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)