CATE Conference 2017: Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature

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Two Fridays ago (February 17th),  Liz and I attended the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference in Santa Monica, CA, where we led a workshop on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

We had a group of 25-30 English teachers from around the state, all of whom were very nice and very engaged (and a bunch of them bought our book, which was super nice).

[We also had a really really great time! And we would have stayed the whole weekend but, you know…babysitters and kids and all that {thanks, by the way, to Liz’s mom, Ellen, for watching our kids}. And we really really want to thank the people behind the CATE Conference for having us! It was great! Thank you!]

The workshop was based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature, and began with the rationale for using quality literature to meet the common core standards (and that common core in the English classroom does not mean more informational texts and less imaginative literature). Our premise is that by building units around quality works of fiction, drama, poetry, and creative nonfiction, you can meet all of the common core literacy standards (including the informational text standards).

We then moved on to an activity for introducing close reading (or critical reading) in the classroom. The purpose of the activity (which can be found in Chapter 2 of Method to the Madness) is to help students…

…recognize and identify significant choices made by an author

…analyze and evaluate the effects of those choices (that’s the “So what?”)

…use the appropriate academic language (literary terms) when discussing those choices

…prepare a text for analysis by annotating it.

The activity also helps students recognize that literary terms work together–specifically, in this case, diction and imagery combine to create a particular mood, or atmosphere.

Our next activity was centered on a short story by George Saunders (whose first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was recently released). The story is titled “Sticks”. It’s just a two-paragraph story, but there’s a lot packed into those two paragraphs. The story was included in Saunders’ 2013 collection, Tenth of December, but “Sticks” is actually an older story that was first published in 1995.

Here’s a picture of Liz reading the story in the workshop:

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Liz and I have been using “Sticks” in the classroom for about a decade. It’s a great teaching tool precisely because it is so short while being so meaty.

For the workshop, we read the story aloud and then put the participants into groups of four. The groups had five minutes to annotate the story and identify as many literary techniques and devices as they could (they were also given a list of these).

At the end of the five minutes, each group was given a piece of poster paper, on which they were instructed to write a statement about the story. The statement had to make a declarative claim and also had to incorporate at least one literary term.

Each group then shared their statement and supported it using specific evidence from their annotated story.

After the workshop, we had a short autograph session, and we got to browse around the exhibition hall for a while (and also pick up swag).

At the KQED booth, we got a selfie stick (I never thought I would ever own a selfie stick) plus a free tutorial on how to use said selfie stick.

Here’re two photos, one demonstrating my selfie abilities pre-stick, and one post-stick (and post-stick tutorial [hey, I just realized: sticks is a motif in this blog post]):

We were supposed to then post the picture on the right on social media with the hashtag on that card. But we’re getting old, and it was already a big day.

Trump’s Ed Sec Pick Thinks She Knows How to Fix Education. But She Doesn’t.

The President’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, faces a Senate confirmation vote this coming Tuesday. As it stands, she’s one vote away from being rejected.

DeVos is a billionaire (let’s be clear: not the I-built-a-tremendous-business-and-I’ll-run-this-government-department-that-isn’t-a-business-like-a-business kind of billionaire. She’s more the I-married-the-heir-to-Amway kind of billionaire) who has little to no experience that would prepare her for the position she is nominated for…

…other than the fact that she and her husband have donated gobs of money in their home state of Michigan in support of school vouchers (which, once distributed, are mostly spent on charter or private schools) and of the deregulation of charter schools, allowing for an influx of for-profit schools (which, in turn, make gobs and gobs of money [in some cases, gobs of Title I money] that were diverted away from public schools).

In Michigan, it didn’t work. The DeVos family began tossing their gobs in the early 90’s, supporting candidates who supported school choice. Public money went to vouchers. Charters were expanded. Regulations were loosened. And…

From Politico: “Despite two decades of charter-school growth, the state’s overall academic progress has failed to keep pace with other states: Michigan ranks near the bottom for fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test, nicknamed the ‘Nation’s Report Card.’ Notably, the state’s charter schools scored worse on that test than their traditional public school counterparts, according to an analysis of federal data.”

The failure of school vouchers in Michigan is not an anomaly.

In an article for Slate, Dana Goldstein reported that “Recent studies of voucher programs in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who use vouchers to attend a private school score, on average, lower on standardized tests than demographically similar students who do not use vouchers. In New Orleans, two years after winning a private school voucher, the average student had lost 13 points of learning in math.”

Goldstein also points out that “Trump’s voucher plan could be a windfall for companies hoping to make money from our public education system.” In this scenario, families (often low income ones) become the middle men, piping federal funds into corporate hands but not always getting what they’re promised.

Diane Ravitch served as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush 41. In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, besides noting that there is no substantive evidence for the success of school voucher programs, Ravitch details eleven alternative solutions.

They are:

  1. “Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.”
  2. “Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.”
  3. “Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign language, mathematics, and physical education.”
  4. “Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.”
  5. “Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children.”
  6. “Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.”
  7. “Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.”
  8. “Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators.”
  9. “Public schools should be controlled by elected school boards or by boards in large cities appointed for a set term by more than one elected official.”
  10. “Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.”
  11. “Recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.”

Career educators could tell you (if anyone ever cared to ask them) that these solutions would have lasting positive effects not only on American education but on all areas of American life.

But: in all likelihood, if DeVos is confirmed, the focus will be on a single solution, and it would seem that she has been nominated for one reason and one reason only: belief in a policy idea that the President likes (and that, it so happens, has already failed).