What’s in your school pictures?

I was standing with a teacher in the hallway during a passing period at Alton (Ill.) High School earlier this week when a girl walked up and showed off her plaid shirt and two or three T-shirts, which she said were for her school pictures.

The teacher approved, but different T-shirts are probably the most benign object students have been known to bring to their school pictures. Other props include musical instruments, balls used in sports, and different uniforms associated with the school. But what else will this year’s school pictures feature?

In Nebraska, for instance, one school board approved the inclusion of guns in students’ senior portraits, as long as it was done tastefully, the Omaha World-Herald reports. The vote was 6-0 in favor. (The photos are being taken at a professional photography studio, and no guns are ever brought to the school.)

What’s tasteful? An example from the Internet is shown at right.

“I understand that in different cultures this would be viewed differently, but in the rural, hunting culture here, it is something that is viewed in a positive way,” the Huffington Post quoted Broken Bow Public Schools Superintendent Mark Sievering as saying.

In the pictures, students will be allowed to carry the weapon or pose with it, but any pointing will cause the photo to be thrown out before it hits the yearbook’s pages.

One commentator on a discussion thread about the guns in school portraits said it was “the teen girls who drive what is popular, and this kind of photography is wildly popular right now.”

Take a survey of props used in school photos at your school. How do different backgrounds or props convey different ideas? See Common Core English language arts literacy standard SL.11-12.5 for more information.

We extend our sincere thanks to Alton High School and to Ms Annice Brave, an English teacher there and Illinois’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, for their kind hospitality in allowing us to develop this story.

One English lit lesson supported by Common Core

ALTON, Ill. (Oct. 20) — Back in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about a New England woman who was cast out by her Puritan community many years earlier but is capable even today of coming into our lives through literature to teach us a thing or two about personal responsibility, guilt, anger, loyalty, and even revenge.

Mr Hawthorne’s words in The Scarlet Letter are timeless:

The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not to tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.

Now Amanda Arment, who teaches a college preparatory English 3 honors class during sixth hour in room B244 here at Alton High School, doesn’t miss any of the novel’s major themes. Today students in her class are starting on group projects, developing Google Slides presentations about those themes. The presentations will include images and video segments, so they need help finding an app that can make better videos or record sound in higher quality than their phones. If you know an app that might be a better choice, post a comment.

Before students knew what the assignment was this afternoon, they started the 55-minute class period by journaling on Chromebooks, answering a quick question, like “What is a theme?” But after making a quick connection with students by dragging her cat’s nasty habit of chewing up battery chargers into the lesson, Ms Arment had each group of four or five students pick one of the novel’s major themes out of a box. Each group was assigned to develop a presentation about that theme.

The presentations will be graded according to a rubric, which Ms Arment made available during the class period. In keeping with the overarching principles of the Common Core, she reminded the groups to cite actual evidence from the novel, including direct quotes, to support their points about the themes.

A chief complaint about the Common Core, advanced here by Peter Greene and here by 132 Catholic scholars, is that it doesn’t go far enough in teaching students the value of literature. Given the work of real teachers in real classrooms who teach real students, we find this argument, which is advanced mainly by people who haven’t worked in a high school classroom for several years and never did so under the Common Core, flawed. Students understand the value of literature today as well as ever, and the Common Core fosters that deeper understanding.

“I study literature because I believe there is power in stories,” writes Mikaela Warner of Gustavus Adolphus College. “Literature is both intensely personal as well as a communal experience. I love examining how words, sentences, characters, plot-lines and tropes reveal who we are as humans. Humanity is a complicated thing, and requires an infinite amount of words to describe and analyze. That’s the joy of studying literature: there is always a new reality to discover.”

The assignment will take a few class periods of independent group work to finish, but when the presentations are done, they promise to be entertaining. Ms Arment created a sample presentation of her own to demonstrate. She did hers on the solitude theme and played it for the class, which elicited some laughter as students saw their teacher making her “I’m done talking now” face at the end of one of the short video segments.

We may never know—and I’m not sure it matters all that much—whether the lesson would have gone this way without the Common Core. What we know, however, is that it did happen this way with the Common Core: Ms Arment has students thinking about literature enough to develop a slide presentation, including multimedia and with a 10-slide minimum, about a great work of 19th-century American literature. And I wonder, what more would Common Core opponents have her do, and where were those topics in Illinois’s former learning standards?

What questions do you still have after reading The Scarlet Letter? Cite passages to show where these questions are left hanging by the author. See Common Core English language arts literacy standard RL.11-12.1 for more information.

We extend our sincere thanks to Alton High School and to Ms Annice Brave, a National Board Certified Teacher and Illinois’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, for their kind hospitality in allowing us to develop this story.

School comments issued in county council debate

Yesterday in Anne Arundel County, Md., District 5 County Council candidates Patrick Armstrong and Michael Peroutka debated issues that included public education, the Capital Gazette reports.

Why County Council candidates would debate school issues escapes me at the moment, but no matter. Anne Arundel County has a perfectly good school board and a superintendent, and it is these people, not the county council (just in case you were confused), who actually run the schools.

Where the candidates stand on high school

Anne Arundel County is now strongly considering pushing back the start time for high school to something a little later than 7:17 AM, which is what it is now, the earliest high school start time among Maryland’s 24 public school systems.

Mr Armstrong said he thinks starting later would be a good idea.

So far, so good.

Mr Peroutka said he didn’t think it really mattered what time high school students start their day, since the “fundamental flaw” in education is that it doesn’t include God. Specifically, we should absolutely not be teaching kids about evolution.

“Our children are taught that their great-great-granddaddy was a hunk of primordial ooze in a pond somewhere and that their granddaddy was a slimy, eely thing that finally grew legs after a million years and their daddy was a monkey,” the Gazette quoted Mr Peroutka as saying. “Then they try to teach the kids self-esteem, but they just taught the kid (they were) a massive mutations of mistakes.”

He really said evolution only takes four generations (great-great-grandaddy) and that we were “a hunk of primoridal ooze.” I’m going to write that phrase down, since it just sounds so good as I say it. Hunk of primordial ooze.

“What time they begin doing that in the morning is really not important,” he added. And I thought we only needed to educate children. Let this be a lesson to you, principals and teachers: often the adults our children go home to need an education more than the children who are sitting in the seats in front of us.

So anyway, the remarks are of little consequence, since even if Mr Peroutka is elected to the District 5 seat on the Anne Arundel County Council, he would have no more power over the curriculum in our public schools than he does now, which is very little.

And while it is surprising that county council candidates talk about evolution in a debate, it is even more surprising to me that people still live in the US and think we didn’t evolve or that species don’t diverge over time from common ancestors.

The reason talking about this is a waste of time is that there isn’t actually a difference of opinion among reasonably intelligent people about this subject. It’s like debating about whether the Earth is flat or spherical in shape. The case has been closed for a long time now.

Besides, we have more important things to debate, such as studying religion and the principles espoused by religious beliefs throughout history as part of any world history curriculum. Now that is something we could debate, since there is tremendous difference of opinion among intelligent people.

Evaluate the credibility and historical accuracy (not the morals) of the account of creation in the Book of Genesis. See Common Core English language arts speaking and listening standard SL.11-12.1.D for more information.

Student poets read their work at the White House

Five high school students were chosen as National Student Poets by a jury recently and read a selection of their work at a White House ceremony on Sept 18 and gave an encore performance in the Library of Congress, ArtAndWriting.org reports.

First lady Michelle Obama, center, stands with student poets during the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities poetry reading in the Blue Room at the White House. The event honored the 2014 National Student Poets, with the nation’s highest honor for teen poets presenting original work. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The student honorees, from left to right in the photo, are:

  • Cameron Messinides, 17, Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, Greenville, S.C.
  • Madeleine LeCesne, 18, Lusher Charter School, New Orleans, La.
  • Ashley Gong, 15, Newtown High School, Sandy Hook, Conn.
  • Julia Falkner, 17, Monarch High School, Louisville, Colo.
  • Weston Clark, 16, Park Tudor School, Indianapolis, Ind.

The student poets will hold readings and workshops at libraries, museums, and school across the US.

Ms Gong read an excerpt from her poem “Allegro”:

we are all vagabonds
somewhere inside, nomads
who move against the plate
tectonics, who graze
the ripe syllables of words
for breakfast and who know
that home is not where the
heart is, but where the heart longs to go

Most immigrant kids in Md. are now with family members

Based on a revised count of unaccompanied minors that have come to Maryland from Central American countries this year, all but a handful have been placed with family members, the Baltimore Sun reports.

In addition, the state has established a website, BuscandoMaryland.com to assist the children with their present needs, according to a report in the Daily Record. The goal for Buscando is to get information and resources to the people who need them.

“We’re a welcoming place, and we want them to know that help is available,” the Daily Record quoted Anne Sheridan, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children, as saying.

According to Maryland’s human resources secretary, Ted Dallas, the children have suffered many problems from their homelands and arduous journeys. Many have fled gang violence and drug activity in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, but in most cases, they entered the US illegally from Mexico.

“They have suffered some trauma and they need some help, but they do have smiles on their faces,” the Sun quoted him as saying.

The main problem in the US has been the clogged-up immigration courts. There simply aren’t enough lawyers and judges to provide due process for the immigration or refugee status claims certain to stick with many of the children.

Immigrant children placed with sponsors by state

Maryland has a high ranking when it comes to the number of unaccompanied children (UACs) who have been resettled here. The US Department of Health and Human Services reported, as of July 31, 2,804 children have been resettled in Maryland and placed with sponsors, the sixth highest total among states.

State # of UACs Population
Texas 5,280 26,448,193
New York 4,244 19,651,127
California 3,909 38,332,521
Florida 3,809 19,552,860
Virginia 2,856 8,260,405
Maryland 2,804 5,928,814

State populations are provided by the US Census Bureau and reflect the 2013 population estimates for the state, based on the 2010 official census counts.

Using data from sources cited in this article, explain why certain states might have placed a higher number of UACs with sponsors per capita than other states? See Common Core English language arts literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects, Appendix C: Samples of Student Writing, for more information.

Arthur H White, 90, helped encourage reading

Arthur H White, 90, died on Aug 25 as the result of complications of a stroke, the New York Times has reported.

Mr White advocated for literacy throughout his life. In 1966, he was one of the co-founders of Reading is Fundamental, which continues to be a leading advocate for childhood literacy.

He was also a market research pioneer, having co-founded the firm of Yankelovich, Skelly, and White in 1959. This firm is one of the nation’s leading public opinion research firms, and it is now known as The Futures Company as a result of a few strategic mergers.

The social activist also served as a member of the board at Jobs for the Future, where he remained actively involved. “It was not enough to have an idea,” the Times quoted Hilary Pennington, a vice president at the Ford Foundation who helped Mr White establish Jobs for the Future, as saying in an interview last week. “He had to see that idea produce change.”

Dyslexia law signed in IL

Gov Pat Quinn, Democrat of Illinois, signed a new law on July 12 that the state hopes will bring more education services to dyslexic students, the Associated Press reports, here via WSIL-TV (ABC affiliate, Carterville).

The law will also create a reading instruction advisory group to train teachers on how to identify and work with students who have dyslexia.

HB 3700 passed the Illinois House on April 1 and the Illinois Senate on May 20, both by unanimous votes.

The new law requires the State Board of Education to inform local school boards about tests that can be given to help schools identify dyslexic students more easily and get them the intervention and supports they need. Screening for dyslexia and other reading disabilities will now be required in kindergarten.

The state will also have to keep local education agencies informed as to appropriate intervention strategies for students diagnosed with dyslexia or other reading disabilities and make sure those students receive a comprehensive assessment for the learning disorder and, in the event that a diagnosis is confirmed, an appropriate intervention strategy.

The law also requires schools to give educators professional development related to reading disabilities. Schools must, with that training, incorporate the International Dyslexia Association’s definition of dyslexia and administer an appropriate written test for certain educator licensure candidates.

The world headquarters for the International Dyslexia Association, based in Towson, Md., defines dyslexia as follows:

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Dyslexia refers to a cluster of symptoms, which result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. Dyslexia affects individuals throughout their lives; however, its impact can change at different stages in a person’s life. It is referred to as a learning disability because dyslexia can make it very difficult for a student to succeed academically in the typical instructional environment, and in its more severe forms, will qualify a student for special education, special accommodations, or extra support services.

Pediatricians: Read aloud to children from birth

The American Academy of Pediatrics, at today’s meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in Denver, is expected to announce a new policy that asks its members to become powerful advocates for reading aloud every time a baby visits the doctor, the New York Times reports.

Representing about 62,000 pediatricians across the US, the AAP has long worked with programs like Reach Out & Read to promote literacy. For example, through the academy’s Illinois chapter, Reach Out & Read, an evidence-based nonprofit that promotes early literacy and school readiness during check-ups in pediatric exam rooms by giving books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud, serves more than 130,000 children and distributes more than 150,000 books annually in its 126 locations.

What’s new is that the recommendation from pediatricians to read aloud used to begin at 6 months of age, and in the new policy, written by Dr Pamela High, parents are going to be told to read aloud to their children from birth on. “It should be there each time we touch bases with children,” the Times quoted her as saying. Parents should be “reading together as a daily fun family activity” from infancy.

The Reach Out & Read organization, which says more than a dozen published studies show children served by its programs have larger vocabularies, higher comprehension skills, and more deeply engaged parents, has established a partnership for this new initiative with Too Small to Fail, a joint effort between the nonprofit Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation that is aimed at closing that word gap. Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to announce at today’s meeting that Scholasitc, the children’s book publisher, will donate 500,000 books to children through the Reach Out & Read program.

While the Reach Out & Read program trains doctors and nurses to advise parents about the importance of reading aloud, placing a special emphasis on children growing up in poverty, the Too Small to Fail organization will be developing materials that can be sent to doctors that will give some further advice on encouraging parents to read to their children.

Can this reduce the gap between rich kids and poor kids when it comes to literacy, knowing the joy of reading, or even having a few books in their homes?

Don’t decorate classrooms too much for young children

Maps, number lines, shapes, artwork and other materials tend to cover elementary classroom walls. However, new research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that too much of a good thing may end up disrupting attention and learning in young children.

Published in Psychological Science, Carnegie Mellon’s Anna V Fisher, Karrie E Godwin, and Howard Seltman looked at whether classroom displays affected children’s ability to maintain focus during instruction and to learn the lesson content. They found that children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.

“Young children spend a lot of time—usually the whole day—in the same classroom, and we have shown that a classroom’s visual environment can affect how much children learn,” said Fisher, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Should teachers take down their visual displays based on the findings of this study?

“We do not suggest by any means that this is the answer to all educational problems. Furthermore, additional research is needed to know what effect the classroom visual environment has on children’s attention and learning in real classrooms,” Fisher said. “Therefore, I would suggest that instead of removing all decorations, teachers should consider whether some of their visual displays may be distracting to young children.”

For the study, 24 kindergarten students were placed in laboratory classrooms for six introductory science lessons on topics they were unfamiliar with. Three lessons were taught in a heavily decorated classroom, and three lessons were given in a sparse classroom.

The results showed that while children learned in both classroom types, they learned more when the room was not heavily decorated. Specifically, children’s accuracy on the test questions was higher in the sparse classroom (55 percent correct) than in the decorated classroom (42 percent correct).

“We were also interested in finding out if the visual displays were removed, whether the children’s attention would shift to another distraction, such as talking to their peers, and if the total amount of time they were distracted would remain the same,” said Godwin, a PhD candidate in psychology and fellow of the Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research.

However, when the researchers tallied all of the time children spent off-task in both types of classrooms, the rate of off-task behavior was higher in the decorated classroom (38.6 percent time spent off-task) than in the sparse classroom (28.4 percent time spent off-task).

The researchers hope these findings lead to further studies into developing guidelines to help teachers optimally design classrooms.

The Institute of Education Sciences, part of the US Department of Education, funded this research. Last fall, CMU launched the Simon Initiative to accelerate the use of learning science and technology to improve student learning. Named to honor the work of the late Nobel Laureate and CMU Professor Herbert Simon, the initiative will harness CMU’s decades of learning data and research to improve educational outcomes for students everywhere.

Racist remarks follow Indian-American spelling champs

Shortly after two American boys whose families come from India were declared co-champions of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 29, racist comments were made on talk radio and on social media, the Times of India reports.

Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, N.Y., and Ansun Sujoe of Fort Worth, Texas, hold their trophy at the end of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition in National Harbor, Md. Hathwar and Sujoe were declared as co-champions after 22 rounds of the competition. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Comments saying only “Americans” should participate in the Spelling Bee were common in the hours after the victory.

But racism aside, Sriram Hathwar, 14, and Ansun Sujoe, 13, made history by winning the most American of academic competitions. Their victory, which came after a final list of 25 words was nearly exhausted, marked the first time in 52 years that two participants have won the contest.

Americans of Indian descent are on a streak at Scripps: Starting with Sameer Mishra, who won in 2008, Indian-American students have successfully reached the pinnacle for seven consecutive years.

Congratulations, Sriram and Ansun! Thanks for another dramatic finish as we showed some of our nation’s most uneducated people on ESPN that some of us do care about education, working hard, and learning.

And just remember: All these people who say you aren’t American, sometime a few years from now, when you need to grab a quick Shamrock shake, they’re going to be asking you if you want fries with that.

Alliance for Young Artists & Writers awards

The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers will present their national awards to hundreds of seventh through 12th graders across the country at Carnegie Hall next month, including Lisa Su, 18, a student at Washington Carver School for the Arts and Technology in Towson, Md., who was one of only eight national Gold Medal winners in the Art Portfolio category, the Baltimore Sun reports.

“I think the quiet sensitivity is there in the work, but it still has a presence,” the paper quoted Joe Cypressi, one of her teachers and the department chair for the visual arts department at the school, as saying.

For a complete list of winners, click here.

Ms Su said she will attend the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence next fall, where she expects to continue to develop her three-dimensional work, which she began as a child.

About the awards

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards has an impressive legacy dating back to 1923. Over the years, the awards have grown to become the longest-running, most prestigious recognition program for creative teens in the US, and the nation’s largest source of scholarships for creative young artists and writers. For her gold medal, Ms Su will receive a $10,000 cash scholarship.

A noteworthy roster of past winners includes Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Robert Redford, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, John Updike, and many more.

Each year, the Alliance partners with more than 100 visual and literary-arts organizations across the country to bring the awards to local communities. Teens in grades seven through 12 can apply in 28 categories of art and writing for the chance to earn scholarships and have their works exhibited or published. Submissions are juried by luminaries in the visual and literary arts, some of whom are past award recipients. Panelists look for works that best exemplify originality, technical skill, and the emergence of a personal voice or vision.

In the last five years alone, students submitted nearly 900,000 original works of art and writing. During that period, more than 60 top arts institutes and colleges have partnered with the awards to make $40 million in scholarships and financial aid available to regional and national Scholastic Award winners.