I did it. I am now swimming in self loathing as I write my first listicle.  I want to begin by saying I support the Common Core State Standards. I believe when you read the anchor standards that the lofty goals can help point our schools to a better future.

Still I understand the frustration that many teachers lament. I may not support the vitriol on either side. Yet I do recognize that for some educators they feel the only recourse against well funded billions in corporate reform lies in both grassroots resistance, lazy clicktivism, and astro turfing. So to  discuss this discontent I decided to mask my ideas behind some basic listicle clickbait.

Civic and Community Ready Before College and Career

Many educators do not accept the general economic push behind education reform. Noisy education reform outlets bemoan any talk of educating the “whole” child. The focus, according to accountability based edreformers, needs to be on rigor, rigor rigor. Teachers do not see the path to prosperity through increased rigor in classroom.

Teachers believe in children and the community. Real reform will take community revitalization. Real reform will require a focus on civic engagement of students. Teachers want vigor, vigor, vigor.

So when teachers see David Coleman, the architect of the CCSS, stand up and claim we need to end our focus on narrative writing because, “as you grow up in this world you realize people  do not give a s**t about what you think or what you feel,” educators take note.

In fact this worldview is probably the antithesis of almost every teacher I know. We want students to have empathy for those in our community. We want students to work for a greater good. We teach students to write to engage in reflective practice. We want students to give a s**t, so much so that our kids try to change the world.

Maybe the focus of education should not be on economic outcomes. If we were to create a vision of education that stressed community and civic engagement I believe college and career would follow.

What can educators do?

We do not have to create such a bleak world vision in our classrooms. The standards have many entry points for civic engagement. Encourage students to think and explore their world.

Use the content void standards to personalize learning and allow students to develop voice and agency. While the supporting documents call for a curriculum rich in sequenced content knowledge the standards themselves avoid proscribing specific content (with the exception of  Shakespeare, early American literature, and some founding documents).

No Educator Involvement in Writing the Standards

On paper the CCSS seem state driven. According to CCSS state website the National Governor’s Associations created the standard. In reality the standards were bankrolled by large corporate interest such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and written by Achieve Inc. Susan Pimentel who was an former English major;  David Coleman a lawyer ; and Jason Zimba, a scientist, took the lead writing the standards as consultants.

Coleman, who spent some brief time as a high school tutor while an undergraduate, had the most educational experience of all the authors. In fact the only two educators brought in to validate the standards after they were written refused to sign off on their approval.

This pisses teachers off. Imagine a plumber rewriting standards of medical practice. Doctors would not stand for such illegitimate encroachment.

What can teachers do?

Take charge of implementation of the standards. The standards are not bad and in many cases are superior then the hodgepodge of old standards. The CCSS are supposed to be about what to teach and not how to teach. I often here that without any early childhood experts the standards are developmentally innapropriate for the K-2 classrooms. I hear educators bemoan that play gets taken out of the class.

You are wrong.

Playing with words and oral language development, especially in language and content rich classrooms, is the only way to meet the new standards in terms of early childhood education. Push back against administrators who only want the sole focus of the class to be on  phonic awareness and phonics. Fight for your literacy and play centers .Yes we need explicit teaching of these skills but we also need to immerse students in language and content.

Unfunded Federal Mandate

Forty five states approved the Common Core State Standards. Many with an economic gun to the head. The Obama Administration, under Arne Duncan’s education policies created Race to the Top. In order to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid states had to adopt the standards. This “carrot” came at a time of worst economic crisis since the great depression.

Very few states won any money. All of the states were left with cost of implementing the standards. States and districts had to redirect millions to new testing. They had to cut positions and salaries to ensure adequate bandwidth.  I know here in Connecticut we had just invested time and treasure to revamping our Language Arts Standards. These were immediately dropped and replaced with a hyperlink to the Common Core State Standards. Yes that is correct our standards were reduced to a hyperlink.

What can teachers do?


Rigid Philosophical Viewpoint

Teachers, especially those trained as English or early childhood literacy teachers, take issue with underlying philosophical views that guide the Common Core State Standards. First is the viewpoint of close reading over more personalized responses to the text. Coleman once again suggested that the meaning of text only, “lies within the four corners” of the text.

Many educators and decades of reading comprehension research disagree. The close reading methods emerge from a school of thought called New Criticism. You are asked just to focus on text structure and read and reread texts to try to crack the author’s code.

The authors of the CCSS suggest such a viewpoint in order to try and equalize the amount of prior knowledge and experience diverse readers bring to a text. The idea that students can turn off background knowledge is absurd.  According to Beers and Probst “Meaning is created not purely and simply from the words on the page, but from the transaction with those words that takes place in the reader’s mind (p.34).”

Another rigid viewpoint revolves around the purpose of reading. The CCSS make no mention of reading for enjoyment. The goal, according to the standards, is just to push students through more and more complex texts without much thought to the reasons of why we read.

In fact if you look through the Appendices the literacy scholars who are not cited reveal just as much as those who are cited. There is no mention of of Guthrie, Wigfield, or Gambrell. These scholars through decades of research, have demonstrated that reading motivation predicts performance on comprehension. Yet if you read the standards teachers are not to discuss reading for enjoyment.

What can teachers do?

In terms of close reading I do believe teachers were spending too much time on pre reading activities. I do not, as many CCSS advocates suggest, propose eliminating pre-reading activities. Activating background knowledge or pre teaching key vocabulary is smart practice. I just believe the majority of the time should be spent reading sources.

In terms of motivation and reading comprehension build a classroom that celebrates the written word. Do not simply abandon your better practice to constantly disssect text structures.

Conflating Standards, Assessment, and Teacher Evaluation

The simultaneous roll out of the Common Core, the development of new high stakes assessments, and teacher evaluations (all required for RTTP or NCLB waivers) is probably the greatest source of consternation for teachers.

Teachers need to know that having national standards and national assessments, in direct conflict with the constitution, has always been the goal of accountability based ed reformers.They want to shut down local school boards,the “educational sinkholes” that destroy our education,  and replace them with appointed rubber stampers who will push national assessments.

I am staying away from the connection of using “poor” test scores to push for privatization of education but that is a constant undercurrent in the accountability based ed reformer mindset.


I myself do not automatically find evil in the high stakes testing. PARCC and SBAC are creating innovative measures. I just think we maybe using the assessments in the wrong way. Accountability based ed reformers are quick to hold up the NAEP assessments as the gold standard. The NAEP results are used to show the inadequacies of the American education  system when compared to homogenous nations without  huge income disparities.

There is a reason NAEP is the gold standard. The assessment uses best practices that CCSS assessments will not use. NAEP is not administered to every student. Instead scientific sampling methods are used that improve the reliability of results. NAEP would never try to assess every single student nor would they try to use the results to judge the contribution of individual teachers.

Teacher Evaluation

States use one of two methods to measure the contributions teachers make to student test scores. Value added models or student growth percentiles. Neither will work. In fact I envision thousands of law suits as teachers lose jobs or seniority based on bad math. You just cannot parse out the variability in scores caused by individual teachers.

Teachers are also now being judged using assessments that no one has yet seen, are untested, and are legally barred to discuss. Imagine your job being on the line and your effectiveness  using a brand new workflow was judged using a test you have not seen nor can discuss. Wouldn’t you be upset?

Teachers are going to be judged on their effectiveness to teach new standards, using a new test, and methods that the statistical scientists have suggested do not work.

What can teachers do?

If student growth is going to be included in teacher evaluation models we should push for the use of district determined measures over the use of the long dreamed about national assessments. DDM’s correlate highly with state assessments and NAEP scores. You also get the results quickly and they can inform practice. So if the assessments are valid, correlate with out gold standard of assessments, and cost millions less to administer why not use them?

We also need to push for increased observations and student artifacts as part of a teacher evaluation process. The observations should be a mixed of announced and unannounced and teachers should develop their own professional development goals and connect these goals to student artifacts.

When you examine the instructional shifts outlined in the Common Core State Standards (though I prefer the term better practice rather than shifts)  you will find grounding  claims in evidence as central to many of the goals outlines in the CCSS anchor standards.

This often involves a series of practices labeled as analytical or close reading. I have explained that close reading is not a goal but rather it is the ends to the means. It is what good readers do to  utilize evidence from the text  during reading, writing, and speaking.

To engage your students in analytical reading I have explained that I often draw on the work of Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey (2011)  and suggest basing your reading on text based talk and text based analysis. I also believe that in order to fully make meaning with complex texts students need to transform the text by creating their own literary responses (Smagorinsky, 2007)


Using Digital Texts and Tools

New media allows us to combine these three elements: original response, text based talk, and text based analysis into our instructional routine. I have discussed using SubText or neuAnnotate on iOS devices and PDFZen on chrome devices. When I am keynoting a conference or doing workshops with a district I often hear, “We are a BYOD district. How can I do this and not be device specific?”

Rap Genius as the Device Agnostic Solution

Rap Genius, the largest database of annotated lyrics in the world has launched exciting new educator features. These include, poetry genius (for literature) and news genius (for current events and informational texts).

Rap Genius and the educational offshoots are web based. This means they are device agnostic. This will allow BYOD districts to have a collaborative place online to engage in the close reading of texts.

Using digital texts and tools for text annotation combines the three elements I believe are necessary for analytical reading. More importantly I believe tools, such as rap genius increase the efficacy and efficiency of teaching and assessing text annotation.

How Do I Get Started?

You can become a Genius by first signing up for an account. You can link to Facebook or Twitter. Then email Liz at education@rapgenius.com and let her know that you want to be “educator-ized.”  This will allow you to create classroom pages.

Next you have to add a text and create a classroom page. Many of the texts you may want to use are already included so search first, but I added a chapter so you can see how easy teachers can use poetry and news genius:

Rap Genius began as a lyrics sight and then expanded into more traditional literary and nonfiction texts. This have left some UI features that may confuse some students. Poems and chapters are called songs. If students add original work or poetry they share “songs.” This is confusing at first but easy to overcome.

Text  segments can only be annotated once. This causes some students to race to be first. Then other students can offer “suggestions.” The “suggestions” feature is also used for general conversations about annotations and the text and may not refer to improving the original annotation. To address this issue teachers can take a few steps. First create multiple class sets of texts and have students annotate in groups.

My other idea is to create classroom annotations codes such as Q-for questions, C- for criticism, !!- favorite part, etc. Students can then use these labels within the suggestion box.

Like many digital texts and tools Rap Genius does not allow students under the age of 13 (thank you COPA) to use the website. That does not mean you are out of luck. To handle this issue educators should create a teacher account. Then place students in small groups. Have them annotate the poem using pencils. As a class you can then vote on or randomly select the annotations that you the teacher will enter on the text.


For BYOD districts clamoring for a device agnostic annotation tool Rap genius is your answer. For those districts wed to a specific OS you should still evaluate Rap Genius as a possible g solution to build in opportunities for close reading.

Close reading is not the goal. It is what good readers do to reach a goal of reading for and with evidence. Rap Genius will allow educators to model, teach, and assess students analytical reading while providing opportunities to use multimodal reading and writing environments.


Related Articles

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When we think about online research and media skills our minds quickly turn to video production. Yet students and teachers can find video making and remixing a daunting task.

We need simple tools to scaffold video production. I like, many, mourned the demise of xtranormal. I found the text to movies tool so powerful for classroom use.

So I immediately began to look for alternatives. I came across Plotogan in my Twitter feed. Not only do I get all the functionality of text to movie tools but the program provides strong functionality and runs local on my mac (or your pc).

Classroom Uses

The possibilities are endless as students can recreate favorite scenes from literature, use as a journaling tool, or simply create online content.

When I consider possible connection to the Common Core State Standards I find once again endless options.

In the Reading anchor standards for the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

In the Speaking and Listening anchor standards for Comprehension and Collaboration:

2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

3. Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

How Does it Work?

  1. Plotagon works as a script editor. You choose the scene and the character(s).

Screenshot 3:4:14 3:01 PM

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2.You can  then choose the location of your character in that scene.

Screenshot 3:4:14 3:01 PM 2


3. You then type your dialogue. You can choose an emotion for your character.

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4. You can also choose to have your characters move around the scene.Screenshot 3:4:14 3:04 PM

Screenshot 3:4:14 3:03 PM

You can then add sounds. The sounds include both effects and music. Next you publish your movie by clicking share. If you connect your YouTube account you can upload directly. If your school does not allow YouTube access you can also upload the movie to Plotagon.

Screenshot 3:4:14 3:09 PM

That is it. Now you just wait, go make some popcorn and let the movie render. Plotagon will do the rest. When it is done you will get a notice.

Screenshot 3:4:14 3:23 PM

Embedded movie on Youtube:

Same movie on Plotagon:

Some Examples

This is a debate I had on the meaning of text as part of the #walkmyworld project:

This is a mini-lesson I made as part of my video tutorial series on Internet inquiry. I had to make separate movies in Plotagon. I then did a screencast on my iPad using Explain Everything. Finally I remixed the videos using Mozilla’s Popcorn maker.

There are many other great content related examples on the Plotagon Movie Page.


Plotagon is in very early Beta so many of these issues maybe addressed.

CPU Intensive

My macbook Pro just makes the minimum system requirements and it shows. When Plotagon is open I cannot do much else. You should plan accordingly and close unnecessary programs.

Few Scenes

I am sure more scenes will be added. Especially to the store. As of now the scenes available do not always fit an academic setting. I have spoken to the developers and they will make a push for education. So I am sure we will see schools, classrooms, offices, and parks in the future.

No Downloads

Another feature I am willing to pay for, and probably one coming in the future. Until then I have been using Mozilla’s Popcorn to edit the movies. this has allowed me to splice in other videos and add text layovers.

Final Verdict

I find Plotagon to be a powerful classroom tool and recommend it to all education professionals.

Other Articles of Interest

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Much of the focus on the Common Core State Standards revolves around the idea of college and career readiness. In fact the anchor standards describe what the few authors of the Standards believe students need when graduating high school.

What if these “educational” experts got it wrong? The standards largely paid for by tech dollars from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put a large emphasis on drilling down into the meaning of specific texts and arguments as a method to raise GPA and test scores.

What if those grades and test scores do not matter? According to Google these metrics have little to do in predicting “career readiness.”  In a recent article by Max Nisen (which I first came across listening to TWIG 238) he documents an opinion piece by Tom Friedman explaining  why Google has stopped putting emphasis on GPA, test scores, and attending elite colleges in their hiring practices.

Google, masters of big data, have spent years pouring over metrics of what makes a good employee. I worried we may miss some key attributes of skills needed for the information economy in the CCSS . So I decided to take a closer look at the anchor standards using the attributes Google wants in “career ready” employees.

Learning Ability Versus IQ

According to Google people with the ability to problem solve on the fly make better employees than those with high IQs. You need to be able to find information, in many disparate places and piece together solutions.

When I examine the anchor standards for Key Ideas and Details I only see text, not a plural version (texts) of multiple source reading. Multiple source reading does gets covered in the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. The anchor standards in the Speaking and Listening strands may capture much of the ideas shared by Google. So maybe the anchor standards do stress learning ability. Can learning ability be stressed in an outcome based document?

How will the anchor standards, which do address some of the attributes Google looks for, translate into classroom practice? I worry more about the grade level expectations and how they will translate into curriculum. Will classroom teachers create environments for students to struggle with ideas and problem solve with disparate texts? Does the collaboration called for in  the anchor standards for speaking and listening exist today?

Language Arts

When I go back and re-read the publisher guidelines sent to textbook makers I do not see opportunities built into pre-packaged curriculum for learning on the fly. Instead the focus seems to place all meaning within the text and stresses the role of individual learners. To me this reinforces the belief that grades and test score are all that matter in being college and career ready.


I next turned to the math standards. Once again I found promise in the standards for mathematical practice. Studens have to persevere in problem solving, reason both abstractly and quantitatively, and construct arguments (plus a few more see the standards for more info). I still wonder how these standards of practice will translate to classroom practice. I appluad the greater emphasis on numeracy as a tool for making meaning and arguments but I see the large focus in most schools I work with on simply models and precision.

Emergent Leadership versus Traditional Leadership

Google also puts less emphasis on traditional leadership like being president of student council and more on emergent leadership. They define this as being able to seize opportunity and guide others during problem solving.

Once again on the fly learning and teaching while working collaboratively. Where does this “career ready” attribute fit in the #CCSS anchor standards? The closest the anchor standards come is the first anchor standard for speaking and listening:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

It is not a perfect match. I prefer NCTE’s framework for 21st Century Learning. To me the idea of being able to work and lead  a group to solve problems through multiple pathways of knowledge is the critical skill students need.

What do schools need to do?

Focus on Assessments of  Future Learning and not Past Learning

A large emphasis by CCSS supporters, rather than the standards themselves, has been placed on a curriculum richer in content knowledge. In many aspects I agree. After a certain point the best way to increase reading comprehension and thinking in general is through the building of background knowledge.

Yet I also wonder, and study, if the role of background knowledge is changing. Maybe the future founders of the next Google can acquire prerequisite background knowledge on the fly. Schools need to build assessments, and the learning around these assessments that examine how well children can assemble knowledge from varied sources across diverse media on topic they know little about.

On the Fly Learning,  On the Fly Teaching

Much of the attributes Google looks for in “career ready” employees focuses on abilities in the moment. In both knowledge and leadership they look for fast problem solvers. How many classrooms reflect this type of environment well?

I am guided here by the work Rand Spiro has done with Cognitive Flexibility Theory. Spiro argues that students must criss cross ill-structured domains of knowledge and avoid rigid mindsets that cause errors of oversimplification. Much of this should be done through case based simulations.

I worry that CCSS, and misguided implementation by schools,  may emphasize rigid mindsets

I also believe that Problem Based Learning is more critical than ever. I am the first to admit I never taught problem based learning well or even at all. Yet looking at the dispositions wanted by tech giants I cannot think of another approach that would build these habits in students. We have to allow for:

  • Greater autonomy in learning.
  • Civic based real world problems.
  • Differentiated and individualized learning.
  • Multiple simulations  with multiple and diverse cases.
  • Frequent collaborative work to build in dispositions of flexibility and emergent leadership

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Many districts, here in Connecticut, have taken on the task to realign district wide writing assessments to both the Common Core State Standards and the rubrics published by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

(Please note earlier versions of the post did not correctly refer to SBAC. Images still list it as Smarter Balance and not the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium).

This got me thinking, as a teacher of writing teachers, how would I encourage the use of assessment to not only align to political tailwinds but to help ensure students can write a college level when graduating high school.

I see a few options for schools:

  1. School leader developed rubric
  2. Creating them at the district level

Option One: School Leader Developed Rubric

  • School leader with an SLO  focused on argumentative writing  would be volunteered to develop arubric
  •  Examine smarted balance rubric and CCSS writing appendix (description of how pieces were scored).
  • Choose criterion
  • Develop rubrics
  • Test, ………….etc
Option Two: Developing and Testing Rubrics
  • Have schools that have already developed rubrics test theirs. Offer that same version to others buildings to try.
  • Develop and share a rubric based on the CCSS and Smarter Balance Rubric
  • Administer a pilot assessment
  • Score and develop anchor packets that can be used to calibrate raters.
Either option involves a ton of work. What I think needs the greatest focus though is how the rubric translates into improving learning in the classroom. My basic tenants of belief when assessing writing:
  • Evidence of scores cannot be inferred.
  • Teachers need to know that they do not need to focus on every criterion at once.
  • Teachers should (or district should be) developing a library of mini-lessons
  • The teaching of argumentative writing is closely linked to text based analysis of mentor texts
    • Texts should be annotated using codes aligned to the criterion in the rubrics
    • Text annotation needs to be taught and modeled.

So I decided to share my attempt at creating an argumentative writing rubric that could be used at the high school level:

Click Here to Open Rubric


How does it work? Well I attempted to align the rubric to both the Smarter Balance argumentative writing rubric and the Common Core Anchor Standards:

Argumentative Writing Rubric


At the top of each domain you will find a CCSS anchor standard. Then each criterion is a grade level expectation. The scale of each criterion is taken word for word from the Smarter Balance Rubric

How would it work?

Improving Writing Instruction

The entire rubric could be used as a summative assessment to give teachers classroom level or building level snapshots. I would NEVER use such an extensive rubric for formative assessment.

There are 13 criterion and four level of scales across five domains. That would be 52 individual boxes for a student to have to consider. In no way will that help them to become better writers.

Instead teachers could take a piece, and with the student focus on a limited number of criterion. Possibly they would choose a specific domain. Maybe after reading the student work the teacher and student may choose 1-3 criterion as targeted areas of growth.

A Holistic Score not a Mathematical Equation

The teacher, and the young writer, are the ultimate arbiters of quality. Therefore I do not assign different point values to each scale and criterion. No complicated mathematical equation exist. Instead the rubric relies on teacher expertise and evidence from the writing to assign an overall holistic score for each domain.

Assessment Needs to Drive Instruction

The domain and  criterion in the rubric should be used to read mentor texts with purpose. Teachers should develop an annotation system that has students identify the qualities of strong writing.

Each student may have a different focus to improve their writing. Do not be afraid to have students work on only a small piece of the rubric at once. In fact I believe students will find this practice more rewarding.

Use schoolwide or classroom wide data from the entire rubric to identify gaps in knowledge growth. Take this information and cater your mini-lessons to fit this need. Record minilessons using screencasts. Overtime you will have a library of better writing practices.

Next Steps

Feel free to open the Google spreadsheet and use as much or little of the rubric as you desire. You can also contact me and we can develop ideas together to connect writing instruction and assessment.

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When you read the recent reports about texts being read in the classroom you would conclude our students spend time lost in texts well below grade level.

Yet do we really suffer from a lack of complexity in what students read? The CCSS Appendix A cites a slew of research indicating a sliding scale of complexity. The Fordham Institute report, “Common Core In Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments,” written by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett add fuel to the fire by suggesting students should not turn to popular young adult fantasy novels. The authors suggest these texts are well below the grade bands suggested in Appendix A.

However,these curricular guidelines and critiques miss a very important text. The internet. In fact the Fordham report, which analyzed the texts being assigned in schools did not mention the word internet once. I find it hard to believe that not one student was asked to utilize the internet at all for any major assignment. In fact we know from recent Pew studies that the majority of students turn to the internet as their primary information source.

The Most Dominant and Complex Text

The internet by definition is the most complex text students will encounter. Let us ignore the additional complexities caused by searching for sources. We can suspend our knowledge about building your own texts through hyperlinks. Lets overlook the challenge of evaluating and synthesizing disparate texts. While all of these qualitative features greatly increase the complexity of internet based texts we could just examine the quantitative measures.

Using the Metametrics Lexile Analyzer I searched for websites that would fall in the suggested band for fourth grade. First I used Google advanced search just to find websites at the “basic level.” All of the websites I checked were well over the 6-8 band. I then checked teacher websites, teacher created webquests, and popular kids news magazines. Once again the Lexile scores fell well above grade level.

I found the search for internet resources  that fall within suggested lexile ranges for elementary quite difficult. Does that mean we should give up? Does that mean teachers should ignore the Internet in the early grades?

No. While much of the content at the elementary grade level could hide behind paywalls we still need to prepare our youngest students to read the most complex text. Here are a few tips:

Do not Create False Dichotomies

The CCSS, especially the writing standards, require students to integrate both print and digital sources. We should do so in the classroom as well. I just worry, based on the reports cited above the internet is being viewed as a tool to deliver texts and not as text that requires new tools.

Use Apss and Websites that provide Lexile Measures

New tools and apps have emerged that can provide guidance to teachers. Newsela,in partnership with major newspaper publishers provides links to multiple articles that can be adjusted by lexile range. Subtext, an iOS app, also will select texts at specific lexile scores.

Work to Create Open Ed Resources

The Professional Learning Networks I participate in have matured greatly in recent years. Maybe we should harness this power and move beyond the reflection, sharing, and discussion we engage in. Maybe it is time to become content creators instead of content pushers.

If we note a lack of Internet sources at the 450-945 range we could band together to make these sites available. Teachers across the country set yearly growth objectives. Why not include a self study of text complexity in those goals? Elementary teachers need far greater training in text structure, the teaching of academic vocabulary, and text complexity.

If we worked together to create open resources we would not only increase our own pedagogical and content knowledge but would fill a vast void in early elementary texts that has persisted since the birth of the internet.

Teach Online Reading Comprehension

This internet thing is going to be around for awhile. It will continue to transform our literacy practices. In fact I will say it again. We need to teach our youngest students to read our most complex text. Teachers can do this.

For example I often use Google Custom Search to make a personalized search engine. I will populate it with texts my students can use. I then throw in one or two distractor websites. This allows me to teach students about relevancy and reading search results.

I have also printed out search results and webpage so we can examine multiple cases of disparate text structure.

We can also utilize our librarians. They are one of the most important teachers schools have. By working in partnership we can design units that teach content while building internet inquiry skills.


I highly doubt our youngest students suffer from a lack of text complexity. My quick examination, and unscientific look, of the sites teachers assign during webquests actually show the opposite. Students, even when directed by teachers who sift through search results ahead of time, encounter texts well above the suggested grade bands. This of course ignores the additional layers of complexity caused by the act of internet inquiry itself.

I do not know if the same patterns hold true in the upper grades. I am sure someone has studies the lexile ranges of the most common assigned websites. I just know that by not even mentioning the internet in our discussion of texts assigned by teacher we ignore the greatest literacy challenge our students face.

Image: By Junior Melo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


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On Monday we held the second Literacy Research Association Netcast. We put together an amazing panel on Grpahic Novels

I, a novice in the world of Graphic Novels, was struck by a few salient points.

First there is a general misconception about the complexity of Graphic Novels. Many teacher erroneously believe that graphic novels step down from the complexity of texts. This belief the panelists argued is cuased by numerous novel adaptations that create the illusion of being less complex. When we examine the body of work that began as graphic novels and not as adaptions the layers of meaning captured both in and out of frame become clear.

The complexity in graphic novels involves three levels. The vocabulary of graphic novels often exceeds other grade level texts. Yet lexile scores use sentence length so they disfavor graphic novels. The second level of complexity involves the art. In fact expert comic book readers pay more attention to the art rather than words when compared to novice readers. The third level of complexity emerges at the intersection of art and words and in the spaces between panels

David Low, a panelist, coined the term graphile to describe this additional qualitative difference. The presenters agreed this where we need to mov in order to support teachers. We do not need to justify the use of graphic novels but understand the challenges of graphile complexities. We need to move past talking about modes in graphic novels but delve into how people use those modes for meaning making. Finally we need to develop a system to evaulate the quality of graphic novels so we can make recommendations to teachers.

Subtext is one of the most powerful tools to support meaning making with an iPad.


Anyone who has attended my recent professional development sessions knows I believe  in three ways to building reading comprehension: increasing background knowledge, text based talk, and text based analysis. Subtext acts as a tool to teach content within the disciplines by weaving text based discussion and closed reading together.

It is my favorite app to support readers.


When you install Subtext you have to sign in using Google or Edmodo ID. I spoke to a representative of Renaissance learning, who purchased Subtext and she let me know that an AR log on is coming soon as well as a desktop version for the app (hoping for Chrome extension…hint…hint).



From there you can add a new book, download the user guide or make a class.



When you want to add to the library you have a few choices. SubText used .epub files (no kindle or iBook folks). So you can add any ebook or possibly check out a title from the library.

Still the epub support is amazing. Many teachers commonly mistake that the the Common Core State Standards do not dictate any specific titles. They are wrong. In the literature bands of high school students must read Shakespeare and early American literature. Most of these tiles are in the open domain. If you visit Project Gutenberg you will find many of these classics for free.

No more buying books of Shakespeare and Twain. Instead roll the savings right back into your readers. No more banning the annotating of texts. Celebrate the mark up.



Subtext  also organizes an article of the week and their premium content by grade level bands using the ATOS readability scale. This is a powerful tool that can cut down on the amount of time teachers spend sifting for grade appropriate content.



You can also turn any website  or PDF into a subtext article. This is especially useful in the disciplines. Take English for example. Many schools want to increase the amount of non fiction in the classroom.

I do not suggest an add on, another unit in an already overloaded curriculum. Instead support the disciplinary literacies of English such as theme and characterization. Reading Mice and Men in the classroom? Why not focus on the analysis of theme through non fiction. Find sources that seek to answer if the American Dream is still possible and import those sources into Subtext.

(Note you can also add the Subtext bookmarklet to your browser).



Once you have chosen a source you just click on the button to add it your library.

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You get a clean stripped down text. Students can then highlight the text for a series of options. For example you can choose highlight.

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I love the highlighting section of subtext. It is what I have been waiting for years as our talk has focused on close reading. You see close reading is not an outcome. It is not something we measure with a rubric. Key ideas and details, craft and struce, integrating knowledge and ideas, these are outcomes. Closed reading, is how we get there.

For me this means text annotation, or what I call purposeful coding of text. Most students highlight by coloring (example above). Annotation takes a purpose. Subtext allows me to track the purposeful coding of my students.

Say for example I was coding for argumentation. I could select a color and a tag for: position statement, main arguments, claims, evidence, counter-claims, and transition words.

If my purpose was tracing the development of a central idea I could code for main ideas, evidence, and my inferences.

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After I tag the highlight a color coded paper clip appears (though as someone who is red-green color blind I would prefer greater contrasts in the palette).

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You also have other options for the highlight. You can discuss, copy, and google. If you highlight one word you get a defintion (though jettisoned was not in the subtext dictionary so I might suggest Google). The discussion features are very rich. This is where subtext builds in text based talk.

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The discussion is directly connected to an element within the text. As a reader or teacher you can decide who can see the comment. You can also mark the Spoiler alert button (a feature I love) and decide who can reply.

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You also have other discussion options such as true/false, multiple choice, and poll questions. These questions can appear in the text or at the end of the chapter. A very powerful tool. I have never understood chapter and unit tests with literature. No good reader I know sys, “That was a great book now I should sit down and answer some multiple choice questions.”

Disconnecting our assessments with the texts (a tleast in English) has always made little sense to me. It isn’t a discpling specific practice. A literary critic would not write a book review without the text. Being able to include our checks for understandings within the text helps to model good practice.

You can then share a text in your library with a class by creating a group.

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This is a powerful piece. You could have a group for your class. Maybe you do leveled books or allow for choice in genre or titles. Students can be organized by group. Maybe your school or district has a common read. Why not make one big group/

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You then title your group.

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You will then be emailed a code to share with students.


Subtext has everything I love. It takes good pedagogy, text based talk and analysis, and increases its efficacy and efficiency. I would recommend the app to anyone. I am not a premium member so I could not do a full review or tutorial. I am also interested in finding out more about the reports generated by the app. I think being able to quickly track students purposeful coding of text or have access to searchable discussions is probably the most powerful way to track student learning objectives around analytical reading.

I have often wondered if the Common Core State Standards have a dead white guy bias. It seems that advocates of the common core continuously try to reinforce the idea that reading the classics is the solution to all educational issues. This applies to both nonfiction and fiction

In fact when Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, testifies in support of the Common Core one of the first things he mentions is that the Common Core requires the reading of our Founding Documents. If I would have known reading the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address were the highest priority in education I would have done it years ago.

I have come to see the bias in the CCSS based on the Fordham Institute recent report “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments.” I find thinly veiled ethnocentric beliefs in the suggested instructional approaches and in the suggested reading.

Bias in Instructional Approaches

Throughout the report on Common Core implementation is the idea that our educational woes are driven by a lack of content knowledge. In order to overcome systemic inequalities we just need to increase the cultural capiltal by focusing on knowledge and not the skills of what good readers do.

Let us ignore the research from the last thirty years and entertain this line of thinking:

The forward of the report states:

“In trying to improve reading comprehension, schools made a tragic mistake: they took time away from knowledge-building courses such as science and history to clear the decks for more time on reading skills and strategies. And the impact, particularly on our most disadvantaged students whose content and vocabulary gap is so great, has been devastating”

It assumes that strategy instruction is the root of our social woes. The only way to fix the achievement gap is with a heavy dose of dead white guy literature. Background knowledge and comprehension are linked. That is one of the most stable findings in educational research. The more knowledge you have the more you can comprehend. The more you can comprehend the more knowledge you gain. The pendulum may have swung too far towards instruction in disciplinary literacy strategies and comprehension strategy instruction but eliminating these in favor the Great Gatsby and Gettysburg Address will not serve children well.

Instead what we need to do is build in opportunities to read and write like historians and scientists into out content area classrooms. I am hopeful the CCSS will help move us in this direction. However, it cannot be about content alone.

According to Common Core supporters high quality dead white guy literature is also important for English Language Leaerners. In a recent speech to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference Kathleen Porter-Magee, who wrote the forward to the report, spoke of the need of complex text for ELL learners. She gave an example of a leveled “Great Gatsby” text.

Porter Magee highlighted

In a “retold” version that is given to intermediate readers, that opening is boiled down to this:
“My name is Nick Carraway. I was born in a big city in the Middle West.”
Even more distressing is the version given to “beginning” readers:

My name is Nick. This is my friend. His name is Jay. Jay has a big house. See his house.

I agree with Porter-Magee that the beginning reading is not complex and does not allow for the intellectual capital of our second language learners to flourish. Yet if I am trying to teach a student who just arrived in this country to read English I would never use the full version of “Great Gatsby”. That seems even more inhumane.

The best approach is a bilingual education that would allow for translated or native works supported with beginning reading texts. Yet many states are openly hostile to bilingual education and even try to outlaw these approaches.

Giving a student who does not speak English the “Great Gatsby” will not end the achievement gap. It is silly to think so.

Bias Against Culturally Relevant and Young Adult Literature

Most gregarious in Appendix B is the list of recommended readings. What follows is a collection of books by dead white people about dead white people. In fact Appendix B states that the only selection criteria used was complexity, quality, and range. Representing the underrepresented with books about characters that actually look like the children we teach was not even considered! That is a national tragedy.

The authors of the report note that the appendix is not a suggested reading list, but they then go on to judge reading programs using the same list. So programs that use contemporary and culturally relevant literature would score low.

For example the report states that,

As a result, classic literature has, in many classrooms, been replaced by popular teen novels (often made into movies) such as The Hunger Games and Twilight. Indeed, the former, according to Renaissance Learning (more below), became the most widely read book in grades 9-12 following its theatrical release in 2012

It goes on to say:

Similarly, research published in 2009 by Renaissance Learning (the company that produces the “Accelerated Reader” program) found that “Ten of the top 16 most frequently read books by the 1,500 students in the top ten percent of reading achievement in grades 9-12 in the database for the 2008-2009 academic year were contemporary young adult fantasies.”

To say modern fantasy has no place in the reading programs of today’s high school is a travesty. The character development and conflicts are often quite complex and more than make up for some inadaquete readability scale. After all, if the students  choosing to read modern fantasy are in the top percent of reading ability there must be an instructional value.

This bias towards dead white guy literature is actually inherent in the anchor standards of the Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

The only required documents students have to read are: our founding documents, Shakespeare, and dated dead white guy novels.

How to fight for Culturally Relevant and Young Adult Literature.

Be informed. The Text Complexity Triangle contains Quantitative, Qualitative and Reader and Task. The report mentions readability (quantitative) 14 times. The other two corners of the triangle were quickly dropped. If you want to argue that culturally relevant or modern fantasy are complex text use the other two corners of the triangle to your advantage.

Know the research. Get involved. Follow the work of leading African American, Hispanic, or literacy scholars who advance the field of culturally responsive curriculum.

Do what is right. Our students need to read about characters that look like they do. They need stories with conflicts that reflect the realities of their lives. Include these in your program. Fight against those who say the woes of our urban youth are caused by a lack of dead white guy literature.

I support the Common Core State Standards. I believe the anchor standards (not grade level expectations) provide a holistic approach to educating well prepared and well rounded students. I just want a better Appendix B.


I have gotten more than a few offers from districts to develop Close Reading rubrics. I refuse.

Close reading is a strategy that allows us to interpret a text based on a specific purpose. It is a method and not an outcome. Therefore I believe (my opinion alone) those trying to sell close reading rubrics might as well be selling snake oil.

You do not measure close reading. That would be like measuring a specific tweak to a golf swing. In the end you do not care about the frequency and fidelity of the method. You want more yardage. That is your evidence that the intervention worked.


The easiest way to look for evidence of close reading is to model and teach students to annotate text for different purposes. Teachers can easily quantify and measure the frequencies and types of annotation. So you can examine how they annotate texts. You can have students return to the same text and annotate for different purposes.

Text Discussion

Another way to check for understanding through close reading is through text based talk. This is harder to assess than text annotation as multiple conversations occur at once in the classroom. As a teacher you are looking for evidence of text based inferences. However this is easier to assess and rubrics could be developed for online forums. Basically teachers need to look for evidence that students are returning to the text, using complex vocabulary, respond to prompts about author’s craft.

If you want to assess close reading beyond annotation you must have students create a product with the information they read.

Short Answer Responses

Short answer responses that focus on looking for evidence of the CCSS will work. Students who are better trained as close reading (text annotation on their part) and text dependent questioning (by the teacher or small group forums) should prove better. For this I would just use sample rubrics from the Smarter Balance Pilot items.

Debates, Argumentation, Informational Writing

Another way to measure if students have integrated the process of closed reading into their reading is to examine their writing products. This is where the content portion of your rubric is to critical to your success in argumentative writing. You want teachers develop criteria so students who are able to focus on key vocabulary, claims and evidence, and authors craft out perform students who do not.


These are just my thoughts. Close Reading, like much of the CCSS, cannot be taught in isolation. It isn’t a product of learning but it is the process of reading that college and career ready students use. There are some close reading rubrics floating around the web. I wouldn’t trust most of them. In fact many of these rubrics just have students evaluating key ideas, authors craft, etc within a writing assignment.

I think you are better served by:
Teaching teachers to model and assess text annotation.
Teaching teachers to model, offer guided practice in text dependent questioning techniques.
Using online forums based on text dependent prompts (rubrics could be developed for these).
Using building wide writing rubrics so students who engage in close reading with sources out perform students who do not.
Encouraging teachers to develop performance assessments that will demonstrate evidence of close reading.

I know this may not be the answer you were looking for. It would have been easy to post links to some of the bad rubrics. Yet I believe rubrics are for measuring products and close reading is a process that leads to students developing better products.