School improvement… how does it even work?

Betsy Davos, super-wealthy Dominionist, is the current nominee for Secretary of Education.  She is rabidly anti-public education, which is pretty odd since neither she nor anyone she knows, including her children, have ever been involved in any kind of public school.  Ever.  Not one.

Instead, she champions that rightwing shibboleth of “competition,” because competition makes everyone better, right?  You know, like when you line up the whole class of children and make them all race to the other end of the playground, and that one chubby kid just keeps getting faster and faster every day?  Just like that?

That’s right, boys and girls, if you let “the money follow the child,” then if a child is in a “failing” school, his parents can “choose” to send that child to any other [charter/private/religious] school of their choice, and presto! their child can now “succeed” instead of being “trapped” in a “failing” school.

OK, let’s look at that, because there’s a lot of sleight of hand going on here.

First of all, who decides when a school is “failing”?  That’s an easy one: we have standards set by a variety of levels of government from local to federal, and if a school doesn’t meet those standards, they are “failing.”  It is unusually curious that those standards for the most part align with the socioeconomic status of the students in any school.  A recent study (the link to which I cannot find; you’re just going to have to trust me) found that you didn’t need to run students through all those tests: you could get the same results by tabulating their parents’ income and education level.  THE SAME RESULTS, KENNETH.

Second, Davos is militant that those standards should not apply to her charter/private/religious schools.  Is that incredible to you?  Go see for yourself.  That’s a pretty sweet deal: enforce standards that make it impossible for certain schools to “succeed,” then suck their funding dry for your for-profit schools while evading those same standards.  I’ve written about this before.

And here’s the biggest sleight of hand of all: Everyone has been convinced to keep their eye on the charter/private/schools and argue about whether they are “succeeding” enough to justify draining public schools of their funding and students.  But that’s not the question.  The question is whether all this “healthy competition” is actually causing the “failing” schools to suddenly succeed.  In other words, is the chubby kid getting faster and faster every day just because you took some of the faster kids off the playground?

I submit to you that he is not, and that the whole “school choice” plan is a con of the most blatant and disgusting sort.  At no point are these people actually concerned about improving all schools for all children.  Davos has never presented such a plan, nor will she.  She wants to kill off public education once and for all, and the only reason I can think why she would want to do this is to take the money and run.  Oh, and that whole Dominionist thing.

Keep your eye on the lady, folks.

My religious school

It seems that in the sovereign state of North Carolina, your tax dollars earmarked for charter schools are far more likely to go to a religious charter school than not.

I keep thinking that if I work hard and focus on the end result, I can one day kill off my morals and scruples and get in on these Jebus dollars like the shysters to the north of us are doing.[1]

Probably Cthulhu.

But Dale, I hear you asking, what religion will your school promote?  This is a good question and I will now attempt to answer a completely different one.

The philosophical/moral/ethical foundation of the Lyles Charter School will be as follows:

  • The 10 Principles of Burning Man
  • The 9 Precepts of Lichtenbergianism
  • The Big 6
  • The Golden Rule



Let’s examine the prospect, shall we?

The 10 Principles of Burning Man

Those ten principles are:

  1. Radical Inclusion: Everyone is welcome, all types, all kinds, friends, strangers, and in between.
  2. Gifting: Gifts are unconditional offerings, whether material, service oriented, or even less tangible. Gifting does not ask for a return or an exchange for something else.
  3. Decommodification: Hand in hand with gifting, burns are environments with no commercial transactions or advertising. Nothing is for sale – we participate rather than consume.
  4. Radical Self-Reliance: You are responsible for you. Bring everything with you that you need. Burns are an opportunity for you to enjoy relying on yourself.
  5. Radical Self-Expression: What are your gifts, talents, and joys? Only you can determine the form of your expression.
  6. Communal Effort: Cooperation and collaboration are cornerstones of the burn experience. We cooperate to build social networks, group spaces, and elaborate art, and we work together to support our creations.
  7. Civic Responsibility: Civic responsibility involves the agreements that provide for the public welfare and serve to keep society civil. Event organizers take responsibility for communicating these agreements to participants and conducting events in accordance with applicable laws.
  8. Leave No Trace: In an effort to respect the environments where we hold our burns, we commit to leaving no trace of our events after we leave. Everything that you bring with you goes home with you. Everyone cleans up after themselves. Whenever possible, we leave our hosting places better than we found them.
  9. Participation: The radical participation ethic means you are the event. Everyone works; everyone plays. No one is a spectator or consumer.
  10. Immediacy: Experience things right now. Live for the moment, because that moment is fleeting, and you never get another chance.

Also the 11th Principle, Consent.

The 9 Precepts of Lichtenbergianism

You already know these:

  1. Task Avoidance
  2. Abortive Attempts
  3. Successive Approximation
  4. Waste Books
  5. Ritual
  6. Steal from the Best
  7. Gestalt
  8. Audience
  9. Abandonment

The Big 6

We haven’t really talked about these in a while.  Here’s the main site.  Essentially, it’s a curriculum structure for finding and using information, aka research.

Here’s the original language:

1.Task Definition

1 Define the information problem

1.2 Identify information needed

2. Information Seeking Strategies

2.1 Determine all possible sources

2.2 Select the best sources

3. Location and Access

3.1 Locate sources (intellectually and physically)

3.2 Find information within sources

4. Use of Information

4.1 Engage (e.g., read, hear, view, touch)

4.2 Extract relevant information

5. Synthesis

5.1 Organize from multiple sources

5.2 Present the information

6. Evaluation

6.1 Judge the product (effectiveness)

6.2 Judge the process (efficiency)

Here’s my elementary version:

1. What’s the job?

1.1 What are we trying to do?

1.2 What do we need to know?

2. Where will we find the information?

2.1 Where could we look?

2.2 What’s the best place to start looking?

3. Find it.

3.1 Find the sources of information: books, encyclopedias, Internet, cd-roms, etc.

3.2 Look up the information in the sources: use the index, etc.

4. Deal with it.

4.1 Read through all the information.

4.3 Get just the information we need: take notes!

5. Show it!

5.1 Put all the information we found together.

5.2 Present the result.

6. How did we do?

6.1 Did we do a good job?

6.2 Were we good at finding information?

The Golden Rule

Here.  Read it for yourself.

That’s it.  Unless I’ve missed something.

Wait, you want me to explain all this?  Geez, who has time for that?  What do you think I am, an educator?

Let me put it like this: if people want me to explain how this foundation would make a perfect school, they can request me to do so in the comments below.  So there.


[1] And if Nathan Deal has his way, I won’t even have to move to Asheville to do it.

A rant: AP US History

The conservative mind is a curious thing, divided against itself in so many ways.  On the one hand, you have the “business interests” portion of the mind insisting that the schools must—absolutely must—graduate students who are incredible critical thinkers and problem solvers.  On the other hand, you have the “god, guns, and gays” mindset that recoils at any suggestion that the ground on which they stand might not be as solid as they’d like to believe.

This conservative schizophrenia is now playing out in the Gwinnett County School System as the usual suspects pick up the screeching about the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) curriculum, which was revised in part to challenge our top students to think critically about historical data.  But Noooooooooo! scream the howler monkeys, It’s all radical liberal communist propaganda my country tis of thee american exceptionalism no exceptions! 


Here’s the problem.  There are two ways to frame education.  One is that it’s a process of learning how to learn, of making sure the student is prepared to face the modern world with the proper skills and attitudes to be a productive member of our democratic society.

The other, alas, regards education as a set of facts and figures to be learned. And tested on.

I will now pause while you decide which framework is the one to which the GGG conservative mindset clings.

The problem is that the proponents of each framework will never agree on curriculum.  They can’t; they don’t even see the goals as the same.  One side envisions the best students as regurgitators of facts, essential facts, while the other sees them as problem-solvers who are able to evaluate data and propose solutions based on them.

Here’s why the GGG conservatives are wrong—and they are wrong—about the APUSH curriculum.  Their cry that important stuff has been left out of the curricullum is misguided, mainly because it’s not so much the factoids as the mythic filter of those factoids that concerns them.  “We’re teaching them that the U.S. has been wrong.”

Well, yes, we are because we were.  These students, the top of the top, have already gotten the mythos in the previous years of their education, assuming their school system hasn’t shortchanged history in order to slam the students with MATH AND SCIENCE WHY WOULD THEY EVEN DO THAT EVEN?

These students already know that the U.S. is the bestest ever.  By the time they enter APUSH, headed to college, they need to start examining more nuanced views of our history.  What have we done right?  What have we done wrong?  Where have we learned, and where have we not learned?  It’s questions like these that keep the policy makers in Washington up at night, and it’s a good thing, too.  As H.L. Mencken (PBUH) said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  We don’t want people in our government who are so sure of the facts that they can’t see significant alternatives.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Republicans.   Dickheads.

Here’s why the GGG mindset about facts—just the facts, ma’am—is not only wrong, but stupid.  Once you’ve decided that the curriculum is just going to be a Gradgrindian slog through all the essential facts, then you have to fight it out over which facts are essential enough to be slogged through.  In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article which prompted this post, the reporter slyly ended the article with a quote from a former Gwinnett teacher who is a lead howler monkey:

…Urbach, the former Gwinnett teacher, stuck to his claims about what not’s taught in the district.

“Over 200 years worth of European history is not taught,” he said.  “I taught the course for six years, and we never made it to the 1970s.  Only one, maybe two days teaching on the Holocaust.”

Such is the totality of the GGG’s un-self-awareness that Mr. Urbach cannot see what he’s just said: if all you teach is the facts, you cannot possibly teach all of them.  I used to tell teachers all the time, if you make my son love history so much that he will continue to learn about it the rest of his life, I don’t give a crap whether you cover Jacksonian democracy or not.  (Indeed, his APUSH history teacher was a Gradgrind of the worst kind, and not incoincidentally I think, was a conservative who brooked no discussion or opposition to the literally thousands of “facts” she required them to memorize.)

There is no solution.   The howler monkeys will never shut the hell up, while their own corporate masters bemoan the fact that there’s no one they can hire because schools are not giving them the problem-solvers they need.  No solution.

At least not until those FEMA camps get built.

A modest proposal

I know everyone must be shocked—shocked—to find that charter schools in general don’t live up to their promise and in some cases are actually run by grifters.  I mean, no one could have predicted that a school run by a for-profit organization might not have its focus completely on the educate-the-kids thing.

(side note: Am I the only one to whom it has occurred that if it were possible to make a profit from running a school, we educators would be rolling in it?  Or states would be able to fund the rest of their budgets with the profits from the public schools?)

Still, let us agree that the basic principle behind the charter school movement is a valid one: if you allow these people to avoid standardized tests and/or “restrictive” rules and regulations, then Step 3: Profit!  Or at least highly educated, self-motivated learners.

If this is all it takes to lift children of poverty out of their slough of despond, then I’m all for it.  And so I propose the Lyles Accountability Trigger Law [LATL].

It is a very simple law.  Any time that a charter school is approved in any school district, whether by the district or by the state, then whatever terms are approved for the charter automatically apply to every school in the district.  See, that’s easy, right?  If freeing the charter school from <insert talking point here> will improve the education of its students, then why would you withhold that benefit from the rest of the children?  Ethically, how could you withhold from the majority of your students the great and glorious good that universally obtains to any charter school student ?

It is literally win/win/win for everyone everywhere!

Yet another STEM alert

Honey please.

This morning’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a story (sorry, premium content/no link) about how students in Georgia and the nation are no more interested in careers in science, math, and technology than they were a decade ago.  Quelle horreur!

A key finding of a U.S. News & World Report study was that interest had actually fallen between 2009 and 2013.

Hey, you know what else had fallen between 2009 and 2013?  FUNDING FOR K-12 EDUCATION IN THE STATE OF GEORGIA, you freaking morons.

Between 2000 and 2011, I watched my media center’s budget shrivel to $0.  That is Z-E-R-O dollars.  The only money I had to buy books with was raised by the PTO’s book fairs.  That’s it.  So whatever I was supposed to be doing to help turn our children into wonks and geeks wasn’t getting done.  At the same time, the overwhelming focus on reading and math meant that science was barely taught at the elementary level.

Between 2003 and 2013, I watched the budget for the Governor’s Honors Program [GHP] go from about $1.6 million to about half of that.  Our science classes had to scrounge discarded computers from VSU to do their lab work.  They had to trek down to the library to do even the slightest bit of web research.  Purchase of spiffy materials or equipment was out of the question. Experimental work that took longer than two and a half weeks was not doable within our crippled four week program.  Our technology and design classes were coasting on computers we bought years ago.  We were “significantly different from the regular high school classroom” only in being significantly behind.

So don’t come wringing your hands to me, Powers That Be.  If making sure that more of our students desired careers in the STEM fields had been important to you, you would have bloody invested in making sure it bloody happened.  You didn’t.  Fuck off.1

update: I need to clarify that our GHP science/tech/design classes were “significantly different,” of course, because of the incredible instructors and their ability to focus on the process, but boy it would have helped if I had been able to, you know, buy stuff for them.


1 Apologies for the language.2

2 Not really.

My secret lust

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Grock, King of Clowns, the memoir of Adrien Wettach.  No, I had never heard of him either, but Mike Funt said I should read it, and so I found a used copy on Amazon and ordered it.

Totally delightful read, even though I had no clue as to who this man was or how he managed to retire to a 30-room villa in Italy as a millionaire after 50 years of performing as the most famous clown in the world. We live and learn.

But that has nothing to do with my secret lust.

For this book was a discard from a university library, and tucked away in it were these:

::sigh:: Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?  The only way these could be more arousing would be if they were a complete set.  Still, I mustn’t complain.

Actually, these are two main entry cards, possibly from two different libraries.  Neither is what I would call complete.  The first one has the original title (Nit m-öglich) but no subject headings; the second has the obvious subject Clowns but not the original title.  There is also the difference of opinion as to where to put this book.  The first library puts it under Circuses in the 791’s, although they could have extended the number with the –092 standard subdivision for biographical works, i.e., 791.1092, although –09 would have been sufficient.  The second opts for the Biography section with the 92, the lazy librarian’s shortcut for the actual number, 921.  Either card is correct.

Both use Cutter numbers for the author rather than the first three letters of the author’s last name.  For the regular school library, that’s an unnecessary complication.  (So would be the extension of the Dewey Decimal number I suggested above. The purpose of such detail is to allow books on similar topics to be grouped together on the shelf, and how many books on the circus does a regular library have, after all?)

This just gets me going.  Even among media specialists I was a cataloging freak.  I loved cataloging, from the days when we still typed the cards ourselves (like these two) to online MARC records.  I knew the Dewey Decimal Classification Abridged edition by heart, and when we built the new East Coweta High School I ordered the full edition.  When it arrived I was physically tingly, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

The new library at ECHS was essentially empty, a blank slate, and over the next four years I got to fill it with 15,000 books, most of which I cataloged myself.  Sure, some came with catalog cards, and most books in those days (1988-1992ish) had full Cataloging in Publication records on their copyright pages, but, you guys, CIP was often hugely inaccurate.  The minions at the Library of Congress were often cataloging based on a title page alone, and that created some incredible howlers, DDC-speaking-wise.  I was compelled—compelled, I tell you—to correct them.

I was so in love with cataloging that I actually programmed an Apple ][e to print a full set of catalog cards for any given main entry.  The way it used to work was that, like the above cards, you had a “main entry” for a book. That main entry included titles, subject headings, editors, illustrators, etc., and after you typed that card, you then typed all the other cards.  Originally, subject cards had the subject line typed in red ink, but around the time I arrived we had settled on ALL CAPS instead.  (See here, for example.)

With my program, you typed in all the elements—author, dates, title, subtitle, publisher, subjects—and then the dot matrix printer spit out every card you needed.  It was awesome, and everyone in Coweta County used it until the state automated us in the early 90s.

Let me be clear: I am not one of those who misses the actual card catalog.  What a nightmare to construct and maintain!  What happens when a book is not returned?  Do you pull the catalog cards?  At the time, the main entry cards (plus title cards) were in one piece of furniture, and the subject cards were in another piece of furniture.  You’d be pulling all these cards from everywhere—pulling the metal rod out of the entire drawer, pulling the card, reinserting the rod, etc.—and, what, storing them?  Because then what if the book shows back up when lockers are cleaned out at the end of the year?  Then you have to refile the cards.  Ugh.

But the cataloging itself?  Remember this scene?  That’s how I feel about cataloging.  I was so notorious amongst my fellow media specialists that when new books came without cataloging, others would wait until I had input mine in the online system, then just add their copies to my main entry.  If the books came with electronic cataloging, I would go through and correct entries, add subject headings, and improve call numbers.  I was incorrigible.

I mean, look at this: Catalog card prøn!

Now go here and get your inner Dewey on!

Mugshots: The Newnan Crossing 100 Book Club

Ah, the acrid smell of failure…

I would call it a spectacular failure, except that would denote spectacle, and the Newnan Crossing 100 Book Club never crawled out from the mud, much less took flight.

The concept was simple, and I should be standing astride the world of elementary reading like a Colossus, not to mention filthy rich somehow, but I never found a way to make it work.

I got the idea from a book called The 100 Greatest Books for Children, or something equally ludicrous.  It occurred to me that it might be a good thing to challenge students to read some of the “greatest books for children,” and it would be even better to distract our better readers from the Accelerated Reader™ point treadmill.

For those who have never suffered through Accelerated Reader™, it’s a behemoth: Renaissance Learning wants to take over your school one computer and one child at a time.  For AR™, as it is commonly known, all the student has to do is to 1) read a book at his “level”; 2) take a computerized comprehension quiz; 3) accumulate points based on his score.

Simple, and actually effective as a strategy for helping low-level readers improve their reading skills.  However, for very good readers, it’s awful.  First of all, if a school focuses on the points and creates a competition based on them, the gifted kids go nuts.  It’s a piece of cake for them to read a Harry Potter book, take the quiz, and snarf up 20+ points, while the struggling reader (for whom the program is designed) is lucky to get 1 or 2 points for their little books.

Worse, the good readers will race through books so they can get even partial credit/points for a book, thereby destroying what pleasure there might be in tackling Harry Potter.  (Remember, the quizzes are low-level comprehension quizzes only: no higher thinking skills required.)

So my idea for the 100 Book Club was equally simple: the student picked one of the 100 Book Club books, read it, and wrote a review explaining how they liked it. There were over 800 books on the list (cataloged in the online catalog), each and every one either an award winner or a starred review in one of the library journals.  The aim was to read 100 of these books by the time you graduated 5th grade.

Kids could even go ahead and take the AR™ quiz if they wanted to, but passing the quiz didn’t get them credit for the 100 Book Club.  They had to write a review, and it had to be approved by me.

That was the problem, in the long run: we had no way to manage the review process that would keep it alive.  At first, I had folders for kids to use, but that was unwieldy.  Then I had the IT crowd install a group content management system that was supposed to provide every kid with his own book blog, but that was also unwieldy.

Finally, Follett Software Company upgraded their catalog software so that students could write reviews in the catalog.  Perfect!

But it didn’t work, and I think the main reason why is that I could never get the teachers to organize around it.  AR™ was much easier—the kids managed that on their own, and I handled the only rewards Newnan Crossing gave out, the aluminum dog tags for “Point Clubs.”  All the teachers had to do was to give the Renaissance Learning reading diagnostic and assign the kids their reading levels.

(To be fair, the best teachers worked very hard using AR™ appropriately, cajoling kids and encouraging them with praise, etc.  100 Book Club would have added a whole other layer of work which they could scarcely deal with.)

It was also nearly impossible for a kid to get even close to the 100 books unless they started in 2nd grade and read bunches of the “Junior Level” books before getting to 4th grade, and even then it meant reading one of these higher level books every week in 4th and 5th grades.  Not really do-able; I should have thought of that before launching it.  But “100 Book Club” is really catchy, isn’t it?

So the whole thing just sat there, nudged along by me for five years, but never really taking off.  If it had worked, we would have been graduating kids who not only had read some of the best books around, but who would also have learned to write well about their reading.

There were lots of kids, the cool kids, who hooked into the concept and regularly consulted the list of titles to choose their reading—they had found that Mr. Lyles spoke the truth when he said these books were better than the regular books.  But none of them wrote reviews; they took the AR™ test instead.

Oh well, in my charter school…

Note: I use the trademark symbol after AR™ because I always wanted to remind the teachers that this is a commercial venture.  We have to pay for the software and pay for each and every quiz.  Otherwise, many people think it’s just a wonderful gesture of kindness that someone does to help our students learn to read.

A Chomskian post from the past

I was trolling through files on my hard drive, wondering what some of them were, when I came across a word processing document that impressed me. I was working on my specialist degree, five or so years ago now, and I think it was the piddling psychology class they make you take to give the psychology professors something to do. It was like the last class I had on my agenda, and like me, most of the students were old enough to be the professor’s parent. We were mostly amused by his efforts.

Anyway, there was some online discussion as part of the class, and this one was on Chomsky and others of that ilk. I had gone away for the whole week (could it have been that historical trip to the mountains that Thanksgiving?), and when I got back, I was bothered by the turn the conversation had taken. Most of the participants had taken “grammar” to mean “rules of speech,” and it took a pretty prescriptive turn. Silly.

This was my response, and I think it still reads well:

I notice there is some confusion in our discussion of Chomsky over the nature of grammar. “Grammar” is not that set of rules set up by the dominant power structure to govern our language, nor is it a set of exercises out of Warriner’s. Grammar, as Chomsky means it, is innate, that is, born with us, and it includes our ability to recognize and create sentences that no one has ever heard before nor ever will again. It is not literacy and it is not writing.

The comparison of transformational grammar to math [in the textbook] is interesting, since one of the biggest problems non-mathematicians have with symbolic logic is the idea that an argument/syllogism can be true even if the statements which make it up are false. To wit:

  • All women have three heads.
  • George W. Bush is a woman.
  • Therefore, George W. Bush has three heads.

The structure is perfectly valid, perfectly true, despite the fact that the premises are outrageous fabrications. This is grammar. The most famous example from Chomsky is the sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” immediately recognizable as a correct sentence even though it makes no sense. In contrast, “Dog the his ate brown under food tree the” is not a sentence in any language. Innate transformational grammar is what allows any child in our schools to a) recognize those words in that order as gibberish; and b) rearrange those words into a real sentence. If literacy is removed from the equation, any child in the school can perform that task without any instruction from us.

A thought experiment: take the “dog” sentence, and consider how you would present those words on cards to a non-reading child and ask him to put them in some grammatical order. If you decided to start simple and then ask the child to add the remaining words one at a time, you’d probably begin with “dog the ate food his.” How did you know that? That’s Chomskian grammar. The kicker is that eventually you come up against “under.” Even a moment’s thought is enough to show you that you can’t hand the child just the word “under” and expect him to proceed. You would have to give him “tree under the” and ask him to put all three words in, which he would proceed to do after rearranging them into a prepositional phrase. Finally, the word “brown” can go in any of three places, but only in those three places. That is transformational grammar.

Our concerns over “street” grammar and “standard” grammar are misplaced in this discussion. Standard grammar is one of the tools used by the dominant power structure to cement its influence, and anyone who intends to live profitably within that power structure needs to know how to speak and write it. Indeed, one of our duties as educators is to provide students the opportunity to avail themselves of that knowledge. However, bemoaning the decline or absence of that structure in our students is trivial. One might just as well compare the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln with those of our current political leadership and conclude that we were suffering from a precipitous decay in the public arena.

So, how would I use Chomsky’s theories in my media center? If I were coaching a student in his reading, I would (and do) rest comfortably in the knowledge that the child is capable of recognizing the sentence on the page, whether or not he is currently capable of translating those squiggly black marks under the illustration. The words on the page are not arranged randomly, but in a pattern that is born in the child’s brain and already expanded by his experience in the world so far. This is a hopeful, and helpful, hook: whether or not the child says, “Bobby be’s riding his bike” in his daily life, he will not be puzzled by the sentence, “Bobby rides his bike” on the page. Whether we then correct the child’s daily speech is a political choice, and with Chomsky, it’s all political anyway.

A brilliant idea

I have had a scathingly brilliant idea. I’m sure it’s not original, but it is exciting in many ways.

It occurred to me last night, as my head was hitting the pillow, that Pages (Apple’s word processor) will export files in ePub format. (This is in addition to PDF, .doc, and RTF files.)

You know what this means, of course? I can get students to write their stories or poems or essays, and we can publish them for iBooks on the iPad. We can create class magazines, or a school publication. Individual students who are assiduous enough to write books can see their handiwork distributed.

If they do their work on the iPads, they can “print” to the home computer, and I can prep the files there.

If they do artwork in ArtRage, we can lay it out in Pages and publish it.

If they do a comic strip in Comic Life, we can export it to PDFs and convert that to ePub via Calibre.

Students who are emerging writers can copy their work to SpeakIt and have it read back to them, helping them develop their inner ear.

We can build a library of student work. Students will want to read what others have written. Students will want to write in order to be read.

Turn, turn, kick turn , yes, it will work!

Reading Caves: theory & practice

On the Nature of Reading Caves

At Newnan Crossing Elementary, we’ve been celebrating Read Across America, as is our wont, with our Reading Caves event. I thought it might be appropriate to talk about the theory and practice of this curious cultural artifact.

First a photo of this year’s caves:

As you can see, teams of teachers come in and transform the media center with bulletin board paper and fripperies. The idea is that students will come in and secrete themselves in one hidey hole or another and read for a short time. It’s just something out of the ordinary and fun.

But why? Why don’t I bring in multitudes of volunteers to read books, usually something by Dr. Seuss, to classes all over the school?

I used to do that, actually. As the school got larger, however, it became more and more of a problem to line up the number of volunteers needed, then match their availability to our insane patchwork schedule all over the building.

And then one year, I forgot. I looked at the calendar, and it was February 25, and I had done nothing about Read Across America Day on March 2.

I panicked.

But then, somehow, I remembered a thing I had read years before.

The Theory of Reading Caves

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, et al., is a tome published in 1977, and it bears every hallmark of the sensibilities of the 1960s and their aftermath: utopianism, rejection of urban/corporate life, respect for older ways, optimism, etc., etc. Large parts of it belong to the “isn’t it pretty to think so?” school of planning, but a great deal of it is not only heartfelt, but valid.

The book is essentially a grammar of design for living spaces: towns, buildings, homes, neighborhoods. More than 250 ‘patterns’ in this grammar are presented, hierarchically listed and interlinked. The patterns are derived from the authors’ observations about how healthy cultures live(d), and many are precisely archetypal.

Late in the book, p. 927-929, we are presented with a detail pattern: 203 CHILD CAVES. I will quote the pattern in its entirety:

Children love to be in tiny, cave-like places.

In the course of their play, young children seek out cave-like space to get into and under, old crates, under tables, in tents, etc. […]

They try to make special spaces for themselves and for their friends, most of the world about them is “adult space” and they are trying to carve out a place that is kid size.

When children are playing in such a “cave”, each child takes up about 5 square feet; furthermore, children like to do this in groups, so the caves should be large enough to accommodate this: these sorts of groups range in size from three to five, so 15 to 25 square feet, plus about 15 square feet for games and circulation, gives a rough maximum size for caves.


Wherever children play, around the house, in the neighborhood, in schools, make small “caves ” for them. Tuck these caves away in natural left over spaces, under stairs, under kitchen counters. Keep the ceiling heights low, 2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet, and the entrance tiny.

I don’t think I need to provide a lot of proof or defense for pattern 203: who among us has not thrilled at the receipt of a refrigerator box? I remember that one reason I looked forward to school being out each summer was that I could prevail upon my father to go to Maxwell-Prince Furniture (“Drive a little and save a lot,” a slogan necessitated by the fact that they were not on the Court Square but, gasp!, nearly a whole mile away out on Hwy 27, at the Hospital Road intersection) and get me a box. It would become my Fortress of Solitude for weeks.

So, in my panic and desperation at having not scheduled a single reader for the school, I boldly announced a new initiative: Newnan Crossing Reading Caves!

That first year was more than a little desperate. I pulled the thing together literally overnight, bringing in sheets and swaths of fabric; lamps; pillows. I turned over tables and enveloped them in bulletin board paper. I turned the book aisles into long, narrow enclaves. I borrowed the parachute from the gym and draped it over tables and the couch. I borrowed materials from teachers. The whole thing was quite lame.

And it was a huge hit. The kids didn’t see the tape and bulletin board paper, nor did they see how desperately cheesy it was: they saw CHILD CAVES, and they were ecstatic.

At that point, Newnan Crossing was pushing 1,000 students, and it was clear to me that Reading Caves was a much more practicable solution to Read Across America Day than the nightmare that scheduling volunteers had turned into. We went with it.

Reading Caves in Practice

Since that first year, I have invited teachers to join in the fun. Those who choose can volunteer to put up a Reading Cave, and they choose their theme. On the afternoon beforehand, they come into the media center and transform it. For the next two days, media center traffic comes to a standstill: it’s silent reading time in here, and besides, most of the shelves are covered by the caves.

After the teachers have set up theirs, I’ll go around and do the table thing to fill in the gaps. (I also have my own major Cave to put up.)

We run Reading Caves for two days so that most classes have a chance to come in and spend a while reading. After each class comes in, I give them four minutes to explore, and after a one-minute warning, they have to sit and read. (This year, I created two sound files, one with an introduction, and the one-minute warning, followed by a “sit and read”; and a 20-minute loop that had nothing in it but a chime to end the session about three minutes before the end. During the entire day, I play quiet music, this year all space music. Drove me nuts.)

The four minutes are insane: we usually have two classes at a time, and they go nuts as they explore one cave after another. And then when the one-minute warning sounds, it becomes bedlam. Now they have to choose which cave to sit in, and the friend/clique factor kicks in, and lo! there is much squealing and running.

And then it’s quiet for about ten minutes as they settle in and start reading. For the little kids, that’s enough time. For the older ones, I need to find a way to have longer sessions, because they’re just getting into it when the chime instructs them to close their books and “return to real life.”

They leave on a high, chattering about how much fun they’ve had. It’s pretty neat: a really big response for not a lot of work.

The caves can be elaborate, or they can be simple as pie. Here are some from this year and the past:

Charlotte’s Web, complete with bales of hay, the web, troughs, and a fence of yarn (that no one could see and which we finally had to take down for safety’s sake). If you look in the trough on the right, you can see a little brown Templeton. Kids climbed up on the tables inside, somehow managing to not knock off all the chairs that were perched up there with them, holding up the roof.

The fifth grade’s Iditarod cave. Simplicity itself, but because you entered from one aisle and had to crawl all the way down and around (in a U-shape), it was very popular. Also popular, and pictured up at the top of the post, was a Twilight cave. How do kids this young even know about that accursed phenomenon? That cave was actually two: a cave and a den (for the werewolves.)

My 100 Book Club cave. Not very flashy, but it was comfortable. More than a few kids found it cozy:

I have these large pieces of cardboard that were donated several years ago by Multec, a local company that makes packaging. I’ve saved them and use them every year, so my cave has actual walls. I’m thinking of ways to make it more complex and interesting next year. And I hold them together with Mr. McGroovy’s Box Rivets, a wonderful, wonderful invention.

One year, I did a Hogwarts. Here’s the Slytherin common room from that cave:

Above that was the Gryffindor common room. You entered the cave by crawling under a table; that table had the Great Hall on top. I had house banners hanging, and great portraits all over the walls.

Here’s a glance at the exterior, beyond the Three Little Pigs houses:

The houses of the Little Pigs were made of PVC pipe, covered in fabric. Each would hold one child.

My all-time favorite was the year 5th grade did Narnia. You entered through the Wardrobe, of course:

There was a stretch of Narnia in winter:

Then you turned the corner, and there you were in Mr. Tumnus’s house:

Pretty spectacular.

Some practical considerations: since we turn out the lights, you will need to consider how the children will see to read. There are outlets nearly everywhere in the media center, so power is not really a problem. I made that mistake with the “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way” cave two years ago: the all-black and black-light lit space was very cool, but no one could see to read.

You have to consider supervision. Make sure there’s a way an adult can see into the space and check on things. We had to cut a flap in the Iditarod cave this year for that reason. Otherwise, the more closed in, the better. One reason the 100 Book Club cave was not as popular as it might have been was that it was largely open.

Seating is an issue. This year’s Magic School Bus looked great, but was not very popular because there were no cushions. The same went for the secondary parachute cave. There was just bare carpet, and not many kids found it appealing.

Like A Pattern Language suggests, room for more than one student is good, but more than five is just not cozy. Still, most of the one-kid caves were occupied, because there are some students who are serious about the reading part and don’t want the distraction of other kids.

The cave does not have to be elaborate:

This one, just a table on its side draped with paper, was occupied more than half the sessions. If I had gone a little more origami on it and closed the front a bit, it would have been even more popular.

I’m already planning next year’s Reading Caves. Let me know if you’d like to join in.