiana has five years to develop and pilot this assessment and it will be rolled out in five districts: Ouachita Parish, St. John the Baptist Parish, and St. Tammany Parish, as well as KIPP Public Charter Schools and Collegiate Academies in Orleans Parish.

Key points of this new program will include:
Combining English and social studies tests to streamline state testing;  
Measuring what students have learned via passages from books that students have read, rather than passages that they have not read as part of the curriculum;  
Assessing students through several brief assessments throughout the year, rather than one longer test at the end of the year;  
Preserving local control as to which books and which assessments their students will take.

I am cautiously interested.

The district in which I teach is on block schedule. Last year, first semester, which ran from August to December, we had minimum fourteen days of standardized testing.  Second semester, we backed off of that to about ten days.  This year, it looks like about seven days.  That's an estimate.  Are we starting to see the error of our testing ways?

The tests students currently take are supposedly aligned to the the standards students cover in the classroom, not necessarily the content.  Theoretically, if you can identify and analyze a main idea in one text, you can do it in any other.

My complaint with the current curriculum has been, in part,  that it strips fiction to bare bones and focuses heavily on some very dry non-fiction.  We don't read whole novels at all, ever.  The problem with that is not in the non-fiction necessarily, but think of what's lost with the loss of fiction!  We need both fiction and non-fiction because both serve to build background knowledge.

In my own reading this summer I went to the land of Inkheart and learned a little bit about book restoration and how valuable books are; I visited fantastic realms and looked at things from other perspectives. I read The 57 Bus and gained knowledge I did not previously have about people who identify as agender and about hate crimes. The lessons of tolerance and acceptance were reinforced. I read Boy21 and saw how friends can help each other through trying times.  I read The Other Wes Moore and learned a lot about how environment shapes character and how the most impulsive decisions can change lives.  I read The Book Whisperer and Teach Like a Pirate to expand my professional development and learned valuable lessons from both.  We gain background knowledge from both fiction and non-fiction.

Do you think the majority of my students spent the summer reading and expanding their own background knowledge?

This new system of assessment recognizes the knowledge gap that many students have.  This is something that the Six Way Paragraphs program also recognizes, which I have used in my lower level classes to build background knowledge and raise reading comprehension skills.

From the Louisiana Department of Education's proposal:

Being a literate member of society necessitates not only strong reading skills but also knowledge of the world and how it works. Adults comprehend and evaluate news articles, workplace documents, novels, web pages, and social media posts not just because they know what individual words mean, but because they know something about the topic each text contains. Likewise, it is widely known that students with large amounts of background knowledge read at more advanced levels. Yet states have built reading and writing tests that do not always value the background knowledge students bring to them, including students’ deep understanding of books and texts they have studied previously. Instead, state tests preference reading and writing skills over the content that renders them rich and meaningful.

Read that last line again:  "...states preference reading and writing skills over the content that renders them rich and meaningful."

We've been teaching skills over content and content is not meaningful unless it is relevant and makes a connection.

Nobody knows this better than the teacher in the room with the student, and my student may not engage with the same subject matter as your student.  I need the power to make that decision.

More from the Louisiana proposal: (emphasis mine)

Though improved dramatically in the past three years, the Louisiana Assessment of Education Progress (LEAP) continues to measure the ELA standards, including specific skills such as summarizing passages and locating main ideas, but it does not go above that to measure whether students have developed a base of knowledge. Consequently, in many schools a focus on discrete reading skills predominates the English classroom, with minimal attention paid to knowledge.

Again, we are measuring standards, not knowledge.  They are not the same thing.  One produces test competence, the other functioning, well-rounded human beings.

Under this new pilot program, Louisiana proposes to still focus on standards but also content:  "drawing on students’ deep knowledge of content and books from their daily classroom experiences—rather than a random assortment of texts, as are typically used on large-scale assessments."

Currently, when students get to the LEAP at the end of the year, what they read on that test is nothing like what they read in class and only serves to make those tests frustrating to students and raises anxiety to terrible levels.  Additionally, this format shakes confidence in what these high-stakes tests actually measure.

It's even possible, under this as yet undeveloped program, that the test students take in one school or one district may vary from one another:
By developing the new format in a way that is standards-aligned, valid, reliable, high-quality, and comparable to the current, content agnostic LEAP ELA test, Louisiana districts will have the flexibility to choose the LEAP format that best matches their curricular program. In this way, the IADA will make assessments more relevant and connected to the classroom for Louisiana teachers and students, while still providing valid, reliable, and transparent data on student achievement and growth.
I've got to say it: I love this term: "content agnostic LEAP ELA test."  I need that on a sign.

Students would be tested during the year on what they've covered in class and then a shorter, less horrific, summative assessment at the end of the year.

Clearly this new assessment program hasn't been written yet and so there is still much that remains to be seen.  I am all for getting rid of all these interim tests and three days of EOC testing.

Most of all, I hope that some flexibility is returned to the classroom and some sort of recognition that the teacher is a trained professional who does not need a script or canned slides.  I hope that the state returns some autonomy to the teacher who can best judge what the students before him need to read and how to engage them.

Students will read when they have choice, and when they are engaged with a subject, and a student that reads is a student that develops knowledge.  A student forced to read Carrie Chapman Catt's suffrage speech will more than likely tune out and learn nothing, (no disrespect intended to Carrie Chapman Catt).

Relevance matters.

I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps the Louisiana DOE is beginning to see the faults in the Guidebooks and to hear the cries of frustrated teachers across the state.

But again, maybe it's just part of Stalin's five-year plan.

Further Reading:
A New Vision for Assessment in Louisiana (Louisiana DOE)
Louisiana's New Pilot Offers New Way to Assess Student Achievement (BR Proud)
Louisiana First to Have Innovative Assessments Approved (Education Dive)
Betsy DeVoss Oks Louisiana Pitch to Use Innovative Tests (Education Week)
Louisiana LEAP Scores Show Reasonable Improvement but not Extraordinary Growth (NOLA)



Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Classroom Library Project: Look What You Did!!!

Where I live nine months of the year.
While the calendar says summer is still here, my school calendar says it isn't, and so back to work I go.

I've spent several days at school already working to get my room back together for year twenty-four, and I think for the most part I am ready.

Really what I want to do here is to thank everyone who has sent or donated books to our new Classroom Library, and I want to show you where they have gone.

I'm still loading books onto shelves so they aren't all in these photos yet, but you'll get the idea, I'm sure.

My goal was to get 500 books by August 6, which is when our year starts.  As of right now, I have 246 books and 224 of those are unique titles; I have some duplicates but that is absolutely fine.  People have been so generous in sending books, it has revived my jaded spirit!

Almost every day there are books in the mail from the Amazon Wish List (it's still being updated if you want to jump in on this!).

I came home from vacation and found two huge boxes of books that some generous people shipped to me.  In my school mailbox I got a beautiful, hardback copy of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See; it was carefully packed in a nice box with styrofoam peanuts.  I will treasure it.

I've had friends hand me cash money to buy books and another friend just handed me his credit card and said, "Get a couple of books!"  It's so gratifying that people support this project.

On my own, I've raided Goodwill and The Thrifty Peanut almost weekly loading up on books!  We have two Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood and I've pulled a few books from those (always leaving another book in its place!)

And I've ordered books from my own Wish List just to be sure we get them.

I've submitted a couple of grants and hope at least one comes through, but I know that's a long shot.  I've got a Donor's Choose project up and sometimes some great philanthropist will come through and fund a bunch of projects before school starts - I'm hoping someone funds mine!

So, I'm not finished gathering books, but I did want you generous folks who have helped me to see my progress.

This is my fiction shelf:

My fiction shelf

That's A-Z, all fiction, and as you can see, it's about to fill up.

This is my non-fiction shelf - it needs some books so that's where I've been concentrating my Wish List lately.  I came through and added a bunch of non-fiction to the list and people started sending those!  This shelf holds biography/memoir (that's the full shelf), informational books, poetry, and I have a shelf going for the Chicken Soup books that I've picked up.  There's room to grow.

Non-fiction
I've got to fill that one up!

I have two more shelves in my room; one is built in and currently holds class sets of textbooks that we no longer use (but I can't let go of them), and the other just holds our Common Core Guidebooks and Student Readers.  I have boxes with all the copies of things we have to read there.  All that can be moved if I need to use that shelf for actual books.

My non-fiction shelf is the one that I covered with pages from To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love it.

In this shot you can see the fiction shelf on the far right and on the left is the built in shelf with textbooks and dictionaries:



And the non-fiction shelf can be seen in this one:



And in this photo you can see the shelf that holds our copies of Common Core material.



(It's no secret how I feel about Common Core and this new curriculum but I'm not going to revisit that here.)

It's not a big room at all, but it's home for 180 + days for me and for my students.  (And dig those gorgeous parquet floors!)

I am super excited about the great reading that will be happening inside this room and once again want to really thank everyone who helped us fill these shelves!  And of course as we progress through the year I'm going to keep you posted!



Previously on SIGIS:
Building a Classroom Library: Help!  (May 7, 2018)
There's a Sad, Empty Bookshelf in M205 (May 11, 2018)
M205 Library Update: You Guy's ROCK! (May 14, 2018)
We Are Up to 73 Books!  (May 22, 2018)
M205 Classroom Library: The Shelf Project (May 31, 2018)
"Can I Read This?" A Teacher's Dream Comes True (June 21, 2018)

Further Reading:
Every Child, Every Day  (ASCD, March 2012)
Statement on Classroom Libraries (NCTE, May 31, 2017)
Building Relationships With Students Through Books (Cult of Pedagogy, May 8, 2016)
The Importance of a Classroom Library (Edutopia, April 16, 2009)
How to Stop Killing the Love of Reading (Cult of Pedagogy, December 3, 2017)
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller (Amazon)
Readicide by Kelly Gallagher (Amazon)

The Amazon Wish List


Sunday, July 22, 2018

Take a Weekend Trip to New Iberia

Bayou Teche, New Iberia
As my summer vacation comes to a close and the hectic school-year calendar approaches, Steve and I made one more trip to south Louisiana before we become consumed by school schedules, his Masters studies, and my book events.  In this sort of calm before the storm, we threw ourselves into the Jeep and headed south.

After our first visit to New Iberia in April to attend the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, we fell in love with the city and with the people.  I am simply enchanted with all of it: the hospitality, the natural beauty, the lyrical Cajun accents, and the complete joie de vivre that we found there.  And because the weekend of the literary festival was so fun and so full of activities, we didn't get a chance to see and do everything we wanted to, so a return trip was more than needed.

The attractions around Iberia parish are epic.  When we were there in April we did a quick tour of the Tabasco factory (because it was Sunday they were not in production that day), and Jungle Gardens on Avery Island. Both were amazing and call for a return trip.  I want to see Tabasco when they are in production and Jungle Gardens is beautiful and deserves more than the quick couple of hours that we were able to give to it before going home.

For this trip we wanted to visit New Iberia again, catch up with some friends we made in April, and tour Jefferson Island.

When we arrived, my friend Wendy asked if we were up for going with them to the Cajun French Music Association dinner and dance with them and so we tagged along for that which was big fun.  We danced a bit and learned a couple of Cajun dance steps.

Cajun French Music Association dinner and dance.

The evening ended at Clementine on Main where we had a couple of drinks and the most divine bread pudding on the planet.  After listening to our New Iberian friends, I decided I need to brush up on my French!  If I lived in New Iberia, I'd go to the French breakfast at Victor's Cafeteria on Thursday mornings and learn a few things!

The next day, our only full day this trip, was dedicated for Jefferson Island.  We stopped in Delcambre on the way and looked at the boats which was pretty cool.



Somebody please throw me on a boat and take me out into the Gulf!

Shrimp boat at Delcambre.

You have to see Jefferson Island to believe it.  I took lots of pictures and not a single one does it justice.  Driving into the parking lot, we had to go really slow to avoid hitting peacocks.

Peacock on Jefferson Island.

The island isn't actually an island, but a rise from a salt dome, just as Avery Island is.  In November, 1980, a Texaco drilling rig on Lake Peigneur pierced the salt mine which cause the huge lake to drain into the mine, backed up water from the Delcambre canal and the Gulf of Mexico rushed into the mine and lake bed, and remarkably, none of the mine workers were injured, although much damage was done and property lost.  You can easily see the chimney from a home which is all that remains.  The litigation dragged out for years.

Here's an eight minute video of that disaster:




Joseph Jefferson died in 1905 and his beautiful home and island were sold:

After his death in 1905, Jefferson's heirs sold Jefferson Island and the 2,000 acre plantation in 1917 to a partnership of John Lyle Bayless, Sr. of Anchorage, Kentucky; Paul Jones, bourbon distiller of Louisville, Kentucky; and E. A. McIlhenny of Avery Island, maker of TABASCO® Sauce. John Lyle Bayless, Jr. affectionately called Jack, developed Rip Van Winkle Gardens around the historic home in the late 1950's after selling the salt mine that tunnels under the island and lake. Bayless donated the home and 800 acres to a private operating foundation which he formed to assure its continued operation far beyond his lifetime to share with everyone, the place he so loved and enjoyed.
The house was amazing:

Joseph Jefferson home.

We spent the entire day in this paradise; the gardens are gorgeous.

Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island.

There are many oriental influences in the gardens including these gates:

Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island.

I was mesmerized by the lotus garden and took a million photos here.

The Lotus Garden.
The flowers were so delicate and beautiful.

Lotus flower.
Here's another:


I took another million pictures and videos of peacocks.  I really wanted to capture their calls on video but wasn't able to do that.



We spend a long time just sitting on one bench or another, listening to the sprinklers, watching butterflies, raccoons, peacocks, and squirrels, or just watching the lake.

There is the chimney - all that remains of the house.

For lunch we went to the Jefferson Island cafe which offered air conditioning (yay!) and a beautiful view of the lake.  I imagine in cooler weather (that is, not over a hundred degrees...), people dine outside because there's a nice cooling breeze coming off the lake, fanned by the Spanish moss, and through the trees.

I had a pastrami and Swiss cheese sandwich and Steve had an eggplant dish that he raved over.

We spent a couple more hours in the garden after lunch then went back to the hotel to shower and change for dinner.

We got to Main Street a couple of hours before our dinner reservation so that we would have time to shop.  We stopped at Books Along the Teche and visited with Howard and Loraine Kingston for a while and purchased a couple of books.  Loraine told me that Burke has a new Robicheaux book coming out in January called New Iberia Blues.  I can't wait!  Anything James Lee Burke related, Howard and Loraine know.

Books Along the Teche.

It was still too early for our dinner reservation so we walked Main Street, visited with some locals, and finally stepped into Bourbon Hall for a cold beer and a couple of quick games of pool.  We went to this sports bar when we visited in April and because the service was fast and friendly, we went back.  I lost three games of pool, but hey, I'm out of practice.

On to dinner.

Our dinner choice was Clementine on Main.  Clementine originally opened in 1980, closed for two years, and recently reopened under new owners.  They describe themselves as "southern casual fine dining" and I can attest to that.  The beautiful, old, tiger oak bar is stunning.

Tiger Oak bar at Clementine.

The restaurant was busy when we got there; a lot of the locals were having an early dinner before the Iberia Performing Arts League production of Annie.

We both opted for the flat-iron steak which was divine.  Perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, and tender as it could be.  Steve had a sweet potato/sausage hash and grilled, smoked vegetables for his sides and I had fries and wilted spinach which had just the right touch of fresh garlic.

Flat-iron steak, sweet potato hash, wilted spinach.

Our appetizer was Avocado Tartar which was described as a "deconstructed guacamole" and this raised the level of guacamole to new heights.  Let's just say that I ran out today to buy avocados and Tabasco's Sriracha sauce so I can try to recreate this.

Avocado Tartar at Clementine

At the end of the meal I sent a text to my friend Wendy confessing that I was eating the bread pudding once again - I couldn't stop myself.

Fabulous bread pudding at Clementine.
After dinner we walked around downtown a little and then walked through St. Peter's cemetery right before dusk; it was serenely beautiful.


There is a lot of history in the cemetery and the city does cemetery tours each year with residents playing the parts of various people and telling their stories.


One more pass through downtown to see Church Alley alight:


and we called it a night.


Our final morning in New Iberia consisted of a tour of Konriko, the Conrad Rice Mill, which is the longest operating rice mill in the country.

Konriko.

Our tour guide was adorable, full of personality, and told us the story of the mill, showed us how everything worked, gave us samples of their signature Wild Pecan Rice (yes, I bought a bag - it's amazing!)

The mill is on the National Register and so they are a little limited as to what modernization they can do, but with over a dozen employees, they still produce a quality product and the thing I loved most: they waste nothing.  Nothing!  They either sell or donate hulls and broken rice and other by-products to farmers for feed, or breweries for their production needs.

The mill store is a relatively modern structure but a great deal of it was built with salvaged lumber and other items.  It was well worth the stop, plus we got to meet the mill cats who we are assured control any rodent problems!

We took one more pass through downtown and hit Highway 31 heading toward St. Martinville.

It is a stunningly beautiful drive with sugar cane fields everywhere and the two-lane highway is lined with towering oaks draped with Spanish moss.

In St. Martinville we toured the Acadian museum and memorial.



The full sized mural that greets you inside the museum is simply gorgeous.  It is 12 x 30 and was painted by Robert Dafford.



There is an audio that lasts for about twenty minutes as some of the people depicted tell you their stories.  I expect that this is a terrific place to come do research if your family has Acadian ancestry.



We saw the Evangeline statue which was pretty awesome.

Evangeline

And the Evangeline Oak:


And we ate (again) at St. John Restaurant which was delicious.  I had alligator au gratin and Steve had another eggplant dish.  Both were excellent and we had a cool view of Bayou Teche while we ate.

We stayed on Highway 31 through Breaux Bridge and on to Arnaudville where we stopped for a cold beer.

Bayou Teche Brewing.

A cajun band was playing outside,



a mobile cigar lounge was parked under the trees...


and a BBQ food truck was there.  I could have stayed all day but I filled a growler, listened to a couple of songs, and came on home.

We've been to New Iberia twice now and each time I love it more.  And there is still more to see.  I want to return to some of the places we saw the first time, like the Bayou Teche Museum.  We haven't been to Loreauville or to the Jeanerette Museum.  I could spend an entire week on Jefferson Island and Avery Island.  I still haven't made it to Cypremort Point, I haven't done a swamp tour on the Bayou, and there are lots of restaurants I still need to try (although you may never get me away from Clementine).  And this weekend is the Iberia Film Festival!  The Cajun French Music Association has dinner and dancing once a month and there is always some festival or another either in New Iberia or nearby.

I'm so impressed with how these people love their community and work so hard to make it a lovely place for both locals and tourists.  New Iberia has recently reinstated their own police force, too, and this has instilled a lot of pride and excitement in the town which saw some spike in crime after Hurricane Katrina.

I love Iberia parish and I hope they'll let me be an honorary Cajun because I'm brushing up my French and plan on coming back really soon!

The SIGIS Take a Trip Series:
Take a Trip to the 2012 Defenders of Liberty Air Show at BAFB
Take a Springtime Trip to Second Hand Rose Antiques in Minden, LA
Take a Trip to Logansport, Louisiana
Take a Trip to the Lock and Dam on Red River
Take a Trip to the 2012 Barkus and Meoux Parade
Take a Christmas Shopping Trip to Second Hand Rose in Minden
Take a Trip to the Fourth Annual Barksdale AFB Oktoberfest 
Take a Trip to Grand Cane's Fifth Annual Pioneer Trade Day
Take a Trip to the 2011 Highland Jazz & Blues Festival
Take an Autumn Trip to Jefferson, Texas
Take a Fall Trip to Second Hand Rose Antiques in Minden
Take a Trip to the 8th Air Force Museum at Barksdale Air Force Base
Take a Summertime Trip to Grand Cane
Take a Trip to Desoto Parish
Take a Summer Trip to Second Hand Rose Antiques in Minden
Take a Trip to Natchitoches and Melrose Plantation 
Take a Trip to Ed Lester Farms and a Random Antique Stop
Take a Trip to the Norton Art Gallery and the Masters of Cuban Art Exhibit
Take a Trip to Natchitoches to See the Christmas Lights
Take a Trip to the Third Annual BAFB Oktoberfest 
Take a Trip to Natchitoches and Oakland Plantation