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The Future of Education


Inclusive Schools Week 2015: Sharing our Gifts

This week is Inclusive Schools Week and across the nation educators, students and parents are using the opportunity to celebrate how far we have come and explore what more we can do to include and educate all students, regardless of disability, race, gender, socio-economic status, language, cultural heritage or other factors.

On Monday, December 7th, San Francisco public schools held a kick off event on the steps of City Hall where dignitaries, educators, parents and students spoke about the importance of inclusion in their lives. "Take My Word For It!" was proud to have one of our students read a poem at this event. This year's ISW theme is "sharing our gifts" and we hope many students can use the gift of poetry to get them through the hard times in life.

Patrick reading a poem at City Hall that he wrote during a "Take My Word For It!" in-school poetry residency at his elementary school.



Quandries about the Common Core Follow-Up

As those of you who read our newsletter have seen, our January focus was on the Common Core. We appreciate the responses we've received and are happy that one of our parents has allowed us to repost her response to continue this dialogue on making our educational structure stronger for our children (original wording of the newsletter is below the response).

As an educator expert on Common Core, I couldn't help but respond.
The standards do emphasize higher order thinking skills and rich content learning through non-fiction. That said, the narrative is an essential form that is still strongly represented in the standards and actually the sentiment that you relay below is a bit of a "myth" about the Core.
As a secondary teacher for over 15 years I saw so many student(s) come to me as teenagers with a deep knowledge of narrative structures and storytelling and able to write persuasively from the "I" point of view. However, they woefully lacked the ability to learn from informational text and did not have robust background knowledge in science, history, art, etc. They could read the words on the page but were not able to apply a critical lens to what they read or comprehend. The data also is clear that we have big gaps in college and career readiness - so the goal of the Core is to focus teachers on college and career readiness so we can reduce our large rates of college remediation. Moreover, many elementary schools use basal readers and almost exclusively teach narrative structures k-5. This has been a big issue for middle and high school teachers as the demands (turn) from learning to read to reading to learn.
I do agree that we need a balance but I also think that the negative  conversation about the reduction of narrative outlined by the Core is misguided and narrow - my opinion. Nowhere in the standards does it say that nonfiction is more rigorous than fiction. If you can find it, let me know. In fact the appendices of the Core are RICH with narrative examples - we are being asked to push students in new ways with what they do with them!
Here is a link to my blog post on the subject:
Heard a lot of talk lately about “The Common Core"? As you may know, it's a set of national educational standards adopted by nearly every state. The Common Core mandates what public school students should know by the end of every academic year (In California, the standards were adopted in August 2010, but it takes several years to implement - the timeline the Department of Education published goes through 2015). Public schools have been adjusting their curricula to meet these new requirements and there are some heated debates going on among parents, bloggers, and educators about them.

One of the debates is over the new emphasis on analytic and critical thinking. The Common Core focuses less on self-expression, and much more on persuasive, argumentative and analytical writing.

We must admit, we're biased. We don't think that writing about non-fiction texts is somehow more rigorous than reading and writing poetry, short stories or novels, and that writing explanatory or argumentative essays is more worthwhile than creative writing. Isn't there room for both? The Common Core stresses analytic, critical thinking-based writing, but what about the thinking-outside-the-box, imaginative approach to writing? What about the beauty of being able to write something that is not considered “right” or “wrong?”

At “Take My Word For It!” we will continue to celebrate creative writing - inviting our students to take literary adventures, while at the same time, teaching them about the craft. While we respect the aim and importance of the Common Core Standards, we will continue to offer kids the chance to grab a pencil and let their imaginations run wild.

-Sondra Hall Founder and Director



An important Opinion piece from the N.Y. Times

A college professor's lament on the state of writing and writers in secondary education these days:

The Decline and Fall of the English Major


In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.

That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language.

The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times. So says a new report on the state of the humanities by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so says the experience of nearly everyone who teaches at a college or university. Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.

In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply. At Pomona College (my alma mater) this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number.

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.

Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.

The canon — the books and writers we agree are worth studying — used to seem like a given, an unspoken consensus of sorts. But the canon has always been shifting, and it is now vastly more inclusive than it was 40 years ago. That’s a good thing. What’s less clear now is what we study the canon for and why we choose the tools we employ in doing so.

A technical narrowness, the kind of specialization and theoretical emphasis you might find in a graduate course, has crept into the undergraduate curriculum. That narrowness sometimes reflects the tight focus of a professor’s research, but it can also reflect a persistent doubt about the humanistic enterprise. It often leaves undergraduates wondering, as I know from my conversations with them, just what they’ve been studying and why.

STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply.

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.



Where Have All Of Our Librarians Gone?

The East Bay Children’s Book Project is helping the Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries re-stock and re-open shuttered Oakland public school libraries. But what if a school has a library but no librarian to run it and to guide the students who use it? You might be surprised at the bitterness of the debate on this question.

According to the State Department of Education, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 2, 2012, fewer than one in four school libraries has a credentialed librarian. Perhaps even more shockingly, that number is plummeting: down to 900 from 1,100 just two years ago. Money is tight, and schools may see librarians as expendable. So librarians’ jobs fall to classroom teachers (who may or may not have a library credential or training), or even to volunteers.

So, does it matter, as long as the library doors stay open?

No, according to Ze’ev Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive who participated in the development of California education standards and served as a policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Education.  The Chronicle article quotes Wurman: “In the elementary grades especially, librarians are essentially teacher’s aides, doing a variety of things that have little to do with books or literacy, per se.” Wurman also says research shows giving schools grants for their libraries doesn’t increase the amount of materials checked out.

Nonsense, says East Bay Children’s Book Project volunteer Raynor Voorhies, a retired East Bay teacher librarian. As Voorhies noted in a letter to the editor, librarians are the key to actually connecting students with books: “Circulation and access increase when knowledgeable teacher librarians use their expertise to promote, introduce and connect students with books and information resources. Would this same Silicon Valley executive expect his product to move off the shelves without qualified staff to advertise, market and keep the doors open?” Another letter from an elementary school librarian stated that Wurman fails to understand what a librarian does: “all I do is ‘literacy’.”

Some high school students were asked what they thought of a school library staffed by teachers or volunteers. Their view: Teachers are far too busy, and underpaid for what they do as it is. The school library may be the only place a student has access to computers, and helping with that aspect of their library work is a full-time job, not some add-on to an already full plate. Volunteers are great, but you need someone who is paid and required to be there. Libraries need librarians.

Why should you care? Because every child needs books, and many children need help getting access to books and to information. Their literacy may depend on it.

Please join the conversation and let us know what you think by commenting below.



How Budget Cuts Affect Teachers

Teachers feel the brunt of educational budget cuts in many ways. In a field where in good times about 20% of teachers leave the profession in the first three years, budget cuts mean less incentive for educators to continue teaching. Following are ten ways that budget cuts harm teachers and accordingly their students.

  1. Less Pay

  2. Obviously, this is a big one. Lucky teachers will just have their pay raises reduced to close to nothing. The less fortunate ones will be in school districts that have decided to cut teacher pay. Further, teachers who work extra by taking on summer school classes or running activities that provide supplemental pay will often find their positions eliminated or their hours/pay reduced.

  3. Less Spent on Employee Benefits

  4. Many school districts pay for at least part of their teachers benefits. The amount that the school districts are able to pay typically suffers under budget cuts. This, in effect, is like a pay cut for teachers.

  5. Less to Spend on Materials

  6. One of the first things to go with budget cuts is the already small discretionary fund that teachers get at the beginning of the year. In many schools this fund is almost entirely used to pay for photocopies and paper throughout the year. Other ways that teachers might spend this money is on classroom materials, posters, and other learning tools. However, as budget cuts increase more and more of this is provided by the teachers and their students.

  7. Less School-Wide Material and Technology Purchases

  8. With less money, schools often cut their school-wide technology and material budgets. Teachers and media specialists who have researched and asked for specific products or items will find that these will not be available for their use. While this might not seem to be as big an issues as some of the other items on this list, it is just one more symptom of a wider problem. The individuals who suffer most from this are the students who are not able to benefit from the purchase.

  9. Delays for New Textbooks

  10. Many teachers only have outdated textbooks to give their students. It's not unusual for a teacher to have a social studies textbook that is 10-15 years old. In American History, this would mean that two to three presidents have not even been mentioned in the text. Geography teachers often complain about having textbooks that are so outdated that they aren't even worth giving to their students. Budget cuts just compound this problem. Textbooks are very expensive so schools facing major cuts will often hold off on getting new texts or replacing lost texts.

  11. Less Professional Development Opportunities

  12. While this might not seem like a big deal to some, the truth is that teaching just like any profession, becomes stagnant without continual self improvement. The field of education is changing and new theories and teaching methods can make all the difference in the world for new, struggling, and even experienced teachers. However, with budget cuts these activities are typically some of the first to go.

  13. Less Electives

  14. Schools facing budget cuts typically begin by cutting their electives and either moving teachers to core subjects or eliminating their positions entirely. Students are given less choice and teachers are either moved around or stuck teaching subjects they are not ready to teach.

  15. Larger Classes

  16. With budget cuts come larger classes. Research has shown that students learn better in smaller classes. When there is overcrowding there is a greater likelihood of disruptions. Further, it is much easier for students to fall through the cracks in larger schools and not get the extra help they need and deserve to succeed. Another casualty of larger classes is that teachers are unable to do as many cooperative learning and other more complex activities. They are just too difficult to manage with very large groups.

  17. Possibility of a Forced Move

  18. Even if a school is not closed, teachers might be forced to move to new schools as their own schools reduce their course offerings or increase class sizes. When the administration consolidates classes, if there are not enough students to warrant the positions then those with the lowest seniority typically have to move to new positions and/or schools.

  19. Possibility of School Closures

  20. With budget cuts come school closures. Typically smaller and older schools are closed and combined with larger, newer ones. This happens despite all the evidence that smaller schools are better for students in almost every way. With school closures teachers are either faced with the prospect of moving to a new school or possibility being laid off from work. What really stinks for older teachers is that when they have taught in a school for a long time, they have built up seniority and are typically teaching their preferred subjects. However, once they move to a new school they usually have to take over whatever classes are available.

How have School Budget Cuts affected you and your teachers?? Please contribute your opinions, experiences and ideas about School Budget Cuts in the comments below!



Live vs. Online Classes: Does Anything Get Lost In Translation?

As more of our lives become virtual and make their way online, standard ways of doing things are evolving and transitioning online as well. Some translate quite well, and make life more efficient, such as online banking, and online DMV registration.

However, the debate is strong and the jury still out as to how online learning compares to traditional live learning. There are pros and cons to both, as well as hybrid programs that incorporate a little of each format. Let's compare each method, shall we?

Traditional Live Classes


Traditional classrooms give you the type of responsibility to showing up at a regular date and time. You know that in order to take that test, hand in that assignment, or to meet with the group you have to be there during the scheduled time. This works really well for some people. Some people just may not be responsible enough to take the tests, hand in assignments, or participate in online discussion if there is not a specific "date". You can meet a lot of people in the classroom. It's kind of hard to make "classmate friends" just from an online course. Traditional classrooms give you easier access to the professor. What if you are having a hard time contacting him via e-mail or he always seems to be gone during his officer hours? Well, having him in the classroom with you gives easy access to ask your questions and get the help you need.


Traditional Classrooms are not very flexible. Sure sometimes teachers give you "free skip days" but if you use them, you get really far behind the class. And what if your skip day happens to have a "pop quiz" then you are out of luck! You may need to take a certain class for your degree, but it doesn't fit into your schedule. You know how many times I'd have to drop one class to fit in another class? It can be very frustrating. If you live off of campus, you are spending more money on travel and also could be having to pay a nice price for a parking pass. For my college it is $90 per semester. Parking tickets are $15 if you happen to be on the wrong street on the wrong days. I use to park on the side street and then walk 3 blocks to school every day, sometimes after a nice fresh layer of snow fell and would have to walk through it. Not fun!

Online Courses


Simply put, freedom. You are not tied down to when you have to go to bed or wake up for class. You don't have to travel through a blizzard to get to class. And sadly, your online school will hardly ever cancel classes even in the worse snow falls. You can get a job and work at any hours you want, and then during your free time work on your school work.

In addition to this, you can pace yourself...and learn at your own rate. Many times students are more vocal and involved in the discussion because it is online and they feel more comfortable stating their opinion than they normally would if it was face to face. No more spending money on gas to get to class or getting parking tickets.

Online classes also make it possible to potentially get a better job because of being more flexible with your hours. You can spend more time with your family and friends. If you are a mother or father trying to take care of your kids, it is so much easier to be able to stay at home and take a class than have to leave them with someone else if your spouse is at work or you have no one else to watch them.


You will have a hard time (if any chance at all) to make friends in an online class. You are basically just a name to everyone since you never meet each other. You may never even meet the professor in real life. Now some may think this is not a big deal, but over time I think having a few professors you know well and can trust is essential to a college career. It will be the person you know where to turn to when looking for ideas of a new career or someone to help you choose another class. In an online course I could never find this. I don't even know what mine look like! Not to mention, the huge value of networking with your peers that you miss out on, and that can come in very handy not only socially, but professionally in the real world.

It may be very hard to be disciplined enough to take an online class. Since you are never really meeting up on a regular basis, you could forget you're taking one completely. Many people make the mistake of thinking that online learning is easier than live learning, only to find that if you get behind, it can feel even harder to catch up. In many online classes, it is necessary to check daily or even every other day to make sure you are up to date and don't miss anything. 

Some people learn differently. Some people have to "hear" it to remember it. Other people have to take notes as the professor is talking to remember it. In an online course, many times you won't hear a professor talk. A few courses may have like a video learning experience, but the ones I took had nothing of the sort. If you are not part of any classroom lectures, there will be no notes to take. The only notes you could take are perhaps ones you find reading discussions or textbook.

Finally after reading all the pros and cons, my personal opinion on the matter...Our verdict? The style of learning you prefer really should be a personal choice, and based on each individual's circumstances. You might find that some classes are helpful to complete online due to schedule limitations, or perhaps the content doesn't require as much hands-on learning. You have to know yourself, the type of environment that suits you and your learning style best, and what your lifestyle will permit. 

As with any tool, you must learn to use it. Both teachers and students alike are learning more and more about how to more effectively leverage the power of the internet for learning, and thus better platforms and tools are being developed every day.

Our advice is to spend your some time initally taking regular classroom courses to get into the groove of how college works. Make new friends, get to know a few teachers face to face, and then venture out into the online arena. Only you can know how you learn best and what works for you. Either way, the important thing is that you are open and engaged in the learning process, in that regard, both live and online classes have much to offer!

What do you think?? What has been your experiences with online learning, and is there anything that gets lost in translation?? Please share and comment below!