Category Archives: Essays/Readings

This category designates a piece of my own writing on a topic on a variety of topics. So, if you are interested in listening to me bloviate, click on this category! Essays/Readings also includes extended quotes from books, particularly on pedagogy, literacy, terms of art, and philosophy.

Review Essay: A Trove of Documents for the Beginning of the School Year

While I know I have posted most if not all of the documents in this post elsewhere on this blog, I wanted to publish them in a compendium for the beginning of the school year, which is upon us at the time of this writing. So, without further ado, I’ll start with this list of questions for the first day or week or even month of the school year. I wrote these witn an eye toward helping students gain some insight into why they are at school–mainly because students who know why they are doing something tend to engage more fully and rewardingly with it.

To get a sense of what students know, and perhaps more particularly, what interests students, I developed a series of interest surveys for a couple of reasons: to inform students early on that I am quite interested in what they know, and more importantly, what they have to say about what they know, and in a corollary, that they understand that I am interested in responding to these interests. (I’m also interested in getting them writing from day one of the school year.) So, here is a general interest survey  with four questions aimed at getting students started with thinking and writing about their own interests. To keep them engaged in thinking about their participation in their own educations, I use this survey for assessing prior knowledge for English Language Arts instruction. Similarly, I use this interest inventory for social studies to derive a sense of what kids know and how I can build on that knowledge–which is the essence of teaching, after all.

I took this learning profile questionnaire  from Carol Ann Tomlinson’s excellent book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2001). Once again, it will supply you with some valuable information about your student’s learning preferences while engaging them in an activity, and reassuring them that you are there to listen to them just as they are there to listen to you.

If you’re interested in equity, and we all should be now, then you might find this context clues worksheet on subordinate as a noun and adjective worthwhile. I introduce this word to help students understand that in my classroom, we work together on everybody’s education. I ask some pointed questions after students have defined the word, all based on one simple inquiry: are students the subordinates of teachers? I’ve always thought not, and so I use the discussion this worksheet prompts to talk about equity, self-advocacy, and the other kinds of things that we need kids to understand and actualize to succeed in life and the world.

Course agreements were a big part of the first days of school in the school in which I served the longest, in Lower Manhattan. I quickly ran afoul of the school’s administration by declining to use the boilerplate agreements they supplied. In my estimation, drafting a course agreement is a teachable moment, especially where self-advocacy is concerned. Accordingly, I conducted a couple of days of Socratic dialogue on what teachers and students can and should expect of one another. By the time I was done, I had an outline of a course agreement that students helped to formulate and in which, therefore, they were at least nominally invested. So, here is the basic course agreement template with which I begin these exercises, and another, more fleshed out template that contains what I consider the basics of an agreement between a teacher and his or her students. Here is the aforementioned Lower Manhattan school’s official course agreement for English Language Arts and another for social studies classes. I can’t remember if I played any role in revising these, but one thing–the injunction against eating in class–suggests that I did not. If I must choose between having a student arrive in class with a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich to eat in class, or having them stop to eat it in Zuccotti Park, where they were likely to cross paths with a fellow student, hatch a scheme of some sort, then disappear for the day, well, I choose to let kids eat in class. Finally, here is another course agreement that is at slight variance with the two preceding, but suggests a similar dictatorial posture towards students and parents.

Another thing I like to do to create a situation in which students are invested in their classroom, and by extension their own educations, is to call upon students to create posters to decorate classroom walls. To put this a little less politely, I find the kinds of posters and other decorations found in teachers’ stores leave a good deal to be desired–they are, in a word, inauthentic. Fortunately, I have several documents with text from which students can create posters for your classroom. First up, here is a short document of general text on taking credit for one’s work by identifying it with student name, date, and whatever else teachers want to see in a document header. Similarly, here are some quotes on learning that look good on classroom walls, and maybe better on hall-facing classroom doors. Primarily, at least in some years, I was an English teacher, so here are several documents with poster text for grammar and style, for concepts in English Language Arts, and for expository words that function across learning domains. Finally, here is a document with the verb to be conjugated, which I find useful on a classroom wall.

For social studies, here is a list of facts and concepts from the global studies and another of the same for United States history. As the latter document demonstrates, I spend vanishingly little time teaching United States History. I tended to teach what social studies classes that were assigned me as literacy subjects, using the content area to help students build their vocabularies and prior knowledge of history.

Finally, here (and I know I have previously posted this document on this blog) is a list of salutations I use in my classroom when preparing the board for the day. So, to use the first noun on this document as an example, the first item on the classroom agenda, recorded on the board, is “Good Morning Oncologists!” I generally begin with these materials further down the list, under outline headings XII or XIII, say with “hippies” (which generally excites remark, as does “haters”). After using a salutation, I cross it off the list. As the year progresses, I use a new word each day. Over the years of doing this, I measure the time it takes students to realize that there is a fresh salutation on the board every day. After that, it’s only a matter of time before this practice piques students’ curiosity, and then a much shorter time before they start asking what these words mean. Then you have a basis to start building vocabulary with only the slightest effort. And when students ask you, “What is an oncologist”? you can answer by telling them an oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer patients. Simple as that, they’ve learned something new.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.


“Oxymoron: (Greek ‘pointedly foolish’) A figure of speech which combines incongruous and apparently contradictory words and meanings for special effect. As in Lamb’s celebrated remark: ‘I like a smuggler. He is the only honest thief.’

It is a common device, closely related to antithesis and paradox (qq.v), especially in poetry, and is of considerable antiquity. There are many splendid instances in English poetry. It was particularly popular in the late 16th century and during the 17th. A famous example occurs in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo jests about love:

“Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.

Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!

O anything! of nothing first create!

O heavy lightness! serious vanity!

Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!’

Other well-known examples are Milton’s description of hell in Paradise Lost:

‘No light, but rather darkness visible.’

And Pope’s reference to man in Essay on Man:

‘Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great.’

Goldsmith has some striking ones in The Deserted Village:

 ‘Where grey-beard mirth and smiling toil retired

The toiling pleasure sickens into pain.’

A particularly well-known example comes in Tennyson’s Lancelot and Elaine:

‘The shackles of an old love straiten’d him

His honour rooted in dishonor stood,

And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.’

Almost as well known are these lines in Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven:

‘I tempted all His servitors, but to find

My own betrayal in their constance,

In faith to him their fickleness to me,

Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.’

And a very arresting one in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Deutschland:

‘[She] Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:

The cross to her she call Christ to her, christens her

wild-worse Best.’

Probably the most famous instance of a sustained oxymoron is Sir Thomas Wyatt’s version of Petrarch’s 134th sonnet, which begins:

“I find no peace, and all my war is done;

I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice;

I flee above the wind, yet can I not arise;

And nought I have and all the world I season.’

Other English poets who have used the figure extensively are Keats and Crashaw. The Italian Marino and the Spaniard Gongora also had a predilection for it.”

Term of Art: Specific Language Disability

“specific language disability (SLD): A severe problem with some aspect of listening, speaking, reading, writing, or spelling, while skills in the other areas are age-appropriate. It is also called specific language learning disability.

The problems vary in focus and intensity, ranging from mild to severe. Some have severe problems with listening and reading (or receptive language) while others struggle with writing (expressive language); Other problems that often appear together with a specific learning disability include mild to severe organization problems and difficulty with directions.

Specific language disability may be a disorder of the left hemisphere of the brain, or a dominant right hemisphere.

Treatment Options and Outlook While there is no cure, the disability can be managed using educational methods and unconventional learning techniques. A multisensory approach is extremely important in teaching these students, making sure the person must hear, say, see, write, and use movement and feeling. For the reader with a specific language disability, this varied approach ensure that information will move from short- to long-term memory. This approach is called the VAKT (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Tactile) method.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Term of Art: Task Analysis

“task analysis: A teaching strategy in which a learning activity is broken down into small sequential tasks. It is an effective strategy used to teach students with a learning disability because it takes a large learning activity and breaks it down into smaller, more easily accomplished tasks. Task analysis is also used as an assessment tool to see precisely at what stage a skill breakdown is occurring. For example, if a student is given an assignment to define 10 vocabulary words, a task analysis might include the following steps:

  1. understand, record, and remember the assignment
  2. read/decode the vocabulary words
  3. use a dictionary/textbook
  4. paraphrase the definition
  5. write the definition

Breaking an assignment into the five steps can make a difficult and overwhelming project become more manageable.

Similarly, task analysis can be used for instruction where larger skills are broken down into subskills and each subskill taught until mastery.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Bob Moses: A Tribute to a Brilliant Civil Rights Activist and Educator, and His Message to Us

Diane Ravitch's blog

Bob Moses died on July 25 at the age of 86. He was noted for his intellect and courage. He was a leader of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), leading a voter registration drive in Mississippi at a time when violence against Black civil rights activists were at risk of being murdered, and no jury would convict their killers. In 1964, he led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which tried unsuccessfully to replace the all-white Democratic delegation to the Democratic National Convention. In 1982, he founded the Algebra Project, to teach algebra to underprepared Black youth. He received multiple honors for his work. He graduated from the elite Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Hamilton College (where he majored in philosophy and French), and earned a master’s degree at Harvard in philosophy.

One of his friends and admirers forwarded the following story:

It might be of interest…

View original post 212 more words

Term of Art: Sensorimotor Stage

“sensorimotor stage: A developmental stage in which a child had little ability with language or the use of symbols, but experiences the world through sensation and movement. It is the first of four stages in the theory of cognitive development as described by child psychiatrist Jean Piaget. The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth until about age two.

Infants are normally born with a range of reflexes that ensures their survival, such as sucking and grasping. As the infant adapts these reflexes over time, the child can begin to interact with environment with greater efficiency. By the end of this stage, the child is able to solve simple problems, such as looking for a lost toy or communicating simple needs to a parent or another child. It is also during this stage that the infant develops a sense of object permanence—that awareness that things and people continue to exist even when they cannot be perceived. For example, before the age of two if a parent hides a toy under a pillow in front of the child, the child will not understand that the toy still exists under the pillow. Once a sense of object permanence is developed, the child will understand that the toy hidden under the pillow still exists, and will lift up the pillow to retrieve the toy.

Modern technology was not available in Piaget’s time, so he often used motor tasks to test the cognitive understanding of an infant. With the availability of more advanced techniques that can track an infant’s eye movements or rate of sucking in response to stimuli, researchers now know that infants reach cognitive milestone such as object permanence.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Term of Art: Learning Style

“learning style: An individual’s behavior, temperament, and attitude in a learning situation. Some of the best-known learning styles are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Some experts argue that it is important to match an individual’s learning style with the style of instruction to make learning easier. For example, an individual with a strong visual learning style should be taught to read with an emphasis on the shapes of words.

There are many different learning styles, but none are either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Although a student may prefer one style over another, preferences develop like muscles: the more they are used, the stronger they become. Successful students have flexible and integrated learning styles. No one use one of the styles exclusively, and there is usually significant overlap in learning styles.

Visual learners relate most effectively to written information, notes, diagrams, and pictures. Typically they will be unhappy with a presentation where they cannot take detailed notes. To a degree, information does not exist for a visual learner unless it has been written down. This is why some visual learners take notes even when they have printed notes in front of them. Visual learners will tend to be most effective in written communication. They make up about 65 percent of the population.

Auditory learners related most effectively to the spoken word. They tend to listen to a lecture and then take notes afterward, or rely on printed notes. Because written information will often have little meaning until it is heard, it may help auditory learners to read written information out loud. Auditory learners may be sophisticated speakers, and may specialize in subjects like law or politics. Auditory learners make about 30 percent of the population.

Kinesthetic learners learn best through touch, movement, and space, and learn skills by imitation and practice. Kinesthetic learners can appear slow, because information is usually not presented in a style that suits their learning methods. Kinesthetic learners make around 5 percent of the population.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Dioxins (and Learning Disabilities)

“dioxins: A group of some of the most toxic carcinogenic human-made chemicals in the world, which have been linked to developmental and learning disabilities. Exposure in childhood can cause lower IQ, result in withdrawn and depressed behavior, and increase hyperactivity and attention problems. Unborn children are even more acutely affected by exposure to dioxins because of the critical development that occurs during pregnancy, especially between the second and eighth week after conception.

Dioxin is the most harmful of all the chemicals in the dioxin group, and is produced by burning plastics containing chlorine, incinerating household waste, and bleaching chlorine paper. It was first used as the toxic chemical in the weapon Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Although some dioxins are produced naturally as a result of forest fires, most appear in the environment as an industrial by-product.

Dioxins are found everywhere in the environment, introduced into the air from incinerators and smokestacks, where they eventually settle on the ground, in the water, and on the food that livestock eat. Because dioxins do not decompose readily, they are stored in livestock fatty tissue. About 95 percent of human dioxin exposure occurs by eating traces in in meat, dairy products, and fish.

Children are at higher risk for both ingesting dioxins and being harmed because their diets usually have a higher concentration of animal fat in the form of dairy products.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Term of Art: Whole-Language Approach

“whole-language approach: An educational philosophy characterized by the belief that language learning is a natural outgrowth of a child-centered process that integrates speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The whole language approach emphasizes the fact that reading is closely linked to spoken language. As a result, students of this approach are exposed to language-rich classrooms to help make them better readers and writers.

The way American schools teach children to read and write for many years has been affected by the influence of two opposite schools of thought. A conventional curriculum tends to rely on phonics and basic readers. This traditional theory of learning, which was popularized in the 19th century, is based on the idea that children learn a complex skill such as reading by first making sense of letters and then progressing to the understanding of sounds, words, and sentences. Proponents of this theory believe that children learn to read by learning to decode the language; understanding follows after they break the code and master the parts. Traditional American education begins with reading lessons that focus on phonics (sounding out first letters, then combinations of letters), tightly controlled vocabulary, and short basic reading passages, followed by exercises, each with only one correct answer.

Whole language represents a completely different philosophy about teaching, learning, and the role of language in the classroom, emphasizing the idea that children should use language in ways that relate to their own lives and cultures. In the whole language classroom, the final answer is not as important as the process. Children are encouraged to decode words by their context.

Whole language advocates point out that the average first grader has already acquired a vocabulary of 10,000 words and inherently understands many of the rules of grammar without being formally taught. The common techniques of whole language teaching, which include daily journal and letter writing plus reading much real literature, represent that philosophy in action.

The popularity of the whole language approach has been so dramatic that some teachers complain they cannot find basic readers anymore. In addition, many new teachers say their university professors no longer discuss how to teach phonics.

Critics of the whole language approach believe it overemphasizes understanding at the expense of accuracy. The whole language movement had a significant impact on reading and writing instruction in the 1980s and 1990s, when the appeal of whole language instruction influenced many schools to revise their curricula. As a result of this movement, a vigorous debate emerged amongst educators over how children learn language. Many special educators felt that whole language was flawed by its neglect of explicit language skills such as phonics, spelling, and grammar. Since a language-rich classroom does not help many students, especially those with learning disabilities, learn to read and spell, a ‘back to basics’ movement in education began to move back to explicit skill instruction.

On the other hand, advocates of the whole language approach say that an overemphasis on rules and rote learning is stifling and leads children to see reading and writing as boring and difficult chores, rather than an interested way of gathering information.

Research strongly indicates that students will be the most successful if a balanced approach is used, teaching phonics in a systematic fashion within the context of real stories. Today, many classrooms use this combination approach utilizing elements of both whole language and phonics, spelling and grammar.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.


Term of Art: Writing Process

“writing process: A particular approach to writing instruction that has become common in school systems and colleges during the past 25 years. There are many meanings of the phrase ‘writing process,’ but most refer to the concept that writing is part of the thinking process involving many different mental activities over a period of time. Effective instruction in writing teaches students how to generate, organize, and revise their writing, rather than focusing solely on written language structures.

In its early years of development, the process theory of writing instruction focused largely on individual expression and the facilitation of the development of a student’s ‘voice.’ This approach to the writing process was in many ways a reaction to traditional methods of writing instruction, which focused mainly on structural and mechanical elements such as grammar, punctuation, and following paragraph and essay models.

In the early 1980s, Linda Flower and John Hayes developed a theoretical model of writing as a thought process involving a number of different mental activities, including planning, generating, organizing, translating, reviewing, and editing. In their model, any given activity might interrupt any other one at any stage. The Flower/Hayes model continues to be useful, especially for understanding the writing problems of students with learning disabilities and attention disorder. However, the primary contemporary model emphasizes the ways in which writing is a social practice, and focuses on collaborative approaches to developing writing skills and producing written work.

In practical terms, effective writing instruction involves understanding that writing involves different activities of generating, organizing, drafting, and revising, and that incorporates collaborative activities in helping students develop a sense of voice, audience, and using writing as a communication tool.

A process approach to writing is particularly vital for students with learning disabilities, in that it enables them to take the different cognitive tasks involved in writing and spread them over a series of steps and periods of time. For example, a student with dyslexia may benefit from putting off any attention to editing and spelling until late in the process, instead focusing mainly on generating ideas and language first.

Likewise a student with attention deficit disorder may do better by taking out a highly specific approach to planning a paper and mapping out the steps that will be involved, using a checklist to monitor completion of each step.”

Excerpted from: Turkington, Carol, and Joseph R. Harris, PhD. The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities. New York: Facts on File, 2006.