Category: teaching

 /  By  / comments Please comment!

Recommended Reading: “The League of Extraordinary Black Gentlemen”

favicon In “The League of Extraordinary Black Gentlemen,” Theodore R. Johnson argues that the W.E.B. DuBois construct of the Talented Tenth has not rid African Americans of a sense of double-consciousness. It is as burdensome, Mr. Johnson suggests, to be asked, “What does it feel like to be a part of the solution?” as it was to be asked, 100+ years ago, “What does it feel like to be part of the problem?”

“As an upper-middle-class black male, I am seen as part of the solution class tasked with rescuing my nation from its problem and my race from itself.”

I recommend that English teachers have their students read this excellent piece along with W.E.B. DuBois’s “Strivings of the Negro People.”

Source: favicon

 /  By  / comments Please comment!

“The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar”

No more diagramming sentences: Students learn more from simply writing and reading.

Mark Isero‘s insight:

I like The Atlantic, and usually, the magazine gets education matters right, but this article about grammar misses the mark by oversimplifying the issue.

Michelle Navarre Clearly argues that teaching grammar directly doesn’t work and that we should teach grammar “through” writing.

The reply of most English teachers: Duh. Of course. Best practice is to see where your students struggle and then help them.

But then the next step — how to do that — is where it gets complex. It seems like Ms. Clearly would advocate a one-on-one approach, where the teacher conferences with each student. That sounds great but takes too much time to be a teacher’s only strategy.

Whole-group instruction also has its flaws, even when done well (with sentence combining, for instance). My experience suggests that students don’t internalize whole-group grammar lessons.

My colleagues and I are exploring small-group intervention, in which 4-6 students meet with the teacher on a specific grammar concern while the rest of the students work independently on a writing activity. This seems like the best of both worlds. There’s enough personal attention, but the process doesn’t take forever.

See this article on, or see it on Iserotope Extras.

 /  By  / comments 2 comments. Add yours!

Surprise ninth graders in Berkeley with a Chromebook to help improve their writing skills

NJTfavicon Nancy Jo Turner is an extraordinary ninth grade English teacher in Berkeley. She’s also a good friend of mine and a former colleague. There she is on the right!

About a month ago, Nancy Jo shared a dream with me. She wants a class set of Chromebooks so that her students can work on their writing and revising skills.

(I share that dream. I’ve seen what Chromebooks do for students, particularly to improve writing, and I’m hugely impressed.)

Nancy Jo means business. In just two weeks, she already has one Chromebook, thanks to several people who made contributions on DonorsChoose.

Here are a few pics — one of the Chromebook and one of Nancy Jo’s classroom library, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Now it’s our turn! I’d like to surprise Nancy Jo with a Chromebook for her students, and I’m asking for your help. With tax, the computer is $300, and I’m committed to donating 10 percent of the cost. That leaves $270. This is going to happen!

Update! This project is complete! Thank you, LeAnne (Fremont, CA), Laura (San Francisco, CA), Zoe (Oakland, CA), Rashada (Ann Arbor, MI), Marilyn (Los Angeles, CA), Gavin (Berkeley, CA),  Jasmine (San Francisco, CA), Kyle (Sacramento, CA), Pauline (Davis, CA), Franklin (San Francisco, CA), Stephanie (Santa Cruz, CA), and Elaine (Stanford, CA)!

Want to help out? Here are two easy ways you can donate:

Donate an Amazon Gift Card!
I’m going to buy the computer on Amazon (for free shipping). So an easy way to contribute is to donate an Amazon gift card! It’s super easy. Click on the card below and fill out the form. My email is iseroma AT rocketmail DOT com. Be sure to leave your name and email address in the message box so I can get back to you!


Send me money over email!
There’s this new app called “Square Cash” (affiliated with Twitter) that lets you send money via email. You don’t need to start an account. All you do is click on the button below. An automatic email will pop up. In the subject field, change the amount to what you want. Then type your name in the message field before clicking send. You’ll receive an email that will request your debit card number. Easy peasy!
cash-button-blueThank you, Loyal Iserotope Readers, for thinking of making a donation to surprise Nancy Jo and her students with a new Chromebook. (Just don’t tell her!)

If you contribute, you’ll receive a thank-you letter from me (for tax purposes) and a thank-you card from Nancy Jo’s students (for heartwarming purposes).

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. Can’t wait to see what happens! favicon

 /  By  / comments 2 comments. Add yours!

Teaching “America the Beautiful” and Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl commercial

americanbmainfavicon My colleagues and I used to begin our interdisciplinary American Studies class with a close reading, and then a Socratic Seminar, of the Pledge of Allegiance.

It was a great way to get kids to read, think, and speak from the very first day.

But if I were teaching an American Studies or U.S. History class next year, I’d likely start off with “America the Beautiful.”

Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl commercial — which included singing in English, Spanish, Keres Pueblo, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, and Hebrew — has made the tried-and-true patriotic song a political hot topic, and perfect for some analysis.

Here are a few things I’d do.

1. Have students read the lyrics on their own.
In this first-draft read, students would monitor their understanding, mark their confusion, and ask questions. The words aren’t easy. Here are the first four stanzas of the 1904 version:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountains’ majesty
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

There’s a lot there — just on an explicit level. What are “amber waves of grain?” What’s this about purple mountains? Immediately we can see how just understanding the words takes word knowledge and background knowledge, combined.

2. Model re-reading a stanza or two with a focus on analysis.
Um, Stanza #3 is particularly intense. Is poet Katharine Lee Bates suggesting that the pilgrims’ Protestant ethic resulted in a Manifest Destiny that forged freedom (against native savages) across the frontier? (Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis was published just 11 years prior.)

Sure, newbie students wouldn’t necessarily be able to follow that level of analysis, but it’s important to demonstrate how meaning emerges through re-reading, close reading (Common Core, New Criticism), prior knowledge of American history, and the reader’s prior experiences (Reader Response).

3. Have students practice re-reading with a partner, then discuss.
What else do they see? What do they notice? This might be a good time to have students share their questions and thoughts. Depending on the class, they might want to talk about Ms. Bates’s main claim and whether they agree. Or perhaps it would be time to introduce the off-text-but-related concept of the American Dream and whether students think it exists.

I would guess that many students would openly question the outright patriotism of the song. Others may worry that the lyrics aren’t inclusive, that they emphasize a Christian god, or maybe that their message is outdated, not right for our post-9/11 times.

And then, the turn.

4. Have students watch the commercial and see if their viewpoints change.

How did they feel? Do they feel more positive, more patriotic? If so, why? What’s the impact of transforming the lyrics into music? What’s the impact of adding the visual aspect? And, obviously, what about the choice to include seven languages?

Depending on time, consider doing a re-read of the commercial to identify techniques of pathos. How does Coca-Cola make us feel what we feel?

But we’re not done yet.

5. Have students read some tweets in response to the commercial.
The tweets are everywhere: here, here, and here, to name a few. Here’s just one example:

After students read the tweets, get their reactions. But also push students to consider underlying values and assumptions that the tweets reveal. Students may say, “There are a lot of racist people out there,” which could prompt the question, “Yes, but where do those sentiments come from?”

Also, the hope is to have students summarize their feelings after reading each text. Why were many cynical after the lyrics, hopeful and proud after the commercial, and angry and aggressive after the tweets? How do we interact with words, images, and various media?

6. Have students talk and/or write about a big question.
This is an introductory lesson, so the specific prompt doesn’t matter too much. But the key is to ensure that students are writing from evidence in the text and having the sources talk to each other. A possibility:

  • According to the three authors, what does it mean to be an American? With whom do you agree most, and why?
  • How do the three authors define the beauty of America? With whom do you agree most, and why?

There are other prompts, of course, which may be more creative (but require less textual evidence). For example: (1) Ms. Bates, the Coca-Cola commercial director, and Mr. da Silva are in a room together. What do they say? (2) Why do you think the Coca-Cola commercial was controversial, and do you think it was effective in its purpose?

Anyway, there it is. What’s great is that this lesson could take just one class period or could be extended over 2-3 days. The writing could turn into something formal. There could be a little research involved. And maybe the students might need a more formal setting to practice some academic discourse. Ultimately, of course, it’s up to the teacher’s goals and what the students bring to the conversation.

Please let me know your thoughts! I welcome your feedback. Let’s consider this a tuning protocol. favicon

 /  By  / comments 3 comments. Add yours!

Have students read assignment sheets

8151789_origfavicon What I’m about to propose is not rocket science, but it’s revolutionary.

It’s time for a new assignment. Maybe it’s an essay. Or perhaps it’s a project. Whatever it is, this assignment has what teachers call a “sheet,” which usually offers some background, an introduction, a few tips and directions, and plenty of deadlines.

This is what usually happens:

  1. The teacher calls on a student to read the first paragraph out loud,
  2. Most students do not pay attention, because…
  3. The teacher then explains everything that was just read.

What’s wrong here is that the students have done no reading and understanding on their own. As a teacher, I have no idea whether the students understand the project. And when they’re doing the assignment, students likely won’t know what’s going on, plus they won’t think to use their assignment sheet as a resource.

One better way to do this would be:

  1. Have students read and annotate the assignment sheet,
  2. Answer clarifying questions,
  3. Check for understanding and build interest.

Some teachers achieve #3 through a scavenger hunt or by having students share their initial thoughts in pairs.

You know you’re successful when students know what they’re doing and what they need to do in order to succeed.

Easy, right? Not so much. Most teachers stick with the read-aloud approach out of habit or because they think students won’t understand what they’re reading. If that’s the case, who is the assignment sheet for?

Assignment sheets are chock-full of a teacher’s vision. They’re meant to be read and referred to. May it be so! favicon

 /  By  / comments 2 comments. Add yours!

Will Kindles help the lowest-skilled readers?

favicon We’re about to find out!

Beginning next week, a teacher in Hayward will launch a Kindle reading intervention for the eight lowest-performing readers in the 10th grade. The cohort will meet for an hour once a week, focus on the personal and cognitive domains of the Reading for Understanding framework, and read a lot on Kindles.

The six boys and two girls, on average, read at a third or fourth grade level. Most reading specialists and researchers would argue that the students need an intensive, one-on-one program to accelerate their reading growth.

That is likely possible, but the teacher and I are exploring another possibility. What will happen if we build a strong community of readers, where there is support rather than stigma? And what if we use Kindles to encourage voluminous reading?

There’s no guarantee that this will work. But it did last year with a similar group, when students gained more than a grade level in their reading in less than two months.

The intervention will run until June, at which point the teacher and I will analyze the data and see how the students did. In addition to reading scores, we’ll look at some other metrics to determine the success of the program.

I can’t wait to see what happens! favicon

 /  By  / comments Please comment!

We must teach reading deliberately

favicon By high school, most teachers don’t teach students how to read. There’s an assumption that students either know how or they don’t. If they don’t, that’s too bad.

That’s partly because high school teachers rarely learn about reading in their teacher preparation programs. I remember that I took a reading course two or three years after I received my preliminary credential. Things are likely different now, but any way you slice it (that’s the first time I’ve ever written that), high school teachers aren’t equipped to help students who struggle to read.

We must change this. I’m happy that I get to work with teachers who are.

An example: One teacher in Hayward has founded a reading cohort this year. Teachers meet once a month to talk about how they can teach reading better. Their basic text is Reading for Understanding, which I like. Mostly, they share ideas and try things. I get to attend the meetings, too.

Here are a few posters they made for the classroom:

My favorite thing about this teacher and her colleagues is that they’re not waiting for some expert to tell them “the right way” to teach reading. They don’t expect some important person from the Common Core to deliver a PD. They don’t look to me for all the answers. I’m happy they don’t — because it’s clear that there’s no one right way.

More important than any specific strategy is the consistent consciousness of teaching reading, the professional intent, the deliberate commitment. Little activities are nice, but they’re only effective when teachers think reading is important and are engaged in inquiry around what works. favicon

 /  By  / comments 2 comments. Add yours!

When highlighting goes too far

favicon Annotation purists tell us to just say no to highlighters. If you let kids use highlighters, then they’ll just color up the whole page.

You mean, like this?

Yes, Annotation Purist, that’s exactly what you mean.

It’s true that there’s too much color among novice highlighters. Sometimes I ask students, “When do you highlight something?” Answer: “When it’s important.”

Ah, so everything is important.

Distinguishing what’s important vs. what’s not is a crucial skill in reading. It gets to the heart of other critical skills: summarizing, identifying author’s purpose, and identifying main claim.

And it’s not easy for most students. It takes a lot of practice.

The teachers I coach do a great job letting students know that highlighters should be used only for high-level annotation. Instead of assuming that students know what that means, teachers model when to use a pen and when to break out a highlighter.

There’s nothing wrong with a little color — if it’s just a little bit. I mean, interior decorators often suggest painting an accent wall to counteract the rest of a white dove / Muskoka Trail room.

If it’s used in a targeted way, color can help students and their peers to capture the gist of an article. If done well, highlighting complements written annotations and shows the relationship between the more important vs. less important aspects of an article. favicon

 /  By  / comments 5 comments. Add yours!

How long should teachers stay at their schools?

favicon Most people decry teacher turnover. Schools should do more to make teaching sustainable. Students do better when they have experienced teachers who know their schools and communities.

I agree.

But how long should teachers stay? What’s the sweet spot? Given today’s labor landscape, in which the typical worker bops from job to job every couple years or so, what’s possible?

Tonight I’ve been reading an excellent profile of Jeff Bezos in Business Week. There’s an interesting little graph from the article:

Amazon Retention

Pretty crazy, don’t you think? I mean, I knew that the tenure of most tech workers was short. But one year for the typical Amazon employee? That’s insane. By Amazon’s standards, Yahoo’s median 2.4-year tenure seems really long in comparison.

What would happen in schools if the average teacher tenure were less than two years? In many urban public schools, that figure is unfortunately a reality. Maybe that’s why I sometimes felt like a dinosaur at my last school, where I stayed for 12 years.

I remember that it took me nearly three years at my first school to figure out what I was doing. And then, at my second school, it took another two to adjust to my new environment. If that’s true for other teachers, it makes sense for schools to create conditions such that teachers would stay for six to eight years, at minimum.

But if you ask the typical urban public school principal how long she realistically hopes that teachers will stay, the answer won’t be longer than five years. (This is wishful thinking.) This means two or three years of getting good, followed by two or three years of being good. And then, the cycle repeats.

There are, of course, many forces that make it hard for teachers to stay longer. And there aren’t too many things that schools can do, outside of strong professional development, to counteract factors like overwork, underpay, challenging work conditions, and limited resources.

It’s just not easy.

What are your thoughts? How long should teachers stay at their schools before moving on?