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01 September 2014 @ 09:09 am
The new list from Benoit College is out. You know this one don't you: an annual list of what incoming freshman know (and do not know) that separates them from their predecessors. Here is the link: While I do not agree with all of their observations, I do find this annual reminder a good one for me. Each new semester brings a new crop of students into our classes. They bring with them certain experiences. Their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood might be different from none in distinct ways and similar to my own in others. I used to take for granted that they had a baseline of knowledge about children's and YA books, but that knowledge can vary wildly from student to student.

And so, this week, as the classes open, students will see their first assignment: the reading autobiography. I wrote mine when I took YA literature from Dick Abrahamson. He wrote his when he took YA literature from G. Robert Carlsen. The ones I receive this semester will tell me about my students' experiences with books and reading in and out of the classroom, the high points, the low points, the memorable (for whatever reason) reads. I have changed the assignment to allow for more CHOICE over the last several years. Traditionally, this assignment has been submitted as an essay or memoir of reading. Now I encourage students to convey it to me in whatever form or format makes sense to them. I have Power Points, of course, and Prezis, and timelines. I enjoy viewing each and every one of them. This semester will deliver about 60 new pieces for me to read and comment upon.

What I love is the "mindset" of each reader. It gives me some insight into who they are and what books have shaped them to date. In an online program, getting to know students is key. This first assignment helps me "see" my students in an important light: as readers.
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31 August 2014 @ 12:30 pm
I appreciate the post here about a new program announced by Arne Duncan about making the AP tests more accessible to low-income students: The title of this post is in reference to the nursery rhyme, LITTLE JACK HORNER.

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said 'What a good boy am I!

We speak about someone having their fingers in a pie for good reason. So, I thought this bit of verse appropriate for the latest news from the land of the Education Secretary. There is a bit of a fly in the ointment here as the money is being handed over to the College Board folks, the same ones who administer the tests. Why do we not just have a funnel that goes straight from DC into the coffers of the companies who are draining education dry? With David Coleman at the head of the AP, and this new funding of $28.4 million heading directly into the company's vaults, one has to wonder about collusion. Why not take that same money and establish grants for students from low-income families that would pay some of their tuition (if we are truly concerned about those costs as politicians say we should be)? Why not fund other programs that would assist those who live in poverty DIRECTLY?

I know I am being pesky with all of these questions, but it does concern me to see even more monies going into the hands of the test makers.

BTW, if you are not already following this blog, remedy that. It often points to the absurdities of education.
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30 August 2014 @ 02:13 pm
I made a donation last week to ALS. No ice bucket (mostly because Karin Perry and I got busy and forgot to do it), but I did want to donate. And then I had to read all of the negative posts on FB about why we should not donate to ALS. The same thing happened several years ago when I grew my hair out and donated it for Locks for Love. Folks felt it was their duty to tell me that I SHOULD have donated to a different organization that was better.

I appreciate that folks are looking out for our well being, but you do need to consider whether your post is making someone feel badly about doing something nice. Think about this in a classroom setting. You went the extra mile and came to work early to help a fellow teacher prepare for a special event in his class. His comment was that he could have used the help sooner. Or an administrator might comment that your staying late to counsel with a student callused her to have to stay late as well and could this not be done earlier in the day? Or a student took the letter of recommendation you had written muttering that now he needed to find a stamp and envelope and mail it himself. How do you feel in these circumstances?

Yes, I can put on my big girl pants and get past this. No, this does not mean I am done with donations. Despite how I feel about the Gates intrusion in education, I sent funds to two projects on Donors Choose last weekend because the Gates Foundation was matching dollar for dollar. Now some kids have books and other kids got school supplies. And though I do not always appreciate the word from the pulpit of my church when it becomes too political, I continue to donate especially to those organizations in my faith community that reach out to the poor in our parish.

And now, I need to turn my attention to some writing. I will work hard to turn off the inner critic (or at least turn the volume down a bit). The outer critics are free to assist me.

ETA: Shortly after pressing SUBMIT, I had the epiphany I was waiting for earlier. I have ut my finger on why this whole issue rattled me. Because of the nature of my work, I am often evaluated. I receive evaluations each semester from students at the university. When I speak somewhere, there is generally some sort of follow up evaluation. I read the evaluations. And I remember the ones that are critical despite the overwhelming positive comments. Is that just me or is it human nature? So, when I read the negative comment, that tends to be what I take to heart. I guess that makes me childish or adolescent or just human.
30 August 2014 @ 07:57 am
One of my recent FB posts took me to this story about a pastor trying to remove all the "occult" books from the YA collection in a public library: Included in his demands for removal were all vampire books along with a statue of Dobby and a sculpture of The Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. While this is not exactly surprising for anyone who follows censorship challenges, there were some remarks here that floored me. The first one comes early on in the article when the pastor talks about bending a child's character in a positive way. As if a child were a piece of clay that we form and shape to OUR will. Confession: I read gothic romances non-stop in my teens (and even later) and yet my ideas about romance do not center on a Fabio-clone rescuing me from a dark mansion. I read lots of vampire books, too, and have not succumbed (yet?) to blood lust.

The pastor continues, "'I am not saying that the library shouldn’t have information on the occult since it is part of our history, but there is an overwhelming amount and the books appear to be targeting teens,' he said." There are 75 books listed as occult in the library. First, I hardly believe this is overwhelming. Second, what is that about targeting teens? You wish to talk about targeting teens, maybe we need to return to the comment about bending them to your will. Does this pastor think books wait on a shelf for a hapless teen and then pounce?

Moving on. “The word ‘censorship’ is not an ugly word. If you don’t censor what your children see, hear and read, then guess what, your child is going to be spending a lot of time with Pastor Holt later on in life dealing with twisted-up and torn-up lives,” he said. “If you allow your children to digest all of the negativity in the world, then don’t stand there with your hands on your hips wondering where things went wrong. The word ‘no’ is not a bad thing. The word ‘no’ can come from a place of love. It’s our job to protect them, even when it comes to literature and art.”

Censorship IS a bad word. If parents want to help their kids decide what to read, to watch, to listen to, that is fine. It is not censorship. It is parental guidance; it is selection. But when someone comes into a library and wants books removed from the lives of ALL patrons, that is censorship and it is WRONG.

I saw THE GIVER a few weeks ago and was reminded about "precision of language." While I do not wish to invoke a dystopian future where we cannot use words freely (words like LOVE), I do think we need to be precise in the cases of censorship. Attempting to ban books is wrong. I do not care if you call it "protecting delicate readers' sensibilities" or "keeping kids safe," or "upholding morals and values." Taking books away from readers is censorship. Be precise.

ETA: A second article on the banning effort:
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29 August 2014 @ 02:19 pm
TIME magazine had a recent article4 whose headline caught my attention: To be sure this study was small and was basically coming from more of a neuro-scientific stance, but the observation that readers continue to develop and refine skills well past that magic 3rd grade standard is reassuring to those of us who work with middle school and high school and even college students. Here in Texas we are told that all kids need to be at grade level by 3rd grade, be independent, and never waver from on level reading again. Seems to me that this small study seems to indicate Texas lawmakers might reconsider that cut-off point.

And it calls into question the idea of standards that are to be met year after year by every. single. child.
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I have seen stories like this one before: They are based on data offered by Renaissance Learning each year. They are touted as an accurate portrayal of what kids are reading across the nation. In fact, the data show only what books kids forced to be in the Accelerated Reader program read (or at least what they take a test over). Let's try to break down some of these numbers, shall we?

9.8 million students in 31,000 schools: How many schools are there in total in the US? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 98,817 public schools during the 2009-2010 school year. So, AR schools account for less than 1/3 of all schools. Keep that in mind as we move on to other number crunching activities.

According to the company, 9.8 million kids read a total of 318 million books for an average of about 35-36 books per reader. However, AR breaks it down further by grade levels, genders, page numbers and more. Here are their stats: "The number of books that students read peaks in second grade, at an average of 55. But the number of words students read in books peaks in sixth grade, when they average 16.2 books containing a total of 419,121 words. In 12th grade, students are averaging 5.2 books a year, containing 304,252 words. The gender gap in the average number of words students read peaks in eighth grade – with boys reading 340,515 words and girls reading 446,771."

If we take all of this on face value, we might be tempted to draw some rather shaky conclusions. Why is that? Well, let's see: telling me the number of words in a book is insufficient. What words, how many syllables, common or unusual? In conversation and dialogue or in exposition?

And there are other factors not touched upon here as well. How does work and outside responsibilities cut into reading time (perhaps high school kids need more time to do more reading?)? How do we determine a gender gap? Is it simply because girls read more words? Might some other information be required here?

And then there is this observation: "The report shows slight gains since 2010 in the percentages of students reading books mentioned on the “exemplar lists” – the Common Core’s examples showing the increasing level of complexity to which students should be exposed in their reading."

The final note that A CHILD CALLED IT tops the charts (their word not mine) from grades 6-12 is certainly telling as well. What does it tell us? The article does not say. But I bet there are plenty of educators out there who CAN tell.

Publishing a company's annual report as if it were news is disheartening. Not examining the report or analyzing the results is just poor journalism.
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27 August 2014 @ 09:46 am
The older BH and I get, the more we tend to wax nostalgic. Mostly BH recalls the good old days in terms of how much things cost. I then remind him that, while prices were low, we made very little money, so some things were still out of reach. I mostly reminisce about having more time. Before I took the job at the university 25 years ago, I had summers off. I spent some of the time taking courses, some of time with friends and family, and much of the time floating around the pool with a trashy novel to amuse me. If I really stop and reflect, I realize I have time today. I simply elect to use my time differently now that I am older. Ah, the good old days.

Others in education wax nostalgic as well. There have been posts lately about a return to diagramming sentences. And a renewed discussion about the merits of teaching cursive in this day and age. We even have to argue about audio, e-, or traditional text reading. I love Paul Thomas' take:

Soon after he posted his piece to the NCTE listserv, Yetta Goodman posted, and now a new discussion has taken off. I love this tidbit in response to Yetta's posting: "The lamb is too hot to eat." Think about diagramming this sentence and the fact that doing the diagramming does not help anyone get to the intended meaning of this sentence.

It is OK to recall the good old days, but let us always be more reflective about those days past, too. I know my practice continues to change and evolve after all these years in education (25 here at the university). I don't think the good days are old; I think they are still here.
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26 August 2014 @ 05:27 pm
Donalyn Miller and I co-host a Twitter chat called #bproots. The hashtag stands for Best Practices Roots. It came about after repeated discussions about those important articles and books that some (if not many) folks missed when they first were published. I still remember taking a doctoral seminar from Dick Abrahamson with Kylene Beers and Lois Buckman and several other colleagues. Our task? To go back to the earliest publications of journals such as Horn Book, English Journal, etc. and to collect articles we thought were touchstone pieces. Each week, we would bring xeroxed copies of articles we found as a result of thumbing through back issues (yes, library time every week with rolls of quarters and dimes). Each person would share her or his finds. We would discuss them as a class and then decide if they needed to be in a collections of best.articles.ever. As a result of this course, I had a lovely file of incredible pieces by G. Robert Carlsen, Terry Ley, Donelson and Nilsen, Lou LaBrant, Don Gallo, Bob Probst, Ted Hipple, and other luminaries in the field of books and reading. I still have many of those articles (and I need to scan them one day), and I refer to them often.

I realized, though, that so many folks had not had that same chance to dig back and find their roots. So, Donalyn and I decided to hold a monthly chat centered around a topic or article. Just last night we talked about reading aloud and recommended folks visit Jim Trelease's web site for some background to the discussion ( We wondered who might show up and how the conversation might go. You can access the Storify of the chat ( here. People came and talked animatedly for more than the hour long chat. Titles, techniques, questions, ideas flew by (that is one reason we archive the talk so we can go back more leisurely and review the conversation).

I will be honest and note that I was not certain how many might show up for a chat on reading aloud. But as much as I thought I knew about the topic (I have written chapters for two books on the topic and it is included in all 3 of my own books), I learned from the other educators who spoke passionately about reading aloud and sharing books with classes of all ages. People talked about the books they already had lined up to share and then thanked others for suggestions of more titles to add to their stacks.

We shared research both "scientific" and "anecdotal." I use quotes here as air quotes as I do not see that we need to separate the two but there are others out there that demand the scientific over the anecdotal. Some of that research dates back quite a way (Horn Book had a splendid editorial "On Reading Aloud" in its 1911 volume year) and some of it is newer. But we repeat the research so that everyone is ARMED with it and can take it back to others who question the use of reading aloud.

Now Donalyn and I will consult with one another and discuss possible topics for next month. We will pull articles (they have to be available online so all participants can access them easily), decide on one and then post the date (it is traditional to use Saturday evening) and time (traditionally 7 pm Central) and topic and wait to see if they will come again. Please come.
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I think I might be tempted to home school my kids if this schedule is any indication about the lack of instruction that will take place in classrooms in Florida. What is NOT on the schedule is the amount of test prep that will also need to take place before each test (and then after each test for remediation for those who do not clear the bar).

This is the entry that completely took my breath away and made my head hurt: Florida Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) Assessment Period 3 (AP3). Pre-assessment for PK? What next? Tests for 2 and 3 year olds (can they be far off with the new emphasis on preschool?)?

I think the comment that nailed it had a suggestion that every single legislator (and I would add school board members at local and state levels) be forced to take every test for a designated grade level. I would take it one step further and demand they also sit through the test prep. Let's see how many eager test-takers there are.

Today is the first day of my 25th year at the university (and my 38th year in teaching). I have not ever taken this many tests over my career as a student including my 3 college degrees. I cannot imagine students having to sit for so many tests. I would LOVE to see the research that demonstrates positively that all this testing helps kids learn those standar4ds Jeb Bush and his cohorts (in crime) are so fond of defending.
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Good afternoon -

As you are preparing for your new semester I thought I would give you a heads up on two fabulous author events I am hosting in the fall.


Christopher Paul Curtis will join us on October 7 at 7 p.m. as part of Irving's month long BIG READ event. Our featured adult title is TO KILL A MOCKINGJAY and we have chosen Newbery Honor books THE WATSON'S GO TO BIRMINGHAM - 1963 as our youth selection.

Both events are open to the public so please share this with your students and colleagues.
We are creating fliers for both of these events and I will forward them to you as soon as they are ready.

Thanks in advance for helping me get the word out! Wishing you a wonderful semester!

Marianne Crandall Follis, Ph.D.
Texas Library Association,
Tayshas Selection Committee
American Library Association,


"The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."- Sylvia Plath
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