Monday, December 28, 2009


So, I've tried to stay away from toxic subjects, but grading is one that is a hotly contested topic currently in my district. it goes.

A few weeks ago, our district sent around a flyer about a grading study group that they were putting together to investigate new ways to grade. One of these new ways involves a no zero policy allowing for the lowest grade assignable to be a 50. In the words of Hamlet, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!"

I get perhaps shielding maybe some students occasionally from getting a zero, but to never assign them? I am supposed to give a student who turned in nothing for the quarter a 50? Something seems wrong here.

Now, I am aware of all the blah-blah arguments about grades, but here is a brief list of reasons why this policy is a bad idea:

1. Grades are a measure of student progress. A student who does not understand 50 percent of the material should not be misled into believing that he or she does.

2. NOT because it will inflate grades. There is a great article which I cannot find at the moment (of course) called "The Drama without a Villain." The whole article is dedicated to the myth of grade inflation. It begins with the Committee of Ten, those guys who created Carnegie Units, complaining about, you got it, too many "A"s being awarded. Not going to go deeply into it here, maybe in another post in February, but according to this fine article (which I swear I will find and then post the bibliographic information for at a later date) grade inflation is about as real as Nessie and the Creature from the Blue Lagoon.

3. I've seen too many students in AP English courses who can't write. I am not being over-the-top here. Let me give you an example: "incase" as a word throughout an entire essay. Once would have been a typo; twice, tragic. No less than twelve times did this student, who is actually on of the best I have, write this as one word.

4. I don't spend my precious time tackling mound after mound of papers so that I can give a student who completely ignored the assignment a 50. If I ask for a paper on Jude the Obscure and I get an essay on the merits of certain waterfowl, I should be able to give that student an appropriate grade.

5. Where is the justice in assigning a plagiarized paper a 50?

These reasons and many more have me stewing about this attempt to rewrite policy.

An aside on the policy piece. In Virginia, the COMMONWEALTH where I teach (all caps on purpose), there are only local Boards of Supervisors who control the purse strings. School boards are dependent upon these local boards for their budgets, etc. School boards are not allowed to generate a private revenue stream. Thus, much like the federal government, our Boards of Supervisors have a little bit of control over what is done in the schools. Just thought I would mention that for those from most of the other states who have independent school boards.

So, this attempt to rewrite policy is being driven by assistant superintendents of curriculum, etc. who wish to get a gold star on their resumes, School Board members who have children in the system, and Board of Supervisors members who have school children in the system. There is a trifecta if I ever saw one.

So, I began thinking about what the implication would be for students in the English classroom. Potentially, students could pass English classes while avoiding an entire section of the course. Don't like the essay writing? Skip it and do everything else. Don't like to read? Skip it and write the essays. With the lowest grade being a 50 and the highest F being a 59, there are only 10 percentage points that need to be attained before students get a passing 60.

What do you think?

Can this grading system be used for anything other than turning out a bunch of students who can't read, write, or think?

Has this system been implemented in your district? If so, how is it working out?

Is it a good idea to destroy our own competitiveness as the forces of globalization once again demand that we compete for ideas, resources, and power?

Is it destructive to students to lie to them about where they really fall?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

AP Break Assignments

I don't know about you ("you" being anyone who teaches AP English of any level), but one of the hardest parts of the job is assigning work during school breaks. For me, the dilemma lies between assigning the right amount and respecting the families' time with their loved ones.

So, I open it up to you (same referent). What do you assign for break? What factors help you decide what to assign?

This post is an open discussion, so please write back.

The Seven Personae - English Journal Nov. 2009

In the November 2009 English Journal, Jim Burke outlines the seven personae students will need to learn to master the future. These seven personae are “necessary [for success] as students, employees, and citizens” (Burke, 2009, p. 13) in the 21st century. Burke (2009) claims that these personae are derived from Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future. I mention this bit about Gardner only to make sense of my next thought. Often when I read Gardner, I find myself looking for a way to connect it to classroom practice. Despite Gardner’s frequent assertion that Multiple Intelligences are not intended for educational assessment or lesson design, I, like many other teachers, see potential for a way into students’ minds. That is why Burke’s article was so intriguing. His framework is simple, yet developed in a way that invites discussions of implementation in curriculum and lesson design.

Burke’s idea is unassailable. These personae represent many extant frameworks for new 21st century job skills. Take Daniel Pink’s (2006) book A Whole New Mind, wherein Pink outlines the six senses of the right brain and how to develop them. His reasons for these new skills include the usual trifecta of “Abundance, Asia, and Automation” (Pink, 2006, p. 30). The jobs that people could get without a college diploma are being reduced dramatically. Students must be educated to think, but they need more than the typical left-brain approach that is given high value in the test-score driven high school system. If students are to be successful, they must go to college; if they are to go to college, they must know what we ask in the academic standards and be able to imagine new possibilities and uses for this information.

Let’s look at the seven personae. Burke’s (2009, pp. 13-14) framework outlines the following:

  • Storyteller: “everyone must be able to use a range of means and media to tell the story of an experience, an event, a situation, or a problem and its proposed solutions;…we must be equally able to understand and analyze the stories…others tell us.”
  • Philosopher: “[students] must be able to understand and grapple with [complex ideas] by posing questions and considering a subject from multiple angles;…they must be able to convey their own perspective on and response to these ideas through words, images, numbers.”
  • Historian: “we must know how to gather, assess, and apply background knowledge relevant to the text or task at hand in order to comprehend its ideas and arguments…[students] must also know how to reason like a historian.”
  • Anthropologist: “[students] must all develop the ability to understand not only our own but also others’ cultures…developing the ability to observe, examine, and communicate insights about these cultures, for such skills are fundamental to our personal and economic success.”
  • Reporter: “Everyone today must be able to watch for, locate, evaluate, and analyze a remarkable amount of data from different sources;…we must develop and continually refine our ability to investigate, research, and navigate…[the] sea of information…[and] convey the results.”
  • Critic: “We all need the skills critics use to evaluate and analyze a text…[and] now it must also…examine retirement plans, medical options, and competing products and services.”
  • Designer: “Design is such a crucial aspect of any text…we need to know how to ‘read’ for it, noticing the features used to invest the text with meaning…we must consider design when we compose documents, create online content, produce videos, or otherwise communicate with people.”

These personae are well-framed and highly adaptable. I can think of a number of lessons and assessments I use that feed into one of these. This fusion of Gardner and educational practice is easily understood, seems to be perfectly suited for thinking about the goals of instruction, and can be used to design assessments.

The first thing I notice is that there may be a way to streamline the seven personae. For example, the Reporter persona seems as though it could be the Storyteller persona; also, the Anthropologist seems as though it could replace the Historian. This overlap could be beneficial for the implementing instructor or it could hinder implementation. The benefit would be the specificity with which each persona discusses the outcomes of English education. Thus, a Storyteller becomes a creative writer while a Reporter becomes a non-fiction writer or journalist. The hindrance of the overlap comes from the openness of each persona. An Anthropologist could not study culture without understanding that culture’s history; moreover, the “thinking of a historian” is part of how Anthropologists make sense of their findings. Perhaps some streamlining could make these personae easier to keep in mind when thinking about how to design lessons that develop each one.

I assign some projects built on a rubric I constructed from Daniel Pink’s six senses of the right brain (2006, p. 65-67). This rubric assesses student creativity in each of the six areas: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Jim Burke’s personae represent a set of right brain skills that can be used to create a classroom consciousness of assessment and assignments. In these creative projects, I could use the skill set Burke presents to even more specifically describe what I am looking for within each rubric heading. For example, my design column could have varying levels of “considers how the features of his or her project invest it with meaning” or some such.

Think about essays. If these seven personae were part of how you approached creativity and imagination in assessment with your students, you could remind them that the narrative essay should draw most on their Storyteller skills, while the expository essay (depending upon the content) should draw on their Reporter and Historian skills. Using these personae to discuss imagination and creativity in student assessment and assignments could result in much more insightful and developed papers that would allow students to demonstrate how much they really understand.

My head has been buzzing with ideas since I read this article. These personae offer such an opportunity to discuss how we approach creativity and imagination in the era of the standardized test. Using these personae when we think about lessons and assessment can help us honor the right brain while still educating the left. Education does not have to flatten out; students can be well-rounded in an era of standardized testing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

So You Think You Can Read? Rigor in Reading

“About two-thirds of those who enter high school graduate. About two-thirds of those who do go on to some form of higher education. About two-thirds of those who go on to higher education take remedial courses in college (so they are not doing college-level work; they are really in high school). Fewer than half of those who go to college get a degree of any sort. Yet virtually all analysts agree that those who do not have at least two years of real college-level work will be in real trouble as adults” (NCEE, 2008, p. 35).

The following scene may be familiar to some of you:

It is a hazy weekday morning. You pull into your parking space at school, open your car door, sling on all your gear, and enter the building. You pray you balanced all of your things correctly because you must sidestep a zillion teenagers who will, and have, run teachers down on occasion. You make it to the office, sign in, sigh at the mountain of mail in your mailbox you wish you had a hand for, and then you head to your classroom. The smell of freshly-brewed coffee drifts slowly down the hall, welcoming you to another morning at school. You drop the gear in your room, run back to the office mailbox, grab your mail, and then return to your desk. (They should call it your castle since the numbers of student papers piling up in the corners are beginning to look like parapets.) You grab your mug, head across the hall, and fill up your cup. Then, you walk back across the hall, grab a legal pad and a pen, and head for your weekly department meeting. Your serene morning is about to end.

At the meeting, you and your colleagues debate over the use of materials in the classroom. The honors/Advanced Placement/Dual Enrollment/ International Baccalaureate students get short shrift. The special education students get mentioned and the special education liaison takes them on by him or herself. Then there are the standard students. I have found that whenever these students come up, people get weird. Once motivated and intelligent people become work-o-phobic. Teach them Shakespeare, you say? Make them do homework, you say? Do I look like a miracle worker? Yes, you do. You are a teacher—time to start acting like one.

If this scene is familiar, then perhaps the quotation from the National Center on Education and the Economy’s report Tough Choices or Tough Times also struck a familiar chord. Our standard students are being fed fairy tales of the power of education. They are being told of the empowerment an education can provide while some teachers quietly exchange rigor in the curriculum with easy-to-read books and easy-to-grade assessments.

At our school, the newest drive is for literacy. We have been adapting all sorts of new methods (new to us that is) to raise students’ vocabularies. We have adopted root word strategies, interactive reading strategies, cross-curricular classrooms, ad nauseum. What we haven’t added is the rigor. What possible vocabulary growth can tenth grade students get from To Kill a Mockingbird? What a fantastic novel; its simple language makes it all that much more powerful. The problem is that that may be the only major work students read all year. The rest of the time, students read short stories, poems, and the phenomenal, yet equally simple, Night. Where is the challenge of Shakespeare? Some of our teachers teach Julius Caesar to tenth grade, others try to find ways to run out of time. Where is the challenge of at least one difficult novel? I mean, my AP Literature class will read A Tale of Two Cities because we have it for twelfth grade. Some districts use that novel as a freshman text.

The bottom line is what the bottom line always has been in a meaningful education: effort. Many teachers do not want to struggle with their students to teach them Shakespeare. They would rather pull out Harper Lee or Elie Wiesel and get a powerful story with little linguistic development. Learning language is hard, but I’ve never thought it was optional.

So, what is to be done? The answer is simple. Next time you consider what to teach next, think about the numbers. Do you want half of the students you teach to be unsuccessful? I think the answer to that question will give you all you need to know about the importance of a rigorous curriculum and whether or not you should push your students to become better readers. They will need two years of college to be successful. Could your students make it that far?

I know mine will; we just started reading The Merchant of Venice as an anticipatory piece for The Great Gatsby. The play is the thing for a comparison with Gatsby. Considering its discussions of wealth, dangerous conflict, and forbidden loves, The Merchant of Venice could be Gatsby’s long-lost cousin. The students are using many of the tactics offered in the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free collection to become comfortable with the language. I am not worried about them getting the story…yet. Right now, I am tackling the task of getting students excited about reading Shakespeare. Turns out, with the Folger’s help, it is not all that hard.

How do you inject rigor into your curriculum? What are some strategies you use when teaching a difficult text?

Monday, December 14, 2009


Hello NCTE secondary section community. We are your new bloggers Dan Bruno and Tara Seale. We look forward to getting to work on this blog for you and with you. We will write entries based on our own classroom practices, our own areas of expertise, and your e-mailed questions. See below for specific contact information and our individual interests.

Dan Bruno
North Stafford High School
839 Garrisonville Road
Stafford, VA 22556

I graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a B.A. in English Literature and Language and a B.A. in Classical Studies with a concentration in Ancient Greek. I also have a Master of Education from the University of Virginia in Social Foundations of Education. I currently teach an ever-changing class load in a school with a hybrid bell schedule (something I will definitely be posting on in the future). As my schedule now stands, I teach English 11, Journalism I, Journalism II, Journalism III, AP English Literature and Composition, and AP Language and Composition. This year, my AP Language class has been paired with an AP US History class to create Hislish, an interdisciplinary approach to learning about American history and letters. I am also involved with school politics, serving on both the School Board Roundtable and the Superintendent's Advisory Council. I will be adding posts on the following topics:

1. Teaching Shakespeare
2. Teaching Classic Texts
3. Advanced Placement English Language and/or Literature
4. Integrated Learning Teams
5. The Policy Arena
6. Educational Philosophy
7. Educational Sociology
8. Educational Psychology
9. Applied Psychology
10. Teaching Vocabulary
11. Writing to Write/Writing to Learn
12. Ancient Greek Literature

I look forward to working with all of you in the future. Please e-mail blog post requests, comments, and questions to

Tara Seale
Bryant High School
200 NW 4th Street
Bryant AR 72022

I have a B.A. from Louisiana State University and further education classes from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, AR. I consider myself a 21st Century educator, and I am an active tweeter, blogger, and ninger (I am not sure if the last one is a word yet). I teach two 9th grade English classes a day, and I serve as an Instructional Technology Specialist for my district when I am not teaching. I recently graduated from the Google Teacher Academy, and I plan to add blog posts related to the following topics:

1. Educational Philosophy
2. Student Engagement/Classroom Management
3. Data and Curriculum
4. 21st Century Practices & Assessments
5. Required Reading
6. Sentence Modeling
7. Smartboards in and English classroom
8. Web 2.0 in an English classroom
9. Other technology devices in an English classroom
10. Reluctant readers