Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Why Education is Useless

“Tradition encourages us to think that those who are book smart are lacking in street smarts. We are inclined to think that even if [intellectuals] hearts[s] are in the right place, their heads are in the clouds.” Daniel Cottom

I was researching and wandering the aisles at the library downtown Cleveland Public Library Branch on yet another cold, rainy Saturday afternoon when a homeless man at a nearby table woke from his nap with a start. “Where am I?” he asked, looking around.

I doubt that he viewed that as an existential question, but if he had looked at me he might have seen through my reading glasses a precise reflection of the same emotion, lost as I was in a forest of pedagogy. In fact, we might have engaged in some discourse around the topic of “where am I” except his head promptly dropped back into the cave of his arms, sound asleep. I know this posture, I’ve seen it in many classrooms.

Shelves of books on learning and teaching strategies boasting advanced degrees on their spines inhabit this well-lit library. I say inhabit because frankly, they don’t get out much. From the Idiot’s Guide to Home Schooling (doesn’t one preclude the other?) to graphs and scientific studies written by the well-educated and well-intentioned, it appears that the paths between and around student desks are well-traveled, mapped by educators dating back to Aristotle.

I looked from the shelves back to the homeless man and thought, what do all these high-minded words have to do with the reality of that man’s life? Beyond that, with the reality of the lives of the grocery store clerks, police officers, parents and gum popping teenagers of the world? Some of these authors are icons of their field, famous among teachers, but unknown to the (can I say it?) real world. These educators are never on MTV, the cover of People Magazine or My Space. As Frank McCourt pointed out during an appearance on Leno, he never would have been invited to the Tonight Show when he was just a teacher. Teachers don’t get that much media attention unless they behave in a manner that forces their districts to urge them to seek other career opportunities. Not only do most regular folks not know these pedagogical pundits, they are frankly suspicious of them. Bunch of “effete intellectual snobs,” to quote former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

My eyes scanned the shelves in my own practiced brand of researching that I call, Random Meandering, the most evident characteristic of which is its inefficiency, and I picked up a book titled Why Education is Useless, by some college professor named Daniel Cotton. I don’t know him, but he is a university type, therefore I’m suspicious. I sat down with the book expecting him to be pompous and me to be bored. How’s that for prejudice? I mention this to show how pervasive the hostility toward the educated really is. I felt it and I’m an educator. Good grief.

But I have to say, the Introduction of Why Education is Useless is worth checking out at your own library. It provides a classic example of motivation through opposing argument and is helpful if you have ever lifted your head up to look around and wondered (bellowed?) “Where am I?”

It is also very quotable and well-documented -- an excellent research find. It is just this kind of random success that encourages me to keep wandering aisles. Not sure if that is good or bad, but it is certainly more rewarding AND time consuming than shopping databases.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Keystone State Reading Association

Lots of old friends at this meeting -- but not as many new faces. I have no hard numbers to back this up, but like many reading conferences lately, this one seemed smaller and more sparsely attended. Is it the economy? Is it that schools are too tied in knots over NCLB that there is no time for letting teachers go hear about new ideas? Is it because NCLB not only mandates what kinds of classroom materials teachers can use and curriculum specialists can buy but how professional development money is spent (must be on "scientifically" proven methods?) More and more teachers must pay their own ways to conferences in addition to paying for their own subs. That's rough in this tight economy.

In every spare minute, I'm chipping away at my new manuscript with Allan Wolf. This is going to be a fun one. At least I'm having a lot of fun working on it.

SNOW on the way home from PA -- real snow rounding the curbs and tree limbs and slushing up the streets. Amazing.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


I thought this test was a joke when I first heard about it -- but it is far from funny. Dr. Goodman has approved this article for sharing -- seen here in part. Since the article's first publication, the investigation of the committee that sanctioned this test has concluded that those who were to profit directly from this test's sale to thousands of schools were in fact the very same people who approved its use.

Read an article from the Washington Post entitled "Billions for an Inside Game on Reading"

Read entire article by Ken Goodman http://sdkrashen.com/pipermail/krashen_sdkrashen.com/2006-January/000382.html

Exerpt from an article by Ken Goodman on DIBELS --

"There are many things wrong with DIBELS.

It turns reading into a set of abstract decontextualized tasks that can be measured in one minute. It makes little children race with a stop watch.

It values speed over thoughtful responses.

It takes over the curriculum leaving no time for science, social studies, writing, not to mention art music and play.

It ignores and even penalizes children for the knowledge and reading ability they may have already achieved.

Reading is ultimately the ability to make sense of print and no part of DIBELS tests that in any way. In DIBELS the whole is clearly the sum of the parts and comprehension will somehow emerge from the fragments being tested.

On top of that the sub-tests are poorly executed- the authors do badly what they say they are doing. Furthermore the testers must judge accuracy, mark a score sheet and watch a stop watch all at the same time. And, to be fair, testers must listen carefully to children who at this age often lack front teeth, have soft voices, and
speak a range of dialects as well languages other than English.

Consistency in scoring is highly unlikely among so many testers and each tester is likely to be inconsistent.

And lets add that DIBELS encourages cheating. There is a thin line between practicing the "skills" that are tested and being drilled on the actual test items, all of which are on-line to be downloaded.. With so much at stake why wouldn't there be cheating?

In summary DIBELS, The Perfect Literacy Test, is a mixed bag of silly little tests. If it weren't causing so much grief to children and teachers it would be laughable. It's hard to believe that it could have passed the review of professional committees state laws require for adoption of texts and tests . And in fact it has not passed such reviews. There is strong evidence of coercion from those with the power to approve funding of state NCLB proposals and blatant conflicts of interest for those who profit from the test and also have the power to force its use. A ongressional investigation is now underway into these conflicts of interest.

In training sessions for DIBELS, teachers are not permitted to raise questions and are made to feel that there is a scientific base to the test they lack the ompetence to understand. It is, after all, The Perfect Literacy Test."

Ken Goodman, Professor Emeritus
Language, Reading and Culture,

Saturday, October 21, 2006

St. Thomas Aquinas Literacy Storytelling Festival

Stories are the bridge between who we are and who we used to be. Listening to the other presenter's stories, I'm drawn to cross those bridges with the teller, to put my trust in the teller's hand as he/she reminds me of who I once was, other crossings flashing by on fast forward.

I'm still stuck thinking of the tragedy in Lancaster. Of how the Amish community just said no to the media circus, to revenge and retaliation and what a contrast that is to the rest of the worldview. How can we build more of that attitude in our kids? Our collective memory bank is jammed with aftermarket stories of hatefulness and revenge from movies, videos and TV, the everyday drug of choice. The gridlock is so honking loud, it is hard to give ear to REAL stories, stories that most often hum with gentle compassion. I worry we are paying the price for this in our society, of the piles and piles of violent drama. Smarter people than I have done studies on this. But still we tune into murder and mayhem to (get this) relax.

I am grateful for a life that interrupts the broadcasted purple stream of vengefulness with real stories and poems. The kid who said, the teacher who made a difference, the librarian who took time. These are the kinds of stories that coax me out of bed in the morning and tuck me in, turning off the TV, saying everything will be okay.

Thanks to Michael Shaw for inviting me to this beautiful place and giving me the time to remember the power of story.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Wattsburg Elementary , Erie PA

This is a happening place, students were active in a common area making little literacy bags to hold their books and their journals and pencils. NO DIBELS at this school, hooray! Toward the end of the day, at the beginning of a writing workshop with the second grade, one girl looked at me and said, "You look tired."
"I am sweetie, I guess I better put my lipstick on."
A second girl responded reassuringly, "You'll be okay if you comb your hair."
I've been laughing about it ever since.

Also, I received a fun poem from a second grade teacher, Stacey Mattocks -- no, she was NOT grading papers during the assembly (highly discouraged) -- she began shaping a poem (very much encouraged). Michael wanted to know where I was stashing the cash if it was true that I make her entire salary working a few days a month. I wish! I also sometimes wish for a retirement program and health insurance, but that's another story. Here's Stacey's poem, which I was honored and delighted to receive.

We had an author come to our school today.
I hit my knees and just had to pray --

Cuz I've sat through these dry, agonizing assemblies before.
I guess I'm prepared to endure one more.

Had to drag my class to the auditorium and find each child a seat --
Waiting for this Sara Holbrook whom we were supposed to meet.

She came out on stage with a microphone in hand,
To my surprise she wasn't even that stuffy, boring or bland.

Soon I felt a tiny giggle start to bubble within
Then a real live laugh, a few snorts and then a big grin.

Her enthusiasm for poetry was so inspiring,
I started to play with some words on a page and it wasn't even that tiring.

She probably only has to work a few days a month -- golly gee
To make my whole year's salary.

Now I'm convinced!! A poet I'll be . . .
No more lesson plans or paper correcting for me . . .

After all, I'm a Sara Holbrook want to be!!!

Watch out for me, I'll be signing books too,
After all, I found out today that poets are really cool.

by Stacey Mattocks
2nd grade teacher

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Southeast IRA

Breakfast with Poets -- Brod Bagert and me. Many in the audience were more familiar with Brod than with me, so I did a little overview of how I got started writing and the theme of each of my books, along with a few exercises for writing across the curriculum. It was an exercise in speed talking to squeeze all that into 30 minutes. Then Brod entertained and showed why he is good at tricking kids into reading. Thanks to the teachers from Baton Rouge who drove me in the driving rain to the convention center! The audience was warm and generous. We then went on to chat with teachers and sign books. I was like a zombie by this point with 2 hours of restless sleep and Brod took me out to lunch to introduce me to rice and beans and Popeye chicken.

The area is still trying to find footing after Katrina. As Brod and I were in line at the chicken joint, he struck up a conversation with a local. In two sentences they determined that Brod was from New Orleans and the conversation became "where were you when the storm hit, how bad was it in Mobile, flooding or wind damage, how long were the waters up, were you on the eastern or western side of the swirl?" I could tell it was a well-practiced conversation of questions as the two survivors retold their stories to one another. I suspect this is an important part of healing, the telling and retelling. How many years will it take for the sharp edges to fall away? Most stories take on jokes after a year, but not this one. The tragedy is too heavy.

At the end of the day I was loaded into a teacher's car for the drive to the airport. In the front seat was Eloise Greenfield. Ms. Greenfield is like the Louis Armstrong of children's poetry, which is to say, she is an icon. Her work is played with enthusiasm in schools everywhere. Other poets "cover" her poems as models of how to do it right. Did I make dazzled or dazzling conversation with her? Did I tell her how much I loved her work and gush over her shoulder? No. The car was warm from the southern sun, was running on empty and immediately fell asleep in the back seat. All I can hope is that she has no idea who that sleeping poet, probably smelling faintly of fried chicken, was in the back seat. Arugh.

Circling for a landing

This post is for all the people who have ever said: You get to travel, that must be so much fun!

Monday I left Cleveland for Mobile via Houston at 9:30 AM EST a little late -- 30 minute delay. Big deal. But we went into a holding pattern due to storms, and we circled until we needed gas (about 2 in the afternoon) which we took on in New Orleans. Back in the air, we circled Houston and wandered south for a while, finally putting down at 4:30 Central time (5:30 EST) after having been in the air 8 hours for a 2 hour flight. The Houston airport looked like a disaster relief station with travelers sleeping all over the floor. Due to pure luck, I had called and gotten my flight changed to the only uncancelled remaining flight to Mobile. At 7:30 PM they loaded us onto the plane where we sat idling on the runway for two more hours, finally landing in Mobile at 11:45. After I finished filing my missing luggage report, I went to look for a cab at 12:30. Cabs stop running in Mobile at midnight, so the airport security cop called and awakened a cabbie (filipina with a y'all southern drawl) who took me and four other weary travelers to our different hotels. Well, first she took me to an all night Walmart so I could buy some clothes and toiletries for my 7AM breakfast speech, arriving at my hotel at 3AM. By 3:30 I was in bed, wake up call set for 5:30AM.

I didn't want to mix this account with my VERY positive experience at Southeast IRA, so I am making separate entries. Road warriors all have travel nightmare stories and frankly get tired of telling them and hearing them. I'd put this one in my top 10, but not frightening or at any time dangerous (like stupidly driving through the night, which I have done a couple of times). Still, it was nice to return home on Tuesday without a hitch.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Freedom of Dress

Last night on Bill Mauer, he said that he didn’t think he should have to talk to women who were wearing a burqa, it is so fourteenth century and basically they are doing it only because men want them to. First of all, he meant abaya (black with headscarf) not a burqa (blue, total cover). Does he not talk to nuns who wear habits because it is so previous century? How about Amish, Mormon or Orthodox Jewish women who cover their hair? Some sects of Muslim women wear artistic silk scarves that frame their faces beautifully. Does he find that offensive, too?

Maybe he shouldn’t talk to women who have bare midriffs and wear navel rings and push up bras – they look like belly dancers (how fourteenth century is that?). Let's face it, they only do it to please men. God knows, no woman ever put on a push up bra for comfort or convenience.

Is “freedom” then defined as being free to please men however we want to? And if we don't please them with our dress, they won't talk to us? Yish.

I don't care if Mauer really felt that way or if he was trying to provoke a response from his hostile panel. Whichever. Shame on him for such a prejudicial remark.

Friday, October 13, 2006


I admire librarians for their self-motivation. Often working solo, they quietly keep the shelves current and in order so that the rest of us can paw through the stacks and then they put it all back together again. At the annual meeting of the Ohio school librarians I ran into an old friend, Kay Wise. She was a teaching librarian for enough years to retire, then she went back to another school library and finally retired for a second time. And there she was at the meeting, attending sessions and learning what's new. Now, that's self-motivation.

I need a little self motivation. Maybe if I hang out with enough librarians it'll rub off.

Great meeting. Friday the 13th turned out to be not so bad afterall. Well, my books didn't arrive at the meeting, which was sad. Snowed on the way down to Columbus, though. Brrrrr.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Lancaster, PA

The day was sunny and 80 degrees, the smell of cut grass. At precisely 10:45AM, one week from the tragic shooting at the small Amish school in that town, the principal at the modern high school came on the loudspeaker to remind us to pause in remembrance. It was so impressive how the Amish community came together to support the family of the shooter, a milkman, a quiet family man, who apparently lost his mind. In so doing, they gave us all a lesson in anti-anger. So often it seems as if we live in an enraged society. It's as if there is no such thing as "mildly annoyed" any more, everyone is screaming mad. And as any movie or TV watcher knows, there is only one legitimate response to preserving one's dignity when screaming mad -- Die Hard-AK 47-viedo-game-blood-splatter-road-rage vengefulness.

If there is ever a case that would justify really becoming "screaming mad," it would be gunshots to the heads of innocent young girls. But the Amish don't watch that much TV and vengefulness is not the Amish way. Surely they must have felt some anger along with their grief, but they willed their faith and their sense of reason to prevail. In so doing, they shut down the media circus and took care of one another, comforting the spiritually and physically wounded instead of losing themselves in angry screaming and revenge.

As a result, no talking head on cable was suggesting that all milkmen get arrested and locked up at Gitmo without charges. No one invaded the milkman's home and shot his wife and kids in revenge. There were no bombs dropped on his neighbors because of their religious affiliations. The community came together to lay to rest the dead and then razed the building. But no more lives were ruined, compounding the tragedy.

There were some calls for increased school safety, but as a frequenter of many schools, I will say that I get buzzed in through expensive security all the time. Why? Because I don't look threatening, I suppose. I was at one school in Western PA once where there had been a shooting just prior to my visit. When I asked about the plywood-for-windows decorating theme, the teacher told me the story of a man entering the building and shooting wildly and missing everyone (thankfully).

"But you have such modern, sophisticated security systems here," I said.
"Oh, yes," she agreed. "But it was the secretary's husband. We knew him, so we let him in."

And, except for the case of the tragedy of the Chetchnian rebels, the fact is the shooters are always known to the victims. Had there been a security system at that little one room school, I'm certain they would have let the shooter in. He was their milkman.

What is the proper response to the actions of madmen? Raze the site, start fresh, and comfort one another as human beings. Yes, check out the security systems, but realize all the locks and buzzers in the world can't always protect us from insanity. Hope lies in our sense of community, for in that we find support to begin each new day knowing that the world, it's weather and inhabitants, is for the most part ungovernable.

And take a lesson from the old ways of the Amish -- a little less media, a little more faith, a lot less vengeful anger and more forgiveness does not add up to weakness -- it is strength and true dignity.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


My word for the day. On pretty much of a whim, Michael and I just booked a trip to Croatia in December. We will be visiting Steven and Kathy Smith, artist/poet friends of ours who sold everything and moved to Europe. We are more friends in spirit than friends who got together frequently, but you can't help catching their spirit of adventure. Check out their blog http://www.walkingthinice.com/. Anyway, other poets have lent them a house in Pula, Croatia for three months and we are traveling to visit for a few days. On the shelf is a Croatian dictionary from a trip we had to cancel at the time of the Iraq invasion. I am going to try and learn a few words of Croatian and my first is "voda." Means "water." I'm thinking about putting little signs up around the house as I have seen in classrooms to help kids associate words with images.

I'm also in the process of breaking in a new computer. It's like making a new acquaintance -- I have to tell it everything, from my favorite fonts to my mother's maiden name. I have to feed the history of my life in poems into the databank and hang all my family photos in the picture gallery. And at this point in life, when I've been over all these stories so many times, you would think that I wouldn't forget things, but I do and I have and I keep going back to the old computer to yank the fillings to imbed in the cavities of this new voracious monster.

So, when we go overseas to meet up with Kathy and Steven we will do so in a home with no phone, no high speed connection, no television. Very little information pre-installed. We will be navigating the new software of friendship and have to (be blessed to?) create each day from scratch, no pre-designed templates.

It will be good to leave the machines behind, I'm thinking. Yes, it will be good. Dobar. Tomorrow's word.