Tuesday, April 21, 2015

This post is a copy of what I wrote to Eval2015@nysed.gov  as teachers were invited to comment on possible changes to the NYS teacher evaluation system.  There has been a lot of controversy over what role, if any, standardized tests should play in teacher evaluation.  I feel that there is a role for tests, but not for standardized tests.

Why standardized tests are not an appropriate way to measure growth and some ideas for tests that may be more appropriate

    Clearly there needs to be a way to assess the success of teachers.  The purpose of the tests and the diversity of the students in any teacher's classroom are just two reasons why standardized tests are not the right assessment tool.  This doesn't mean that there are not any available tests that could measure student progress in a meaningful way.
    Assessment of teaching and learning is not the mission of standardized tests.  A "good" standardized test produces a clear "bell curve,"  the statistical spread of scores that makes it possible to divide the results in stanine scales (with a mean of 5 and a standard deviation of 2).  If too many students answer a question correctly it may be that teaching is interfering with the measurement, so that question is "bad" and will probably be thrown out.  This leads to tests involving talking pineapples, races for riding lawn mowers, and other content that is not taught in many schools. Maintaining the standardized bell curve means that something else must be measured through the tests other than what might interfere with the test by actually being taught.
    Not every student in a given class is an appropriate candidate for one particular grade level of standardized test.  Students who begin the year performing several grade levels below or above the grade level measured with a particular test will not produce meaningful results.  Special education teachers can have the experience of making the breakthrough in teaching a child to read and seeing their test scores plunge from scores indicating random guessing to reading with incomplete comprehension and thus getting all the answers wrong.  Teachers with classes filled with gifted students may have an entire class that scored between the 95-99 percentile.  How can they produce "gains" in standardized testing scores?
    It seems clear that trying to measure student growth through standardized tests is doomed to fail.  Standardized tests make the assumption that half of our students must be below average, and the same percentage each year are doomed to failure. Standardized tests are just not the right tools to measure educational progress.
    There may be other more open ended tests that could perhaps give more meaningful information.  There are reading tests, some even available online, that measure a students reading ability and comprehension on an open ended scale. It seems more than possible that similar math assessments must exist.  A student that made more than one grade level progress in the course of one year could be acknowledged as having made "gains."  For social studies and science much of what should be measured is understanding of the facts in a particular curriculum.  This is a case where the adage that "tests drive the curriculum" is not such a bad thing.  If an agreement could be reached as to what topics and information must be covered at a particular grade level, then tests could be devised to measure students mastery of those topics.  These must not be standardized tests on secret topics.  Instead they should be tests that measure whether students have learned a specific topic.  It must be acceptable for more than half of the students to succeed. 

Thank you for the opportunity to write about this important topic.

Yours truly,

Elizabeth Dejean, MLS
P.S. 360
Bronx, NY

Friday, August 15, 2014

Toeing the Line between Selection and Censorship

As a school librarian I constantly toe this line.  Parents and teachers want their children to find what they need and what the adults in their lives think the children want.  Children often want something more.  More exciting, more romantic, more violent, more rude… 

Rude is the easy part.  When someone fusses at me about a book with fart jokes (R.L. Stine’s “Rotten School” series is a case in point.)  I can smile and shrug and say “I don’t really like fart jokes so much either.  That’s really not my taste in humor.  But I’m not in second or third grade…”  Often questions about rude humor are brought up by students in 4th or 5th grade who are developing their own, very necessary, internal censor and I can assure them that their feeling uncomfortable shows that they are very grown up. 

Language is also fairly easy.  The question becomes not whether our library should have books with “words like that” but do the words (all the words – not just the “naughty” ones) serve a purpose.  Is the story or the information worth the shelf space in the library and the mind space in our students’ brains?   These issues are again often raised by fourth or fifth grade students who are concerned that the library has books with “inappropriate words.”   I haven’t yet had a case where that student felt that they shouldn’t have been allowed to read the book – only concern that others might!  Students who bring up these issues often want to and are ready to talk them through.  Part of reading is discovering that characters sometimes act and speak in ways that might be distasteful to the reader, but that can be part of realistic behavior.  Some people behave badly, and a good and truthful story can include people like that.

Violence is harder.  I read, reread and think hard as I select books.  My library is a school library, so it serves the school’s needs as well as the students, and shelf space is tight.  If I am going to bend the rules a little and carry a book that is “rated” in the review literature for middle school students, is there a purpose besides satisfying a student’s desire for more gore?   As with language, it comes down to the story or the information.  Is it worth the shelf space?  Is it good, interesting, readable, entertaining, thought provoking,  etc?  Walter Dean Myers may at times be disturbing, but is always worth reading.  I do have students who crave “scary books” and even some who specifically ask for books with “more violence,” so every year I search to find a few more books that are readable, age appropriate, yet scary.  “Goosebumps” is a wonderful series, but – then what?  It is hard to find books that live up to the expectations of young people that have been watching slasher movies and playing violent video games since second grade, but I keep trying!  Short story collections such as R.L. Stine’s Beware:R.L. Stine picks his favorite stories and the Guy’s Read Thriller give students craving a scare a place to start looking for new favorite authors.

Now about romance…  We live in an era where many fourth and fifth grade girls want to read “up” not so much in reading level as in maturity level.  Many ten year old girls want to pretend at least some of the time that they are in high school.    The good news is that many authors work hard to make their books accessible to younger girls.  Ann Martin, Judy Blume, and Meg Cabot are just a few of the authors that make young girls feel that they are reading very grownup books.  I have read and loved The Fault in our Stars. Yes there is romance.  There is even a sex scene.  But all we “see” is that he removes his prosthetic leg and her oxygen line gets tangled up as he tries to undress her.  It is “rated” in the reviews for grades nine and up.  I know that most of my sixth graders bought it and read it last June.  This year we only go up to fifth grade so I probably won’t add it to the collection.  Part of me feels that I am holding out, not offering this prized book to my students.  Is this selection?  Or is it censorship?  What do you think? 

Friday, August 8, 2014

School Librarians as Curators and Developers of E-content

One key role of a school librarian has always been curator; organizing and making the knowledge in the library accessible.  In the last quarter century that role has expanded to selecting, organizing, and making accessible the knowledge available electronically and over the internet.  Librarians will continue to organize information using shelf order systems such as Melville Dewey’s well known decimal classification system, but now their expertise is expected to range far beyond their own shelves.

Curating beyond our own shelves is a requirement of the job!  In the sample job description for the position of school librarian provided by the American Association of School Librarians, the importance of electronic and web based information is clear.  The school librarian’s job includes evaluating software, modeling teaching of “multiple literacies,” as well as 
evaluating, promoting, and using existing and emerging technologies to support teaching and learning, supplement school resources, connect the school with the global learning community, communicate with students and teachers, and provide 24/7 access to library services .  (AASL 2010)
So how can we even begin?  There is no one perfect, universally accepted template for organizing the plethora of information and tools available electronically and over the internet!  Approaches range from using and understanding search engines and their algorithms to exploring the deep web (information that while housed on the internet is not usually available to search engines), locating curated lists provided by libraries and professional organizations,  to using tools that leverage the crowd and connections  such as professional learning networks (PLNs), listserves, and crowd sourced tools such as tags.

Search engines cast the widest net.  They attempt to provide an index to at least part of the web by using algorithms to search, recording links, descriptions, and addresses.  Some popular search engines attempt to give the user access to everything that fits your search terms, while others search within limits or focus on particular aspects of the web.  While searching the web even good researchers can drown in overwhelming numbers of “relevant hits.”   This is a sign to limit a search, perhaps narrowing search terms, or limiting by date or even reading level. 

Another level is the deep web.  This includes exploring inside public sites, digging into sites that require specific searches, such as the Library of Congress (LOC), museums, or other libraries, or into databases that require subscriptions.  Often the information or document that you really need resides in this deep web.  Services such as Graphite attempt to guide searchers to relevant, timely, and appropriate sites that the user can then search, while content aggregators such as One Search from Follett Destiny apply your search terms to a preselected group of sites or databases.  Graphite  features many excellent sites from the deep web as well as sites with lists and indices that will help researchers locate content specific wells of information on the deep web. 

As researchers dig deeply into a topic they will benefit from exploring lists and bibliographies and research guides created by other researchers.  This will often lead to content specific wells of information on the deep web.  A classic example of this type of research is when I searched for a guide to colonial America by first going to LOC  Virtual Reference Shelf,   selecting the Best of History websites from EdTech Teacher and clicking on the colonial period.     

When the researcher or the teacher or librarian finds useful sources, it is imperative to record what they find so they can continue to refer to this site.  Every researcher needs a bookmarking tool to record and organize the sites they find during their research.  Graphite features a few of this diverse basket of tools useful  to create files of websites and electronic resources.  Diigo, Delicious (formerly Del.icio.us), and Evernote are some bookmarking tools available on Graphite.  Portaportal, an old-school favorite isn’t represented here, and others are constantly emerging. Here is a list from the Search Engine Journal.

It isn’t the tools you use to build your collections that matter, it is the quality and usefulness of your ever changing collection.  Let’s join together, share “boards” on Graphite, and on Pinterest and openly share our lists and the tools we use to build those lists.  So choose your tools, search web, and dig deeply into e-encyclopedias, library and museum sites, tag, create, organize, and make sure that clear citations are available whenever possible. 

Wait a minute!  That sounds like a job!  Teachers don’t have time to add this to their very full plates! Your school librarian may not have time either, but at least it is in the job description.  Your school librarian will help you find what you need, often by reaching out to other school librarians and using tools and supports such as those represented on Graphite.  Organizing and curating information is in their job description – even on the wild, wild web.

Elizabeth Dejean

Graphite: A new service connecting teachers to technology

Last month I joined a group of teachers, the Graphite Accelerated Educators, that have been recruited to help develop content and review websites for Graphite .  Graphite is a service provided by Common Sense Media to “help preK-12 educators discover, use, and share the best apps, games, websites, and digital curricula for their students by providing unbiased, rigorous ratings and practical insights from our active community of teachers.” (Graphite.org “About us.”)  In the course of my explorations of Graphite I began to ponder how the role teacher librarians could play in making Graphite a better tool.  After all, the purpose stated in the “About us” statement on the Graphite website is a very close match to part of the Sample job description for the position of school librarian provided by the American Association of School Librarians.  I can imagine using Graphite as on of my information tools and I will recommend it to my teachers as a source of information about websites.  However I would not use it exclusively.  The information world is not static and no one gate-keeper can possibly include all the “good stuff” inside one walled garden.  Meanwhile I am actively working with the Graphite community, fostering connections between the teachers on Graphite and their school librarians.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Neil Gaiman is a favorite author, although he writes faster than I can read, so I don't read everything he writes.  Here he addresses the Digital Minds Conference way back in April (I realize that I am way behind!) and talks about the future of books.  Many people have told me that they will never be comfortable with e-books and that curling up with a device doesn't have the same appeal as curling up with a good book.   

He doesn't see e-books "killing" reading any more than home mix-tapes and the internet have killed music.  But the world will change, and yesterday won't return. 

What does this mean for me in my little school library?  Most of my students will never have or value a "home library."  People will only keep a paper book when the object has a special meaning.  Meanwhile, the library will continue to be important, but not every book that I buy will be a paper book.  Already the encyclopedia is a dinosaur.  I can't see teaching students to locate outdated information through an arduous process, when I can teach them more easily to use the online versions of the encyclopedia.  I don't badmouth Wikipedia, but I do teach what it is.  Time moves on.   

Neil also talked about being a "dandelion;"  tossing out millions (or at least thousands) of seeds.  These seeds can be ideas, or trial balloons, and many of them will fail.  Some, however, will take root and surprise you.  So if I try things and they don't work out, I can imagine that I am just showing my students that one has to try many things to find the one that will be amazing.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

I am back on Net Galley.  I finally figured out that all I had to do so I could download books from NetGalley and the NYPL reinstall Adobe Digital Editions.   That shouldn't have taken so long to figure out!   So now I can feed my reader - just in time for summer reading!

So here is my first summer reading log and book report.  After all, if we ask the kids to do it, shouldn't we teachers and librarians log our summer reading as well?

Stroud, Jonathan.   The Screaming Stair.  Book one of the Lockwood and Co. series.  (Due out 9/17/2013)
     What a great book for starting the summer!  This was a review copy.  A gift from the good people that arranged the school librarian's dinner at the BEA conference.  Jonathan Stroud also spoke at the dinner.  (This was an excellent evening out!) The Screaming Stair is just exciting enough to be fun to read but soothingly predictable enough that I could trust that no character I cared about would really die.  Set in a distopian version of London where most activity ceases after dark because hostile visitors (aka ghosts) threaten life and sanity.  Only children can fight these horrors, so young people like the protagonists Lucy Doyle who joins Anthony Lockwood in his ghost eradication company go out at night equipped with tools such as iron chains and filings, flares and silver nets to catch and conquer the ghosts.  A fun book.  Not life changing but readable and entertaining.  I will definitely purchase this for my library.  I know some 4th and 5th grade students who will devour it.

Rupp, Rebecca.  After Eli.  (2012)
Having been on vacation for a few days I was ready for my first good cry.  Danny was eleven when his big brother Eli was killed by a roadside IID in Iraq.  His family has never come to grips with their loss, Eli's room is a shrine, and Danny, feeling invisible and knowing he will never replace his brother has been writing obsessively about how people die.  This short book will make you think about the families around you.

Hills, Tad. Rocket Writes a Story.  (2012)  Awww.  I will get this for my library.  Sometimes an author wannabe needs a little encouragement.

I read this out loud to my husband as we drove up to Saratoga on the first day of summer vacation.  My vacation, not his.  In all of the wonderful places I go every year to read, write, and think, he is working.  Saratoga is for the Opera at Saratoga festival which started the week before school was out.  He used his precious day off to come and get me!  Thank you!

Barnard, Bryn.  Outbreak: Plagues that changed history.  (2005) My first nonfiction reading.  This was from NYPL.  This nonfiction book about how microbes includes chapters about Bubonic Plague, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and influenza.  It changed my understanding of parts of history and the spread of disease and made me think about the intersection of politics, health, and our survival as a species.  Universal healthcare isn't just a safety net for those who can't afford! Note to self: get a flu shot next year...

Chevat, Richie.  The Omnivore's Delimna: The secrets behind what you eat.  (2009)  Another ebook from NYPL.  This is the youth version of the much-discussed book by Michael Pollan.  It is not outdated.  Many of the companies Chevat / Pollan visits and discusses are still the major players in their particular food chains.  The narrative centers around four meals; one (MacDonalds) meal from the industrial food chain, one organic, on locally sustainable, and one hunted and gathered.   The information I learned from this book is still being echoed in the daily papers.  I will definitely think carefully about where my chicken and eggs come from.

Snowe, Olivia.  Cassie and the Wolf.  From Capstone's  Twice Told Tales series.  (2014)  This electronic review copy was from NetGalley.  The copyright date made me catch my breath.  Quick and enjoyable, this is a really good example of a riff on a fairy tale theme.  I really liked that the wolfish thief is more engaging and sympathetic than the equally wolfish Little Red and Granny.  Granny can certainly take care of herself!  I will probably order the series from Captsone.  I hope it will inspire many young authors, and make other readers think about the inner meaning of the original stories.


As you can see I am stiving to balance my reading between fiction and nonfiction.  I will try to get in a good biography and perhaps some poetry before the summer is over.  This is what is on my "shelf" for this week.

2 fun books from my Netgalley subscription:  Witch Twins by Adele Griffin and Mousemobile by Prudence Breitnose.  A paper review copy of Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper.  This looks like a blend of  magic and historical fiction with Native American themes.  It is due out at the end of August.

I want to read as my "big" (aka adult) book for the summer Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant.  I read a review in the NYT last Sunday and I can't wait to read more about the Borgia's who may not be the unrepentant criminals we have imagined.  It is due out next week, so I will buy it for my Nook when I return from Alaska.  While I am traveling I will try to finish my big (adult) book that I began this Spring.  Why Geography Matters More Than Ever by Harm J. De Blij.  I feel that having read most of this I understand a lot more about what climate change really means.  However my own wobbly geography skills made this a hard slow read especially in the sections about terrorism.  It is frightening that decisions are made sometimes at the highest levels by people whose grasp of the world situation isn't that much stronger than mine.  I will also keep dipping into the essays, poems, and stories in the Beautiful Anthology edited by Elizabeth Collins.  The Beautiful Anthology is also an adult book. If you are a grown woman and are looking for something wonderful and thought provoking to dip into, this is the the book for you.

I will keep on reading and will check in every few weeks to say how it is going.  I plan to seek out some good children's poetry and biographies to add to my list.  I haven't read a poetry novel in at least a year, so that may be a plan. At the end of the summer I will have a reading log.  Even if I never show it to anyone at least I can say when I collect reading logs from the students in my school "I don't ask you to do anything that I wouldn't do myself."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Jo Knowles writes the "Monday morning warmup" for the Teachers' Write summer workshop.  Today she asked us to write about what we and our characters want or hope.  I think this has spurned some possible directions for the next Megan and Munchie book.  Last week I also gathered some advice for what to do to send Megan and Munch off towards publication.  So maybe that will actually happen.  The book is actually complete - it just needs some buffing and hopefully down the road a professional reader.