Uncovering the”Theme” of Reading Instruction in Schools

parcc test theme

Within a week of starting this school year, junior high students spent about four days taking a reading test (MAP, Measures of Academic Progress) on our new Chromebooks. It took four days, in part, because we had wi-fi problems causing the computer-based test to stall or shutdown and, in part, because the MAP test is not a timed test. Some students finished the 40-ish question reading test in 15 minutes and some took 80. All the new books I had added to our classroom library looked beautiful on the bookshelves, but I was anxious to get those books into the hands of readers.

As I walked around the test-takers in my role as “proctor,” I spied questions about main idea, summary, and theme (some frozen on the screen because of said wi-fi issue) and found myself “taking” the test alongside the students. I thought about how students understood the word “theme” in relation to their own reading experiences — if they did.

parcc test theme


A few weeks later, the eighth grade students were days away from taking their high school placement test — that’s right, they were taking a test in October of 8th grade to determine their classes (track) for high school.  The local high school had, in past years, used the EXPLORE test, but this year, they were using the PSAT to make decisions about the incoming freshman. A few days before the test, I decided to teach a few test-taking strategies and look at an excerpt from the practice reading test so that students would feel more comfortable with the format and get a sense of time management. On the day of the test, they would read five passages and answer 47 questions in 60 minutes, but we just read one passage and practiced answering nine questions in about 12 minutes. It was an excerpt from Jane Austen’s Emma. 


In just the first month of school, I was more of a test proctor than a reading teacher. I was keenly aware that I was being the sort of reading teacher schools seem to want us to be. Schools make very important decisions about students based on high stakes tests results; they often fail to consider the students taking the tests and how such tests impact a student’s relationship with reading.

As people who learned to read in the era of No Child Left Behind, our students are quite adept at test taking. They know that the test wants them to find the “best” answer, so they scan the passage and perform “process of elimination.” Or they know that the test does not care about who they are or what they want to become, so they may just bubble in any answer to rebel or to surrender. When it comes to reading in English class, they may also see reading as something that is just for school; they no longer see books as an escape, a mirror, a window, or a door into becoming.

Of course, it is important to know if a student can understand what is happening in a text — the where, when, who, and what — so that we can get at the deeper meaning and craft, but how English teachers approach terms like “summary” and “theme” has implications for a student’s relationship with reading. If the test is to measure what a student knows and can do rather than how a student feels about reading or school, then we have to care about students’ feelings about reading. Reading for school and reading for life are intertwined, but “reading for school” can choke “reading for life.”

Think about the lessons and tests you’ve created for standards related to “summary” and “theme.” Did you design the lesson with some high stakes test like MAP, PARCC, and PSAT in mind? Did you consider how the way you talk about and teach what happens in a novel (summary) and what it is about (subjects/ideas) and what the narrative is “saying”(theme) situates the reader to read in certain ways that might help or hurt the way they see themselves as readers, as students, as people.

I’m glad to say that once we all got through the first month of school, my students finally got their hands on the new books. There’s nothing more beautiful than empty book shelves and teenage hands holding said books. (I bet all English teachers are most happy when they are talking about books with their students.) We talked about what was going on in the books every day in our reading conferences, and students wrote about the topics the books explored as well as what the narrative “said” about those topics in relation to humanity. This is summary and theme. Sometimes we did say, “Can you give me a quick summary?” or “What was the theme?” These words were in the service of comprehension but also in the service of communication, processing, reflecting, and comparing our reading experiences.

I do think about how our reading workshop supports students in “meeting” the learning standards, and I do think about how or whether our conversations about books can help students’ stamina and confidence with high stakes tests, but I have to say that our NCLB-trained students still love a good story, can get lost in a book, and know that a reading class does not have to be about reading “for answers.”

I wish our high school would have the time and resources to meet the people they are placing into this English class or that;I wish our high school would make decisions about our students based on portfolios of learning (see below).

For now, schools are still counting on tests to make decisions about students and their teachers, so English teachers must find ways to navigate the terms of reading.

In closing, I’ll say that there are so many English teachers out there finding meaningful ways to navigate the testing culture of our schools and nurture students’ reading lives.These teachers know what reading does for humanity because they are readers, and they bring their reading lives into their classrooms. If we live too much in the testing culture of reading, we can lose sight of what real readers think about and do. I asked some of my teacher-friends and reader-friends on Facebook what they do when they’re finished reading a book. I want to hold tight to these responses so that when our students are finally finished with schools, their reading life is still alive:


I don’t use the word “theme” in my own reading or discussion of reading. I am, however, always thinking about what questions this book or story is asking and seeking answers to. When I read, I do look for those wise phrases or discoveries of the character (which in YA literature usually come from some older character). I summarize a book to entice others to read it, not to demonstrate I read it.

As I think about the second quarter the school year, I want to be always conscious of how I am navigating the teaching of reading for schools and the teaching of readers for life — always intertwined, I don’t want to be complicit in choking the life out of reading.

“Democracy” in ELA: What do 8th graders have to say?


10989499_10206178764841400_5114818668485493084_oI took this picture on the beach of Gulf Shores, Alabama as I waded in and out of the waves trying to get nice pic.  We had just driven south from Chicago through towns displaying the Confederate flag, and, in light of recent Supreme Court rulings, the waves made me think about how democracy is a lot like those waves: ever-changing — sometimes powerful, sometimes calm, beautiful and yet capable of great trauma.

Ethical teaching practices in ELA is, in my view, anchored in democratic principles.  I think , however, that schools tend to see democracy as one dimensional and static, as something we’ve already achieved. If we can illuminate the hidden dimensions of democracy and see it as dynamic and capable of change, we might get closer to what  “ought” to be happening in classrooms: preparing students to make our world more sustainable, more peaceful, and more just. I know that ELA teachers are just the right people for this job.

One way of thinking about democracy is to say that it is already in place. We have voting, a market economy, property rights, free education, and we value meritocracy (e.g., that if you work hard, you can succeed). However, there is a darker dimension to this, one that has made it financially impossible for an average citizen to run for office, one that has halted class mobility, increased poverty, and perpetuated racial segregation in our towns and schools. What I want to call attention to is this dimension of democracy, this darker side lurking and even undermining the potential of schools to trouble the status quo and promote a more just, equal, and peaceful society.

Discourse of Measurement

I became a teacher in 2004, one year after No Child Left Behind was implemented. (See my post on my first year teaching.) Its social force was in full effect to promote equality in education. Here is a list of phrases and ideas that drove education and sort of high-jacked (harsh?) the way we talked about our love of reading and writing with students (perhaps you can add others):

  • Standards based education reform
  • Measurable goals
  • Assessments in basic skills
  • Standardized test
  • Adequate yearly progress
  • Data-driven instruction
  • Scientifically based research practices
  • Test prep

This language shifted the discourse in the ELA classroom from talk about books, stories, and writing to talk about goals, objectives, and scores, i.e., a discourse of measurement. The rhetoric of education reform was such that “good” teaching meant that we had measurable objectives for improved achievement, and if schools “failed,” then schools (and teachers)  would be labeled and targeted for increased accountability. The rhetoric was such that no child would be left behind and that this reform was in line with our democratic values of equity and justice, but that was just rhetoric.

My school district is K-8. As an eighth grade teacher, I am the last English teacher our students have before going on to high school, and I have seen the result of eight years of learning English with a measurement discourse. Eight years of measurement, accountability, and AYP. The eighth grade students in my English class last year spent all their schooling years in this discourse of measurement. With a population of about 76 students, 68 percent are low income, and this is in a suburb of Chicago. My school did not make AYP in 2005, 2008, 2012, nor 2013. In fact, last year 50% of the students did not meet or exceed on the state test.

These numbers weigh on our administrators; numbers cause waves of panic in the halls of our schools and create a tide that pulls down all the good work our teachers do. But after a decade of this measurement talk, we also have increasing numbers of students hospitalized for various manifestations of depression. Now, failing test scores are one thing, but the increasing disengagement with life is even more concerning. What are we teaching about education to our students?

What has NCLB taught students to believe about ELA and education? 

During the first month of the school year, I invite my students to take an informal survey on Google forms  to get a sense of their beliefs about reading, writing, school, and just being a student.  In addition, I ask them about what it means to be a citizen (a word we throw around a lot but is tough to define), what they think the world needs, and what they want to learn in school.  The response boxes were left open to invite narrative responses. Here are results from last year’s survey.

student survey

Survey Results

On the question of why we read, some common responses included the following: to learn vocabulary, to read faster, to learn spelling, to apply for a job, to work on grammar, for comprehension, to speak and read fluently, and to explore different genres.  One student wrote: “…to learn how to read certain materials that will later turn into techniques that we will need later in life. For example, to apply for a job or to help our future kids with their homework.”

On the question of writing, the responses were mostly skill-based, and the words “proper” and “correctly” came up most frequently. Here is one representative excerpt: “Writing class is important because for every job you apply to you will need to write. Any paperwork you fill out you will need to know how  to spell and how to put words into sentences correctly.”

As for what makes a good student, the words that came up in their responses were homework, good grades, on time, pay attention, best work, doesn’t get in trouble.  One student wrote: “If one student wants to apply to a certain college, they will look at his or her grades and compare those grades to another student and see which one was more involved and wasn’t lazy and actually put in the effort to get good grades.”

On the question of education,  “success,”“future,” and “knowledge” came up a few times, but mostly, students talked about education helping them prepare for jobs. One student said, “With all the advanced jobs in engineering, doctors, business people and etc., children need to slowly learn the education skills and more advanced skills learned in college to be able to qualify for the specific job.”

After looking at these three categories, it seemed to me that students were seeing the work they had done in K-7 (this survey was given at the start of eighth grade) as preparing them to get good grades, go to college, and get jobs (for the most part). Are these responses what you expected? Is this what we want students to think and believe about ELA and education? Before I respond, let’s look at some other responses.

So when they got to questions about citizenship, the language was a little different. The words that came up most frequently were these: volunteering, helping, community, contributing, being a member. And then some students used language of belonging:  living in a place, having papers, and legally belonging. This language of belonging is not surprising because so many of the students in our school were not born in the U.S. and are not “citizens” in the legal sense.

Looking at the survey results, the way these students talked about reading, writing, and grades in school seems to be related to democracy in the sense of the market and meritocracy whereas with citizenship they talked about something more qualitative, more communal.

I added a question about what sort of hopes students had for their world in order to see if I could get a sense of what ideas or actions they thought we “ought” to be working toward. Here there was dramatic shift in discourse, and they had a lot more to say:

I don’t know what the world needs, but I do know the problems are racism, power, and money.

We need love. Lots and lots of love, understanding , giving, care, and all that sappy crap. We need to bring the peace everyone makes fun of because they think it’s not real and too hipster.

I don’t honestly see the world joining together to become one big continent anytime soon so the best we can do is to not interfere with each other’s problems at all unless of course it effects us and otherwise keep our trade/industry business going as it was.

Finally, here is what students wrote when I asked them what they wanted to learn this year: “Everything”;” …the world around us and how little by little we can help make it a better place.”; “We should learn about psychology.”; “We should not be reviewing how to throw a ball in gym.”; “…how to be great in life.”; “about the world and what has happened in the past and what is really happening in the world.”

It seems to me that when talking about education and ELA students were using the discourse of measurement from NCLB – skills and achievement. Maybe they were writing what they thought I wanted to hear. I can’t be sure, but their responses about education (about getting a job) seem disconnected from their concerns about the world.

This survey does not attempt to indicate any sort of causality necessarily, and it does not account for the vastness of teachers and even students’ home environments. I simply wanted to know how students talked about my subject and what they thought they would be doing in my class 80 minutes a day for 170 days together. When I think about the rhetoric students are espousing here, I can’t help but be troubled by it.

What do we want students to say about their ELA education? 

First, it is disheartening for me, as an ELA teacher (and teacher of other teachers) to read what these twelve and thirteen year olds think about our discipline. I worry about how they’ve come to understand the purpose of reading, of writing, and what it means to be a “good” student. Very few (though there are some) pre-service and in-service teachers say they want to teach English so that their students can write a resume or learn vocabulary, right? I want students to discover the power of literature, to develop empathy, to use writing to make sense of the world, to create, to connect, to understand? What do you want your students to say and believe about ELA?

Second, looking at the context in which students are learning and living,  I have to consider the discrepancy between what the students say they are learning and preparing for and what is actually awaiting them.  Remember, 70% are low income, and for most, this is generational poverty rather than the result of the economic downturn.  So, what sort of world are these students entering? What will be their place in that world? If we look at the numbers coming out of this rhetoric of schooling — this message that skills-based instruction, testing, and accountability leads to achievement—we see nothing short of failure. The test scores, the joblessness, the poverty, the hospitalizations tell a different story. The democracy schools espouse is not the democracy they live, and kids are being left behind.

This narrative that education reform is spinning is full of gaps and flawed logic.  I think students know this, which might be why test scores are down and there is a lack of engagement with the possibility of reading and writing (at least in my school). Some students, I think, are being quite subversive (i.e., not taking high stake tests seriously, defying school rules), which can be infuriating, but it is also sort of beautiful.  Those students who click through the MAP test or day dream during the Common Core — they know. They know numbers don’t define them. They won’t write for the state. In spite of all the good work teachers do to know their students, develop engaging lessons, and show they care,  I think many students in are skeptical of schooling, which is hopeful but not necessarily healthy unless they are invited to use that skepticism for critical awareness or intelligent social action.

What am I working up to here? This year schools rolled out a new reform era:the Common Core Standards with PARCC and Smart Balance tests, too. This is not to say that NCLB is gone. In fact, many schools are still required to offer school choice for not making AYP. Nevertheless, the students who enter kindergarten this year will be at the beginning of another (re)form of schools (albeit one with the same market-driven meritocracy). What will be the outcome eight years from now? What will we hear the voices of future eighth graders say after their Common Core-driven schooling (if CCSS makes it that long). And as schools are thinking about curricula, lesson plans, and the sort of habits of mind they will purport, I am wondering what teachers can do to change these survey results (and if they even want to).

In my view, what is missing from the national reform movement, from these standards,  and from any discussions across the U.S.  in this first year of implementing these new standards is any discussion of democracy.

deweyRedefining Democracy and Thus the Role of the ELA Teacher

According to John Dewey, the sort of democracy our world needs is not in place. It is a thought system that has yet to arrive because it is ever-changing. Dewey wrote that “the greatest mistake we can make about democracy is to conceive of it as something fixed…democracy, in order to live must change and move.”

How can ELA teachers mediate the policies that are narrowing the potential of our citizenry and  put “democracy,” a more dynamic democracy, back into the curriculum? I think we have to illuminate the shades of democracy within our classrooms and teach students to make waves, to move democracy. John Dewey writes:

Only as schools provide an understanding of the movement and direction of the social forces and an understanding of the social needs and the resources that may be used to satisfy them will they meet the challenge of democracy.

Education, in my view,  is about being skeptical of democracy, for we have seen the darker side. We have seen the consequences of inequality and social exclusion in hate crimes and genocide.

Our greatest hope for a just society is our students, our youngest citizens, but they are not going to get to understanding of social needs if they think education is about knowledge and skill accumulation.

Re-making the ELA Classroom

Who better than English teachers to make visible this complex narrative of democracy and to teach about social forces? This is what we do. This is what literature is. This is what writing does. We read into the gaps of a narrative and call attention to flaws in logic. We select and share stories and poetry that illuminate the human condition. We analyze how a text works on its readers and advances an idea. And we write for all the same reasons. We can lead this new era of reform.

Our students want school to be about something more that achievement. They want to know about the world and be able to “little by little help make it better.” Such is the remaking of education so that we can see our students as citizens of the world rather than merely job seekers. 

I will not present to you a list of steps or guidelines to re-imagine the English classroom because I am not sure how I want students’ answer the question: What is the purpose of English?  But I do know that I want it to be something more than vocabulary and resume writing.

Next week, I will post some ideas I’ve tried, but I would like to hear from you. How do you work to encourage students to talk about ELA in more qualitative terms and to think about how reading and writing might enlighten the darker dimensions of democracy? What do you think about teaching students to be skeptical of “democracy” or, as one student wrote, to teach how to love? Is the ELA classroom a place to teach students to make waves in their education?

Hope (and Golf) in the Time of PARCC



After the third day of PARCC testing (the third of twelve), I decided to leave work “early” — which means 4:00 pm. Feeling exhausted and dreaming of the peanut butter Snickers bar in the cupboard, I drove home. After parking, I slung my gym and school bags over my shoulders, grabbed the mail, and walked three flights of stairs up to my apartment, which I share with my husband. As I walked into the kitchen to grab that Snickers, I saw a box of golf balls (pictured above) resting on the counter. I smiled. And then I thought: Yes, he finally has hope.

Over a year ago, my husband had total shoulder replacement surgery. After twenty years of almost no mobility in his left arm, he was finally old enough and ready for this really invasive procedure. He was told that in six months he’d be playing golf. It worked pretty well, but my husband had developed a great deal of scar tissue, which needed to be treated surgically.  Determined to play golf last summer, he put off the second surgery and suffered through his annual guys’ golf trip last summer but then did not play again because of the pain.  This winter, my husband had that second surgery and began physical therapy the next day. Now, he goes to physical therapy three times a week. We spend our evenings with ice packs and ibuprofen (and a few groans and whines of pain). Last night, however, my husband looked in the mirror with disgust at how his chest and shoulder muscles have atrophied, and we both wondered if he’d ever be “strong” again.

But today, I saw this box of golf balls on the kitchen counter — a sign of hope that he believes (or has to believe) that he will play golf again even if these are not the top-of-the-line golf balls. My husband said, “It makes it less painful to lose a ball that costs twenty cents than one that costs one or two dollars.” (So it’s hope with a side of realism, yes?)

Hope in a Time of Testing

In this season of testing, teachers can easily sink into disillusionment with our institution. We may feel that the federal government, state, school, and principals are “doing this to us” or “putting students through this,” see the injustices of many hours of testing and less instruction, and believe we have no recourse. We may look in the mirror and see our teaching muscles atrophying. However, we forget that we are part of the institution and can shape its structures. For me, that means taking this opportunity to visit the classrooms of my colleagues, see my students in different settings, and, above all, notice the hope around me.

The purpose of this post is to share a moment that gave me hope this week, a moment from the classroom – not that the golf balls didn’t give me hope, too.  This post is written in the “hopes” that you will share a hope moment with Ethical ELA. Can’t we all use a little hope?

Ashley and the Ode

Ode to My SocksLast week, two students gave a presentation on the ode form with the help of Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks.” Afterward, we brainstormed lists of things we use everyday and perhaps take for granted that we can praise in ode to express our gratitude for/to it. This was fun, but it was before PARCC, so it is not my hope moment.

The hope moment came when, after the first round of testing, half of my eighth period reading students arrived without their novels (the schedule change threw them off),  and one after the next walked out of class to get her book. The door clicking open and then slamming shut repeatedly was just about to fray my last nerve when one girl called me over to show me an ode in her book.

Now this precious student is one who, well, I think fake reads from time to time. I rarely see her getting into the flow during our quiet reading time, so I was surprised to see she was on page thirty of The Clay Marble  by Minfong Ho. Clay Marble“Dr. Donovan, I see an ode in my book,” said Ashley sitting on the class ottoman (gifted by my sister) with her book in hand and a pile of sticky notes.

Last week, she told me that did not want to read in a book group this time and asked if I could just be her partner during discussion time. I totally forgot that I agreed to this and had not re-read this book as I promised. I did not recall if this was a novel in verse and was confused by Ashley’s comment about the ode.

“What? What do you mean? Is there a poem in your book?” I asked kneeling down to get a closer look.

Sure enough it was not a book in verse, so I was worried that Ashley misunderstood our lesson on odes, but I asked her to read the passage to me.

I lifted a spoonful of rice and ate it. I thought about what a wonderful thing it is to eat rice. First you let the smell drift up in lazy spirals, sweet and elusive; then you look at the color of it, softer and whiter than the surrounding steam. Carefully you put a spoonful of it in your mouth, and feel each grain separate on your tongue, firm and warm. Then you taste it — the rich yet delicate sweetness of it. How different it was from that gritty red rice we’d been rationed to the last three years, gruel so bland and watery that it slipped right down your throat before you could taste it. No, this was real rice, whole moist grains I could chew and savor.

“See?” she said confidently. “Rice. All that description for rice. It is an ode to rice. That rice is precious — like the socks. Right?”

“Yes, Ashley, yes, it is.”


(And then I put a copy of The Clay Marble in my book bag.)

Please Share 

After this moment with Ashley, I was able to look for, see, and embrace many more moments of hope at times when the heat of the day, stress of the schedule, and sheer absurdity of it all was weighing on us. I am sure you have or can find a hope moment to share with us. Yes? We certainly need it.

Snap if You Hear Me

Students sharing poetry.
Students sharing poetry.


Colleen stood up. A quiet kid who was easily swayed off-task by more extraverted students, Colleen loved to have side conversations with me about life. She was always curious about what we were learning and why, and she was ready to share her poem.

“Okay, so this is a cento,” explained Colleen. “I borrowed lines from other poems to make this one about how some pain can never be replaced or forgotten: This is a woman’s confession:/She lived unknown, and few could/ Know when/Pain froze you, for years- and fear-leaving scars…”

It was beautiful and haunting, and I could hear her trying out techniques like hyperbole. Pain cannot freeze you forever, but it sure seems like at times. We had been reading about testimony and writing our own personal narratives, and while I know her cento was inspired by Wordsworth, in part, I couldn’t help thinking about the pain I’ve heard in so much of my students’ writing.

“Mrs. Donovan.” It was my turn. Colleen gave me an apologetic look being the one to call me out of my comfy and safe seat to share my own poem.

Every Friday, our eighth grade English classroom becomes EspressoSelf Café. We hang up white “twinkle” lights, turn down the lights, pass out cookies, and set out “the cup.” I pull the first name from the cup, and a poet comes to the front of the room to speak his or her verse to the class.

The poems tell stories or express an observation or experience.  Some are poems we wrote in class to try poetic techniques such as alliteration or allusion or explore a theme such as fragile fortunes, truth and fiction, or dystopia.  And some poems are inspired by heart-break, death of a pet, friendship, or even surviving abuse. The audience of poets typically respond with a collective “aw,” a “giggle,” or even a tear followed by snaps of appreciation for the art. The poet then draws the next name from the cup.

“Ah, you don’t have to, Mrs. D.,” said Jorge. “You’ve had a tough week. We don’t expect you to have a poem ready.”

“Oh, yes, we do. If we gotta do it, you gotta do it,” said Dillon.

“Thank you, Jorge. And you’re right, Dillon. It is only fair. I actually spoke a poem into my iPhone this morning while I was driving. Now don’t going telling everyone I was using my phone while driving. This just came to me, and I had to get it down.”

“You mean you just came up with it?”

“Yep. Poems can sneak up on you, ya know. I was reading this book The Things They Carry for the class I teach at UIC, right, and I was thinking about my dad. I was thinking about our parents and the “things” they carry as human beings — like their history and the experiences that made them who they are before they had us. You remember how many kids are in my family right? “

“Ten,” shouts Barbara. Barbara remembers all my stories. I was her teacher the year before, and she often asks me to re-tell stories like when I put the blueberries in the cereal cabinet instead of the refrigerator. She likes knowing that she isn’t the only absent-minded one in the world.

“Yes, I have ten siblings.  Thanks, Barbara, for remembering. Imagine all those kids in one, small house. Well, anyway, here it is. I’ll just read the part about my dad, okay? ‘The things they carried./Skippy carries a baseball glove waiting for his dad to come home./He carries his paintbrush and glue to make his model airplane/In his room./Alone./He carries the loneliness of being /the only child/…’”

I finish the poem with tears in my eyes, and my students are sitting quietly. It is awkward, but they are supportive and snap for me. They hear me. They see me. And I see them.


Barbara glances my way with her big brown, pleading eyes. I smile. And she slowly shifts in her seat, stalling as she opens her notebook before finally moseying to the front of the classroom. Leaning  against the white board, she begins to read slowly: “My stomach feels pain./The cabinets are empty./The children cry./They’re hungry…Rain wets me./I’m freezing./I need a house to live./Will somebody help me?”

The room is silent waiting for the next line.


I began teaching middle school in 2004 in what appeared to be a middle class Chicago suburb, but I would not meet Barbara until 2011.

The demographics of the school were changing so quickly in the early 2000s that the school purchased trailers for the growing population of English Language Learners (ELLs).

In the first English department meeting of the school year, each ELA  teacher was handed student rosters with the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT ) test scores from the previous school year. As I looked around the room of a dozen or so teachers furiously highlighting away, I quickly grabbed a highlighter intent to look like I knew what I was doing, but indeed I had no idea. I was told to highlight the students who were “on the bubble” –the students who did not “meet” on the ISAT but were within a few points, so we could “target” these students in our instruction.

Thinking about this now, I imagine Barbara walking out of her apartment with her backpack to get on a school bus for the first time that week in 2004. I can see her waiting at the bus stop along a busy street with cars zooming by while the local kindergartners are being walked to school by their parents. She would have been sitting in one of those trailers on her first day of kindergarten while others were in a classroom with windows.  Was she finger painting, learning her numbers and letters, and loving story time?

Barbara’s parents are undocumented.  Many families came to this suburb of Chicago for jobs and more affordable housing. Barbara represents all that was changing in this school, but the changes the school was experiencing did not tell Barbara’s story. To tell Barbara’s story, we would have had to listen to the stories of our students and their families, but instead we were listening to the data, and within a few years, Barbara’s file would be filled with data — home language surveys, Cogat scores, MAP results, ISAT results, and eventually ACCESS test results.

Year after year, Barbara, and students like her who did not “meet standards” on the state test, received more interventions. When goal setting did not work, Barbara was placed into a variety of specialized classes and tested more frequently than other students.  The intervention classes were often expensive scripted programs devoid of teachers deciding what to teach, when to teach it and how. Such curriculum has been coined as “teacher proof” curriculum. After all, when a child is in a school for a number of years and does not pass the test, it must be the teacher.

By junior high, when Barbara still had not passed the state test, she had two math classes, three reading classes; there was no room in her schedule for music, art, a foreign language, or computer classes.  So even though Barbara was no longer spending her days in the trailers outside the school, she was still segregated.

In 2011, our paths finally crossed.  I met Barbara. In fact, I met Barbara in one of those reading intervention classes. I was assigned to teach an intensive reading program, RIGOR, which required a three-period block.  The course was a new, highly prescriptive curriculum designed for “long term” ELLs, English language learners who have attended U.S. schools for seven years or more. Insulted by this “teacher proof” curriculum, I asked to meet with the school administrator.

“With all due respect,” I said, “ you are paying me a lot of money for my experience, judgment, and skills as a teacher. I have a master’s degree and am half way through a doctorate in English education. Please, let me do my job.”

“Will all due respect,” they said, “we’ve been paying teachers to do their job for years, and still we have these students who cannot read and write on grade level. Follow the program.”

I understood where they were coming from. There was a lot at stake, and after a long discussion, we agreed that there would be about twenty minutes a day that I could do my own curriculum, and while I contemplated resigning, I knew how fortunate I was to have a job while so many were unemployed.

Barbara was a wonderful student of this curriculum. She filled-in vocabulary blanks. She read the fluency passages with fluency. She matched sounds and letters quickly in the phonics section perfectly.  And she followed the writing models well. In fact, all the students did well. They had been trained well in their intervention classes to follow the program. It seemed  to me that they were learning programs rather than learning to read and write in ways that would help them make sense of the world, of their own lives – why I read, why I wrote, and why I wanted to be a teacher.

We finished the program in a few months, plenty of time for “my curriculum.” They would write the stories of their lives and to listen to countless other stories as we tried to make sense of our place in the world.

I had not anticipated the silence. When I gave them a journal for writing their own stories, it was as if the blank page was a ghost. They seemed afraid to mark it.  At one point, Barbara said, “Just tell me what to write. I do good when the teacher just tells me.”  Instead, I told her one of my stories.

“When I was your age,” I began, “I shared a bedroom with three of my sisters. We would roll up our blankets in the morning and store them in the closet, and at night we’d roll them out again to sleep. On some mornings before school, my mother would creep into our bedroom gently stepping between the bodies curled up on the floor looking for a few to take to work with her.”

“Huh?  You had to go to work before school?” one boy, Jorge, asked.

“It’s not that strange. I help my dad at work all the time. Let her finish,” Maria said.

“I was not a good sleeper,” I continued, “so I was an easy target. We’d get dressed in the dark, pile into the car, and help her clean the bank at the local mall. I still remember the smell of the cigarette ashes as we dumped them into the garbage. Then we had to wipe out the remaining specks of ash. I can taste it in my mouth right now.”

“So that’s what you want to know,” said Barbara.

“About your everyday life. Yes, I want to know the small stories that make up your life. Stories that only you can tell.”

This was very different to the scripted lessons we had done earlier that year where almost everyone’s essay about the Kush or Objects in Motion would be the same.

“I can do that.”

And Barbara told me about how she makes coffee for herself in the morning, and how she feeds her brother breakfast. She included a poem about how her brother’s laughter makes her happy and she told me about a time her mother explained to her why she was different. I don’t have this story now, but it was something about a childhood accident that caused head trauma. Barbara told me that she has a hard time remembering what she learns.

When we began to read literature, I shared Broken Memory, a story about a Tutsi child who survived the Hutu-led genocide  in Rwanda. Barbara took copious notes. Even so, she seemed upset when the test did not have multiple choice or fill-in-the blank. Instead, I asked her to write about Emma, a Tutsi, who was saved a Hutu woman. I wanted her to talk about the gacaca courts and if she thought it was an example of democracy. I wanted to hear what she thought of America’s response to the genocide. And, she told me everything.

Still, we were segregated now. We spent three class periods together while the other students moved across classrooms with a variety of teachers and students. When Barbara and her classmates finished our three-period reading class, they went on to a double math class. I can say that the writing and reading we did that year helped Barbara’s test scores, but I can’t say that she finally received a report that said “meets standards.” She did not pass the state test, and our school became a “failing school.” It was clear to everyone that NCLB indeed left some children behind.

The following August, I was moved to the very classroom where I learned to highlight “bubble kids” and informed that my assignment would be eighth grade reading and writing. I was happy to learn that the prescriptive curriculum was boxed up (as those Prentice Hall textbooks would be in 2015), but I was worried about Barbara and her classmates. I did not want her to spend her last year in our school district still segregated.

I met with my building administrators and proposed that Barbara and her classmates be integrated for eighth grade reading and writing. Co-teaching with a bilingual teacher, we were careful to differentiate instruction to meet their needs. And I designed a curriculum with the students to really look at the social forces that shape our society and how we could use literature and writing to make sense of our world.

We took the global focus of the new standards seriously. And we began with an explicit agenda to understand globalization, to make a lot of time for students to lead discussions and generate their own writing topics, to use minimal worksheets or multiple choice style assessments, to grade using a portfolio and conference-based assessments, and to avoid, as much as possible, the phrase “you have to know this for the test.”

Because I had spent the previous three years in a doctoral program on English education teaching prospective teachers, I knew a lot about the Common Core State Standards, and I knew that it was a transition year. I wanted to see how we could use the new standards to serve our purposes rather than be the purpose.

In the months that followed, this eighth grade English class studied the social, political, and economic causes and consequences of cultural intersections with dozens of first and second generation immigration stories and poetry; learned about testimony and bearing witness by writing personal narratives and listening to Loung Ung, a Cambodian-born American human rights activities and genocide survivor; considered consumerism and fragile fortunes with Steinbeck’s The Pearl  and Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles; and explored the darker side of progress and climate change through contemporary young adult texts like The Carbon Diaries, The Maze Runner, Divergent, Matched, Ship Breaker, and Among the Hidden.

We read texts with the same critical eye with which we began our year reading: with deliberate attention to the rhetorical and aesthetic nature of narrative and informational texts  and all  with no test prep, textbooks, or purchased curriculum. We wrote about our lives, our ideas about the world, and the experiences that shape us. We learned beauty and power of language with music and poetry finding poetic technique every place we read the world. Student-led discussions captured nuances of ideas and showed how texts transact with experience.

We all learned to listen to each other’s stories and interpretations with sympathetic and critical ears, pushing interpretation and calling attention to how ideas are constructed for audience and purpose.

When we came together on Fridays to speak our lives and our learning, what seemed most evident was that the poets were showing their unique contributions the larger conversation about sharing this world, about being human, and about how language shapes our understanding of the world. And don’t we want to see and hear those unique contributions? Isn’t that was living in the twenty-first century is all about?

I don’t know if our curriculum had any impact on test scores; I suspect it did because we learned to careful, thoughtful readers and writers.   My intention, however,  was to use this transition period between reform eras to re-imagine what an English classroom in the twenty-first century can do, to “pop the bubble.”

I tried to be a different sort of teacher. Instead of being a data-driver, students watched me be a writer and listened to stories about my life. I wrote an argument essay about breaking up with my father, and I wrote a poem a few months later after he died suddenly about the “things he carried” as a boy and man.

I tried to give students space to be a different sort of student.  I wanted them to think about what a “good” student was versus a “good” human being or citizen. Is it about conformity or making a unique contribution? One student wrote: “This [year] helped and strengthened my thinking because now I look beyond and I think beyond. I wrote more and if I don’t know what to write in my head I just let my pen think and write for me.”  I like the word “beyond” and think students were developing a way of writing and reading beyond what they had before — beyond the programs.  Perhaps what we did will better prepare them to participate in a global economy; I am not sure.  I think students started believing that their voices matter, that what the world needs in their unique contribution, their story.


The Mic Awaits
The Mic Awaits

“Somebody, somewhere, somehow, some when, some time,” Barbara concluded. There was a delay, but then came the snaps. She smiled at the sound of her peers snapping in appreciation of her verse, of her ideas, of her heart. Barbara was a some body, the body we almost left behind with our targets and interventions. Her vision of the world survived, and I hope it will thrive as she moves on to high school.

As the snaps subsided, she smiled and approached the cup. “Kevin.”

“Purpose. A seven letter word./But what does it mean?/What is my purpose?” he began.


Michie, Greg. Holler If You Hear Me. Teachers College Press, 2009.

Dewey, John. “The Challenge of Democracy to Education.” Dewey, John. John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953: Volume 11: 1935-1937. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2008. 181-190.

Giroux. Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life: Democracy’s Promise and Education’s Challenge. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2005.

Note: This title is a nod to Greg Michie’s Holler if You Hear Me. The names of students, faculty, and the school have been changed. Dialogue is a composite and approximate. The poetry is from student writing.