Archives for the month of: November, 2013

Launching the Reading Workshop Highlights and a Few Freebies

At Tuesday night’s board meeting, the subject of the middle school’s Lucy Calkins-style reading workshop came up, sparking an interesting exchange between board members and the curriculum director.

Board members raised the possibility that having students choose their own books, effectively designing their own curriculum, might be related to the middle school’s poor ELA scores. (See here, here, here and here.)

The discussion that followed went something like this:

Curriculum director: Students don’t choose their own books.

Board members: Yes they do choose their own books.

Curriculum director: No they don’t choose their own books, they’re guided to choose certain books.

Board members: Yes they do choose their own books….

And so it went until the curriculum director prevailed, and no discussion took place of the merits of having 7th grade students read only two whole-class books in an entire year of school, or of the fact that close reading requires whole-class instruction (and quite a lot of whole-class instruction at that).

Mini-lessons and 20 kids reading 20 books in the same class are incompatible with the Common Core’s emphasis on close reading. Thus middle school students will be tested on their ability to do close readings of challenging texts, but they will receive very little in the way of explicit instruction and practice in how to do close readings of challenging texts.

Books 7th grade students chose for themselves (or were guided to choose for themselves) in school year 2011-2012:

(Click on screen shot to enlarge)

The other issue that did not come up is the question of community values.

What is the community’s goal for English class?

(Or, if different segments of the community have different goals, what are those goals?)

My own goal, which I shared and share with many parents, was that my child should not only read well but become well read, a concept that disappeared from public schools approximately 20 years ago, according to Sandra Stotsky’s The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum.

Being “well read” means having read (closely!), understood and, if possible, appreciated or actively enjoyed a comprehensive selection of canonical texts drawn from the standard literary time periods, preferably in coherent, sequential survey classes.

Irvington schools do not provide this option. Very few public schools do.

This situation needs to change because the idea that students should be well read is a value, and the community, not administrators, determines the values their schools should serve, or should.

Boards set the vision; administrators execute the vision.

College Preparatory Reading List: What College Chairpersons Wish Incoming Freshmen Had Read (1986)

1. The Bible 11. Gulliver’s Travels
2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 11. Hamlet
3. The Scarlet Letter 11. Moby Dick
4. The Odyssey 11. Paradise Lost
5. William Shakespeare 11. Pride and Prejudice
5. Robert Frost & other 20th century poets 11. Ernest Hemingway
8. The Iliad 21. William Faulkner
8. Charles Dickens 21. David Copperfield
8. Macbeth 21. House of the Seven Gables
8. Prologue to the Canterbury Tales 21. Return of the Native
11. The Aeneid 27. Romeo and Juliet
11. T.S. Eliot 27. Emily Dickinson
11. Walt Whitman 27. William Wordsworth
11. The Great Gatsby 27. Red Badge of Courage

Should Students Be Well Read or Should They Read Well? by Anne
..McCreary Juhasz & Leslie R. Wilson NASSP Bulletin March 1986

E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence is the education I thought my children would receive when we moved to Irvington. The Core Knowledge Sequence is a coherent, sequential, cumulative, content-rich K-8 education in the liberal arts disciplines, developed and vetted by disciplinary specialists.

Administrators could dramatically raise the quality of Irvington curriculum overnight by adopting the Core Knowledge sequence. E.D. Hirsch didn’t write the Common Core standards, but he is a strong supporter, and his Core Knowledge sequence meets the standards and then some.

And, of course, we would have something real to show prospective home buyers.

Here’s the Core Knowledge sequence:

As a point of comparison, here are the complete NYSED Common Core Standards:

Massachusetts state ELA standards:

State standards & reports

Robert Pondiscio on Reading Workshop (scroll down)
A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like
By MOTOKO RICH August 29, 2009

Call me E.D. Hirsch
Nonfiction Curriculum Enhanced Reading Skills, Study Finds
By Anna M. Phillips March 11, 2012

Sandra Stotsky on students choosing their own books in English class

What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students
in American Schools 2012 | Renaissance Learning
What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in
..American Schools 2013 | Renaissance Learning

What do home buyers want?
Curriculum & property values
Children choosing books
E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence by grade
Per pupil spending

Math Night
Our current curriculum director, then the principal of Main Street School, hosted the evening.

One question parents asked administrators: will Trailblazers allow my child to take AP calculus senior year?

The then-assistant superintendent did not know.

The Tri-State Consortium praised Math Trailblazers in 2007
The Banality of Deeper Learning by Tom Loveless May 29, 2013
..11:00am | The Brown Center Chalkboard | Brookings
Solutions Money Can’t Buy
Irvington Parents Forum at Yahoo
IUFSD Factoids
The Tri-State Consortium, a group of public school administrators and teachers from nominally high-performing districts, will soon be returning to Irvington, this time to evaluate our World Languages program.

Tri-State reports are constructivist* in nature: they focus on “21st century skills” and the like as opposed to knowledge.

Constructivists value “skills” (21st century skills, critical thinking skills, critical inquiry skills, noncognitive skills, etc.), which they believe can be taught separately from knowledge. (Another constructivist claim: whatever knowledge one may need in order to execute a skill can be looked up on Google.)

“Instructivists” value knowledge (which includes skills).

That is the conflict.

You can see Tri-State’s “skills” focus in the text below, which is drawn from its 2007 evaluation of the district’s math program. A translation follows the text.

From the report:

1. How effectively does the K-12 Mathematics program prepare students for higher level thinking skills required in the 21st century?

The structure of the Trailblazers program includes a comprehensive mathematics curriculum that contains embedded quantifiable evidence of critical thinking skills, an important part of preparing students for their futures. The program consists of an approach to mathematics that develops resourceful and competent problem-solvers who can use a variety of tools, from manipulatives through to calculators, graphs and data tables. Students, K-5, will transition into sixth grade with a common vocabulary, a consistency of performance-based assessments, and computational fluency.

The Tri-State team’s concern relates to the challenge to maintain the critical thinking skills that students have acquired in the K-5 program as they move into the district’s more traditional math environment. With a clearly articulated balance of integrated critical thinking skills and traditional math, the student results will be a deeper and more enduring understanding of mathematical procedures and concepts.

Currently, there is a wide range of 21st century skills defined as vital for students’ future success; critical thinking is just one of them. The Tri-State team suggests that the district identify, analyze, and select those skills that are relevant and developmentally appropriate to the K-12 program. A coherent plan that identifies specific thinking skills that are assigned by grade level and course, scaffolded to ensure consistency, and agreed upon by administrators and teachers, will establish the framework essential for sustainability.

Tri-State Consortium Irvington Visit Report
November 7-9, 2007

Obviously, these three paragraphs contain a great deal of jargon and obfuscation. In fact, the reason I read the report in the winter of 2008 was that a friend who had tried to read it and failed asked me to read it for him. Reading is all about background knowledge, and to read a Tri-State Consortium report you have to know the Tri-State Consortium world and words.


The first paragraph lavishes praise on Trailblazers. From the sound of it, Trailblazers would be a perfect choice for implementing Common Core standards (as our district interprets the standards).

Note that the report echoes Trailblazers marketing materials, which claimed students would achieve “computational fluency” without drill. Constructivism opposes memorization and drill.


The second paragraph expresses “concern” over the “challenge” of K-5 students being able to “maintain the critical thinking skills” they possess when they enter “the more traditional math environment” of grades 6-12.

Translation: With the adoption of a constructivist math curriculum only in the early grades, K-5 is now on a collision course with 6-12.

The report is clear as to which math curriculum is superior: Trailblazers.

In Tri-State’s mind, the question is: How will Irvington students be able to “think mathematically” in middle school and high school if they use traditional math textbooks and are taught in traditional ways?


The third paragraph recommends that the district create a 21st century skills-style math program for all grades, K through 12.

The final reference to “sustainability” is an allusion to the sustainability of Trailblazers. If grades 6-12 are not brought into alignment with Trailblazers, the report warns, Trailblazers may not survive.

In the end, the Consortium was right about the sustainability of Trailblazers, wrong about the notion that children could acquire “computational fluency” without practice.

Eventually the middle school teachers, possibly encouraged by the then-curriculum director (I don’t know),** protested 6th graders’ lack of preparation, and timed worksheets were introduced in grades K-5. Since one of Trailblazer’s main selling points was its promise that children would learn the math facts without timed worksheets, the worksheets amounted to a repudiation of the curriculum.

Two years later, Math Trailblazers was unceremoniously dumped in favor of a math curriculum that had yet to be written.

* Also see: constructivism, excerpted from An Electronic Textbook on Instructional Technology by Irene Chen
**During a board meeting I attended, the then-curriculum director praised the middle school math teachers for their courage in coming forward. Of course, by that point parents had been coming forward for years, but there was no public acknowledgment that parents had been right.

Trailblazers “Math Night” in 2007
The Banality of Deeper Learning by Tom Loveless May 29, 2013
..11:00am | The Brown Center Chalkboard | Brookings
Irvington Parents Forum at Yahoo
IUFSD Factoids

Irvington Parents Forum at Facebook

…according to the superintendent:

Space Utilization Study Analysis 11/05/13 (see slide 8)

If the board uses the fund balance, the district won’t have to float a bond.

Slide 8

$100K for new math textbooks; 2 million in fund balance

From a district veteran:

In the late 1960’s the public schools in this country threw out curricula probably due to the massive popular unrest caused by the Vietnam War. There were a lot of problems with the old curricula, but there were good things, too. In the early 1980s, there was unusual unanimity on the Irvington BOE that the Irvington schools needed more curricula. Bizarre as it may seem, each teacher was allowed to “do your own thing.” The older teachers generally retained content curricula. We had two very competent principals at the Middle School and the High School who were supporters of curricula. Dows Lane was a mess.

In those days the BOE each year came up with objectives for the District and each principal came up with his objectives for the year. The BOE wanted a review of a curriculum area each year and that became a District objective and an objective of the principals. A curriculum committee was established which included the department chair, some teachers and some community members. A timetable was set for a public presentation to the BOE. The BOE felt that this method kept the pressure on the schools to develop curricula. The principals at the MS and HS welcomed this because it gave them leverage with the faculty – they could say it was the BOE’s idea, not their idea. This schema didn’t always work and wasn’t implemented every year, but the BOE never lost sight of curricula development.

The constant pressure on curricula was very positive for the schools. It was understood by the BOE, the administration, and the faculty that curricula changes needed public BOE approval. Public presentations of the curriculum committee and of any proposed curricula changes were insisted upon. The faculty and administration welcomed the opportunity for public presentations. The BOE was not trying to second guess or dictate curricula and the faculty and administration knew that. The public presentations validated the curricula work done and were appreciated by the BOE and the public.

There was resistance, particularly at Dows Lane. The Science Dept made overtures to Dows Lane teachers to give them assistance developing science education at DL and were repeatedly rebuffed. There also was constant pressure from Albany to teach “skills” which usually resulted in forcing the loss of content.

It seems to be necessary for the BOE to keep the pressure on the administration and the faculty. Possibly with all the construction over the years, the BOE lost sight of its curricula responsibilities because of the need to oversee the construction. If curricula are going to get developed or improved, it has to be done with public involvement and participation of the whole school community which includes the BOE. The faculty and administration have to do the work on curricula, but they are not going to do it without the BOE requiring it be done. Making the work a public matter gives recognition to the faculty which they generally appreciate.

What RK is doing is not curricula development – she is reacting to the nonsense from Washington and Albany. It seems like the BOE is absent. There must be some conscientious teachers who care about curricula, but are they getting any support from the Dept. Chairs and the administration? Who is telling RK what to do or approving her projects and recommendations?

One may feel that there are too many areas of the curricula that need improvement to concentrate on one area. However, focusing on one area in a public way will stimulate effort on all areas. Suppose the BOE said to the administration that they wanted a comprehensive review of all English curricula K – 12 and, working with the Supt. and the Asst. Supt., organized a committee and set a timetable for a report and public presentation?

Irvington Parents Forum at Yahoo
IUFSD Factoids