"Four score and seven..."

"The world will little note, nor long remember," President Abraham Lincoln said on a Pennsylvania battlefield 150 years ago today. Little note? Lincoln's eulogy to the Civil War dead is among the most iconic, memorable, moving, and [insert adjective here] in the English language.

Why does the Gettysburg Address still hold such power? Lincoln's knowledge of the Bible and Shakespeare cannot be discounted. In 2007, Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker that "Lincoln had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis."

What exactly Lincoln said on the battlefield at Gettysburg—in the days before there were recording devices—remains a matter of dispute. Personal preferences have also played a role in the transcription of history. As Gopnik notes: "The Centralia Sentinel, of Lincoln's home state, wanting nothing to do with fancy talk, had the speech begin, simply, 'Ninety years ago....'" The Sentinel didn't even get the number right!

Gopnik struggles to determine precisely what Lincoln said during his presidency and what was said about him, including at his deathbed. Was it, "Now he belongs to the ages," or "Now he belongs to the angels"?

In the end, Gopnik concludes: "The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present."

For all we think we know about Lincoln, 150 years later, he remains unknowable.

To centralize or not to centralize? That is the question.

One of the interesting trends occurring in education right now is the decentralization of decision-making.

Increasingly, more and more decisions about teaching and learning are controlled by the principal, and not by the central office staff of school districts.  One of the best examples of this has been the change in structure of New York City schools over the past 10 years, where principals are more empowered to make local decisions, and the central office makes fewer.  In other situations, this trend is connected to a rise in charter schools.  The Recovery School District in New Orleans is a great example of this, as decentralization has been coupled with a shift to more of a charter-based model.

Stay tuned for a debate on this issue in years to come.  On the one hand, complete decentralization empowers local principals, respects the knowledge of the local team, and encourages innovative ideas.  On the other hand, the lack of any centrally-led initiatives can make it hard to systematically tackle large, complicated, district-wide problems (for example, a district wide literacy achievement gap.)  Plus, a decentralized model only works when school principals are strong instructional leaders - and with the many demands they are wrestling with (the Common Core, effective implementation of new teacher evaluation systems, etc.) many of them struggle to adapt to the new demands of their roles.

So what's the right answer?  The most likely outcome will be a combination.  Already, hybrid models are emerging which give more power to local schools, while maintaining a targeted set of district-level initiatives targeted at the most critical, complicated issues.

Building student interest in nonfiction

After hearing a sixth grader say, “ I hate nonfiction, Mrs. Miller. It’s so boring. It’s all about dead presidents and whales,” Texas teacher Donalyn Miller went on a mission to engage students in the “dazzling world of nonfiction.” Miller suggests five ways for teachers to build an appreciation for nonfiction in a recent article in the always excellent Educational Leadership magazine.

1. Do more nonfiction book talks:

When endorsing books (with a book commercial or short testimonial) to your class, be sure in include nonfiction books and magazines alongside fiction, poetry, and graphic novels. Showing you as the teacher value nonfiction will increase their awareness and build interest.

2. Read nonfiction texts aloud:

Engage students and build background knowledge by reading nonfiction picture books, poetry, articles, and excerpts aloud to students. Use librarians as a resource to find nonfiction texts that align with an upcoming unit of study.

3. Use nonfiction as mentor texts:

Find nonfiction texts that can serve as writing models for descriptive writing, figurative language, and imagery.

4. Pair nonfiction texts with texts on related topics:

Relate real-world topics by pairing nonfiction with fiction, poetry, and other nonfiction texts.

5. Provide access, time and supports:

Keep nonfiction texts related to the curriculum in your classroom and encourage students to skim these texts as a warm-up to science or social studies lessons. Invite them to locate text features such as maps, charts, photographs, and glossaries.

Find award-winning books, read reviews, and check out blogs and websites to find high-quality nonfiction texts. Miller recommends The Nonfiction Detectivesa blog written by librarians. You can also find nonfiction book lists on our Common Core site.

A moment to reflect and resources for the classroom on Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day to all of our men and women who have served over the years. Thank you for all that you do for us.

I find myself consistently in awe of these heroes. It is a wonderful thing to see their stories told during this time of year. It is also important to hear of their struggles and how we can support them when they are deployed and further, continue to support them when they come home.  Thanksgiving is around the corner and their service, and the service of their families here at home, is definitely something for which we can all be thankful. 

Teachers, if you are still looking for ways to celebrate Veterans Day in your classroom, the Scholastic Teacher site has everything you may need here. And a stellar list of books is available on Top Picks.

Tech classroom management strategies

A recent Ed Week article by Liana Heitin shares solutions to common management challenges that arise from using iPads and laptops in the classroom. The strategies below have helped schools across the country deal with these issues.

Wander the Room

There is no replacement for teachers physically walking around the classroom when it comes to keeping students on task. One teacher mentioned that iPads tend to be easier to monitor than laptops, as they lay flat on the desk. Consider using programs such as Hapara, which allows teachers to monitor students’ desktops at once and from afar.

Create a Sense of Value

To keep devices in good condition, building responsibility is key. Explicitly teach students how to open and close the devices, carry them, and turn them to show a partner. Assign a device to a student, so they use the same one every day and are responsible for reporting tech issues.  

Put Students in Charge

Designate one or two students to serve as technology monitors that pass out and collect devices. Establish procedures for running out of battery power, and create a charging station in an area of the room (try to keep cords out of walkways). Find a way to store headphones, such as hanging them on a hook or storing them in a plastic bag labeled with the student’s name.

Teach Tech Terms

Define technical terms, such as “close” and “sign out” to clarify what state the device should be in during a lesson. Find a digital organization system (see this post on Google Drive) to share documents and track student work.

Lastly, try to channel tech-savvy students’ curiosity. One school hired a student over the summer to crack their firewall system, while another teacher has students create videos demonstrating tech tools.

Do you have any management tips for your “wired” classroom?

Common Core under the microscope

On November 4, the Education Writers Association hosted "Common Core at the Crossroads: What Comes Next?" Reporters and educators at the D.C. conference discussed issues surrounding the CCSS, including:

  • Will the standards widen the achievement gap or help close it?
  • What kind of training are teachers getting to implement the standards?
  • Do students find CCSS-aligned lessons more—or less—engaging?
  • Will music, art and foreign language be marginalized in the Common Core era?

An elementary school math teacher from Kentucky and two high school English teachers from the District of Columbia presented sample lessons.

Stacey Porter, a fourth grade teacher at Hite Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., said that the new standards, which are fewer and deeper, give students the time they need to grasp complex math concepts.

Here are articles by some of the conference's panelists:

How does one sift through the many claims and counterclaims about the Common Core? A reporter will likely be coming to a classroom near you to find out.

The mysterious life—and death—of JFK

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th U.S. President. His stirring challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” became a call to action for many young Americans. When Kennedy established the Peace Corps several weeks later, thousands of college students volunteered to serve in developing countries as teachers, health care workers and goodwill ambassadors.

Much of that youthful idealism was crushed on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas.

How can you help your middle and high school students understand such a momentous time in American history? How can you challenge them to learn not only about Kennedy’s assassination, but also about his life and presidency?

Unfortunately, quantity trumps quality.

Fifty years—and some 40,000 books—after his death, Kennedy remains an “elusive president,” observes Jill Abramson, Executive Editor of The New York Times.

“To explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing,” Abramson writes in the Sunday Book Review. “Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.”

Abramson's startling conclusion reminds us that not all pages bound in covers are equal.

Depending upon interests and abilities, you may want to select a few titles for your students and have them assess each author’s intent, background and bias. The climate in which the books were written should also be considered. In the wake of the president's death, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Kennedy adviser Theodore Sorenson became "a kind of history police," Abramson says, withholding primary materials from biographers at the request of the family.

Some biographers wander into unknowable territory, imagining a world in which Kennedy had not been assassinated. As for who murdered the president and why, the 3,250,000 results that appear with a Google search for “Kennedy + assassination + conspiracy” should tell you something.

Such insatiable curiosity, Jim Higgins writes in Milwaukee's JSOnline, continues to inspire a torrent of books “about who might or might not have been behind the shooting, how the assassination may or may not have shattered the American psyche, and what Kennedy’s legacy as president may or may not be.”

In a shortlist compiled for the Times by Jacob Heilbrunn, not one title is by a woman. Why? That's another question you might ask your students.

Yet many books about Kennedy’s affairs were written by women. I'm partial to Once Upon a Secret by Mimi Alford. I read the 2012 memoir because Alford grew up not far from where I did, and I knew of her family. (Does that count as bias?)

Contemporary "history police" chastized Alford for writing the book, which recounts her strange affair with Kennedy when she was a White House intern. I'm grateful that she told her story. When a president pursues a 19-year-old, the power imbalance and its implications, not least for the young woman, merit scrutiny. And I think the fact that Kennedy summoned a college student from her dormitory to his bedroom during the Cuban Missile Crisis—while he negotiated the world’s fate—is borderline fascinating. Don't you?

 

A profile of P-TECH: Rethinking career readiness

You might have heard about President Obama's planned visit today to the unique P-TECH high school in Brooklyn.

(A wacky sideshow -- really only relevent to those us who, like me, live in Brooklyn -- has been the confusion over the closing of parts of Prospect Park for the President's helicopter to land.)

If you're interested in learning more about P-TECH and its unique business partnership model that offers students associates degrees, Scholastic Administr@tor magazine has a profile of the school available online.

Here is an excerpt from it:

For a school that opened its doors in September 2011 and is still years away from producing its first alumni, Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, as it’s known, has gotten plenty of attention—most notably, a mention in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January. There’s good reason for that. Its proponents—Principal Rashid Davis, foremost among them—believe the innovative program could transform American education. During an interview in his office, Davis points again and again to the signs on his bulletin board depicting the associate’s degrees students will receive if they complete the six-year course of study that combines high school and college, or “hollege,” as he is fond of calling it.

“Success is the students leaving with the associate’s degree,” Davis says. “That is the only definition.” The school offers two associate’s: one in computer information systems, the other in electro­mechanical engineering technology.

“If they do not leave with the associate’s degree, then we’re just another high school. The idea is that the associate’s degree is the modern-day diploma. It’s a nonnegotiable for me. It’s a model of excellence, but it’s also a model of completion. It’s not the attempt; it’s the completion.”

Thinking Big
The school, now finishing up its second year, is the result of a partnership between the New York City Department of Education, IBM, the City University of New York’s Early College Initiative, and the New York City College of Technology (City Tech).

P-TECH was developed with the idea of connecting education to solid career opportunities. A successful collaboration, IBM officials felt, would require the involvement of higher education, and of CUNY in particular, since the first marketable degrees for jobs at IBM and its clients are associate’s degrees in computer science or applied science.

Located in Crown Heights, a diverse, working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, P-TECH shares a campus with two other schools charged with readying students for “real-world” employment. In fact, schools have been providing vocational education within the building’s walls for more than a century. (For more on the building’s history, see the sidebar “Then & Now.”)

IBM, which is providing mentors and hosting student visits, and has “co-­located” a program manager at the school, has promised that P-TECH graduates will be “first in line” for jobs that range from corporate help-desk staffers to systems and data administrators to Web designers, and have starting salaries of as much as $40,000 a year.

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