Principal: Teachers don’t know how to teach reading

CNN’s Kelly Wallace takes part in a game of Hedbanz during reading instruction at P.S. 94 in the Bronx.

Teachers need to be taught how to teach reading, says Principal Diane Daprocida, who runs a Bronx elementary school. University programs teach “philosophy of education, sociology of education, classroom management,” but not reading, she complains.

Finally, she partnered with Teaching Matters, which got a a $600,000 grant to improve reading instruction in high-poverty Bronx schools.

In each classroom, small groups of children work independently: In kindergarten, a table captain might say the sound of the beginning of a word while the other students write the letter on their smart boards. In second grade, students play the game Hedbanz, in which one person wears a headband with a word they can’t see and gets clues from the other students to try to guess the word. In third grade, three boys read “Paul Bunyan,” with each reading the text attributed to a different character.

 In addition to these independent work stations, teachers lead small groups of students in guided reading instruction. In kindergarten, a teacher and students discuss a book about feathers and what clues they have to know that the book is not about birds. In third grade, students reading “Behind Rebel Lines,” a book about a Civil War spy, discuss the motivations of the people they are reading about.

Teachers observe each other doing a guided reading lesson, then discuss what worked and what didn’t.

In the past, one or two third graders might read a fifth-grade-level book, said Daprocida. Now, “we’ve got third-grade kids across the board … reading those stories and being able to discuss the plot of those books, and it’s just amazing.”

Ashley Aucar helps her third-graders learn new words.

Ashley Aucar helps her third-graders learn new words.

She’s “had to buy a ton of new books.”

A majority of third-graders are reading at grade level by mid-year, an independent evaluation found. In the past, only 30 percent reached grade level, the principal said.

The major obstacle to success wasn’t that her students come from low-income families or don’t speak much English at home, she said. It was the skill level “to be able to teach reading, and that’s what we needed to bring to our teachers, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Timothy Shanahan has advice for being an effective reading coach.

Principal: ‘Harry Potter’ damages young brains

Fantasy books “can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children” and lead to mental illness, writes Graeme Whiting, headmaster of the private Acorn School in England.

Is Harry Potter's evil foe, Voldemort, too dark and nasty for children?

Is Harry Potter’s evil foe, Voldemort, too dark and nasty for children?

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series,  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and Terry Pratchett’s novels “contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children,” wrote Whiting in a post that’s gone viral. “Yet they can be bought without a special licence.”

Whiting wants “children to read literature that is conducive to their age and leave those mystical and frightening texts for when they can discern reality, and when they have first learned to love beauty.”

Lord of the Rings' Sauron is evil.

Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, is evil.

He praised the “old-fashioned values of traditional literature,” such as Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens and Shelley.

“Beware the devil in the text!” Whiting concludes.  “Choose beauty for your young children!”

I loved fantasy books when I was a kid, though I didn’t go from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings till I was in sixth grade. I think my brain survived. But, then, I wouldn’t know if it hadn’t, would I?

As a child, Neil Gaiman was allowed to read whatever he liked, he tells the Guardian. Somehow that’s not a surprise.

“I definitely haven’t been traumatised for life and I’m not entirely sure if the subversive element made things enjoyable,” says Gaiman. “Except possibly in Chaucer and The Bible, where you’re actually discovering murder and masturbation – and you’re going ‘this is cool, this is subversive, because it’s the stuff they want us to read and they seem to have forgotten that it’s filled with stuff that they don’t want us to read’.”

We read Canterbury Tales in 10th grade English and were astounded — and delighted — by the dirty jokes. Finding sex jokes in Shakespeare was fun too.

75% of seniors aren’t ready for college math

Only 25 percent of 12th graders are prepared for college math and 37 for college reading, according to the latest Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Math scores fell over the last two years, while reading scores have been flat since 2009.

Remember that the weakest students have dropped out by 12th grade.

Low performers are doing worse while high achievers are improving, notes Liana Heitin on Ed Week. The percentage of students scoring at the “below basic” level was higher in both reading and math, compared to 2013.

That may be a side-effect of the rising graduation rate, which hit 82 percent in 2014.

Racial/ethnic gaps are huge: 64 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Hispanics score as below basic in math; only 7 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics score as proficient or better. By contrast, a third of whites and nearly half of Asian-Americans are proficient or better.

Here’s more on the knowledge and skills required to score “basic” or “proficient” on NAEP’s 12th-grade math exam.

In reading, 49 percent of Asians, 46 percent of whites, 25 percent of blacks and 17 percent of black 12th graders are proficient or better.

“College for all” remains the mantra. Nearly two-thirds of high school graduates will enroll in college immediately: 55 percent will complete a degree within six years.

Teaching with comic books

Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani American; Spider-Man, aka Miles Morales, is a Black Hispanic teen; and Faith is a plus-size crime fighter. 

Comic books and graphic novels can engage students in history and current events, says Tim Smyth, a Pennsylvania social studies teacher.

“Comics are a gateway drug to literacy,” said Art Spiegelman, creator of the graphic Maus books on his parents’ experiences as Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz. That inspired Smyth to think how he could teach social studies using comics.

His students can identify with “a female Thor (who is also fighting breast cancer), a black Captain America, a gay Iceman, a strong (and now fully dressed) Wonder Woman and Batgirl, a Korean-American Hulk” and more traditional characters, Smyth writes.

Spider-Woman’s storyline focuses on her pregnancy and whether she will need to abandon her superhero role. It brings up the point that male superheroes never have to struggle with the question — can I have a career and a family?

Recently, his class discussed the March issue of “Spider-Man” in which superhero Miles Morales says he doesn’t want to be “the black Spider-Man.” He just wants to be Spider-Man.

Loving Latin as a way to teach vocabulary

First-graders are learning about “de-” at Hatton Community Learning Center in Akron, Ohio. Photo: Dustin Franz, Education Week

Learning Latin and Greek roots — starting in early elementary school — can help children build vocabulary, reports Liana Heitin for Education Week. Teachers can turn learning language into a game.

With students gone for the day, 6th grade teachers Joy Ford and Ryan Rusk sat in a classroom discussing the Latin root temp.

After determining that “contemporary” and “temporary” share the root, which refers to time, the two Woodlawn Elementary teachers then turned to the word “temptation.”

“I’m tempted to eat this chocolate,” said Ford. “That doesn’t have to do with time.”

“But if I’m tempted, I want it now,” responded Rusk. “So could it?”

At the Virginia elementary school, K-6 teachers meet weekly to learn how to use Greek and Latin roots to build vocabulary, writes Heitin.

Learning one root can enable students to “unlock” more than 100 words, said Joanna Newton, the reading specialist at Woodlawn. It’s a lot faster — and more liberating — than memorizing vocabulary lists.

Chris Schmidt, a 3rd-5th grade gifted education teacher in North Carolina’s Buncombe County district, uses a program called Caesar’s English, writes Heitin. His students enjoy trying to “break the code.”

Spanish-speaking students should be whizzes at picking up Latin.

In seventh grade, I learned Greek and Latin words in Ms. Ericksen’s Vocabulary Reading class. I still remember the excitement of realizing that “bio” means life and “graph” is writing, so “biography is writing about someone’s life. And “auto” means self, so you get “autograph” and “autobiography” and . . .

I still think about things like the “temp” in “temptation” and the “temp” in “temporary.” (The first derives from the Latin temptare “to feel, try out, attempt to influence, test,” according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, while the second comes from the Latin tempus, which means “time, season.” )

Remembering the butter — and the bread knife

Mamacita ran into a former student — now a father of three — in Kroger’s. He told her his fondest memory from eighth-grade English was making butter, just like pioneers did in “that olden-days book.”

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“My kids and I love to make butter, just like you showed us in 8th grade,” he told her.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy “was perfect for a low-ability class of 37 14-to-17 year old students, all boys, who hated reading,” recalls Mamacita. The boys saw no connection between books and the outdoors lives they led, which included hunting, farming, 4H, cattle raising and fixing things.

Using a churn was too complicated, Mamacita recalls. “We poured the cream into a big Tupperware thing and passed it all around the class and the boys shook it while listening to me read.”

When the butter “came,” the boys went into action.

(They) poured off the buttermilk and squeezed the butter until it stopped weeping. They sprinkled just a little salt into the butter and kneaded it in. Then they all washed their hands and whoever’s turn it was that day sliced the bread and they all put napkins in their shirt collars and tucked in. We used KNIVES to slice the bread and to spread the butter. Heavens to BETSY.

Other teachers criticized her “because watching sourdough rise, and making butter, weren’t proper English lessons,” she writes.

I maintained, and I still maintain, that anything we as teachers or parents do that makes learning come alive is a proper English lesson. Science lesson. History lesson. Math lesson. Life lesson.

Finally, the principal told her to stop. “There really wasn’t time, anyway, what with all the ISTEP prep the boys needed to do.”

U.S. grads are weak in math

U.S. college graduates lack numeracy skills compared to graduates in other countries, concludes the 2013-14 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

Overall, U.S. adults met the international average in reading skills and fell below average in math, according to PIAAC. Americans did worse in math than adults in Japan, Finland, Estonia, Cyprus, Canada . . . it’s a long list. 

U.S. high school graduates knew as much math as high school dropouts in other countries, writes Jenny Anderson in Quartz.

In “problem solving in technology-rich environments,” also known as digital literacy, Americans were dead last.

“This is not a high-level test of math or critical-thinking skills,” Stephen Provasnik, a research scientist at the National Center on Education Statistics, said. PIAAC measures “basic workplace skills.”

All reading and math makes Jack a dull boy

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David.

All reading and math skills — without exposure to the arts — makes Jack a dull boy — and not much of a reader, argues Jay Greene. “More research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.”

Kindergarten and first-grade teachers are spending less time teaching music, art, dance and theater, research shows.

Long-term success in math, reading and science depends on the general knowledge and fine-motor skills learned through the arts, studies show, Greene adds.

Researchers urge teaching children “a better understanding of the world”  by improving science and social studies instruction and building foundational skills through “the arts, music, dance, physical education, and free play.”

Greene’s research has found that “field trips to art museums and to see live theater” not only build general knowledge, they “change student values to promote greater tolerance and empathy.”

‘Mockingbird’ will cost more — and be read less

imagesTo Kill a Mockingbird is taught in 74 percent of U.S. schools, according to a 1988 survey by the National Council of Teachers of English. That number may decline, reports the New Republic. Harper Lee’s estate will no longer allow publication of the low-cost, mass-market paperback edition. Schools will have to pay more to buy a “trade” paperback.

“The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance,” writes Alex Shephard. Next to Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Huckleberry Finn, it’s probably the most assigned novel in America’s middle- and high schools.

Lee’s legacy appears to have fallen into the hands of stupid, greedy people.


If they can’t read, they can’t do well in college

The new SAT, which demands sophisticated literacy skills — even in math — could “penalize students who have not been exposed to a lot of reading,” educators told the New York Times.

College instructors must teach students how to read academic books, writes Amelia Leighton Gamel.

College instructors must learn to teach reading, writes Amelia Leighton Gamel.

It’s not unfair to require high-level reading ability to get into higher-level education, responds Timothy Shanahan, who founded the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The SAT is supposed to predict college success. Poor reading is an excellent predictor of college failure.

On a recent visit to a Montana middle school, Shanahan taught several lessons which required students to read their math and science textbooks. It was a new experience, the seventh and eighth graders admitted. The teachers were good at explaining things, so the students never learned to work their way through a textbook on their own.

These students won’t be prepared for college if they can’t make sense of what they read and apply it, writes Shanahan.


He grew up in a working-class community and wasn’t on the college-prep track in high school, he writes. But he found a list of books that college-bound students should read and tackled them. “I’m not claiming that I got as much out of reading Moby Dick or Microbe Hunters on my own at 16 as I would have under the tutelage of a good teacher (or as I have upon rereading them as an adult), but trying to understand such touchstone texts pays dividends,” he writes.

Reading challenging books will prepare students to succeed in college, writes Shanahan.  If “college entry is going to become biased against those not prepared for college . . . I think it’s about time.”

Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, is under fire for suggesting giving tuition refunds to likely-to-fail students who leave early in their first semester. “You think of the students as cuddly bunnies,” he wrote in an email to a faculty member.  “You just have to drown the bunnies.” Or, perhaps, “put a Glock to their heads.”

So, why did Mount St. Mary’s admit these no-hope “bunnies” in the first place?