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.

What should you do when students have already read or heard the book?

This seems to be a constant in just about every school: You have that favorite read aloud you have been waiting to share with your students. When you announce the read aloud, students say, “We already read that book.” or “Our teacher read it to us last year.”

_m-drbinfa4-eli-francis.jpg

What do you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read it aloud anyway.

Readers reread books if they were a favorite and/or had something profound to learn. Explaining this to students should help with any disgruntled listeners. A main point of the read aloud is for students to hear the written word spoken. If it is an excellent title, there should hopefully be few complaints. It might be wise to ask first before forging ahead, such as offering a choice between the book they know and other acceptable titles.

  • Read aloud parts of the book.

Selecting some passages to share with students who have already heard the book offers multiple benefits. First, it is a nice compromise with the kids. We can show that we are listening to them and value their opinion. Second, reading aloud selected passages is an opportunity to notice author’s craft. Teachers can point out what made the author’s writing so good and worth reading again. Finally, it is an opportunity to…

  • Select a new title to read aloud.

Excellent titles that would make for great read alouds are published every year. By being open minded about what books to share with students, we discover new books together.

If you would like a book that is similar to the title you had planned but the kids already heard, check out Amazon. Put in the title into the search bar, and Amazon will share other books readers have purchased in addition to the one you listed. For example, when I looked up Charlotte’s Web, Amazon suggested Stuart Little (also by E.B. White), Pippi Longstockings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. These are all classics for a reason.

(Note: Whenever possible, avoid Amazon and buy local. Click here for reasons why.)

You can also connect with your school’s library media specialist (and what a crime if you do not have one). Going with the Charlotte’s Web example, he or she would likely steer you to titles of the same genre and topic, such as Babe: The Gallant Pig and Owls in the Family. Your library media specialist may also suggest newer titles such as Flora and Ulysses and The Cheshire Cat: A Dickens of a Tale.

If you do not have library media specialist (again, a crime), check out the E.B. White award winners for best read alouds from each year. You can also purchase a copy of The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It was my go-to guide when I taught 5th and 6th grade. I have the last four editions, as Trelease would update the treasury of book lists. He also offers suggestions on his website.

An essential element in reading aloud is what you choose to read.

-Jim Trelease

Whatever approach you take when kids have already heard the story, the more important point is reading aloud to your students every day.

Acceptable Risk

During some of my classroom-school visits last week, I noticed the following:

  • A teacher was reading aloud an everybody book to her students, specifically a biography about a key historical figure from the Civil Rights era. This was happening at the end of the day, usually a pack-up-and-get-ready-to-go time.
  • 1st graders visited a local wildlife refuge. They experienced the habitats that they had been talking and reading about for the past couple of weeks.
  • The entire school engaged in a “read out”, where families joined their kids to read together in many common areas on school grounds. The local public library was also on hand, encouraging everyone to sign up for their summer reading challenge.

IMG_5317.jpg
Families read with their children in the hallway during our school’s read out.
What do all three activities have in common? That no one beyond our school walls was aware of these learning experiences until someone shared some form of media about them online.

Blogging, social media, and other forms of digital communications are becoming a necessary part of an educator’s life. It is pretty easy to do nowadays: Take a picture with a smartphone, add a caption, and post away. My goal is to get one share out a day, although lately I have been able to post only once a week.

Yes, there is risk. Risk in having strangers peer inside your school. Risk in being visible online which might allow someone to post a hurtful comment. Risk in posting content that comes across not as intended to the audience. 

But isn’t there also risk in allowing noneducators to make assumptions about the daily life in schools? The television shows currently out there that portray teachers, principals and students are usually not flattering, mostly archetypes to get a laugh. Pundits criticize schools as failing, knowing that the educators in those schools will most likely not respond. And if all our families have as artifacts of their child’s learning consists of a few conference nights and what’s in their backpacks, are we to blame society’s sometimes negative views about public education?

Having a presence as a classroom and school on social media is an acceptable risk. The benefits outweigh any negatives. So what’s stopping us? In my four years of sharing our school’s experiences on social media, I have found any negatives to be minimal, almost nonexistent. There is risk in whatever we choose.

As you make plans for the next school year, put “digital presence” on the top of your list of goals. The minimal risk will lead to many rewards, including improved family communication, teaching students digital citizenship, and having a bevy of artifacts to support our own instruction and leadership. It’s worth it.

Action Research: Professional Learning from Within

By becoming question-askers and problem-solvers, students and teachers work together to construct curriculum from their context and lived experiences.

– Nancy Fitchman Dana

13266113_10209362500521785_3561560696307026816_nOver 20 teachers recently celebrated their learning as part of their work with an action research course. They presented their findings to over 50 colleagues, friends, and family members at a local convention center. I was really impressed with how teachers saw data as a critical part of their research. Organizing and analyzing student assessment results was viewed as a necessary part of their practice, instead of simply a district expectation.

Equally impressive was how some of the teachers shared data that suggested their interventions did not have an impact on student learning. One teacher, who explored student-driven learning in her middle school, shared survey results that revealed little growth in her students’ dispositions toward school. What the teacher found out was she had not provided her students the necessary amount of ownership during class.

Another teacher did find some positive results from her research on the benefits of reflection during readers workshop. Students wrote in response journals and engaged in authentic literature circles to unpack their thinking about their books they were reading. At the end of the school year, the teacher was starting to observe her students leading their own literature conversations with enthusiasm. This teacher is excited about having some of these same students in 2016-2017, as she is looping up. “I am really looking forward to seeing how these kids grow within the next year.”

A third teacher shared her findings regarding how teaching students how to speak and listen will increase their comprehension of reading and their love for literacy. One of her data points – student surveys – was not favorable toward this intervention. Yet her other two pieces of data (anecdotal evidence, volume of reading) showed positive gains. Therefore, she made a professional judgment that her students did grow as readers and thinkers. This teacher is also reflecting on the usefulness of this survey for next year.


In these three examples, I couldn’t help but notice some unique outcomes of this action research course:

  • Teachers were proudly sharing their failures.

With the first teacher who focused on student-driven learning, she developed a greater understanding about her practice than probably possible in a more traditional professional learning experience. She learned what not to do. This teacher is stripping away less effective methods in favor of something better. And the reason she is able to do this is because she had a true professional learning community that allowed her to take risks and celebrate her discoveries.

  • Teachers didn’t want the learning to end.

This goes beyond the teacher who expressed her excitement in looping with her current students next year. Several participants in this action research course have asked if they could take it again. The main reason: They felt like they just found the question they really wanted to explore. It took them most of the school year to find it.

  • Teachers became more assessment literate.

The term “triangulation” was never referenced with the teacher who focused on conversations to building reading comprehension and engagement. Yet that is what she did, when she felt one set of data was not corroborating with the other results and her own professional judgment. Almost all of the staff who participated in action research had 3-5 data points to help make an informed conclusion about the impact of their instruction.

I also learned a few things about myself as an administrator:

  • It is not the professional development I offer for staff that makes the biggest difference – it is the conditions I create that allow teachers to explore their interests and take risks as innovative practitioners.
  • My role often is to the side of the professionals instead of in front of them, even learning with them when possible. For example, we brought in two professors from UW-Madison to lead this course. The best decision I made was recognizing that I was not the expert, and I needed to seek out those who were.
  • Principals have to be so careful about providing feedback, as we often haven’t built up enough trust, we can make false assumptions about what we are observing, and/or we do not allow teachers to discover better practices on their own terms.

In a world of standards and SMART goals, it is frowned upon when teachers don’t meet the mark regarding student outcomes. The assumption in these situations is that the teacher failed to provide effective instruction. However, the fault in this logic is that learning is not always a linear process. We work with people, dynamic and unpredictable beings who need a more personalized approach for real learning. Facilitating and engaging in action research has helped me realize this.

Encouraging Nonfiction Reading During the Summer

Every year we purchase reading tote bags for all of our students. On one of the last days of the school year, we allow students to check out up to ten (10) books to take home and read. We reopen our library once a month during the summer, which allows students and families up to three times to check in old books and check out new ones.

The biggest expense in this initiative is not the books or the minimal staffing to run the program. It’s purchasing the tote bags which run around $1 a piece. They are necessary as we have found a number of students have nowhere to store their books once they bring them home. It’s an effort in being more culturally responsive, as we work in a Title I school.

This year we receive a donation from an energy distribution company. The funds have to be used toward science and mathematics education. This led to developing a slightly different approach to encouraging reading during the summer months. We will now ask all of our students to select at least five (5) nonfiction books out of the ten books they would pick for the summer months. Below is a screenshot of that letter.

elizabeth.ottery@wrps.net.jpg

By taking this approach, we are utilizing available funds in a smart way as well as encouraging students to read more widely during their summer vacation. Time will tell what if any impact this change might have on student reading engagement and achievement.

What does your school do to promote summer reading? Please share your ideas in the comments.

The Power of Choice

The lack of autonomy in schools today is saddening. The standardization of our assessments has led to a narrowing of our curriculum and instruction. This is happening in schools where even the leaders are giving permission to teachers to explore their passions and to innovate in their instructional approaches.

This is why we are seeing so many initiatives popping up in education today that allow for more choice. The following two instructional approaches – Makerspaces and Genius Hour – are possible pathways a teacher or school leader might take in order to instill a climate of choice in the school house. These are initiatives I have been a part of in our school from the ground up. The effects have been nothing short of inspiring.

Makerspaces

A makerspace is a DIY, passion-driven learning environment where the focus on creation versus consumption. They can be located in an empty classroom, the library media center, or wherever creativity and innovation can be encouraged. Technology should definitely be included within a makerspace, but it is not required at a level you might assume. I have learned through different trainings and resources that the focus and the culture of a school largely drives how the makerspace is utilized in a building.

 

IMG_4433.jpg

Our makerspace inhabits an empty classroom, due to declining enrollment in our blue-collar city. This initiative was spurred by the results from a BrightBytes survey all staff and students took previously. While we had quality access to modern resources, we weren’t always using them to promote critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. These are the four tenets for a 21st century learning environment.

IMG_4876.jpg

Students were involved from the get go in selecting what was needed for this space. While I had initially budgeted for a lot of technology through a local grant application, the students surprised me by electing for better furniture in which to explore their passions and wonderings. We purchased an inclinable table, ergonomic chairs, and mobile desks. 4th graders were even involved in putting this equipment together when it arrived.

IMG_4913.jpg

IMG_4914.jpg

Before the room was even ready, teachers and students started utilizing our makerspace. Our focus as a school is on the reading-writing connection. This has been evident in the projects that have transpired. One teacher partnered with a local organization to work with students and their families to build bookshelves for the texts they take home from school and book fairs. The 4th graders who helped in the planning of the space are writing and developing a multimedia advertisement to collect t-shirts to make dog toys for our local humane society.

What I have discovered with this experience is it is sometimes not enough for leaders to say they will support something innovative. At times we have to help build what we want and envision.

Genius Hour

GHGuidebook-cvr-500Denise Krebs and Gallit Zvi, authors of The Genius Hour Guidebook: Fostering Passion, Wonder, and Inquiry in the Classroom (MiddleWeb/Routledge, 2015), describe this concept as “a time when students can develop their own inquiry-based projects around their passions and take ownership of their work”.

In a 2nd grade classroom, a teacher is exploring the effect of choice on student engagement. She found a slice of time at the end of each day for genius hour to be facilitated (she integrated her content studies and writing instruction). She started this experience by teaching students how to ask questions that could not be answered by searching on Google. Once students discovered two or three questions to explore, the teacher explained the inquiry process that other professionals use in their work. Using these steps, the students got started.

IMG_4774.jpg

One small group wanted to find out what was the best degree of slope for designing a zip line for a fixed distance. They took string, toys, and other materials to create prototypes for their trials. The only technology needed was a computer to upload pictures of their progress and process into their digital portfolios via  FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com).

IMG_4778.jpg

The preliminary results from this teacher’s classroom research have been promising. One student, who receives special education services for behaviors, has decreased his need to take a break from the classroom by 71% from fall to spring. When the teacher asked him why he thought this was happening, he replied, “I really want that time to tinker.”

The Choices We Make

A static approach to improving the conditions in dynamic environments such as classrooms has not brought about the change that some people had hoped for. Squeezing out autonomy in the name of accountability has a track record for failure. Why not trust the professionals who work directly with our students to have some latitude in how the school experience should be designed, with learners in mind? The observations we have made in our school leads us to believe that a little bit of choice in our learning can go a long way.

Student Engagement and Closing the Opportunity Gap: An Action Plan, Part 2

My previous two posts have described how schools can improve access for students of color and students living in poverty to follow their passions and have more voice in choice in their learning. In the first post, I summarize an Education Week article by Dr. Kimberlee Everson who makes a strong case for schools to pursue these goals. In the second post, I laid out the first part of an action plan that school leaders can follow to address this opportunity gap between affluent, impoverished, and diverse schools. The headings I use to organize my thinking come from Appendix A of Regie Routman’s excellent resource Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014).

You may want to follow the embedded links in the previous paragraph to read this long-form piece of digital writing in a chronological order. Consider yourself warned: This is a longer post. I didn’t feel it necessary to extend this series any longer. I will put this content all together and make it available as a PDF download soon.

So let’s continue…

  • Establish a schoolwide culture that promotes trust and risk taking.

Just as we work harder for those teachers that care about and believe in us, learners will take more risks when the culture promotes it. Promoting risk-taking is beyond a leader simply stating “Try it out” to a teacher curious about exploring a new approach to teaching and learning. They have to know that the leader and their colleagues will be there for them when mistakes are made. And mistakes will be made! We’re not really risking much if challenges do not present themselves along the pathway toward becoming better.

J.K. Rowling failure quote.png

One decision I made this year to promote more risk taking as a school was replacing my formal observations of staff with informal instructional walks. Instead of scheduling a 1/3 of my staff for announced supervision times, I now pop into any classroom unannounced on a daily basis. We use the instructional walk approach suggested by Regie Routman from her book Read, Write, Lead. It’s a narrative- and strengths-based approach to staff supervision, instead of a check-the-box compliance task to ensure “fidelity” (whatever that is).

In an instructional walk we are looking first for the teacher’s strengths, noticing where support is needed, and also discerning instructional patterns across the school. We are not just quietly observing and writing notes the teacher may or may not see, checking off look-fors, or collecting numerical data through a clicker. It is a process that respects both the teacher and students. (Routman, p. 198)

In order to increase trust in the instructional walk process, I had our faculty participate in an article study in order to develop the tenets of student engagement. Teachers chose one of four articles to closely read from The Reading Teacher, glean specific concepts from the content, and then come together as a whole group to articulate the characteristics of engagement in the classroom. We posted our thinking on a Padlet (www.padlet.com) during the article study.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 4.06.25 PM.png

These attributes of student engagement became the characteristics I would use as a lens when observing and experiencing classroom instruction. Once a trimester, I would count how I often I was observing each tenet of engagement and let the faculty know these results. If one characteristic was low, such as questioning, we would make a point of encouraging this practice to become more evident within instruction through the sharing of articles and content, and through professional learning activities.

By stripping away formal observations and replacing them with instructional walks, we acknowledged that instruction is not simply a list of indicators to be documented and scored. Rather, teaching is a complex activity that is hard to understand and evaluate without an authentic and comprehensive view of what’s happening in the classroom. Allowing teachers to relax a bit about the evaluation process, they felt more comfortable in taking risks around increasing engagement through providing more access to opportunities. Mistakes were and still are seen as part of the teaching and learning process.

  • Lead the change effort.

Asking for teachers to become better practitioners demands that the leader be a part of the change process. Sometimes this involves becoming a teacher ourselves. For example, I hosted several technology training sessions for teachers to attend during the school year. They could post their questions via a Google Form about a topic or tool. These questions became our agenda for the evening.

I also partnered with a classroom teacher who was exploring how facilitating conversations about reading might increase student engagement. We promoted books we enjoyed, taught students how to recommend titles to their peers, and gave them ample amounts of time to read and discuss their books with peers. I also facilitated some of the data collection by popping in once a month to check in on how students’ reading habits, thinking, and relationships with others might have changed due to becoming more engaged in reading. The results, still being compiled, are very informative.

  • Assess whether we are learning more and getting better.

This might be the most challenging part of engaging in a process of change that will allow students more opportunities to engage in meaningful and self-directed learning. A challenge, but not impossible.

One approach I like and utilize annually is collaboratively assessing student work. We use this process with student writing during our mid-year professional learning day. This is an application of the collaborative learning cycle from the last post. Here’s how it works:

  1. I collect examples of student work, such as performance tasks or their writing.
  2. I create a gallery of their work, stretching across a hallway for example, in developmental order such as by grade level/age.
  3. We briefly describe the purpose for the professional learning and expected outcomes (connect).
  4. Teachers discuss what they anticipate observing as a grade level or department (collaborate).
  5. Teachers reorganize into vertical/cross-departmental teams and do a “walk” together. They are asked to notice strengths and next steps in students’ work age by age and talk about these as a team (calibrate).
  6. Everyone comes back as a grade level or department to co-develop a new understanding about student work and why they believe what they believe now (consensus).
  7. As a whole faculty, teachers share their takeaways during a whole group debriefing (connect).

Here are few pictures of our most recent collaborative assessment, in which teachers were engaged in a gallery walk of student writing:

This is a cyclical process, which is really a nice model for what all learning looks like. Because we have done this yearly, I can share our debriefing notes to show how we have grown as a staff from year to year. Below are our debriefings from the last two years about student writing (last year is on the left, this year on the right). Notice any difference?

We did. More of our students’ personalities were evident in their writing compared to last year. They were sharing about their personal lives in their writing more often, as well as connecting their reading to their writing. That led us to believe that choice and voice were more amply provided. These debriefings, when focused on our strengths first, become a celebration in a sense. We take pride in how our actions have directly contributed to the positive outcomes in our students’ work.

  • Assess whether students are learning more.

Money, staff, and resources might be tight, but one thing schools are not lacking is data. Seasonal screeners and interim reading measures can provide some information about a student’s growth over time. But if this is all that a school uses, we are outsourcing our abilities to accurately assess the learning that occurred within one school year.

This year our school started using a student engagement survey to gain a better understanding of how they feel about learning and school in general. The results from our fall survey were so compelling, we actually changed our school’s goal to focus on specific practices that increase engagement, such as choice and student discussion, instead of curriculum integration.

Another more authentic measure of student learning we have utilized for a couple years now are digital portfolios. Six times a year, teachers and students upload a learning artifact into FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com). They also enter a reflection that documents what they did well, what they still need to work on, and their goal for the next time they have to upload an artifact to their digital portfolio. As a bonus, families have appreciated knowing how their students are progressing throughout the school year, instead of waiting for report cards and conferences. Students also feel more in control of their learning, as they are being asked to be the “chief assessors” of their work.

BeCuUGSCIAAdZlr


The action plan I have described within the last two posts is one approach to bringing about change in a school with the goal of increasing engagement and providing access for all students to have more control over their learning and follow their interests. It is not to be followed step-by-step. What would be wise is to take what seems useful from our work and apply it as a school leadership team sees fit. I would recommend following the smart steps that Regie Routman lays out in her book, which I used to guide our school’s journey.

As I reflect on the beginnings of this writing, I am a bit surprised to realize that I veered a bit off course in my initial purpose. Readers might be expecting that I would simply advocate for makerspaces and STEM labs as a solution to the lack of access students might experience to unique learning opportunities. Yet here we are, talking about reading and writing and how the connection between the two, when made evident for students, has increased student engagement. Maybe the journey led us to an unexpected destination.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these trending topics. Makerspaces and STEM labs are in part a reaction to the suffocating grasp our policy makers have placed on our schools to meet standards and prescribed expectations in the name of accountability. It is interesting that Dr. Everson does not advocate for any one approach over another in providing access to more engaging and authentic learning experiences for students. Instead, she asks of our nation’s leaders to take a more thoughtful approach about teaching the whole child.

It is my hope that they will advocate for rights of families that extend beyond access to buildings, a uniform curriculum, or high-test-score-producing teachers. It is my hope that they will feel teachers’ desire for freedom to inspire and children’s desire to explore the world with passion.

With that, I hope that school leaders soon find their entry points into discovering what’s possible when we offer students the time, resources, and space to pursue their own interests and develop expertise in that area. This is a necessary part of learning. For us, I am already toying with a schedule that would allocate a 1/2 hour every day next year toward “Project Time”. This would be at the end of the day, where students had even more control over how they spend that time in school. It is not a solution to a problem, but that next step in giving the ownership of learning back to our students.