Books, Graphic Novels, and the Like

Far too long since I have posted here, but I do have good news to share. First, I am pleased to report that our collection of teacher narratives, Early Career English Teachers in Action is nearly finished. Lindsay Ellis and I are finishing up the manuscript, which we’ll submit soon. Then, it will be published by Routledge sometime in 2014, depending on how long the process takes. What’s exciting about this book, for me, is that it features former students of mine who are teaching English. Our contributors include Adam Kennedy, Jeremy Battaglia, Blaine Sullivan, David Jagusch, Tami Teshima, Sierra Holmes, Amanda Brown, Lindsay Stoetzel, Tracy Meinzer, Bree Gannon, Sara VanIttersum, and Kristyn Konal. All have contributed meaningful stories from their first years in the field. I am very excited for the book to come up, and for these fine teachers (and writers) to get some of the recognition they deserve.

I’m also geeked about my upcoming graphic novels course, which begins next week. In addition to some of the usual works such as Blankets and American Born Chinese, we’ll be looking at early Will Eisner (Spirit), the infamous Frederick Wertham (who wrote about the way comics corrupt youth) and two new favorites of mine, Sarah Varon’s Robot Dreams and Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost. We’ll also be diving a little deeper into superhero comics–Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises are also on the reading list.

Lots of fun. Looking forward to a terrific semester.

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Pearson, Continued.

On Monday, I attended the Pearson MTTC Standards Setting Conference in Lansing today. I found the event both dispiriting and instructive, and while my confidentiality agreement forbids me from disclosing any specific information, I can tell you the following, much of which is already published on the MTTC web site.

  • The MTTC Basic Skills Test will soon be renamed the “Professional Readiness” test.
  • The test will consist of three subareas: reading, writing, and math.
  • Certification requires passing all three, but individual areas can be retaken without the rest of the test.
  • The test is criteria-based, not norm-referenced.
  • The test covers content, not pedagogy.
  • The MDE is pushing the test as a prerequisite for student teaching, though it seems like universities can determine their own policies.
  • Pearson will send disaggregated data to COES, and scores on subareas will be available.
  • Allegedly, the Professional Readiness (PR) test is “based on Michigan policy documents and curriculum,” though when I asked about this, the MDE representative said it would draw on both Michigan standards (pre-CCSS) and the CCSS.
  • Pearson currently has not plans to machine score the writing portion of the PR test, which according to the rep who led my session, is “much too high stakes a test” for machine scoring.
  • Beyond the PR test, Pearson is also developing a new Elementary Education test. Unfortunately, I was in the PR breakout group, so there is little to relate here.

My day was spent working in a group of 20 teachers, administrators, and English educators to develop cut scores (passing scores) for the three subareas of the Professional Readiness Exam. Again, I can’t reveal specific details, but I can give you some general impressions.

First, Pearson is not really concerned with higher-level discussions about meaningful writing or the purpose of public education. Not a surprise. On repeated occasions, I asked pointed questions, and the Pearson rep was unwilling or unable to engage in these kinds of conversations. Case in point: when I suggested that the MTTC writing portion might discriminate against ELL teacher candidates, the rep said that we needed to “draw a line in the sand” regarding our standards.

Second, Pearson has data. Lots of it. And they believe in it. My sense is that any contributions we made today were ultimately reduced to data points, insignificant in the vast amount of information that Pearson has accrued. Whatever happens with the new Professional Readiness test, you can be sure that Pearson has masses of data on every question ever asked. One critical data point worth thinking about: the writing subarea of the PR test (approximately 40 multiple choice questions; two constructed responses) has consistently been the weakest for test takers. Weaker than reading and weaker than math.

So, that was my day. In the meantime, this has been a busy news week for resistance to all kinds of standardized testing (hat tip: Nancy Patterson for gathering these resources:

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MTTC Standards Setting with Pearson

Tomorrow, I am off to the MTTC Standards Setting Conference, sponsored by Pearson, the London-based educational corporation that owns dozens of textbook publishing companies across the world. If you are teaching from a commercial textbook, chances are Pearson published it. Take a look at the list of imprints on the wikipedia page, or check out this mini-documentary by Todd Finley.

Pearson, of course, has a great deal of interest in implementing the Common Core State Standards. It already markets Common Core textbooks for students, but it is also developing CCSS-based assessments for students and CCSS-based certification tests for teachers. And that’s where I come in: as President of the MCEE (Michigan Council of Teachers of English), I have been invited to “set standards” for the new Michigan Test for Teacher Certification, which will likely be renamed and will be largely concerned with the CCSS.

What this means in a nutshell: if you are in a teacher certification program (like ours at GVSU), you will be expected to know the CCSS, not only for the basic skills test, but also for the subject area test. Start memorizing them, people.

Pearson invites academic types like me mostly for public relations, I’m quite sure. I suspect that I’ll mostly be meeting corporate types tomorrow–higher ups from Pearson whose job it is to sell the new assessment. Maybe my skepticism will be proven wrong, and I will be given a chance to state my opinion. I’ve been gearing up all week, reading Diane Ravitch’s most recent book Reign of Error. If given a chance, I’ll push for the following:

  • Authentic writing assessment that does not require would-be teachers to craft formulaic five-paragraph essays about random topics unrelated to our field. If the test must contain a written portion (and it must), I would like to see test-takers presented with a scenario or brief case study (about adopting a controversial text, for example, or reporting suspected child abuse). Then, the test would ask teachers to write in a real genre, such as a memo, letter home, or an email to a colleague. They would also write with a real purpose–explaining the decision they have made. This is a pipe dream, I know. Tomorrow, it will be five-paragraph all the way to the bank.
  • I’ll also take a stance against machine-scored writing, a method that most major tests are piloting or moving toward. Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (to which Michigan belongs), for instance, certainly talked about this option in the past. This is probably the future of the teacher certification test.
  • What else? Maybe general grumpiness about the buying and selling of public education in America. For more on the way Bill Gates provided millions of dollars to fund the Common Core initiative, for instance, check out the reporting by Melody Schneider.

I’d like to live blog (or Tweet) the event, but Pearson makes all participants sign a confidentiality agreement, so this is likely my last dispatch.

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Huge News from the Michigan Department of Education: No Funding for CCSS, at Least for Now

From MLive:

Michigan Department of Education website to be shut down today
Lori Higgins,
October 1, 2013

The Michigan Department of Education’s website is expected to go dark today because the Legislature has failed to act on allowing the department to spend money to implement the Common Core State Standards, which are integrated throughout the site.

In a memo that went out to school administrators statewide Monday, MDE officials said the site — — has to be taken down.

The budget bill the Legislature approved earlier this year — which went into effect today — bars the MDE from spending any money on implementing the standards or an exam that would be based on the standards until the Legislature weighs in on whether the state should move forward.

The House on Thursday approved a resolution allowing the MDE to move forward with implementation, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up. A joint meeting of the Senate Education Committee and the Senate subcommittee on K-12 committee funding is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the Common Core. It’s unclear when the full Senate might take up the resolution.

“If we cannot expend funds on any information, or support and assistance to local schools, then we have to scrub our entire website and restore pages as they are deemed fit,” State Superintendent Mike Flanagan said in the Monday memo.

The MDE website isn’t the only thing impacted by the lack of legislative action. MDE is now in violation of a waiver it received from the U.S. Department of Education last year — a waiver that allows the state to bypass some of the strict rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law. One of the conditions of the waiver was that states adopt college and career readiness standards, which the Common Core standards are considered to be.

For more detail, see this email from the Michigan Department of Education’s Leah Breen:

Dear Colleagues,
Due to the Michigan Senate not providing an “affirmative action” to allow the Michigan Department of Education to continue implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by the beginning of the October 1, 2013-14 state fiscal year, the Department is prohibited by state law from providing information, support and assistance on either the CCSS or the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAs).

Because so much of that information is integrated throughout the MDE website, the website will be taken down while any and all CCSS and SBA information is identified and removed. We will be restoring unaffected information as it is cleared.

Additionally, the following work within the Office of Professional
Preparation Institution will be temporarily suspended at 11:59 p.m. tonight, September 30, 2013.

1. Recommendation of candidates within MOECS
2. Approval of applications within MOECS
3. Educator Preparation Institution Performance Score
4. Program approval
5. Standards revision
6. Title II, Part B grant support
7. Accreditation visits
8. Technical assistance related to State Standards or activities affiliated
with those standards
9. Other, not yet identified activities

Each component of our work will be reviewed carefully. As we determine that those activities are not in violation of the current restrictions, we will communicate this information to our constituents and restore the services.

We appreciate your understanding while we work through this situation, especially as it pertains to the prohibition for staff to communicate and provide technical assistance to you on affected issues. We look forward to resolution so that we can go back to providing the support you expect and deserve.

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Big News Event

lajm1 Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

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Brainstorm: Educational Uses of Flipboard

Flipboard_Logotype_Square_flat_300dpi Flipboard is one of the coolest new readers for media tablets. It is, in essence, a replacement for web-based RSS aggregators such as Google Reader, now defunct. Flipboard lets you subscribe to a range of digital content, including Twitter and blog feeds, Facebook news feeds, media outlets that export to Flipboard format (such as the Atlantic), and most interestingly, “magazines” created by other Flipboard users. Web users can also install a browser tool to add content via the web.

Start by getting the the app for your iPad, iPhone, Droid, or Galaxy. You’ll see that you can 1) create a magazine with your favorite individual articles or 2) subscribe to content for your “cover stories.” This distinction is a little confusing at first, but basically the difference is that individual magazines allow you to scrapbook your good finds (static content), and cover stories offer dynamic content based on your subscriptions. You can share your individual magazines via a range of social media outlets and, of course, email.

Theoretically, then an educator could set up a magazine for his/her class, using content from around the web, including YouTube videos, images, and all matters of texts. I just added the ebook version of the Great Gatsby and a Groovshark playlist to my Flipboard magazine currently (and creatively) titled Rob.

I can’t quite wrap my head around this yet, though: can the magazine I create also have dynamic content that updates automatically? Do I create a new magazine for a different class (or different content)? Can I convert a boring old PDF text into a Flipboard text? And what, besides beauty, does Flipboard offer that a WordPress blog does not offer?

Stay tuned.

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Is Blogging Still Relevant?

My posts here have become infrequent, to say the least. After a record-low number of posts this academic year, I’m thinking about pulling the plug on this blog, which has been in existence since 2005. But is blogging still relevant? Google recently terminated Google Reader, the RSS aggregator that fed my blog (and many others). In the heyday of blogging and RSS (2005 or 2006), blogging meant reading, commenting, and linking to other blogs, using RSS to find interesting feeds. The success and explosive growth of Facebook and the iPhone pretty much spelled the end of this kind of particular way of reading/writing.

For its part, Facebook has has essentially fenced in the web, sucking in a huge proportion of web traffic. I suspect many people never leave Facebook, or if they do, they only follow links that are posted in their news feed or, more rarely, appear in the tailored sidebar ads.

Smartphones, too, have contributed to the death of blogging. More and more users access the web with these devices instead of laptops, and as they do so, they are constrained to communicate with short texts or tweets rather than longer blog posts. Instead of RSS readers that grab free syndicated content (though there are a few out there still), apps monetize content via subscription.

So, does the lowly personal blog live on, or is it time to abandon what was once the vehicle of the 2.0 web revolution?

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Bent Not Broken–Reflections on the End

I just received word from iTunes that my third and final version of Bent Not Broken has just been approved. This marks the end of a long, long journey with the text, beginning in 2009 with the concept of the project, which was originally intended for print. After a year of writing and research, I began seeking out publishers in 2011. The next two years were spent mostly waiting for rejection letters from a host of big and small publishers, most of whom never looked at the manuscript.

And while I wouldn’t say no if,say, Scholastic came along and offered to publish the text, I have also discovered how well the book works in the digital, multimedia domain. I’ve been able to add a ton of rich content and make my own research process a little more transparent. Along the way, I also learned a ton about epublishing, and particularly the ins-and-outs of both Adobe InDesign (a good program) and the Apple store. In the future, software like Indesign will get easier to use and more accessible, much like web design software did in the late 1990s.

I am also excited to say that I just got a small GVSU grant and purchased six iPads for the Secondary English Education program at GVSU. I will be working with our newest faculty member, Bailey Herrmann, to develop iPad-based writing and reading projects beginning next semester. My hope is that students will produce ebooks somewhat like mine, taking classic, public domain literary texts such as Heart of Darkness and enriching them with images, video, and other kinds of interactivity.

There are other examples of this new, interactive classic already out there. If you have an iPad, I strongly recommend downloading the amazing Inkle version of Frankenstein which is a sort of choose-your-own adventure retelling of the classic text, this time set during the French Revolution. Inkle itself looks like a cool free tool that allows you to write interactive, reader-directed novels. I am also interested in the latest version of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchanan, which NPR recently reviewed. It too bends genre, combining some game-like features with the text from the original novel, albeit abridged.

So, can students take a classic literary text and re-situate it in a rich multimedia environment, even adding interactivity that borders on gameplay? I have really high hopes, though I know that all that talk about “new forms” of books or reading in the 1990s ended up producing, well, awful hypertext novels that no one really reads or cares about.

Going to keep thinking about this. For now, just download Bent Not Broken and tell me what you think.

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Update: Bent Not Broken, Version 1.1, Now Available Free

Photo Apr 13, 3 11 12 PMOver the past ten days or so, my interactive ebook Bent Not Broken has been downloaded at the App store over 100 times. The number of downloads increased dramatically (and not surprisingly) when I decided to make the app free.
This new version is relatively smaller than the original. I also fixed some embarrassing typos, redesigned a couple of ugly pages that had been bugging me, and increased the leading for greater readability.

In short, if you haven’t downloaded it yet, please give it a try. There’s really nothing to lose. Except just a little space (okay, 1 GB) on your iPad. But the story is unforgettable.

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Bent Not Broken Now Available at App Store

Bent Not BrokenI am very pleased to announce that my interactive ebook, Bent Not Broken, is now available for the iPad (1st or 2nd generation) at the App Store.

This interactive story follows the life of a family trying to survive a brutal war in West Africa. The war took place in in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s. All wars are cruel, but this one was particularly brutal—fought by warlords and their death squads of child soldiers, the war saw the deliberate targeting of civilians. Murder, rape, torture, and abduction were common tactics used by all factions, and the signature atrocity of the war, amputation, left thousands without hands and legs.

Through a rich multimedia presentation that includes personal testimonies, images, maps, found artifacts, video, audio, and animations, Bent Not Broken shows how one family survived the war and came to America in 2005. More than just an ebook, this highly interactive and compelling account of human endurance and cultural adaptation will appeal to young adult and adult readers who are willing to enter into the life of a family under the extreme duress of war.


  • If you teach multigenre writing and have a iPad, this text can serve as an example of a research-based multigenre project. It contains poetry, prose testimonials, excerpts from official documents, interviews, photographs, hand-drawn maps, and more. Collectively, these genres work together to tell a highly engaging story of human survival.
  • If you are interested in composing ebooks with your students, Bent Not Broken can serve as an example of a new kind of interactive story-telling. This narrative technique will become increasingly available to your students as software such as iBooks Author makes composing multimedia books easier and easier.
  • If you teach African literature or other literature concerned with the plight of refugees, this Bent Not Broken can add to these works.
  • If you have an iPad but not the $2.99, please email me ( for a promotional code to download the text for free.
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