Why is Math Taught Differently Now?

What is “new math” or Common Core math? One example is this “new math” check floating around the internet. Do you know how much is it written for?


According to an article by Hemant Mehta, the check writer (Doug Herrmann) didn’t actually understand what he was talking about so it’s for two different amounts. In the box where you write the amount, the ten-frame is wrong—it’s written as an non-existent eight-frame. However, if some logic is applied, the amount is $8.43. The line where you write out the amount in nice cursive? It’s written with a correct ten-frame box—$10.43. By the way, Mehta assumes the system of 0’s/circles and X’s is $0.43. He’s not really sure since the system appears to be Herrmann’s own creation. I assume it’s based off separate method for illustrating/explaining math.

Don’t understand ten-frames? I highly recommend reading Mehta’s article, The Dad Who Wrote a Check Using “Common Core” Math Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About. Mehta explains what a ten-frame is, as well as how to use it. He also reinforces that Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum .Article Bonus: Mehta compares new math to Food Network’s Chopped.

So, why is math taught differently now? You need your brain to think, not to compute. That’s what the device(s) you carry around all day are for! “New math” or “common core math” teaches students multiple methods and the reasoning behind it before getting to shortcuts. Plus, you use it every day to make change (if you still use cash!)

Want a more visual explanation? Dr. Raj Shah explains why there has been a shift in mathematics education.

Why is Math Different Now from raj shah on Vimeo.

Dr. Raj Shah explains why math is taught differently than it was in the past and helps address parents’ misconceptions about the “new math”.

Dr. Shah is the owner and founder of Math Plus Academy (www.mathplusacademy.com) an academic enrichment program with two locations in Columbus, Ohio. Math Plus Academy offers class in math, robotics, programming and chess for kids from KG to 9th grade. Math Plus Academy is on a mission to show kids the joy of mathematics and science.

M-STEP Press Release: “Pre-Test Technical Assistance and Simulation Look Promising”

Michigan has changed its standardized testing procedures. Now, the assessments have a new name and are online. I assume this has been quite an undertaking. However, on April 6, 2015, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) released a press release indicating all pilot programs showed favorable results.

Preliminary testing of the online assessment system, and technology readiness monitoring of school districts by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) are helping assure that the new M-STEP statewide assessment system will operate smoothly when the eight-week testing window opens April 13.

“Our teams of technology and assessment specialists have been working with local and regional school districts to do test runs of the new online system,” said State Superintendent Mike Flanagan.  “We want to make sure that we troubleshoot and smooth out any bumps before the system goes statewide next week.  We want schools to be ready.”

Newsflash: There will still be bumps. There always is with a new system.

For those who don’t know anything about the M-STEP, the press release included a brief synopsis.

These new assessments, called the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP), will be given to students in grades 3-8 and 11 online and will measure current student knowledge and understanding of state standards for math, English language arts, science, and social studies.

Sounds easy enough. But standardized tests never are. The agony of which is the “BEST” answer in multiple choice questions will drive students nuts. Not to mention sitting in front of a computer screen for hours?? I suppose computer chairs may be slightly more comfortable than lunchroom seats or the hard plastic of a classroom chair, but boy…I sure got distracted by the fact that they could spin.

So where did all this money come from to supply every district with the technology to run these exams? The press release speaks again…

The state has invested $145 million, appropriated over the past three years in Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grants (TRIG) for education technology in Michigan.  School districts have used those grants to develop or improve their technology infrastructure, including, but not limited to, hardware and software, in preparation for the planned implementation of online assessments; and teaching and learning.

But you must be thinking…certainly not every district is ready. You are correct. In fact, about 20 % are not. But they only have through 2017 to put it off.

Eighty percent of Michigan school buildings, accounting for 83 percent of all students, are tech-ready for M-STEP, with the others using the optional paper-and-pencil option. The paper-and-pencil option will be available for schools through the Spring 2017 M-STEP administration.

I wonder what will happen if districts just say no? I meant, it’s good advice. They tell the students to say it all the time.

But I digress. The press release mentioned piloting these tests. It would make sense to pick a diverse selection of districts, you know, some wealthy, some in poverty, some rural, some suburban, some city, some large, some small…etc. It would make sense to create a pilot program representative of the whole state of Michigan. Let’s see…did they do that?

Overall, 200 school buildings and approximately 12,000 students participated in those pilot online assessments.

In an effort to help districts be as prepared as possible, MDE has been collaborating with online test delivery vendor, Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) and staff from the TRIG team with an online technology readiness initiative.

An online technology readiness diagnostic took place at 12 sites within seven Intermediate School Districts (ISDs) across the state from March 2–10. These planned visits were designed to encompass a broad spectrum of locations, technical environments, and configurations, providing a representative sample that schools could follow to configure and prepare for the Spring 2015 online assessments.

Staff worked with each site to review software setup; network configuration; hardware and testing environment setup; specific device testing and load simulations; identify potential server utilization and capacity issues; and answer various test, configuration, best practices, and security questions.

Sites included: Ingham ISD, Waverly Schools, Waterford School District, Waterford Mott High School, Detroit Public Schools, Oakland ISD, Macomb ISD, Dort Elementary School in Flint, Roseville Middle School, Charlevoix-Emmet ISD, Boyne City High School, and Boyne City Middle School.

Wait…did I miss…the WHOLE UPPER PENINSULA?? Actually, those places are the Greater Detroit Area, Lansing, and the Greater Charlevoix Area. Not such a good representation of the state there. Prediction: Problems will occur. Also, I’m sorry U.P., you seem to be a forgotten part of the state once again.

Also, I just barely caught it, but those sites were just for checking the technology readiness. Nope, they weren’t the pilot program! So then who was??

MDE also conducted an M-STEP test simulation at Birney K-8 School in Southfield with 126 students utilizing the state’s online practice test. Building-level infrastructure performance also was assessed, validating the schools ability to deliver the assessment online.  The simulation was carried out without any technical disruption.

Southfield. 126 students. Excuse me while I clean up the drink I just spit out.

Take some advice from major companies on the release day of much-anticipated video games: No matter how much beta testing you do…the servers always crash. The. Servers. Always. Crash.

So how much training will the schools and districts have? A reasonable amount. But there are still going to be teachers who will get asked a question by a student and have no answer. “Uhhhh, let me double-check with so-and-so on that.”.

Prior to the simulation, Birney school staff had familiarized students over a two-week period with the state’s Online Training Tools.  These training tools for students and teachers have been available to all schools since February 25, when the necessary testing software became available for schools to install.

Since last December, MDE has provided weekly information and updates on the 2015 M-STEP administration through its Spotlight on Student Assessment and Accountability electronic newsletter to every school district. Technology information, best practice tips, and reminders have been routinely included in that newsletter.

Schools and districts have been instructed to follow the Technology User Guide to setup their testing environments, validating the accuracy and usability of the guide.  Multiple online technology trainings and Question & Answer sessions for building and district technology staff also have been conducted by MDE.

And if a district really has a problem? There will be some support. But I bet their going to be so overwhelmed that it may not be as effective as they hope.

To assist schools and districts during the test administration window, the department has established statewide “Tiger Team” designed to quickly respond to, and support, schools and districts. The teams includes staff from: MDE, DRC, TRIG and select ISDs.  These teams will respond by phone or, depending on need, will be dispatched to school locations whenever possible throughout the state.

“Tiger Team”? Snicker Do they use the Geek Squad cars?

Okay, okay. I’m done. If you want to know when the “testing window” is, the press release ends with the following information.

To best suit school schedules and technology capabilities, districts are given the flexibility to administer grade 3-8 tests during a three-week window and grade 11 tests during the entire eight-week window.  Test windows are open from April 13 through June 5, 2015.

Michigan’s MI-Access alternate assessment can be administered on any instructional day over a seven-week period from April 13 – May 29, 2015.

# # #

“We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly”

On October 10, 2012, Slate ran an article about the writing portion of the SAT standardized test and its effects on high school and first-year college level writing.  While many facts and ideas mentioned are not new, it is the combination of them and the message of the article that is very striking.

The article, “We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly” by is available to read on Slate’s website.  Additionally, I have copy and pasted the article below.  Links within article are original to the article.


This past Saturday, several hundred thousand prospective college students filed into schools across the United States and more than 170 other countries to take the SAT—$51 registration fees paid, No. 2 pencils sharpened, acceptable calculators at the ready. And as part of the three-hour-and-45–minute ritual, each person taking the 87-year-old test spent 25 minutes drafting a prompt-based essay for the exam’s writing section.

This essay, which was added to the SAT in 2005, counts for approximately 30 percent of a test-taker’s score on the writing section, or nearly one-ninth of one’s total score. That may not seem like much, but with competition for spots at top colleges and universities more fierce than ever, performance on a portion of the test worth around 11 percent of the total could be the difference between Stanford and the second tier. So it’s not surprising that students seek strategies and tips that will help them succeed on the writing exercise. Les Perelman, the recently retired former director of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, has got a doozy.

To do well on the essay, he says, the best approach is to just make stuff up.

“It doesn’t matter if [what you write] is true or not,” says Perelman, who helped create MIT’s writing placement test and has consulted at other top universities on the subject of writing assessments. “In fact, trying to be true will hold you back.” So, for instance, in relaying personal experiences, students who take time attempting to recall an appropriately relatable circumstance from their lives are at a disadvantage, he says. “The best advice is, don’t try to spend time remembering an event,” Perelman adds, “Just make one up. And I’ve heard about students making up all sorts of events, including deaths of parents who really didn’t die.”

This approach works, and is advisable, he suggests, because of how the SAT essay is structured and graded. Here’s a typical essay prompt taken from the College Board website. It follows a short, three-sentence passage noting that people hold different views on the subject to be discussed:

Assignment: Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

After spending a few moments reading a prompt similar to that one, test takers have 25 minutes in which to draft a submission that will be scored on a 1-to-6 scale. (No scratch paper is provided for outlining or essay planning.) Most students choose to write what is referred to as “the standard five-paragraph essay”: introductory and concluding paragraphs bookending three paragraphs of support in between. Each essay is later independently graded by two readers in a manner that harkens to the famous I Love Lucy scene wherein Lucy and Ethel attempt to wrap chocolate candies traveling on an unrelenting conveyer belt.

Anne Ruggles Gere, a professor at the University of Michigan, serves as director of the Sweetland Center for Writing, which oversees first-year writing at the university. She speaks with SAT essay-graders often. “What they tell me is that they go through a very regimented scoring process, and the goal of that process is to produce so many units of work in a very short period of time,” she says. “So if they take more than about three minutes to read and score these essays, they are eliminated from the job of scoring.” According to Perelman, especially speedy graders are rewarded for their efforts. “They expect readers to read a minimum of 20 essays an hour,” he says. “But readers get a bonus if they read 30 essays an hour, which is two minutes per essay.”

Gere and Perelman aren’t the only ones who know about the demands placed upon SAT essay graders. Many students do, too. Those with a firm grasp of what time-pressured essay-readers care about—and, to be sure, what things they don’t care about—can increase their chances at a high score by resorting to all sorts of approaches that are, shall we say, less than ideal. For starters, facts don’t just take a back seat when it comes to describing personal experiences on the SAT essay; they don’t matter in general.

“There’s really no concern about factual accuracy,” says Gere. “In fact, the makers of the SAT have indicated that in scoring it really doesn’t matter if you say that the War of 1812 occurred in 1817. The complete lack of attention to any kind of accuracy of information conveys a very strange notion of what good writing might be.”

That’s one way of putting it. Perelman, who has trained SAT takers on approaches for achieving the highest possible essay score, has another.

“What they are actually testing,” he says, “is the ability to bullshit on demand. There is no other writing situation in the world where people have to write on a topic that they’ve never thought about, on demand, in 25 minutes. Lots of times we have to write on demand very quickly, but it’s about things we’ve thought about. What they are really measuring is the ability to spew forth as many words as possible in as short a time as possible. It seems like it is training students to become politicians.”

Graders don’t have time to look up facts, or to check if an especially uncommon word actually exists, or perhaps even to do anything more than skim an essay before making a grading determination. Score-savvy essay writers can figure out what might catch the eye of a skimmer.

“I tell students to always use quotations, because the exam readers love quotations,” Perelman says. “One of the other parts of the formula is use big words. Never use many, always use myriad or plethora. Never say bad, always use egregious.”

Of course, according the College Board website that millions of students have used to prepare for the exam, “there are no shortcuts to success on the SAT essay.” And the country’s largest test prep company, Kaplan, does not teach such approaches. (Disclosure: Kaplan is owned by the soon-to-be-renamed Washington Post Company, which also owns Slate.)

Kaplan’s director of SAT and ACT programs, Colin Gruenwald, tutors students, helps write the company’s curriculum, and trains Kaplan teachers. He says throwing around “big words” in an attempt to influence essay readers is an unnecessarily risky endeavor. He insists that the scoring model is a holistic one that focuses on the overall impression of one’s writing skills. “The point is to demonstrate that you have command of the language, that you are able, in a pressure environment, to sit down and formulate coherent and persuasive thoughts,” he says. Students need to include certain components, he notes. “But that’s not a trick. That’s not a gimmick. That’s just good education.”

Whether verifiably true facts, or an argument that supports a position one actually believes in, are among those necessary components is unclear. What if, for instance, a student comes across an essay prompt that she has a strong opinion about, but can think of better arguments for the opposing position? “The positive side to writing what you believe is that you are more likely to be enthusiastic and passionate,” Gruenwald says. “The ideas may come more smoothly. You may be able to make a very compelling argument. But if you find that there is the side you agree with, but then there is the side that you can come up with a list of really good points for, take the side that you can come up with the list of really good points for. That’s just good demonstration. Because what you are trying to do is demonstrate that you have the writing competency to succeed at the college level. That’s not really dependent upon your opinion of the subject.” And, he admits, “It’s not even related to your grasp of the facts, necessarily.”

For university educators like Perelman and Gere, such realities become part of a trickle-down-type problem. Because of the great importance students, parents, and college admissions officers place on the SAT—as well as the large sums of money that many families spend on outside test prep—high school writing instructors are placed in a bind. “Teachers are under a huge amount of pressure from parents to teach to the test and to get their kids high scores,” Perelman says. They sometimes have to make a choice, he adds, between teaching writing methods that are rewarded by SAT essay-readers—thereby sending worse writers out into the world—or training pupils to write well generally, at the risk of parent complaints about their kids not being sufficiently prepared for the SAT. “And sometimes when they get that pushback, that means they don’t get a promotion, or get a lower raise. So it actually costs them to be principled. You’re putting in negative incentives to be good teachers.”

Gere says the end result of that dynamic shows up when students arrive at college. “I think it’s a very large problem, one that I’m concerned about, and one that we deal with a lot here,” she adds. “What happens is in first-year writing, the typical pattern is that students come in pretty well equipped to write the five-paragraph essay, and much of first-year writing is a process of undoing that.”

College professors, according to Gere, expect their students to be able to demonstrate evidence-based argument in their writing. This involves reading and synthesizing materials that offer multiple perspectives, and writing something that shows students are able to navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument. For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging. “The SAT does [students] no favors,” Gere says, “because it gives them a diminished view of what writing is by treating it as something that can be done once, quickly, and that it doesn’t require any basis in fact.”

The result: lots of B.S.

“In our placement tests, you see this all the time, where people continue the B.S., because they just assume that’s what works,” says Perelman. “I think [the SAT essay] creates damage, that it’s harmful.”

College Board President David Coleman just might agree. In September, Coleman seemed to concede that something is amiss with the essay. He raised the possibility of an essay revamp as part of a 2015 SAT overhaul that would focus the writing exercise more on students’ ability to critically analyze a piece of text and craft an essay that draws on the information provided.

That sort of change may seem like a good place to start. (Would it be too much to ask for some scratch paper, too?) But Gere says we should watch what we wish for with respect to changes to the essay format. She notes that as rushed and crazy-seeming as the SAT essay-scoring process is, the fact that real-live humans are reading and grading the essays is a positive. Computerized scoring is now used to grade writing submitted as part of the GMAT and TOEFL exams, among others. And that method of essay-scoring has come under fire from the National Council of Teachers of English and others for an array of alleged deficiencies—including an overemphasis on word lengths and other measurables, inaccurate error recognition, and a failure to reward creativity.

An SAT essay based on a longer passage with more detail and a constrained set of acceptable response options would likely result in written works that are much more amenable to machine scoring than the current essays. The forthcoming attempt to “fix” the SAT essay may be less about using a model that better lends itself to more valid assessments of students’ writing skills, or turning out better writers, and more about saving money and time by eventually replacing human essay graders with machines.

“It seems to me pretty clear that’s where the SAT is headed,” Gere says. “So it goes from bad to worse, actually.”

And although other standardized tests—such as the LSAT and certain Advanced Placement exams—include essay components that differ from the SAT in terms of what skills are being tested and how writing submissions are scored, those alternative methods are not without their critics. So there would appear to be no standardized-test-essay panacea.

Kaplan’s Gruenwald notes that there have been rumblings about making the SAT essay optional. And some, he says, have suggested doing away with it altogether. Perelman would have no problem with that option. He notes that there’s one thing he tells every student working to achieve a high score on the SAT essay. “Use this [approach] on the exam,” he says, “but never write like this again.”


Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

The Intricacies of the Common Core

The origin of the Common Core State Standards as well as who produces the assessments, who handles the data, and the true motivation behind their implementation is rather foggy. It is rather intricate and not altruistic.

After viewing the video, I am struck by the intricacies of the Common Core and that seeing this entire web actually made a lot of sense. I am not surprised there are a lot of hands in the “Common Core pot”. It is complicated and I am no fool to think only one company was responsible for it all.

The Bigger Picture: It seems to me that there is so much dissonance in the United States government and country because we refuse to negotiate. Congressmen (and Congresswoman) must win, and if the person someone is speaking to will not support them, then they will find someone who will for a better price. In order to hide the fact that altruism is dead, an intricate web of puzzle pieces is created so that each piece can claim altruistic motives, and the web is too complicated for the average person to understand and/or untangle.

“Indoctrination in Common Core ELA textbooks”

A few weeks ago I saw a video on Facebook titled “Indoctrination in Common Core ELA textbooks”.  It was posted on June 15 by Aliēnātus: the truth is out there.  The goal was to open people’s minds to what was in the Common Core curriculum and that the curriculum is horrible because it “indoctrinates” students starting in the 1st grade.  According to the commentators in the video, the book(s) shown have been approved by the state of Utah.

I was outraged, but not by the curriculum, rather by the ignorance of the commentators in the video and by the comments on the video.  It still outrages me, thus, I have decided to embedded the video and share my thoughts.

My Issues with Statements Made in This Video

The commentators have no authority on the subject matter.  The commentators who are evaluating the curriculum have no stated background in teaching, curriculum planning/design, or education.  One commentator claims he has a 6-year-old (1st grader).  This does NOT make him an expert on what is taught or should be taught but isn’t being taught in the 1st grade.  It is apparent that he has not seen the entire K-12 system as a whole, its successes and its failures, from the standpoint of an educator.  He is a parent.  He may be an expert on the interests of his child, but that does not translate into the expertise of the educational goals for that grade.

The commentators’ narrow focus on the title, “Literature and Writing” ignores the benefits of working with content in different contexts.  Since the commentators are not well-versed in educational issues, they do not understand that one of the major problems of the American school system is that we pulled apart our content and put each one into different boxes called grade level and subject matter from which we were told to never deviate into another subject or grade level.  In other words, the 1st grade English teacher taught 1st grade English, which included reading, spelling, writing, and literature.  Students were not taught reading in 2nd grade science class because “that’s the 1st grade English teacher’s job.”  We now know this chunking to be very problematic and the term “cross-curricular” has entered the educational vocabulary.  Encouraging students to write about advocacy in a “literature and writing” class highlights that you don’t just write papers in an English class and talk about society in social studies, you can mix them!

It’s also important to note that writing is not just about the motor skills of writing letters and sentence structure.  Why should we waste students’ precious time writing about insignificant things like, “The sky is blue.  I like puppies,” when they are capable of so much more?  Many students have already grasped these basic verbal concepts by the 1st grade, thus, we are wasting their time by re-teaching the same concept with only adding the motor skill of writing.  We end up hindering the grow of their mental skills; and when their brain isn’t stimulated, students get bored, which can directly lead to learning, “nothing” all day and hating school.

The commentators project their adult understanding and definition of “advocacy” and cannot fathom that a 6-year-old can advocate for anything.  The concept of “advocacy” can be complicated or boiled down to a very simple basic element: standing up for what you think is right.  Isn’t that the exact same message behind the anti-bullying campaigns in elementary schools right now?  The commentators laugh and one says sarcastically, “Yeah, my six-year-old does that all the time.  She looks at what is wrong in the world and says how do I organize my people and my community to fix these social problems?”  By six years old, kids are able to identify things that are right and wrong as well as come up with ideas on how to change the status quo.  Why tell a six-year-old, “no, you’re only six, you have nothing positive to contribute to your family/house, neighborhood, your school, or your city”?  We’re not talking about six-year-olds organizing and starting a national revolution, but they can see that there are people who are starving and that creating a community garden and donating the food to a local food bank can help.  It’s also fathomable that 1st graders could organize a school-wide blanket drive to donate blankets to the American Red Cross for the upcoming winter.

The commentators ignore the intended audience of the curriculum guidebook that they mock.  The guidebook is written for a college-educated educator.  The voice and style of the paragraphs is written such that it will not be an insult to the intelligence of an elementary school teacher.  The educator is able to translate the broad concept of “call to action” into simpler words that each individual student will understand.  The concept of “call to action” really isn’t difficult to understand at all.  A six-year old definitely understands, “the sentence that says ‘I want you to clean your room.’ is a call to action because ‘clean’ is a verb, and a verb is an action, right?”  Why are we insulting the intelligence of six-year-olds?  If they are capable of understanding the concept, willing to learn it, and desiring more out of their education, then we should be teaching them.  It is the role of an educated, effective teacher to translate concepts from complex to simple.  Teacher guidebooks are written for the teacher, not the student.

The commentators have ignored the basic principles of persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos.  Logos ethos, and pathos are Greek words that used to describe the three types of appeal that are used to convince people in an argument.  They are essentially logical appeal, credibility appeal, and emotional appeal.  These are very complex subjects that are repeatedly studied throughout middle school, high school, and college.  However, the commentators do not understand that the fundamental understanding of these complex concepts must begin early.  Since the commentators do not seem to have an education background, they have not experienced the problems that occur later when this ground work is not laid.  An effective elementary teacher is able to teach a very basic understanding of these concepts.

The commentators have ignored the value of recognizing how someone is manipulating you in favor of focusing on the fact that we are equipping 1st graders with tools to manipulate.  A six-year-old has already experienced manipulation using all three types of appeal: in video and/or print advertisements, in overhearing an argument between their parents or other adults, or by engaging in an argument themselves.  It is imperative that students begin to understand how peer pressure works (usually a combination of all three, but typically lots of logical and emotional appeal) and how to avoid failing prey to it.

The commentators take issue with the example of arguing with their parents.  My gut instinct is that the reason parents were chosen is that they were looking for an authority figure that a child may feel comfortable arguing with, and it’s pretty safe to assume that each child has at least one parent (or guardian).  But I think the bigger problem is if you are worried that we are teaching six-year-olds how to argue back to their parents instead of simply obeying and doing as their told without incident…perhaps you need to re-evaluate your parenting style.  I mean..if you can be outsmarted or outargued by a six-year-old…then you probably have not taught your kids WHY you want them to do something, which is just as important as the WHAT.  Why don’t we want to equip our children as early as we can with the weapon of words instead of the weapon of fists?  Why do we want to enforce blind obedience, but then wonder why kids aren’t thinking for themselves?

The commentators fall victim to the exact “problems” they criticize in the teacher’s guidebook.  The commentators emphasize and pause on certain words to elicit an emotional response from the viewer.  They are trying to convince the viewers that this guidebook is indoctrinating students by using their “authority” as a parent of a six year old, emphasizing emotional words, and trying to insert sarcastic commentary as part of their emotional appeal.  The end goal of this video was not to objectively review the Common Core approved, curriculum guidebook for 1st grade in the state of Utah, but it was to stir up emotions and fuel rage-filled comments.

Broadening Reading Horizons

I have a young tutoring student this summer who devours books above her reading level at speeds even I struggle to maintain.  It was quickly apparent that one of our goals, a reading workbook, was far too easy, despite it being for the grade she will be in this fall.

I realized I needed to approach reading exploration from another angle.  I did not want to give her long books in tiny print that may be at her reading level but have content that may not be suited for an elementary mind.

I came up with a project that I titled “Broaden Your Horizons” that still allowed her choose books that interested her, pulled in some interests of the Common Core standards, challenged her a bit, and were appropriate for her age.  I wrote a list of criteria that any book choice needs to adhere to one or more of the criteria.  Here’s the list:

  • 2 general fiction novels
  • 1 graphic novel
  • 2 non-fiction books — 1 biography & 1 true story (“based on a true story” ok)
  • 1 anthology
  • 1 book you think might be a little too hard
  • 1 book from the Choose Your Own Adventure series
  • 1 book from the Best American Series (any year, any type—short stories, essays, science and nature writing, nonrequired reading, sports writing, magazine writing, science writing, mystery stories, travel writing, etc.)
  • 1 book from the Myth-O-Mania series
  • 1 book from the Dear America series
  • 1 book you don’t think you’d like but seems like a book you might like
  • 1 book where there is a movie version—must watch the movie after reading the book and write 2-3 paragraphs about the similarities and differences between the two.

I had no problem explaining what an “anthology” was or why I picked these criteria.  We discussed the list to make sure she was comfortable with the list.  I told her books could count in more than one category, so for instance one of the books in a series could be a book she doesn’t think she’d like but it seems like she might.  I also gave her a list of questions to pick from and write a couple of sentences each day she reads in a reading journal.  I want her to think about the text, but not write a paper.

Here’s the part that stunned me: she had never heard of Choose Your Own Adventure books.  I only had 2 left from childhood because I had so many of them my mom said, “choose two to keep and the rest we’ll donate to other kids to read”.  My tutoring student loves playing Minecraft and other non-linear video games and had no idea that there was a book, let alone a series, that functioned in a non-linear form.  I had Hyperspace and Journey to the Year 3000 that I told her she could borrow.  She asked if she could practice reading aloud and start reading in tutoring instead of waiting until later.  Of course I said yes!

I specifically chose the Choose Your Own Adventure series to have her read a non-linear book.  I was taken aback by her excitement for the non-linear format.  She was able to interact with a book…something she knew to be linear and unchanging.  It was just like a video game…with words.

The entire point of my project idea was to show her different formats for content: a diary format, a non-linear format, and graphic novel format (which are different from comic books), as well as broaden her reading horizons to realize there are other types of books besides textbooks and fiction/”chapter books”.  I succeeded on my first day of the project and I cannot wait to see her broaden her reading horizons.

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Wikipedia: How to Use It in the Classroom

You really should use Wikipedia in the classroom.


Wikipedia should not be the website version of “he who shall not be named”.  It is widely known that telling someone not to do something only fuels the desire to want to do the “forbidden” behavior.  So, if we don’t want students to use Wikipedia for research because it is inaccurate, we cannot simply tell students to stay away.  We have to show them.  We have to have them do something with Wikipedia for them to realize its potential and its weaknesses.

There are several ways teachers can show students the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia.  The first is a scavenger hunt.  It may take some time to develop the worksheet of inaccuracies; however, it will teach students lessons about Wikipedia far quicker than you can telling them.  You can find which pages have inaccuracies by asking Twitter followers, Googling “inaccuracy examples of Wikipedia” or something similar, or by the old-fashioned reading and checking.

The first part of the hunt should have students working (individually) searching Wikipedia for the answers to questions (but they don’t know the answers are inaccurate yet!).  The next day, after collecting the Wikipedia worksheet, hand out another worksheet with the same questions, only the students cannot use Wikipedia; they must find another source.  You can give them a list of specific main sites to pick from to ensure accuracy.  The next day, pass back the Wikipedia worksheet and discuss why/how come there are differences.  A variation on this scavenger hunt could require students to search an obscure topic in which the Wikipedia page and its references are the jumping off point for the questions.

Other ideas come from an article, “How To: Use Wikipedia in the Classroom Responsibly” by Adam Heckler (@adamvartek) on Fractus Learning; it was published on May 13, 2013.

  1. Learn the Rules
  2. Create an Assignment
  3. Choose an Article
  4. Edit, Edit, and Edit
  5. Evaluate Student Work

Learn the Rules – Despite what you make think, Wikipedia isn’t a free-for-all.  They have rules, listed on their Key Policies and Guidelines page.  Heckler sums them up:

  • Free content: All content submitted to Wikipedia must be original, since it will become part of the commons. Copying and pasting from other sources is a no-no.
  • Reliable sources: Third-party sources are required for all claims. They need to have a sturdy reputation for fact-checking and accuracy (e.g., academic journals).
  • NPOV: Short for neutral point of view, this means that all articles should be written without bias. Argumentative stances and outright advocacy are not allowed.
  • Good faith: Respect your fellow editors, and assume they’re acting in good faith. That is, avoid accusing others of deliberate malice just because you disagree.
  • Notability: When deciding whether or not to write about a certain topic, Wikipedia generally considers an article justified if the topic has been covered by a third-party.

Create an Assignment – Since Wikipedia is “riddled with mistakes”  and pretty much anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry…why not teach students how to use a wiki by copy-editing inaccurate Wikipedia entries rather than creating some fictitious wiki that will be abandoned after the class finishes?  Working on an assignment for Wikipedia is an obvious, real-world connection students can see and do right now.  They are contributing to finding accurate information, deleting inaccurate information, adding to the wealth of common knowledge, and can pick any topic they find interesting.  Teachers can even have students present their edited entries to the class to practice speaking and listening skills as well.

Have a student who is bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual?  Awesome!  There are an abundance of articles that need to be translated.  Wikipedia has a list of articles that need to be translated from a foreign language to English and a list of articles that have been translated…but not very well and need some cleaning up.  Have students who can’t seem to put their phone down because they are taking pictures and video for their Instagram or Vines?  There are many articles that need media created.  Give them a photo or video assignment.

If you need direction on which articles to pick, Wikipedia has lists of articles that need photos, need videos, and need copy editing.  Don’t forget Wikipedia has a guide to assist students with the copy editing process.

Okay–so once you’ve narrowed down your topic or focus, how do you pick a “good article” to edit?  Heckler has some great pointers:

  • Start with “stub” articles. Stubs are articles that are too short to be fully encyclopedic. You can find a list of them at this link. There are thousands of stubs, so your students should have no problem finding something to improve.
  • Progress to start-class articles. These articles are little more than stubs, but could also use a significant amount of work.
  • Try finding subjects that students know a lot about but that don’t have lengthy articles on Wikipedia yet. This helps them create new pages at length.

What to avoid:

  • Editing articles that are rated as “Featured” or another higher rating class. These kinds of pages are more difficult to improve effectively for inexperienced editors.
  • Editing articles on controversial subjects. Just use common sense!
  • Creating articles on topics not often covered by third-party literature.

Type of Writing – Make sure to remind students that Wikipedia entries are factual and unbiased.  They may be tempted or default to writing persuasively, so it is important to let them work on their own, but help point out something that is too persuasive.

Evaluate – There are a multitude of evaluation methods that can be used.  My favorite is having a rubric in which I can circle the grade (not just 1-5, but explanations of what 1-5 mean and the differences between each number) to assist in a quick evaluation during a short presentation to the class [read more about rubrics].  The presentation would include displaying the final product, the process/methods the student used, areas of issues/problems/trouble, areas of “genius moments” and a reflective statement on what the student would do differently next time.  The student would also hand in a 1-2 page reflection essay with this information written down so I can review it later when I have more time.

Wikipedia has several great uses in the classroom.  It may not be the end-all-be-all for research because of the high probability of incorrect information; however, Wikipedia can only get better with more edits, more media, and more translations.  It seems silly to have students create a class wiki about nothing that will be discarded after the end of the term.  From what I’ve read so far, the Common Core desires real-life connections, solving real-world issues, focusing on speaking and learning, writing informative text, and reading more non-fiction texts.  Using Wikipedia in the classroom, checks all those boxes.

“Are we creating scavengers or readers?”

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of questions at the end of the chapter or even a worksheet of questions to answer as you read the selection. From a student’s perspective, they love them because they think–“Jackpot! I don’t have to read, I just have to answer the questions.” So they scan. They find the answer to the question. And even then, if they cannot find it within a couple minutes or it’s not blatantly obvious because it’s not bolded–they give up and claim, “it’s not in the book” or “I couldn’t find it in the book so I skipped it.”

I’m not sure at what point in a person’s education that the the desire to do as little as possible came to be. Perhaps, it is because schooling is legally mandated until the age of 16 (at least in the USA). Students view their education as something forced upon them rather than something they chose to do. Days, months, and even years of a student’s life is consumed with studying and memorizing information through classes upon classes that do not interest them, seem to have no connection to the real world (or more importantly, their real world) or because they are told they “have to” learn it. And when people are confronted with something they do not want to do, they will take the path of least resistance around it.

Perhaps the path of least resistance developed out of necessity. Students are overwhelmed with academic pressures, societal pressures, family obligations, and personal desires. Prioritizing is the only way students are able to (somewhat) handle all these pressures. Some people choose academics. Some choose family. Some choose society. Some choose personal desires. Once a priority ranking is established, students then try to cope with “getting through” the other pressures, rather than try to balance them. Skimming text is one such technique. And while skimming has it’s uses, students have abandoned reading for understanding in favor of skimming. They find the answer, but have no idea what’s going on.

Fred Ende recently published an article on SmartBlogs (SmartBlog on Education) titled, “Are we creating scavengers or readers?” He makes several good points about the scavenging method of reading versus reading for comprehension.

Brief Intermission: For those of you unfamiliar with the “scavenger” method of “reading,” it basically works like this:

  1. Read questions given to be answered.
  2. Seek location in informational text or literature where this answer might be located.
  3. Find keywords and/or “giveaways” in text material.
  4. Write answer down without reading for context or deeper understanding.

Notice that this approach doesn’t actually involve any “reading.” For lack of a better characterization, it’s not good.

Ende also points out that one of the Common Core’s goals is to remedy the issue of skimming versus reading for understanding by requiring students “supply evidence” from the text. However, Ende makes clear that “supplying evidence” doesn’t always yield in complete comprehension.

Seemingly, the Common Core State Standards (or Common Core Learning Standards here in New York) should address these concerns. And maybe, on some level, they do. However, when students are asked to “supply evidence from the text” on an assessment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that students will understand, or even consider, what was read. “Supplying” something is much less intensive than “explaining,” and much, much less intensive than “creating.” Yet, much of the sample and real questions I’ve seen ask students to respond to a prompt by supplying (or “using;” whatever that means) evidence from the text. Even local assessments that our districts are creating appeal to students to “find” evidence, without necessarily encouraging them to “think” about it.

“Scavenging” for information has several good uses. It is beneficial when trying to review a large amount of text to determine if it warrants further, more in-depth reading/analysis. Unfortunately, the skill of scavenging has been taught and reinforced year after year under the guise of “understanding”.

I do not know if Common Core will be the push to separate scavenging for answers and reading for comprehension. But I do know this: I will be the push to separate the two in my classroom. It may take me a few tries to word the questions correctly and to teach the difference. I will provide opportunities for students to hone both skills. I will not “produce” scavenger-only type readers. Why? Because that is the change I can make.

New: An In-Depth Look at Standards


The word itself can just irk a teacher, a parent, a school administrator, a lawmaker, a member of the general public, or even a student.  It’s like politics and religion…it’s important and it’s there, but you want to tread lightly until you know you are in similar company of your own beliefs.

As a member of the next generation of teachers, I have opinions about standards.  I have evidence from my personal time as a student, evidence from my master’s level coursework, evidence from what I read in reputable publications, and evidence from field work.

However, I’m not going to use this blog to preach my opinions.  In the coming weeks and months, perhaps even years, I’m going to explore the concept of “standards”.  I’m not going to evaluate a standards method because, well, I don’t have enough field experience to be very authoritative on the subject.

The way I look at is this: the more precise our understanding of what we want students to know and to be capable of demonstrating (our objectives), the more precise we can be in our method to achieve those objectives.

We need to explore where education has been, where it is now, and where we want it to go.  We cannot just simply look forwards and pretend the past did not exist or look upon our past educational strategies with disgust.  Additionally, we cannot openly judge that which we do not know or understand.  How can people who do not understand the standards judge them?

Let’s get to know them.  Let’s explore why we have standards.  Let’s explore what standards mean.  Let’s explore what standards don’t mean.  Let’s give the standards one fair shot to argue their case before we become the judge, jury, and executioner of its content.

Exploring standards is part of “progressing education” and the use of technology in education.  This blog will not change focus, it will just add depth with a new category of posts.  There will still be technology reviews, infographics, articles, book reviews, guest posts, and more.

Common Core State Standards

I became a teacher because I upon reflection of any class I took I thought, “I could have taught it better.”  I had more creative ideas, more analogies that connected the material to those who didn’t understand it, and more often than not, classmates sought me out to explain the material to them.  I enjoyed tutoring my classmates.  Some times, I even preferred tutoring to the actual class, the textbook, or even the material.  Seeing that moment when the person makes the final connection, the leap between confusion to clarity, made all hours of frustration worth it.  Those moments are what drive me.

To me, learning is all about the concepts, not the content.  In fact, after a certain point in teaching English/Language Arts (about middle school), the content in an ELA class becomes irrelevant.  Why should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird instead of Diary of Anne Frank or a play by Shakespeare?  It all depends on what concept I need to teach.  Different pieces of literature highlight different concepts.  Why is a “classic” better than The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?  There are different reading levels, sure, but whichever book will help students understand the concept the best is the most important thing.  Why should I try to force Of Mice and Men or The Great Gatsby down someone’s throat if I feel there is another book that can teach the same concepts that are presented in those books?

The hard truth is that I should be teaching concepts and skills, not literature.  And this is exactly what the Common Core State Standards advocates.  I should not teach something just because I’ve taught it for the last five years.  I should teach it because it is connecting students to a concept or skill that will benefit their future.  Once students learn a concept or skill inside and out, up and down, left to right, “100 ways to Sunday”, then they can apply that conceptual knowledge or skill to standardized testing.  Standardized testing requires deduction, for example, the concept “use of source material” can be taught using numerous texts.  Understanding this concept will enable people to detect analogies or an author’s bias in other written or spoken pieces.  The concept strengthens arguments as well as fuels counterarguments.  You don’t need to memorize content, you need to fully understand concepts.  Content simply provides context and ample examples to teach concepts and skills.

We do live in an age of “Testing…K…1…2…3…” and leading students down what seems to be a narrow focus of college and careers that forces us to ask: “are we teaching citizens or automatons?”  But here’s the thing…what other option is there that is not encompassed by “college” or “career”?  Military?  Career.  Fast Food Burger Flipper?  Career.  Pre-med? College.  World traveler? College.  College and career fit well as the two choices because of the alliteration of the two words (a concept learned in English/Language Arts).

“College” just means any learning environment.  It could be a 4-year university, a community college, or a vocational trading school.  Traveling can teach you things you can’t learn in a classroom.  So can on-the-job training.  Which leads me to “career”.  Here, “career” means any type of employment.  It doesn’t need to be middle-management, CEO, doctor, or lawyer.  A job is what you do today, but a career is a series of jobs that are somewhat planned out or occurred serendipitously.  Employment or learning environment.  Education is about empowering people to learn and do something positive and productive with their life.

The (free) public school system exists based on the idea that if people pay taxes to support education now, they are investing in the future of the world.  Of course we want to set the bar high with words that empower people to greater heights than they previously thought they could achieve.

Re-vamping the education system takes time.  It will make great strides forward and a few steps back.  But as the cliché goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Revolution starts somewhere.  Education revolution starts with me.  I may not be able to change the whole system, but I will change the lives of my students.  And for me, that is exactly what I want to do.