Saturday, August 30, 2014

EngageNY 6th Grade, Module 1, Unit 2, Lesson 3: in Which Students Use an Age-inappropriate Concept to Discuss an Age-inappropriate Theme

The work for Lesson 3 of Unit 2 of The Lightning Thief unit can be summed up with this quote of directions:

  • Add that a thematic statement is expressed in a complete sentence and conveys a complete idea about the topic. It is a statement or claim about the topic: the writer’s thinking. A hint that often helps students to arrive at theme is to ask: “What idea or lesson does this story convey or communicate about the topic?” In this case, the theme answers the question: “What ideas does the Cronus myth convey about parent-child relationships?” 

So firsthand, the idea of theme as a testable concept s too mature for sixth-graders on the whole. I've discussed that already. Now we're going to use that concept and discuss in depth about a father Titan devouring his own children? Seriously? Cannibalism and murder of children?

I won't lie and say I don't address this issue too, but I treat for the horror it is. To spice things up, I even show a bit of Goya.

Yes it's horrible, but that's the point. Treat it as such. By analyzing this text, it's like using The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to teach film technique.

Not only that, this is a second day with the same text! Now that's a horror.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

EngageNY Grade 6, Module 1, Unit 2, Lessons 1–2: Mythology At Last?

Unit 2 of The Lightning Thief module begins auspiciously:

Grade 6: Module 1: Unit 2: Lesson 1

Reading Closely to Build Background Knowledge: “Myths and Legends” 

Really? I'm actually looking forwards to that. Unfortunately, after doing the requisite inferencing from the novel itself, we are presented with the first myth, entitled:

In appearance, the gods were supposed to resemble mortals, but they were more beautiful, strong, and tall. They resembled human beings in their feelings and habits, marrying one another and having children, and needing daily nourishment and refreshing sleep.

The Greeks believed that their gods were much smarter than men, but that the gods still had human feelings and passions. We often see the gods motivated by revenge, deceit, and jealousy. But they always punish the evildoer, especially any mortal who neglects their worship.

We often hear of the gods descending to earth to visit mankind. Often, both gods and goddesses become attached to mortals and have children with them. These children are called heroes or demigods, and were usually known for their great strength and courage. But although there were so many points of resemblance between gods and men, only the gods were immortal.

They possessed the power to make themselves invisible and could disguise themselves as men or animals. They could also transform human beings into trees, stones, or animals, either as a punishment for their misdeeds or to protect the individual from danger.

Most of these divinities lived on the summit of Mount Olympus, each possessing his or her individual home, and all meeting together on festive occasions in the council-chamber of the gods. Men built magnificent temples to their honor and worshipped the gods with the greatest solemnity

Not terribly encouraging, and this isn't because the information here is wrong, or even inappropriate for the book, but it's inappropriate considering we're nine chapters into the book! We've been talking about gods sine the first chapter! This would have been a fine introduction to gods before chapter 1, but now?

Speaking of which, who are those gods? There's mention of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Ares, Athena (my favorite), and Dionysus, so where is the background knowledge? Who are these gods? That's what makes this unit so frustrating. It's either assuming sixth-graders know this (and most of them don't) or that it's unimportant, which is also wrong.

Of course, a handout can never just be informational. We now need to parse it for as much as much vocabulary and paragraph structure as we can get. But once that tedious review of test-taking skills is dne, we're on to lesson 2, the myth of Cronus!

Cronus was the son of Uranus and Gaea (Mother Earth), and was the youngest of the Titans. When Gaea gave birth to other children, such as Cyclops, who looked monstrous, Uranus was not proud of them and put them in a pit under the earth. This made Gaea very angry, and she asked Cronus and his Titan brothers to rise up against their father and save their other brothers. Cronus did overthrow his father, but he did not save his monstrous brothers. Gaea, who loved all of her children, was so angered that Cronus did not help his brothers that she began to plan Cronus’ ruin.

Cronus was the god of time. He married his sister Rhea, and together they had three sons and three daughters. Cronus was afraid that his children might one day rise up against his authority, as he had against his own father, Uranus. His father had predicted that this would happen. In order to be sure that he kept power and the prophecy did not come true, Cronus attempted to escape fate by swallowing each child as soon as it was born.

This filled his wife Rhea with sorrow and anger. When it came to Zeus, her sixth and last child, Rhea was determined to save this one child at least, to love and cherish. She asked her parents, Uranus and Gaea, for advice and assistance. They told her to wrap a stone in baby-clothes and give it to Cronus. She did, and he swallowed the stone without noticing the deception.

Anxious to keep the secret of his existence from Cronus, Rhea sent the infant Zeus secretly to Crete, where he was fed, protected, and educated. Priests of Rhea beat their shields together and kept up a constant noise at the entrance, which drowned the cries of the child and frightened away all intruders.

Grown to manhood, Zeus determined to make his father restore his brothers and sisters to the light of day. The goddess Metis helped him, convincing Cronus to drink a potion, which caused him to give back the children he had swallowed. Cronus was so enraged that war between the father and son became inevitable. Zeus eventually dethroned his father Cronus, who was banished from his kingdom and deprived forever of the supreme power. Cronus’ son now became supreme god. 

And there are a lot of problems here. Oookay, where do I begin? The first this is that it contains a factual error. This sheet gives the impression that Cronus was the only surviving male Titan when in fact there were many. Some, like Atlas and Prometheus, figure prominently in later myths.

When retelling this myth you have to do a certain amount of editing. Cronus defeats his father Uranus by castrating him, a detail certainly not appropriate for sixth grade. (The severed genitals fall into the sea and give rise to Aphrodite, hence the many depictions of the goddess rising out of the "foam".) Moira Kerr and John Bennett retell that detail in this manner:

“As soon as Uranus grew dark upon the earth, Cronus leaped upon him and and dealt a terrible wound that maimed him forever. From the drops of the crimson blood that seeped into the earth sprang the Erinyes or Furies, those relentless beings who persue and torment the guilty. And as the multilateral parts of the body of Uranus floated on the waves of the summer sea, they broke into a white foam from which was born a young goddess, Aphrodite." ("The Beginning" excerpted from Literature, Green Level, revised edition, McDougal, Littell & Co., 1987)

There's really no question as to which is a superior selection. This short piece is evocative with powerful language. Why discuss this specific detail? It's a gory one, but these are the kinds of details that get kids interested. When I'm telling my students the (very much abridged) story of The Illiad, I make sure to read some of the gorier killings that are in the poem. Yes, it's gross, but it also works. It also makes theoi t that Greek mythology is earthy and relatable. These stories are about vulnerable people, just like the kids.

Will discussing how we use context clues within a sentence to understand vocabulary words do this?

Pause: Where I reflect on what I Can Learn

Many EngageNY lesson begins with an opening where you are engaging the students. I have tended to breeze over those because the content within them is so boring. They're rehashes of the same point that is being driven into students' heads over and over again. However, there are some good ideas.

The one I'd like to discuss are the different ways kids can sharing their answers with each other. When I was in grad school, I had a teacher who was very much into this. She'd make us get in a group and each group would discuss a different topic, then we'd all get up and explain what we'd discussed with people. That was a quick and dirty way to bring information to an entire class.

The problem was that I always thought those processes were kind of stupid. I did not learn like that, and I kind of resented getting information as a sound bite instead of the deep learning from a teacher who knew more than me. Unfortunately, what's true for me may not be so for my students.

The EngageNY curriculum has lots of these types of processes: pairing kids up back-to-back, moving around the classroom looking for partners. Not that these activities make up for a dreadful curriculum, but they are worth a try.

EnageNY, Grade 6, Module 1, Unit 1, Lesson 12: In Which We Keep Discussing the Hero's Journey and Compare It to the Original Text

It's like we're doing the same thing! Before we were competing the stages of the hero's journey to The Lightning Thief and writing that on a worksheet. Now we're turning that into an essay.

The one thing I like about this assignment is the checklist. We've seen them earlier, but this is a good idea for writing. Sometimes kids get too focused on one aspect of writing a piece they can neglect other critical parts.

Read the criteria below. Read your partner’s paragraph, keeping this checklist in mind. If your partner meets the criteria, place a . If your partner needs to revise this because they did not meet the criteria, place a X.

Criteria Checklist:

Did your writing partner ...

_____ begin your paragraph with a topic sentence that makes a claim?

_____ use evidence from The Lightning Thief that supports their claim?

_____ use evidence from “The Hero’s Journey” that supports their claim?

_____ make it clear how the quotes are connected?

_____ close the paragraph with a clear concluding statement? 

Not the worst thing in the world. Of course, the whole thing is designed to help kids write good responses for state tests. This isn't about creating good writers at all but good test takers. However, this is something I can steal for my own lessons on essay writing.

Engage NY, Grade 6, Module 1, Unit 1, Lessons 10–11: A Place Where Nothing Changes

And here we are, two more lessons in, still obsessing about the same list of the hero's journey. This time we are now comparing the journey directly to the text of the book as opposed to quotes from the book on a handout. (Note: I'm going to have to go faster now. Time is a wasting.)

Chapter 11 has a strange addition to the vocabulary list: caduceus. Okay, that's the staff of Hermes, also a symbol of the medical profession. It's not the worst word in the world except that the students have not been taught who Hermes is. Okay, I know that he's mentioned in The Lightning Thief, but there should be a lot more. There are some great myths about Hermes, like his one, when he was born.

I keep hoping that there will be some deep content here, and this unit never ceases to disappoint me.

Monday, August 25, 2014

EngageNY, Grade 6, Module 1, Unit 1, Lesson 9: Where We Find A Strange Obsession

Lesson 9 is a bit of a recap of Lesson 8. Now that kids have been familiarized with the steps of the hero's journey, we're now going to be applying it to specific moments in The Lightning Thief. Plus, we're going to learn some new vocabulary words, hero, hero's journey, archetype, uneventful, embark, supernatural, bestow, trials, and ordeal.

Besides the repetition of the term "hero"' I don't have a problem with these except for archetype. It's a very abstract term, and in terms of child development, most children only begin to comprehend things abstractly at about age twelve. This is an example of age-inappropriateness. This is a high school-level term (at least) being brought down into the sixth grade.

Now let's get to one of the most egregious issues with this unit. The homework assignment for this day's lesson is so:

Percy has just survived a traumatic night and is now in a completely unfamiliar and strange setting. This presents a unique challenge. How does Percy respond to this challenge? What inferences can you make based on his response? Consider his interactions with other characters as well as his inner thoughts.

Use your evidence flags to mark places in the text that show your thinking. 

You have a repetition of the concept of challenges. Even though I'm not a huge fan of the book, there are so many things to be discussed at this point in the book, yet we are hung up on the idea of “the hero facing challenges”. Why? Because this is exactly the kind of question that shows up on a test. Trust me. I've seen it over and over again. So rather than discuss mythology, the thing this unit was ostensibly about, it's lasering in on test prep.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

EngageNY 6th Grade Module 1, Unit 1, Lessons 7–8: In Which I Find Some (Inappropriate) Content At Last

Unit 1 Lesson 7 is a mid-unit assessment. If anybody had any doubts about the poverty of the content here, the questions are 1–2 sentence chapter "gists" (Can we just use the word summary, please?), review of the challenges Percy faces and the review of the character stuff from earlier. No explicit instruction in mythology.

Lesson 8 actually gets to an interesting point, although a strange one. After discussing what is a hero, which is a fine discussion — I do that too, we go over a shortened list of Jospeh Campbell's “The Hero's Journey” and the process a person becomes a hero? I have to say that this subject appeals to my nerdy little heart, but I have some reservations about the appropriateness of this for early middle school. Joseph Campbell is pretty heady stuff. It's some of the most interesting analysis out there in terms of myths and their structure.

Here's the rub: what good is it learning the steps of a hero's journey when you don't have the content knowledge? The handout wisely uses some movie and book examples the kids might recognize, but I'm still uneasy at pushing this advanced material. What good is it now? Seeing these steps in The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings is fine, but this is not what sixth-graders need right now.

You want to give them advanced material? Let them read about the Trojan War. There you have the greatest war poem ever telling how difficult and terrible and glorious war really is. Not only will kids learn about Hector, Agamemnon, Paris, Helen, Ajax, and Menelaus, they'll get a sense of war itself. Here's something with deep content that is directly relatable to modern life. I'm not suggesting kids read The Illiad, but they can hear some of the stories. Olivia Coolidge wrote an excellent book on the Trojan War, suitable for this level. Why not that?

And when the kids get this content knowledge, the hero's journey will make sense. The steps will seem familiar and not something tacked onto a story.

Monday, August 18, 2014

EngageNY G6, Module 1, Lessons 4–5: In Which I Debate Myself About A Word

I'm going through an interesting thought process. I'm finding myself being highly critical of this curriculum, then I question myself when it shows nuggets of improvement. Surely it can't be all bad? After all, New York State spent millions of dollars on this. It's professionally developed! You're being too critical!

Let me describe one thing that is making me uneasy. One of the initial vocabulary vocabulary words for this unit is the word gist, as in to get the gist of. We all know what that means, and I always used it in a slightly informal way. In no way is it a word or term that I would incorporate into a lesson except in a casual way. However, this EngageNY curriculum codifies the word gist into the learning process. For example, in Lesson 4 it asks the students to discuss in their triads, “What is the gist of this action of text?" Now this isn't a bad word to know, but my gut tells me it's way too informal a word to use in this context. This is repeated in Lessn 5 too, describing a certain type of non-analytical reading that students are expected to do (which I think is traditionally called "reading"). We have to get the gist of the chapter or section.

What this is doing is dividing the two types of reading too. There's reading for "gist" and there's the analytic reading which the Common Core Curriculum values more.

Lesson 5 addresses making inferences. Inferences are one of these ideas that I see in every standardized test. There are always questions about inferencing. The gist of the lesson (Ha! I make funny!) is to look at a range of pages and discuss what Percy is thinking at a specific moment and then write down what you learn about Percy as a result of it. Okay, this isn't the worst idea, teaching character and inferencing at the same time. The problem is that we did this last lesson. No matter whether you use evidence flags for the text you want to highlight or not, this is very repetitive.

I'm still not seeing any better engagement with story or the mythological underpinnings of The Lightning Thief. Lesson 6 is preoccupied with teaching prefixes, which is a poor fit for a one-day lesson that has to do with a novel. If you're going to teach this subject, and that's a perfectly valid topic for this age (I teach them myself) do it methodically. End a week or so and work through the major prefixes and suffixes, examining how they change the meaning of a word. You can't skim the topic and convince yourself that you've taught it. It's too deep.

We do some reading comprehension in Lesson 6 where the students, still in their triads, get to pick questions for a question basket which I will distribute to each triad. They take turns drawing questions and reading them, then the entire group searches for text to answer the question. I can see this as kind of fun, and this may be a better way to do reading comprehension from time to time.

As a closing, students will stand back-to-back with a neighbor then turn around and share their ideas about three questions:

  1. 1. What is an example of a word that begins with a prefix?

    2. What is an important challenge Percy has faced so far in The Lightning Thief?

    3. What is the most important thing you have learned about Percy so far in this novel? Support your thinking with a specific example from the book. 

Getting back to engaging with the text, do you see how the actual text questions are very general? They don't question a student's understanding very well. So far it seems that there are bigger questions than this at this point in the novel, yet the lesson barely touches them.

Where We Link To Articles About The Common Core

These are worth reading to learn about the genesis and effect of the Common Core:

The second article especially describes where the money for the Common Core comes from.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Bad Way To Do Group Work

In the beginning of the teaching noted for Lesson 3 of The Lightning Thief unit, we get a teacher's note:

  • Ideally, students would routinely sit in their triads at the beginning of class. Many discussion, reading, and writing routines rely on this structure. If the class has another seating chart or routine, preview each lesson to determine the best time for students to transition to triads (typically at the start of Work Time). 

What this means is that the unit should be taught with the expectation that students sit in their same groups of three for the entire unit. I can see the advantages and disadvantages of the, but in the long term it's a problem. First off, let's remember these are sixth graders, not high school or college students. They have a great variety of maturity levels as well as very different motivation. In any class you're bound to have kids who don't work hard academically. I question the wisdom of having such small, inflexible groups for such a long period of time. 

In the opening you are elected to do this:

  • Read the learning targets:
    * “I can make inferences about Percy in order to understand him as the narrator of this story.”
    * “I can cite evidence from the text when answering questions and discussing Percy’s character inThe Lightning Thief.”

    * “I can follow our Triad Talk Expectations when I participate in a discussion.” 

(Pardon that odd line break in the reading targets above. I'm not good enough anymore with HTML code to figure out the formatting.) I'm struck by how none of these standards are content related. In other words, the goal is to be able to find details and relate them to some general ideas (i.e. Understanding Percy as the narrator) but not to knowing or understanding specific things about the story itself.

Lesson 3 has students go over the first four pages of The Lightning Thief twice: the first time for general understanding, the second to parse specific details in order to make inferences about Percy. Again, we have this repetition of text. It makes a certain sense in order to teach inferencing, but holy cow, this will get boring.

I'm still wondering when we're going to be talking about Greek mythology. Seriously. Not on a worksheet which students are analyzing somehow, but a deep and meaningful discussion of meaning.

Space Sounds

Although there's no sound in space, bodies in our solar system emit electromagnetic signals. Some very cooleople at NASA took the signals that were in the audible sound range and turned them into music. The result sounds like, well, space music!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lightning Unit Observations 1

A couple of things I'm noticing with the first lesson or so in the EngageNY unit.

The first lesson lasts two days and it deals in those two days with various comprehension strategies as well as one worksheet composed of six paragraphs of text, plus picture:


A long, long, long time ago, even before Perseus was born, his grandfather, Acrisios, the king of Argos, was given a prophecy that he would someday be killed by his grandson. To protect himself from this fate, the terrified king imprisoned his only daughter, Danae, in an underground dungeon so that she could never marry or have children. Certain that he would never be a grandfather, Acrisios relaxed. But Zeus, the great father of the gods, had other plans.

Zeus had been watching Danae and thought she was stunning—too beautiful to resist. He turned himself into golden rain and poured through the bronze bars in the roof of her elaborate dungeon. As the rain fell upon Danae, its magical powers caused a child to begin growing within her. Nine months later, she gave birth to a son and named him Perseus.

Outraged as well as frightened when he learned of a grandson's birth, Acrisios enclosed mother and son in a chest, which he flung into the sea. After drifting about for a long time, the chest finally washed up on a distant island. A fisherman found it and brought it to his brother, King Polydectes, who took Perseus and his mother into his palace.

When Perseus grew up, Polydectes gave him a series of challenging tasks to complete. Armed with a sword made by the god Hermes, winged sandals, and a shiny bronze shield given to him by the goddess Athena, Perseus slew the dreaded monster Medusa. This hideous creature had writhing snakes for hair, elephant-like tusks for teeth, and blood-red eyes. Whoever looked at her was instantly turned to stone.

As success followed success, Perseus began to think about the stories he had heard about his grandfather, Acrisios. So, after a brief visit to his mother, the young hero set sail for Argos. Before he reached it, however, Acrisios got word that his long-lost grandson was coming and fled the city, for he still feared the prophecy.

While waiting for Acrisios to return, Perseus attended festival games being held in a neighboring town. A skilled athlete, Perseus entered the discus contest. As he prepared to throw it, he lost control and the heavy disk went hurtling into the crowd, striking a man and killing him. Alas, the tragic prophecy had proved true—the dead spectator was Acrisios. Perseus was so troubled about the accident that he chose to leave Argos and build his own city—the legendary Mycenae. 

This is a part of the legend of Perseus. The writing style isn't bad and neither is the content; however, this is the only content students will be dealing with for two days. Most of the time they'll be analyzing this text using reading strategies such as context clues for new vocabulary, summarizing paragraphs, and annotating. This may be appropriate for some levels of readers, but two days on one short selection of text. My strong readers will be ready to claw their eyes out after this. This is incredibly boring and tedious.

This unit also wants students to be working in triads for much of the unit. As a student I found a lot of group work pretty tedious, so I don't know if this strategy will be successful. I don't know if this heavy emphasis on learning strategies and group work, forcing kids to talk about how they are learning will be a successful one. It may be that coming from my own ease with text (I taught myself to read when I was three) I find having to describe how I do something unnecessary, but this may just be me. I'm going to give this a fair shot. Student feedback will be important here. Still, heavier emphasis on the how rather than the content will turn off almost any reader.

The Lightning Thief Unit Assessments

The module for The Lightning Thief is broken into three different units, each with a mid unit and end unit assessment. Here they are:

Mid Unit 1: Inferring about the Main Character in The Lightning Thief

This assessment centers on standards NYSP12 ELA CCLS RL.6.1 and RL.6.3. Students will read an excerpt from Chapter 4 in

The Lightning Thief. Through a graphic organizer and a series of short responses, students will describe how Percy responds to a challenge he faces in this excerpt, and then what they, as readers, can infer about him based on his response. This is a reading assessment and is not intended to formally assess students’ writing. Most students will write their responses, in which case it may also be appropriate to assess W.6.9. However, if necessary, students may dictate their answers to an adult. 

End of Unit 1 Assessment: Drawing Evidence from Text: Written Analysis of How Percy’s Experiences Align with “The Hero’s Journey”

This assessment centers on standards NYS ELA CCLS RL.6.1, RL.6.3, R.I. 6.1, and W.6.9. How do Percy’s experiences in Chapter 8 align with the hero’s journey? After reading Chapter 8 of The Lightning Thief, students will complete a graphic organizer and write a short analytical response that answers the question and supports their position with evidence from the novel and from the informational text “The Hero’s Journey.” 

Mid Unit 2 Assessment: Analytical Mini-Essay about Elements and Theme of the Myth of Prometheus

This assessment centers on NYSP12 ELA CCLS RL.6.1, RL.6.2, RI.6.1, W.6.2, and W.6.9. For this assessment, students will write an analytical “mini-essay” responding to the following prompts: “What are significant elements of mythology in the story of ‘Prometheus’? Explain how elements of mythology contained in the plot make ‘Prometheus’ a classic myth.” “What is an important theme in the myth of ‘Prometheus? What key details from the myth contribute to this theme?”
Students will have read and discussed the myth “Prometheus” in class as well as an informational text about the “Key Elements of Mythology.” They will use recording forms to collect important details. Their “mini-essay” will contain two body paragraphs (one about the elements of myth that they see in “Prometheus” and one a theme of the myth) plus a one- sentence introduction and a brief conclusion to explain how an element of mythology connects to a theme of the myth. The reading standards assessed center around citing textual evidence from both the literary text “Prometheus” and the informational text “Key Elements of Mythology.” Students also are assessed on their ability to determining of a theme of a literary text. The reading standards could be assessed through the graphic organizer alone, or verbally, if necessary. This is both a reading and writing assessment. 

End of Unit 2 Assessment: Literary Analysis—Connecting Themes in Cronus and The Lightning Thief

This assessment addresses RL.6.1, RL.6.2, W.6.2, W.6.5, W.6.9, and L.6.1a, b, c, d. Students will write a literary analysis

responding to the following prompts: “What is a theme that connects the myth of “Cronus” and The Lightning Thief? After reading the myth of “Cronus” and the novel The Lightning Thief, write a literary analysis in which you do the following: Summarize the myth and present a theme that connects the myth and the novel; Describe how the theme is communicated in the myth; Describe how the theme is communicated in The Lightning Thief; Explain why myths still matter and why the author may have chosen to include this myth in the novel. You will have the opportunity to discuss the reading and your thinking with your partner before writing independently.” This is primarily a writing assessment. It is not intended to assess students’ reading of a myth; discussion is intentionally built in as a scaffold toward writing. In Lesson 18 students launch this assessment, writing their best on-demand draft. This draft is not formally assessed. The actual assessment occurs in Lesson 20, after peer feedback. 

Mid Unit 3 Assessment: Crosswalk between My Hero’s Journey Narrative and “The Hero’s Journey” Informational Text

This assessment centers on NYSP12 ELA CCLS W6.2, W.6.3a, and W.6.9. Students will write a paragraph explaining the ways in which their own “My Hero’s Journey” narrative follows the archetypal hero’s journey. The explanation itself addresses students’ ability to write an expository paragraph; students’ plan for their narrative addresses their ability to organize a sequence of events for a narrative. 

End of Unit 3 Assessment: Final Draft of Hero’s Journey Narrative

This assessment centers on NYSP12 ELA CCLS W.6.3, W.6.4, and W.6.11c. Students engage in a series of writer’s craft lessons for narrative writing: They draft, revise, and submit their best independent draft of their “My Hero’s Journey” narrative. 

Okay, a few comments:

I wonder why there seem to be so few assessments, especially reading assessments. In my units, would be making quick assessments two to three times a week. Sometimes these are informal, but once a week there would be some sort of formal one. These are a little time-consuming but are necessary to keep kids on track. My enthusiastic readers will read every day, but there are somewho will not. Does this unit take this into account?

The Unit 2 assessments focus more on the myths themselves. That is a good thing, but with a fair amount of book being read already, it seems like we're missing out here. I don't know though. Maybe I'm wrong. I'll just have to see. I may still be a little biased because I don't think this is a good way of teaching Greek mythology.

Another bigger issue is the teaching of theme itself. That is a really tough thing to teach to younger kids. I spend an entire eighth grade year dealing with theme, and by the end about 1/2–2/3 of them get it. Fewer of them can read a piece and come up with the theme on their own. This is not a comment on my students but on the complexity of the idea and how developmentally ready kids are to understand it. Since there are major issues dealing with this on an eighth-grade level, I have serious reservations about teaching theme to sixth graders. Many will understand a theme if you present it to them, and will even be able to get details from a text that supports the theme, but this requires major scaffolding. Why teach this topic when there are more basic ones to deal with like reading comprehension?

The final assessment gets back to the independent writing that the students were to do in the Performance Task. I have serious reservations about how valuable this is, which I've already discussed. Independent narratives can have a lot of value, but this one seems to neglect the whole aspect of studying mythology itself in favor of a Joseph Campbellesque hero's journey. Not that I don't love that stuff, but we're talking apples and organizes here, or maybe oranges and grapefruits. I feel strongly that the cultural literacy aspect of mythology is of greater importance than this, especially when most students won't have a strong background of Greek mythology. Since a great deal of American culture rests on the back of these myths and Greek civilization, why is this the focus?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lightning Thief Performance Assessment

One of the assessments for the first part of The Lightning Thief unit is this:

My Hero’s Journey Narrative

In this performance task, students will have a chance to apply their knowledge of the elements and purpose of myth as well as their deep understanding of the hero’s journey. Through a series of narrative writing lessons, students will create their own hero’s journey story that includes key elements of myth. Students will create a hero set in the ordinary world. They will then create a problem and a series of events that align with the stages of the hero’s journey. They will use descriptive details, sensory language, and transitional phrases to create an engaging reading experience. They will write a conclusion that naturally unfolds from the series of events. This performance task centers on NYSP12 ELA Standards RL.6.3, W.6.3, W.6.4, W.6.5, W.6.6, W.6.11c, L.6.2 and L.6.3. 

What this means is that students will create a personal narrative based in the real world that goes on the hero's journey. It's essentially a creative writing piece, but there's something about this which troubles me. This unit is being taught to sixth graders, meaning they're about eleven years old. Most kids this age have a pretty naive idea of how the world works — one of my problems with The Lightning Thief as well — and create tasks like this tend to bring this out.

This is not meant as a criticism for sixth graders. I was the same way at that age. Yet if we're going to set this story in the real world, why not do something a little more grounded, say, and find the biography of somebody real and heroic, like Gandhi or George Washington or Jacques Cousteau. That way the comparison could be more meaningful within the real-world context of the assignment.

Assignments like this are a lot of fun, but creative assignments are a lot more difficult than initially laid out in the assignment. There are issues of craft — voice, point of view, narrative consistency, theme — which are essential but hard to address in an assignment like this. I worry that this will be a check box type of work, the character did this, then that, then faced this, all part of the hero's journey but is this a deep understanding of what the journey is?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lightning Thief Unit Supplimentary Texts

The unit of The Lightning Thief pushes a fair amount of supplementary texts, all either gathered from Gutenberg, various websites, or some included with the EngageNY unit itself. Oddly, some of the materials from the Gutenberg website are available on iBooks, but one of the texts, Half a Hundred Hero Tales of Ulysses and the Men of Old, is only available on Kindle for free. You can get this text on iBooks for $3.99, but it's in the public domain, so why bother? Of course you can also save the HTML file from a web page as a PDF and import that PDF into iBooks, but most teachers probably won't go through that step.

The two books from iBooks are Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome by E.M. Berens and A Book of Myths by Jean Lang. Both are somewhat old-fashioned texts that are compendiums of Greek mythology. The Lang book has the advantage of also including myths from Norse mythology and Beowulf. Neither of them do the annoying practice of referring to the Greek gods by their Roman names, a habit of writers of this period. While this means kids will have to get used to Heracles as opposed to Hercules, and Odysseus as opposed to Ulysses, I much prefer this. The Lang book does use the Roman names, which is annoying.

One of the Supplimentary texts, “The Hero's Journey”, is found on a website, which is a great resource to discover. (I wish I had created something of the sort.) The document is a little hard to find, but I found it under the Teaching Materials menu. There are a lot of good materials here, and I especially liked the use of Star Wars as essentially a mythological tale, which it is. Too bad I won't be using it.

I'm also expected to have a copy of D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, which I have. I also want the kids to have this.

So these are the basic texts. It's not a terrible idea to use the Gutenberg texts, and frankly I think they might be a better education of the myths than The Lightnng Thief.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Another Thing Nagging Me

If so many young people are reading The Lightning Thief, why am I supposed to be teaching it? Isn't the point of teaching novels to expose kids to stories they might not ordinarily be exposed to?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Seventh Grade Common Core Novel: A Long Walk To Water

I was dreading reading  Linda Sue Park's A Long Walk To Water for a couple of reasons. Part of it is that it was presented as a book dealing with refugee issues. I was dreading reading what I was anticipating as a NPR-style presentation of refugee problems from the eyes of an American middle-class perspective. Something akin to, "These refugee problems are terrible. And I could barely get cell service at the camp!" Describing the issue without living the issue. I was happily surprised by this book, but unfortunately also very disappointed.

The good aspect of the book is the perspective of the character of one of the two narrative strains, Salvation. His journey after his school is attacked by rebels is harrowing and terrifying. You get a genuine sense of how dangerous his life was, wandering throughout war-torn Northern Africa. That part I appreciated greatly. No citizen of America can read something like that without saying, “There but for the grace of God goes me."

The problems with the book though are many, and this is what makes me question this novel as an addition to the Common Core. The first is that it's a very thin book, only 120 pages of text. That is an appropriate length for a slower to average reader, but any seventh grader who is skilled in reading would blast through this book in a couple of hours. I don't think length means better, but if I'm going to be spending an entire unit on a book, I expected something meatier.

I have an issue as well with the narrative voice. I'm going to quote the book some to give an example:

Salva wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. He could see the bushes; they did not look too far away.

Uncle reached into his bag. He took out a tamarind and handed it to Salva.

Chewing on the sour juicy fruit made Salva feel better.

I think the scene itself is fine, but the voice is filled with quick, choppy sentences. Some of that is okay, but after a while (I wondered why the beaks were even there considering that we were still on the same action.) that seems intrusive. It creates a odd narrative flow, especially with the very short paragraphs. That combined with the odd lack of contractions make the text stilted.

Plus, Salva is traveling through what for kids in America would seem like an alien landscape. Unfortunately the details are relatively few. When we read about Salva's thinking about his family on the same page to make himself feel better, we don't get any scenes with his family to enlighten the reader about what that might look like. This would fill in details about Salva's life that are missing but also make that moment more powerful. The missing details get even worse later in the book where the story makes leaps of several years. I understand it doesn't want to spend much time with Salva's life in refugee camps and focus more on his transitions between places, but those gaps were abrupt. I needed to hear more about the poor conditions in the camps to make the transitions more meaningful.

There's a second narrative in this novel which takes place many years after the first. It's the story of Nya, a girl who much spend much of her day fetching water for her family, which is where the book gets its title. Again, the story is self is a compelling and interesting one, but the storytelling spends so much time with that twice-daily journey Nya must make that it neglects giving the reader a better sense of what her life is when not making that journey. I understand that it by necessity must address this one aspect, but the story doesn't give much of a payoff in terms of what that water means. Yes, it's water, but how does Nya's family use it? Tell me more and give that journey a greater value.

Overall I think this book is a good book to read but with caveats. With the Common Core Curriculum so focused on close text reading, I wonder why EngageNY is spending time with a book whose close text leaves much to be desired? I don't know a better book that deals with the same idea, but this one makes me wonder. I'll have more to say on it as time goes on.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Best Space Music Video Ever

Blogging Software for IOS

Just a quick note. I've been fumbling around for good blogging software for my iPad and iPhone. I started with Blogger because my original blogs were all done there, not with Wordpress. (I kind of regret that now.) Blogger had so few features that I looked for anything better. I discovered BlogGo, but that app had a lot of issues too, the biggest one was that if I quit out of the program while I was writing, it would lose my draft.

Now I'm working on a new app called Posts. I already like it better than the unresponsive and unpredictable BlogGo. Plus, it's free!

The Lightning Thief as a Derivative Work

I read The Lightning Thief by Rock Riordan with a bit of trepidation. My son, who is now ten, raced through the series and loved it, and now I am charged with teaching this novel instead of my typical sixth grade mythology unit. After having finished the novel, I have to say my concerns were justified and I'm honestly concerned that this novel is an inferior replacement for my self-designed unit.

My first issue is with the tone of the novel, which is comic and heroic. Things happen in often a silly way. Percy Jackson, the protagonist, is issued a sword in the novel for him to take on his heroic quest. Since twentieth-century characters can't be seen lugging swords about, this sword magically turns into a pen which our hero can safely put into his pocket. This works for the somewhat goofy tone of the book, but seems out of place in the myths themselves. They can be funny, exciting, terribly tragic, or empowering, but the silliness of the device as well as the convenience of it feels out of place. This is one of the great strengths of the myths, yet when the protagonist can whip a sword out of his pants pocket and duel a terrible monster, something seems wrong.

This is fine for the intended audience, but as a teacher I don't see my purpose as offering that sort of wish-fulfillment. Children certainly desire to slay monsters, especially late at night when those creature of the imagination seem real, but I think the myths serve a greater function in our culture. They teach us about the wide range of experience, and at times when this monsters under the bed are real. Yet these monsters are never easy things to kill, but I fear that's what this book teaches. As long as you're half god, of course.

When assigning a book as a unit, one needs to look at the goals of the unit. If the goal is to teach Freek mythology, I wonder why don't we have a unit that does just that? I suspect one of the reasons is that there is no good middle school text for Greek mythology. I've looked, and there is none. (Which may be a project of mine in the future.) The EngageNY folks clearly don't have the expertise to write one themselves, so they're looking to this novel as a gateway.

After teaching Greek mythology for the last nine years to sixth graders, I have never seen a problem with the source material being boring. Quite the contrary, these are some of the best stories of Western culture. That's why I think The Lightning Thief is a poor choice to teach these myths: it substitutes an inferior work for simply teaching some absolutely fabulous tales.

I'll have more to say about this novel as I teach it, of course.