The Plot Against America (A Book Review)

Plot_against_usa.jpgFor some time I have wanted to read The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth (Vintage, 2004). It taps into my interest in “What if” scenarios and historical fiction.

I have avoided purchasing it until recently. This past summer, I was walking in the used book section of the Barnes & Noble in Middleton, WI when I spotted it. For $1 I couldn’t go wrong.

Did I find the book or did the book find me? The premise of the novel is Charles Lindbergh is elected president, denying Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. The famous aviator arrives at the White House on a singular promise: to avoid going to war with Germany. His isolationist platform is in contrast to FDR’s growing concerns regarding anti-semitism spreading across Europe. Lindbergh’s affinity for the Nazi party comes to light more and more as the story progresses. This piece of fiction is based on the events of this time, told through the author’s perspective as a Jewish child growing up in New Jersey. It almost reads like a memoir with all of the details.

The Plot Against America sat on my bedside or in my bookshelf for quite a while. The Trump campaign for president raised my concerns as the summer wore one. His accomplishments corresponded with my interest. Trump takes the lead in the Republican primary race – I read the first chapter. He wins the nomination – I read the next chapter. The more we learned about Trump’s affiliation with Russia, the more I was starting to see parallels as I became engrossed in the novel.

Consider:

  • In the book: Lindbergh is a celebrity with no experience in political office. In real life: Trump is a celebrity with no experience in political office.
  • In the book: Lindbergh seeks a peace agreement with the Nazi party. In real life: Trump suggests lifting sanctions on Russia and praising their leadership.
  • In the book: Lindbergh surrounds himself with cabinet members sympathetic to the Nazi cause, including industry titan Henry Ford. In real life: Trump surrounds himself with potential cabinet members sympathetic to Putin’s Russia, including oil magnate Rex Tillerson.
  • In the book: Lindbergh creates a program in which Jews are encouraged to relocate to another part of the country in hopes of breaking up Jewish communities. In real life: Trump advocates for a Muslim registry and to ban people of this religion from coming to America.

I won’t go on to avoid spoilers. What I can say is there are even more disturbing parallels between Roth’s work and what is currently happening later in the novel. I think if I would have read this book even a year ago, it would not have had the same impact on me as it does now. Context matters. After finishing the book, I continue to think about the first line in an excellent New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, who made similar comparisons between Trump’s rise and a biography set in Communist China.

What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust.

This may be what is happening right now. New ways of acting are becoming normal. That’s why The Plot Against America is one of the most frightening books I have ever read, and this is coming from a connoisseur of Stephen King.

The prophetic qualities of this book are disturbing. My biggest worry: Characters in the story started to accept their current situation as reality, even rationalizing behaviors to avoid dealing with the facts that were right in front of their noses.

So why did I read this book? Obviously I didn’t want to merely escape – maybe to understand? George Will, former staunch Republican who recently disavowed his party in lieu of Trump’s rise, made an insightful comment in a speech, which I do my best to recall.

If I were in charge of the world, every college student would major in history.

George knows his history, as does Phillip Roth. Fiction is not fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Being widely read and knowledgeable is a good thing, maybe the best thing, in today’s world of fake news and partisanship. In light of tomorrow’s inauguration, I hope everyone picks up a book they’ve been meaning to read and become better for it.

Student Goal Setting in the Classroom

Matt Renwick

Below is my response for Larry Ferlazzo’s Classroom Q & A for Education Week. You can view all of the responses by clicking here. Enjoy!

Used smartly and with intent, goal setting can be a game changer in engaging our students in their own learning process. Writing down goals makes them concrete. Sharing goals with peers, teachers, and family members puts more accountability on oneself. Including others in setting the goals provides a support system to help achieve them. Others become invested in their success. When students finally do achieve what they set out to accomplish, everyone celebrates.

So how can we use goal setting with our students? I believe the first step in this process is asking students what they are interested in as well as their needs. In one 2nd grade classroom, one teacher I know (my wife) asked her students questions regarding their interests and needs…

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Do no Harm

When used casually, AR helps students’ reading abilities grow. When used thoughtfully and with proven techniques, it leads to tremendous gains and a lifelong love of reading. – Getting Results with Accelerated Reader, Renaissance Learning

I am currently reading aloud Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce to my 10 year old son. It is an interesting “what if” story: the main character and his older brother find a bag of money thrown off of a train in England. The problem is that England’s currency is soon transitioning from pounds to the euro. To add a wrinkle to the narrative, the main character’s mother recently passed away. To add another wrinkle, the main character can speak to deceased saints canonized within the Catholic Church. This story is nothing if not interesting and hard to predict.

Reading aloud to my son sometimes leads to conversations about other books. For instance, I asked him about a fantasy series that also seemed to stretch one’s imagination. I thought it was right up his alley. Yet he declined. Pressed to explain why, my son finally admitted that he didn’t want to read that series because he failed an Accelerated Reader quiz after reading the first book. Here is our conversation:

Me: “When did you read the book in that series?”

Son: “Back at my older school.”

Me: “Why did you take a quiz on it?”

Son: “Because we had to take at least one quiz every month.”

Me: “Did you not understand the book?”

Son: “I thought I did. It was hard, but I liked it.”

This is an educational fail. When an assessment such as Accelerated Reader causes a student to not want to read, this should be a cause for concern. To be clear, Accelerated Reader is an assessment tool designed to measure reading comprehension. Yet it is not a valid tool for driving instruction. What Works Clearinghouse, a source for existing research on educational programming, found Accelerated Reader to have “mixed effects on comprehension and no discernible effects on reading fluency for beginning readers.” In other words, if a school were to implement Accelerated Reader, they should expect to find results that were not reliable, with the possibility of no impact on student learning. Consider this as you ponder other approaches to promoting independent reading.

It should also be noted that none of the studies listed took a look at the long term effects of using Accelerated Reader on independent reading. That would make for an interesting study.

I realize that it makes simple sense to quiz a student about their comprehension after reading a book. Why not? The problem is, when a student sees the results of said quiz, they appear to attribute their success or failure to their abilities as a reader. Never mind that the text might have been boring and only selected because of points, that the test questions were poorly written, that the teacher had prescribed the text to be read and tested without any input from the student, or that the test results would be used toward an arbitrary reading goal such as points. Any one of these situations may have skewed the results. In addition, why view not passing an AR quiz as a failure? It might be an opportunity to help the student unpack their reading experience in a constructive way.

What I would say is to take a step back from independent reading, and to appreciate it as a whole. What are we trying to do with this practice? Independent reading, as the phrase conveys, means to develop a habit of and love for lifelong, successful reading. This means the appropriate skills, strategies and dispositions should be developed with and by students. Any assessment that results in a student not wanting to read more interferes with that process and causes more problems than benefits. The Hippocratic Oath in medicine states “Do no harm”. Sounds like wisdom education should heed as well.

Suggestion for further reading: My Memory of The Giver by Dylan Teut

I didn’t meet my reading goal (and is that okay?)

2016 has come to a close. Like any year, there were events to celebrate along with a few experiences we may not care to reminisce over. One event that is somewhere in the middle for me is that fact that I didn’t achieve my reading goal.

For the past two years, I have set a goal for number of books to read from January to December. In 2015 I not only met my goal but surpassed it (50/53). This past year I decided to up the ante – more is better, right? – and set a goal for 60. I ended up reading 55 books this year. Not too shabby, considering my recent move and a new job.

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Goodreads, the online community where I along with many other bibliophiles post said goals, seems indifferent to this fact. “Better luck in 2017!” is all the feedback Goodreads offers. I can live with that. The site focused more on all of the books I did read, covers facing out, along with number of pages read and related statistics.Screen Shot 2017-01-01 at 5.43.01 PM.png

I guess I could have pushed through in December and quickly devoured some titles just to meet my goal. They may not have been what I necessarily wanted to read though. Also, I could have thrown in a few more books that my wife and I listened to with our kids while driving. But to be honest, I was half listening and didn’t feel like I could count it.

I’m glad that I didn’t caught up in meeting arbitrary goals. If that had been the case, I may have passed on longer, more complex works of fiction such as All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s fiction, yes, but also helped me deepen my understanding of what it means to live in a nation that does not share your beliefs. If I had worried too much about meeting a reading goal, I might not have reread and reread again Last Stop on Market Street by Matthew de la Pena. It still floors me how many ideas and perspectives a reader can glean from such a short text. If I had worried too much about meeting my reading goal, I may have avoided reading reference books about writing, such as Write What Matters by Tom Romano and A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld. These are not texts you plow through. Yet I come back to these resources for information and inspiration.

If I was teaching in the classroom again, I think I would adopt a Goodreads-approach to independent reading. Students would still be expected to set some type of goal based on number of books. But it would not be the function of independent reading. We would look at different data about their reading lives, including:

  • Variety of genres explored
  • Complexity of texts from fall to spring
  • Favorite authors, titles and series based on ratings and reviews
  • Classmates whose reading habits influenced their reading lives
  • Books on their to-read list
  • How they feel about reading in general

This data seems a lot more important than the number of books read. I do believe volume in reading is important. But what leads someone to read? We still get reading goals like number of books read confused with purpose. The purpose of a reading goal is to make a more concerted effort to read more and to read daily. The idea is that through habitual reading, we will discover new titles, authors and genres that we come to enjoy and find valuable in our lives. I think about how I got hooked on reading: in the 3rd grade, our teacher read aloud Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. No reading goal, amount of guided reading or immersion into a commercial program did that for me.

As teachers take stock with their students during the school year regarding reading goals, I sincerely hope they look beyond mere numbers and work with their students so they can understand them as readers. Data that only measures quantity and disregards quality tells us very little about who our students are and who they might become as readers.

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Suggestion for Further Reading: No AR, No Big Deal by Brandon Blom

What I’m Reading: December 2016

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

-Maya Angelou

  • Allen, N. (November 2016). So Many Literacies. The Council Chronicle (NCTE), pgs. 10-13.

This article summarizes author Lauren Rosenberg’s work developing writing skills with adult learners. Rosenberg questions the label “illiterate” for those who cannot read or write yet.

‘Illiteracy’ suggests illness, and not just individual illness but some kind of social illness. Our culture frames the nonliterate as being lesser. It’s important to get away from the idea that a person who doesn’t have the benefits of reading and writing has something wrong with them.

Her approach for working with adults is to use their personal narratives as a way to develop their reading and writing skills. These students saw themselves not only as victims of circumstance, but also as agents for change. Through their writing, they were able to “re-story” their lives.

It takes us back to an idea that originates in narrative psychology. You can use writing to reexamine and even correct an impression. You can change how you see yourself, and how others see you. You can correct the narrative that’s been used against you and that’s portrayed you in a way you don’t want to be portrayed.

Through this very personal literacy experience, students were also able to build their reading and writing skills.

  • Hogan, J. J. (December 2016). Troubling a “Cultured Hell”: Empowering Adolescent Voices through Youth Participatory Action Research. Voices from the Middle (NCTE), 39-41.

Jamie Jordan Hogan is an instructional coach and former middle school English teacher. To engage her students, she guided them to conduct action research on a topic they were passionate about during their research writing unit. No topic seemed to be off the table; students elected to research race, class, sexuality, and immigration policy, as examples. Hogan questions why teachers do not embrace this approach in English classrooms.

The burning question for us as educators: What are we so afraid of? Is it a fear of a personal conflict? A fear of judgment? A fear that we may be obligated to confront our own individual prejudices and biases?

The teacher applies the steps of action research, including developing a driving question, creating an action plan, facilitating data collection, and presenting their findings. Students used a variety of digital and traditional tools to conduct their research. Face to face communication, such as peer dialogue and interviews, were critical for success. The outcomes, beyond their final products, was a feeling of empowerment as learners.

Students do not want to be mere passersby in their own education. They want to make their mark and have an active voice in the communities in which they live.

  • O’Byrne, W. I. (November/December 2016). Scaffolding Digital Creation. Literacy Today (ILA), pgs. 14-15.

A literacy professor offers three steps for moving students from consumers to creators of digital content. O’Byrne sees many educational activities today positioning students in the former role. However, to be able to truly understand the web, he feels it is critical that students understand how content is created as well as the active role they might take.

For students…their ability to best use these literacies is central to our collective future. Educators should continue to show that they can work with students to understand and prepare them for these digital spaces and beyond.

The pathway of consumption to curation to creation is one way teachers can provide the necessary support for students to build with and use digital literacy applications. Voicethread, Pinterest, and Hypothes.is are three tools referenced in the article.

  • Souto-Manning, M. (2016). Honoring and Building on the Rich Literacy Practices of Young Bilingual and Multilingual Learners. The Reading Teacher, 70(3), 263271.

Similar to the first article in this review, the author points out the negative connotations of referring to students with labels couched in deficit-based foundations, such as “English as Second Language (ESL) learners”.

All of these labels—LEP, ESL, ESOL, ENL, and ELL—have one thing in common: They position children as being inferior or having deficits.

Souto-Manning prefers the term “emergent bilingual” to describe students who are already fluent in one language and learning English – an additional language – in school. Through this mindset, these students can now be seen as having an advantage. A powerful strategy for incorporating students’ different backgrounds within instruction is ensuring literature that is read aloud and available in classrooms represents a diversity of cultures.

Literacies, Reframed

So much of our literacy curriculum in schools today is focused on skill development and strategy acquisition. Do students have the ability to decode unfamiliar text? Can they use context clues to understand a new word? Are students able to organize their ideas from what they have read and what they know into a cogent article or essay? All are important to know and be able to do. Yet they are not the function of reading and writing. They are the tools that open the door to literacy. But an open door is only the beginning.

The purpose of reading and writing can be broken down into one of two main purposes: to entertain and to acquire and transmit knowledge. Often (at least for me anyway), I read and write for a mix of both purposes. For example, when I read a work of excellent fiction, I usually end the book with a better understanding of myself and others. Likewise, when I write pieces such as this, I am frequently considering my audience and how I can keep them engaged in reading to the end (you are still with me, right?).

All of these articles summarized here promote literacy as more than just learning how to read or write. These practices can be life-changing. Illiterate adults learn to reframe their identities through writing. Adolescents discover the power of language to explore wonderings relevant to their lives. Students start to see themselves as producers of knowledge instead of merely consumers. Immigrants are positioned as experts within the context of school, seeing their bilingualism as an advantage instead of a deficit.

These topics are often explored in the current literacy journals and published research. I subscribe to many of these resources because the standards do not adequately address them. By becoming more knowledgeable, we can serve our students even better.

 

 

Developing a Growth Mindset within a Culture of Compliance

Many studies have shown that when students are engaged in learning, there is little need to bribe students to complete their work. Using external motivators in the name of learning has many critics. There has been no more outspoken critic of grades and test scores than Alfie Kohn. His specific concerns around the use of praise to coax work out of students in the name of outcomes have been substantiated by a body of research, of which he often cites to support his arguments on his blog, www.alfiekohn.org.

For example, in his blog post “Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise”, which was also published in his book Schooling Beyond Measure: Unorthodox Essays About Education (Heinemann, 2015), Kohn reinforces the notion that telling students they did a good job when they complete a task sets up an imbalance of power between student and teacher.

Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it is a way of ‘doing to’, rather than ‘working with’ people (96).

In addition, when we deliver praise, we are actually taking autonomy of a student’s actions away from them and attributing their efforts to us. The result can be that students become conditioned to want the “attaboys” as a reward for their work, instead of focusing on why the work was successful in the first place.

The effect of a ‘Good job!’ is to devalue the activity itself – reading, drawing, helping – which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish (97).

As educators, we too often default back to how we were taught in our classrooms and schools. I catch myself at times with words of praise instead of acknowledgement of their efforts with our students and my own children. It is a hard habit to break. However, this habit is worth changing. Our choices in language create the conditions in which students can or cannot become owners of their personal learning journeys.

Pathways Toward Student Agency

Peter Johnston, literacy education professor and author of Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), offers similar concerns regarding the use of praise in order to motivate learners. When students are rewarded for getting the right answer and completing the task just as the teacher asked, they start to associate success with what the adult deems worthy. They fail to internalize an understanding of good work within themselves.

In fact, if teachers repeatedly offer praise to students, they can reduce the impact of their instruction.

When children are fully engaged in an activity, if we praise them we can simply distract them from what they were doing and turn their attention to pleasing us (42).

So what is the counter to this culture? Johnston suggests agency, or the belief that things such as our intelligence and our life’s outcomes are changeable (27). Agency can be developed in students when teachers offer an environment for students which directs their attention to their own processes and thinking and how their efforts contributed to their success. This concept has been a focus of educational research for some time. Agency is closely related to more readily-known concepts such as “growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck. However we describe it, the idea is that the language we employ in classrooms has a direct impact on how well students take responsibility for their learning.

The assessment habits we develop as teachers can contribute to or detract from our students’ sense of success and independence. On a positive note, formative assessment strategies offer teachers specific approaches to address includes the clarity of goals and the offer of support through feedback and scaffolding that allows the teacher to eventually release the responsibility of the work to the student. These strategies are best employed in classroom environments that utilize responsive language, structures for collaboration, higher order questioning, and honest celebrations of student accomplishments. These actions can make student agency a reality.

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This is an excerpt from my new eBook The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning. It is a free resource that offers readers four steps for helping students become more independent learners. You can download this resource by clicking here.