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Vicki Cobb

Assessing the Assessors: A Challenge to CETE

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Recently I received an email from a “passage writer” at the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation (CETE) in Lawrence, KS offering me $500 to write passages for the assessment tests. Instead of excerpting my books, which they’ve been doing for years, they are now asking me to create new material. Maybe it’s because I’ve upped my price for the excerpts. Many years ago, I didn’t charge very much. After all, it was just two or three paragraphs written years ago that would appear on an exam. Back then, I didn’t notice that the number of children who would be reading my work would be in the tens of thousands.

In recent years, I’ve wised up and charged considerably more for this limited use of a piece of my work, as have my fellow award-winning nonfiction authors. I guess the test creators realized that relatively few test takers (children) have encountered our books in their classroom work. Schools supply children with committee-generated reading material (i.e. textbooks), complete with worksheets, teachers’ guides, study questions, controlled vocabulary and reading levels. The writing is pedestrian at best and downright insulting to the reader at worst. I’ll wager that not a single kid picks up one of these books out of curiosity or to read for pleasure.

Meanwhile, our body of children’s nonfiction literature is waiting on library shelves on the very same subjects that are in the curriculum. Since these books do not have a captive audience, the authors write to captivate. The books are designed to inspire and entertain as well as inform readers about the real world. One reason why these books are so good is that authors are writing material that they each feel passionate about and they have the freedom to use many of the same literary devices fiction writer use; humor, satire, poetry, and personal idiosyncrasies that give the works “voice.” The books are beautifully illustrated and designed, a treat for the eye as well as the mind. The freedom for self-expression in nonfiction has been hard-won by many of these authors over the years. I, personally, have fought numerous battles with editors for playful language, activities integrated into the text, art that is woven into a description instead of using a disconnected caption, and insertion of humorous asides.

Many years ago, I was asked to write a science textbook. I was given an outline and writing guidelines that made me feel strangled. Although I needed the money I turned it down. “I don’t write like this,” I told them. “You could give an outline to Shakespeare and you might get something you’d like to publish but you wouldn’t get Shakespeare.” (Not that I’m Shakespeare, but I think you get my point.) Another example is my colleague, Steve Sheinkinwho wrote history textbooks for years until he couldn’t stand it any more. His most recent book, "Bomb! The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon", was a National Book Award Finalist, and won the Sibert, Newbery, and Young Adult Library Services Association awards. So you can imagine how thrilled we authors are that the Common Core State Standards require that our kinds of books finally be included in literacy across the disciplines in elementary and high school classrooms. Our step-child genre is emerging into the spotlight.

Not so fast, say the test-makers. Maybe the price for excerpts from excellent books by established authors has become too high, hence the offer to commission new passages. But the kicker to the soliciting email was that there were two attachments: “Tips for Writing Topics” and “Writing Guidelines.” Here’s a sample:

Topic ideas should not be too broad. Proposed topic ideas should be given in detail, in one to two full paragraphs.

When coming up with topic ideas for reading passages, it’s always best to go with something familiar to you. Choose topics in which you have prior knowledge or interest. This will make the passage easier to write, and will often reflect in the writing. Because writers may use a maximum of 5 sources when writing a passage, choosing passages in your realm of knowledge will also minimize the number of sources you have to rely on.

Keep in mind that passages may not have references to drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling, magic, holidays, religion, violence, or evolution, and that topic ideas should not lend themselves to passages which would require such content.


Use grade-appropriate vocabulary. To check your passage, use Microsoft Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level readability test (part of Microsoft Word programs).

Clearly the authors of these documents didn’t know who they were writing to. Did they think that after 90 books I need their tips? Do they have any idea how these “tips” flatten text and clip the wings of a talented writer? Do they understand that these are the same kinds of rules that make textbook prose so deadly?

The good intentions of the Common Core State Standards are being hijacked by the test makers. Suddenly they are arbiters of the quality of nonfiction children are supposed to comprehend and think about critically. So here’s my challenge to them. Why don’t you let us authors take your standardized tests under the same conditions that you give to children? You can’t argue that we haven’t mastered the standards, especially since you’re asking us to create the material on which you base your assessments. I have no idea how we’d do. I can provide at least two dozen top nonfiction authors in all disciplines and more if you need a significant sample. I can promise we’ll do our best. Whadya think?

Authors on Call: Videoconferencing in Class

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iNK Think Tank has been pioneering a new kind of interaction with schools through Authors on Call, a group of nine nonfiction authors who are equipped to do interactive videoconferencing. (Many authors now Skype but there are other technologies that some schools prefer.) We call our programs Class ACTS where “ACTS” is an acronym for Authors Collaborating with Teachers and Students. They are not exactly school visits nor are they professional development for teachers but a hybrid that takes the books and expertise of an author and “bakes” it into the classroom experience with the “buy in” of the teachers and the students. Andrea Warren wrote up her Class ACTS experience and posted it here. Let me give you some other examples.

I have been working with Sarah Svarda, a media specialist from Discovery School in Murfreesboro, TN. She is using me as a mentor to help her 120 4th, 5th, and 6th grade library students learn how to do research. She teaches these students once or twice a week and since she has so many students and interactive videoconferencing is more effective with groups of 40 or less (so that kids can ask questions,) we decided that I would meet the students in smaller groups over the period of time that they were doing their research. Sarah would then model the lesson for the other students who didn’t interact with me. So I met with the 4th grade just when they were starting the program, then with the 5th grade as they were several weeks into their research to help direct it more specifically, and then with the 6th grade as they were starting to write. I have one more session to go, which will be some kind of wrap-up.

The students’ original idea of “research” is to look something up in an encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) and write up what they find, which often includes verbatim material, and turn it in as homework the next day. So, in effect, I was teaching them what I do when I start a project — a long-term process that changes in time. As it happens, I’m just beginning a new book on hurricanes, so I do what all nonfiction authors do. I went to the library and took out every book on hurricanes I could lay my hands on. I showed the kids my pile of 25+ books and told them that I start by reading a lot of sources. This was a real eye-opener for them. I told them that I don’t read every book but that I look at all the books and read the ones that grab me first. This was another eye-opener — comparing sources and expressing preferences for different writers. 

In addition to the four videoconferences, Sarah and I also chronicle what we do on a wiki — a communal document. You can see the wiki for our work, as can parents and other people in the public, but only Sarah and I can write on it. Read it from the bottom up to get the chronology of our progress.

We are also working with a group of teachers in PA. Sue Sheffer is a retired educator working with the York School District on a Library of Congress grant to help teachers use primary source material. The group is scheduling sessions with our history authors: Roz Schanzer, Carla McClafferty, Jim Murphy, Andrea Warren plus Myra Zarnowski, our children’s lit consultant who wrote a terrific book for teachers: “Making Sense of History.”  The raves for each author have been off the charts.

Alexandra Siy is working with teachers from Lewis and Clark Elementary in Missoula, MT. They are using her book “Cars on Mars” as a mentor text for their own research. Here is the link to their wiki. Again, the enthusiasm for the program is unequivocally positive.

Here’s what our Class ACTS programs offer that is different from a school visit or professional development for teachers:
  1. Author school visits are considered “enrichment.” Class ACTS are programs that are aligned with the curriculum and the classroom work of the students. They take place over a period of time from two weeks to several months. They bring the excitement of a school visit to daily work, although the author isn't present on a daily basis. Since a Class ACTS program is no ephemeral one-shot experience, it can be transformative for students.
  2. An author visit is about the author and the author’s book. Class ACTS is about students and their work. The shift is to the “demand” side of the school money — it’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of results, so here authors can make a profound difference. Students are discovering that doing work in depth produces a more thoughtful learning experience than simply “covering” material. And content is now starting to matter again.
  3. All educators know that the key to learning is motivation. When students are motivated they will do the hard work of learning. Having an author involved in the process provides motivation. Studies have shown that another character trait exhibited by successful people is grit. I maintain that none of us nonfiction authors would be here without it. We also exemplify the skills mandated by the Common Core Standards.
  4. Scheduling is much more flexible than a school visit because it’s just a short time during the day and you don’t need travel time, etc. So the videoconferences are booked with a short lead-time and are given at the optimum time for the students.
  5. Teachers find that all-day professional development sessions are not nearly as useful as having a personal learning network — a place to go to ask a quick question on an as-needed basis. Through Class ACTS, an author becomes a part of the teachers’ plan with very positive outcomes.

Last year, Authors on Call piloted a program with many authors and one school. This year we have sold a variety of programs and we’re learning all the time. Here’s some of what we’re discovering:
  1. The teachers we’re working with this year are PHENOMENAL. Make no mistake, there is a lot of extra work figuring out how to use us and our books and our skills so that students benefit. The teachers we’re currently working with are early adopters who see something for themselves in taking a risk and doing something different. As a result, they are, perhaps, a self-selected group totally committed to their students. We authors are learning from them in this truly collaborative effort. I have no doubt that our incredibly successful outcomes are due to the quality of the teachers we’re working with.
  2. Last year, in our pilot program, the best teachers were the ones that signed on first. They created a bandwagon effect with other teachers joining in because they didn’t want to be left out. But the teachers who joined later were not as effective.
  3. A successful program depends on planning, collaboration and commitment. But the rewards are beyond anything anyone imagined in terms of student output. It is humbling to see how much talent children have when you give them the opportunity to strive, think, create and shine.
  4. It takes patience for a new idea to take hold. The success of Authors on Call depends on schools that have the videoconferencing technology to understand the value of books and authors, and for schools that appreciate books and authors, getting the technology. We’re moving forward, however, and Authors on Call is leading the way.

For more information on Class ACTS programs, you can download a pdf of our brochure here.

As Good as It Gets

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Over the years I have done countless school author visits, traveling to 49 states (only missing North Dakota) Canada and Mexico, Asia and Africa, Europe and the Middle East. I’ve been in excellent schools and indifferent schools but my recent author visit to Briarcliff Elementary, a K-1 school in Shoreham, L.I., was an outstanding exception. During this period of national school “reform,” as dictated by lawmakers and politicians, it is refreshing to see that that high quality education is alive and well in a public school. I have long believed that the quality of a school is due, primarily, to the passions, effectiveness and resourcefulness of the principal. My evidence is admittedly anecdotal. But I think it is worth examining in light of the clouds on the horizon by policy makers who have little first-hand knowledge of what education should be, who are in bed with the corporations that dominate the school market, and who are determined to “fix” something, like this school, that isn’t broken.

The principal, Patty Nugent, is warm, outgoing and welcoming to her students, her staff and especially to me, a visiting stranger. She is obviously in control of her school and her time since she cleared her schedule to host me for the entire day. This almost never happens to me, an outsider, paid for by the PTA to “enrich” their children’s experience of science. Typically, I am greeted by the principal who then disappears for the remainder of the day. Not here. Patty and I spent the day together in a freewheeling discussion (between my programs) about the best ways to get children off to a great start on their journey towards meaningful lives. She began her career as a classroom teacher; then spent some time doing “Reading Recovery” so she has the hands-on experience working with children essential to an administrator whose title means “first” teacher. Her mission as principal is to empower her teachers so that they can inspire and empower their students. This is especially important for these young children who are just starting the process of acquiring the skills of literacy. She is not a micromanager, giving her staff plenty of room for their own creativity and critical thinking. Yet she will run interference with the powers-that-be and game the system, if necessary, to protect the learning that is going on in the classrooms.

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The school building, despite its bright red front door, looks more like a French Country Estate than the typical suburban school, perhaps because it was once a French girls’ boarding school. It was, in fact, the model for the mansion featured in the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans, who lived down the street from it. There have been many extensions over the years adding space and facilities, but at least one classroom still has the heavy, dark ceiling beams of the original structure. Every hallway and classroom is festooned with student work giving the overall impression of creativity, industry and student engagement. There is a lot of hugging and handholding among students and teachers. But my biggest clue to the specialness of this school came from the behavior of the students and the role of their teachers at my performances.

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One of the skills emphasized by the Common Core State Standards is listening. As a presenter, I watch my audiences carefully. Children can be twitchy, sleepy, chatty or even act-out attention–getting behavior during a presentation, especially the youngest children. As they say in the parlance of show business, it’s a “tough room” to play. When I present to a K-1 group, I often follow the advice of author/illustrator Peter Catalanotto who long ago told me to seat the first grade in front of the kindergarten because the older children model better audience behavior than the younger ones. Everyone has a name card so I can call on them personally creating an instant intimacy as if I really know them. My presentation to this age group is shorter than the one I do for older kids. It is very interactive with choral responses to many questions. I make a teabag fly, levitate ping-pong balls and blow up toilet paper. I can tell that they are engaged from the brightness of their eyes and how they lean forward towards me. My biggest problem is to return them to a listening mode after they get excited. What struck me about the children of Briarcliff Elementary was that their involvement and decorum was well beyond my expectations for K-1. There was no lecture from their principal or teachers about how to behave at an assembly. Yes, they got excited and chatty with each other as they marveled at objects magically suspended in air. But they quickly quieted down, demonstrating unusual maturity and self-control. I almost never do Q&A with this age group because they often “share” a story instead of ask a question. However, I decided to break my rule because these children seemed ready for it. After I asked for questions and a child started to “share,” his teacher gently interrupted and asked, “Is that a statement or a question?” The child immediately saw that his comment was inappropriate but he was not embarrassed or ashamed of his mistake. A school must be a safe place to make mistakes (even in public) and clearly Briarcliff is just that.

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I visited a few classrooms and talked to some of the teachers who took obvious pride in their work. But they are all aware of the coming changes tied to the CCSS and fear that they will be constraining. In one classroom, there was a live webcam shot of a nest of baby eaglets on the large computer screen. The children were fascinated, watching this amazing bit of nature in real time. But the teacher confessed she could only put it on during “snack time” and there was no time in the day to explore books about eagles. She was afraid that soon she would be spending more time accounting for how she was meeting the new standards instead of actually meeting (undoubtedly surpassing) them. Already, excellent teachers are complaining that constant recordkeeping is eating into valuable instructional time. Top teachers know that when they teach well, they more than meet the standards. Let others observe them and parse the lesson. It’s like asking concert pianists to notate the fingering of a piece they’ve mastered. (Not a good use of their time, to say the least.)

The teachers here are consummate professionals, not touchy-feely idealists or burnt-out apathetic veterans. A teacher came in to see Patty to share the results of an evaluation of a new student. They both knew exactly where the child was with respect to her reading skills and they have many arrows in their quiver to move her to the next level. No child slips through the cracks here.

In recent years the “reformers” have shone their spotlight on school “failures.” Yet all good educators know that student achievement in schools is built on experiments — taking risks, trying new things, seeing what works and building on the successes. They are realists who know that not every venture produces a home run. They also know that collaboration — a collegial support system among the faculty and students working together — builds more positive results than competition. Current policies are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Suppose a school got rid of all its failing students? That would definitely solve its score-keeping problem. Getting rid of failing schools, punishing them for failing, and starting over with new schools to improve the scores is as doomed as a society full of high-school dropouts created by failing schools. As a former board member of a charter school, I saw first-hand how difficult it is to create a terrific school from scratch, no matter how well-intentioned the founders nor how well-funded the venture.

Why can’t successful schools, like Briarcliff, help other schools? Why is a school’s success often achieved by subversive practices that used to be hailed as great teaching? Why can’t we just go back to letting teachers do what they dreamed of doing when they entered into this profession? The workplace is crying out for employees who can learn new things, who are creative, who are self-starters. Schools that prevent teachers from modeling these behaviors will not produce the educated workers that employers seek. It makes me sad that, in the public school landscape, Briarcliff is such a singular exception and that its wings may be clipped as an unintended consequence of the next dictum from on high.

Winning the Nonfiction War

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Early in my career, before “Science Experiments You Can Eat” was published in 1972, I contracted to write a book on how money works for a series called "Stepping Stone Books." I had written a few books called “First Books” for Franklin Watts (now an imprint of Hachette) but this assignment was with a new publisher, Parents’ Magazine Press (which apparently no longer exists). I entitled my book “Making Sense of Money,” and set about creating it. I remember that it was a struggle. I had to educate myself in economics (not my strong suit) and actually read (plowed through) Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” I labored long and hard before I finally sent it off to my editor (now long deceased). She returned the manuscript with a cover letter so scathing that I destroyed it (now, I wish I hadn’t) but I well remember her searing criticism: “Your manuscript shows little thought or care. Writing for children is a serious business. You have a lot of nerve thinking you can do this.” The returned script was covered with blue pencil. (Daggers to the heart!) My husband was outraged. He thought I should tell her to go do something unmentionable. “But we need the money,” I said.

So here’s what I did. By return mail I wrote:

Dear Lillian:
Thank you for your comments. I’m sorry that I disappointed you. I hope my next attempt comes closer to your expectations.

I couldn't look at the script for three weeks. Then I bit the bullet, took myself by the scruff of my neck, and forced myself to rewrite, paying close attention to every comment, conceding to her language whenever possible. My pain and efforts paid off. The book was published and I went on to write three more for her. A number of other authors, more prominent than I, also worked for her in the Stepping Stone series. When I read their books I noticed that we all sounded exactly alike. Lillian stifled each author’s voice with her heavy-handed blue pencil to create a uniform style in a multi-author series. Clearly, she knew how to shape us up to fulfill her vision for the books. (Now, when I want an example of bad writing to show students, I use the first paragraph of one of those books.)

That was my first clash with an editor, but not the last. Over the years I have fought many battles for various creative aspects for my work; won some and lost some. But I don’t think I’m unique. My personal story is representative of countless editorial skirmishes many other nonfiction authors have also engaged in, initially to gain a place at the table as professionals and then later as we keep pushing the envelope to make our genre a true art form.

In 2009 an editor told me that my submission didn't meet National Education Curriculum Standards and she sent me the link so that I could read them. My first reaction: steam came out of my ears. My book met seven out of eight standards! My second reaction: I can’t do this alone. I’ll bet there’s help out there from other authors. So I founded iNK Think Tank from the wonderful and extraordinarily talented community that is the Interesting Nonfiction for Kids blog (I.N.K.) founded in 2008 and now in its sixth year: a small but mighty band dedicated to bringing the books and wisdom of nonfiction authors into the classroom.

Fast forward to 2013:
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The “21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference” will take place on the weekend of June 14-16 in SUNY, New Paltz. Bender Richardson White (BRW), a nonfiction book packager in the UK, is the main corporate sponsor. But iNK Think Tank is also a corporate sponsor. (How ‘bout that!) The conference will provide editorial coaching workshops for new authors, networking for established authors, a forum for nonfiction publishers to discuss the changes in the marketplace, and strategies for teachers for using nonfiction in their classrooms as mandated by the Common Core State Standards. Lionel Bender, founder of BRW, asked me to review an editorial he was preparing for “Publishing Perspectives” a British online magazine. (I’m now editing an editor; how ‘bout that!) His editorial, published on March 25, is called “Children’s Nonfiction Publishing Comes of Age." On the Saturday morning of the conference, I will be telling my story of the evolution of our genre, “Winning the Nonfiction War,” as the keynote speaker. Hopefully, it will pull more recruits into our cause. Understanding the real world and the various disciplines that explain and describe it needs more than an encyclopedia (or even a wikipedia) and textbooks. It requires many voices and a subtext of humanity. 

The name on my birth certificate is, “Vicki Linda;” it means “beautiful victory.” Hmmmmm…..

Artistic License and Telling Details

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Cobb - Artistic License_Lincoln.pngThe newest crop of award-winning films from Hollywood, “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo” are all based on true stories. The key word here is “based.” It seems that filmmakers have no trouble inventing scenes, creating dialog and inserting information that is completely made up if, in their opinion, it makes a better story. The rationale? Moviegoers “expect” an exciting chase scene in “Argo,” or a Navy Seal raid on Osama Bin Laden’s home to be noisy even if it never happened. Historians are worried because so many people are learning history from the movies. Will the story from the movie’s point of view become the myth that supplants the careful scholarship and meticulous digging that drives the best historians to get it right? The good news is that these transgressions are being noticed But we authors who contribute to this blog, who craft nonfiction for children, may be held to the highest standards around. We’re not allowed to make anything up. Period. Maybe we’re the last group on the planet to be held to such high standards. Anna Lewis’s recent post on Just the Facts hows how hard we work to make sure we’re accurate.

The erosion of the truth seems to be touching journalism as well. One previously absolutely inviolate journalistic standard was that every fact must be verified by at least three independent sources. It’s hard for a reader to check on the accuracy of many stories because journalists can keep some of their sources secret. So one outcome is that people wind up reading and tuning in to the media they agree with. The biased medium becomes the arbiter of what it wants its audience to believe, cherry-picking from the many conflicting “facts” being touted in public that support different sides of critical issues. It’s no wonder that the “echo chamber” of Fox News’s [Un]fair and [Un]balanced skewed version of the news kept them in a bubble oblivious to the possibility that Obama would be elected, even after the election outcome was called by other news services. Many pundits dissected why Fox News got it wrong but the consensus seems to be that they had problems believing the inconvenient truth of independent polls so their own slanted views became their own truth. I Googled the words “journalism erosion of standards” and up came a slew of posts with many different examples about the extent of misinformation foisted on the public. There was so much disagreement between these posts that I’m now confused about the truth on a variety of issues. But all the articles seem to agree that many news organizations play fast and loose with the truth in the interest of ratings, readership, political and social bias, and the bottom line. Propaganda is alive and well in the good old USA.

What happens when misinformation is embedded in a compellingly told story that has a lot of truth to it? What should our response be when it is uncovered? Here’s a thorny problem from the film “Lincoln”: It seems there were two invented Connecticut “nays” against the 13th Amendment voting scene in the movie thus casting the Nutmeg State incorrectly on the wrong side of history. My initial reaction was: where were the fact checkers? This is the kind of error that is so easy to correct. Were the filmmakers being lazy or sloppy? The Connecticut congressman, Joe Courtney, called out the error in an open letter to director Steven Spielberg. In response, the screenwriter Tony Kushner admitted that it was no accident. He had made the changes deliberately. Kushner argues that the facts were changed to serve the larger story: “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote. The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what ‘Lincoln’ is.” In other words, he used artistic license to shorten the voting scene in the film from the actual historical voting time in the interest of a dramatic effect. So it wasn’t laziness or sloppiness. I think he has a point.

Dramas like “Lincoln” and “Argo” create tremendous interest in history. When kids encounter a compelling story or an amazing fact they want to know if it is true. The proper answer is “mostly.” But a curious kid now wants to know what’s true and what isn’t. Aha! A teachable moment! What an opportunity! Telling details (small things that catch one’s attention) can add to the credibility of a work if true or, if incorrect, indicate that the work was not vetted for accuracy and perhaps shouldn’t be trusted. If only the interested person knew for sure which were which!

Maybe this is an opportunity for us children’s nonfiction authors. Perhaps it takes authors who write history for children to create white papers on these films. They could explain what is true and where truth has been manipulated. They could ask questions like: Can you think of another way to meet the requirements of an historical drama without changing the facts? Are there any fabrications that are unacceptable in a work that portrays real events? If so, what are they and why should they not be included? What does a careless error of fact tell you about the creators of the work? Whose responsibility is it for those errors? Is the artistic license justified? Why or why not?

Searching for truth drives us authors when we’re creating our books. Perhaps we need to add our voices into the larger conversation engendered by the popular media.

The Intelligence of Children

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“Out of the mouths of babes” is a well-known phrase that applies to wisdom stated by children that surprises adults with its clarity. I’m not sure why smart children surprise us. Is it because we don’t listen to them carefully? (Sometimes they don’t have the language they need to express the thoughts that are exciting them.) That we don’t challenge them enough intellectually? That we don’t involve them enough in solving real problems? All of the above?

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As a children’s book author, I remember myself as a child quite well. I write for that child. When I was ten, listening to an adult describe how things were when he was a boy, I clearly recall thinking, “He doesn’t remember his childhood correctly. That’s not how it is.” I vowed to myself I would NEVER forget what it is like to be a child.

I was always an independent thinker but as a child I felt as if my thoughts would never be taken seriously by adults, even when I became one. As a pre-feminism girl in a man’s world my gender was also disempowering. I became a scientist because speaking about science gave me authority — after all I wasn’t speaking about my ideas but proven, verifiable truth of others. Looking back, I see now that I was as smart then, as a child, as I would ever be. Fortunately, the world never successfully conspired to shut me up and as a woman of a certain age, I have a LOT of opinions that I now freely express. But I wonder if we’re failing our children because we don’t give them the respect and the opportunity they deserve. We don’t challenge them to strive and we all too often punish them for doing less than they can do. We are failing our children. But, as a reminder, I have some anecdotal evidence about the intelligence of children that never fails to take my breath away.

I do a demonstration in my school visits that engages the audience in thinking like a scientist. I hold an empty 2-liter soda bottle (label removed) horizontally (after shaking it upside down to establish that it’s empty) and place a small rolled-up ball of paper in the mouth of the bottle. I ask a volunteer to blow the paper into the bottle after everyone agrees that this is an easy thing to do. Surprise! Instead of going into the bottle the paper flies out. Everyone laughs. Such a discrepant event is a teachable moment. I ask, “Why can’t we blow the paper into the bottle?” The kids quickly figure out that the bottle is NOT empty (I had set them up) but full of air. My next question to them is “What can we do to the bottle so that maybe we CAN blow the paper into it?” From first grade all the way up the most common response is, “Cut a hole in the bottle.” But preschool and kindergarten cut to the chase right away. Their insight leaves all the adults in the room with their jaws on the floor. “Take out the air,” is the response. Their logic is impeccable. If air in the bottle is preventing you from blowing in the paper, take out the air. When I ask, “How could we do that?” the little ones invariably respond, “Squeeze the bottle.” We do that. I then rest the piece of paper at the mouth of the squeezed bottle, announce that I will now pop the bottle back into shape and ask them to vote if the paper will go in or go out. When I pop the bottle and the paper flies in, ALWAYS, without exception, no matter how old the group, the room erupts into cheers.

Recently, as the featured author at a school literacy evening, my program was the last on the agenda. It was, in the parlance of show business, a tough room — hot, crowded, late, with lots tired kids. So I briefly told (not read) the story of how rhinoviruses attack the nasal epithelial cells (bad guys vs. good guys) and how the body reacts to fight off the enemy from my book “Your Body Battles a Cold.” I finished in about seven minutes and asked the kiss-of-death question: “Are there any questions?” After a couple of “sharings” from the youngest students, a little girl asked, “Why do the rhinoviruses want to attack my nose?” Of course, I answer this question in the book. But in my haste to be quick at that late hour I had omitted this crucial detail. What her question told me was that this child had been following my story and thinking about it.

My favorite story is about my grandson, Jonathan, and his opinion of education. He is every teacher’s dream student: smart, responsible, kind — a class leader. Just after he completed seventh grade I asked him how many of his teachers did he think were having fun teaching him. By fun, I meant that they were engaged, focused and involved in the classroom activity. He thought for a long time before he finally answered, “My sixth grade language arts teacher.” My follow-up question was, “How do you know that a teacher isn’t having any fun?” His immediate response: “Because I’m not learning very much.”

Education should be about empowering children. Perhaps we make too many decisions about what they can’t do instead of challenging them to spread their wings. Do we stigmatize failure as something bad rather than see it as an inevitable step on the learning curve? If a child shows an interest in something outside the curriculum, do we honor this interest, denigrate it or ignore it? Are we being fair to teachers by requiring them to teach to tests, rather than have them exercise their own creativity and critical thinking in their classrooms? Indeed, how can we expect to teach creativity and critical thinking if we don’t let teachers model it?

There are plenty of exemplary schools and teachers, working against all odds to create successful students, but even they are being ham-strung by high-stakes testing. The curious, thoughtful child I once was survived to adulthood because I went to a progressive elementary school with the mission to create life-long learners. I learned the difference between what school could be and what it was for most children because I went to traditional schools from seventh grade up.

I write books for children to recreate my wonderful elementary school experience both for my readers and for myself.

Bubbling Up Through the Slush

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Happy 2013 everyone! My new year has started well with the promise of a multi-book contract. With a real publishing company! One that will pay me! The past three years of struggle and decline in the publishing industry started me thinking about books and about the digitizing of everything. We will come out of this, but things will be different.

In the process of writing the proposal for my new series, I needed to refresh my memory of the gas laws, some classic settled science. I first studied them many decades ago and still have my college textbook: “Foundations of Modern Physical Science” by Gerald Holton and Duane H. D. Roller, copyright 1958. It is a brilliant book that combines history of science with breakthrough laws that define physics and chemistry. You can see that it has been well used. But I’m in today’s mode of at-your-fingertips research, so I Googled “gas laws” and found a wealth of material, which I browsed through, looking for a clear, succinct treatment. I happened upon an e-book written by a high school chemistry teacher. It was lively, light-hearted and easy to understand. Clearly the author grasped the concepts and knew how to get them across. His words had “voice.” Then I read a sentence that jarred me. He was discussing carbon dioxide and mentioned that yeast produced it. So far, so good. Then he said that yeast was an animal. That’s just plain wrong! I read no further. The talented teacher/author had not had his book vetted, or perhaps even edited. This is not unusual for much of the fare available on the web. Hordes of wannabe authors have embraced the new leveled digital playing field. If you can type on a computer, you can be a published author.

Our culture has traditionally embraced published authors in the same manner it esteems professional athletes. To be a pro means you have survived a rigorous competitive winnowing process. For authors it involves an initial acceptance by editorial gatekeepers only to be admitted into a new, higher-level game where their work is measured publicly by critics and award-bestowing committees. Stories of rejection slips chronicle every writer’s journey to the promised land of seeing their words in print. I remember when I received the galleys (old word for “proofs”) for my first to-be-published book after five failures. I must have stared at the words “by Vicki Cobb” in bold-faced Roman font for hours. It was so professional; so formally different from the Courier typeface of my typewriter. It had a sense of permanence and importance. It was meant to last, carved in print. And best of all, I had earned it!

Back in the day, if you wanted payment as an author, the first hurdle was to get to an editor. It helped to have an agent. So wannabes sent in unsolicited manuscripts to agents and to publishers where they were relegated to something called “the slush pile.” Not a very encouraging title! Many publishers hired “readers,” English majors fresh out of college, to cut their editorial teeth by reading the slush pile. It didn’t take long for them to realize that most unsolicited submissions were not worth even a modicum of the work needed to salvage something the public would buy. But every once in a while someone discovered a diamond-in-the-rough and a best-seller actually emerged from the slush pile, keeping alive the hopes of all the wannabes.

How has the digitization of everything changed the game? Now everyone gets to read the slush pile! Oh, where are the gatekeepers when you need them? Just the other day, I was told the story of a local minister who has just published four storybooks for children through Amazon’s self-publishing program. (Why does everyone think they can write a children’s book? Because they tell the story to their own kids, who like them?) I politely said, “Good for him!  How are sales?” “Well, he just started.  He’s learning Facebook.” The game for today’s self-published authors is to develop an online readership, one beyond friends and family, that will make a “real” publisher sit up and take notice.

So take heart, publishers. There is a role yet for you to play. Yes, you need our talent and creativity. But we need your editorial and design support and the rigorous vetting process you put us through, something unknown to all those digital “authors” out there. And together, we need to forge a stronger, more inventive partnership to promote our collaborative efforts so that they bubble quickly to the surface, well above the melting slush.

Reading to Think Like a Scientist

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How do we create scientists? How do we get people to think as scientists think? What is the underlying process that distinguishes a scientist from thinkers in other disciplines? Can children learn to think like a scientist by reading a book? The Common Core State Standards believe that yes, habits of thought can be acquired through the reading and writing of nonfiction. I agree, but a lot depends on the accessibility of the book and how it’s read. Since many of my books address those first three questions directly, perhaps it might be useful for me to give some specifics about how teachers can use my concept-driven hands-on science books to meet the CCSS. As an example I’ll use one book from my “Science Fun” series, “Bangs and Twangs,” which can be used to teach a middle school unit on sound. 

First, this book is not designed to be read in one sitting the way one might read a story. I intend that the reader periodically stop reading and think. There’s no mystery about when this is to happen. Throughout the text I ask questions. These are not rhetorical questions, which are often used to drive a narrative. They are the same kind of inquiries that drive a scientist. So one obvious strategy for a teacher in a shared classroom reading activity is to interrupt the reading and discuss the question. Also, since my first objective is to connect the reader personally to the subject of the book, I sometimes combine a question with a universal personal experience. This is the opening page of “Bangs and Twangs”:

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A teacher using this book could stop right after reading the opening page and get students involved in activities and discussions. Instead of talking about “observation” as the initial phase of the “scientific method,” I make suggestions that have students actually observe. Challenging them to come up with a panoply of ways to create sounds without using their voices, instantly engages them with the subject and prepares them to learn more. It also fosters creative and divergent thinking.

I then expand the concept by having the reader go around the house (or schoolroom) looking for ways to make different noises. So the teacher could read this next section and continue to have the students experiment and discuss their findings. Then they could write and document their findings and the next day they could continue reading the book and experimenting, and practice their literacy skills.
In the text that follows the opening, I want my reader to observe more closely. Science is about finding clever ways to see things that are not obvious to the casual observer. In “Bangs and Twangs,” the next step is to see what actually generates a sound. So I have the reader hang a rubber band on a doorknob, pull it taut, and pluck it so that it twangs. I tell students to look at the rubber band; even using a magnifying glass, so they see how the rubber band is vibrating as sound comes out. I ask them to pull it tighter and see how the pitch changes. 

To nail down the concept of how sound is produced, I connect this new knowledge about vibration and pitch to something else they already know something about — musical instruments, the harp, the piano and the guitar. This sequence:

1. Connect a child to familiar observation 
2. Investigate it in an inventive way to reveal new knowledge 
3. Apply the knowledge to other familiar applications 

—is a pattern I repeat over and over again in subsequent chapters in the book. I am careful to introduce new information — for example, how the ear is constructed to hear sound — only when it is needed to continue the exploration of the physical nature of sound. In introducing new concepts in science, I never stray very far from what children already know. In this way, I build a conceptual armature not only for a specific subject but for the way scientists think, create, strategize and interpret their findings. 
Often the hands-on activities in my books are very simple and have little significance outside of the context of the book. Yet, the doing of these activities as related to concepts can lead to further activity on the part of the reader. Science is not about passive reading — it’s all about active involvement. In other words, following this book models the behavior of scientists.

Bangs and Twangs is now available for the iPad.
The looming adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2014 is creating confusion, fear and uncertainty in the educational community. But people in the know are saying, “Relax.” The CCSS are about process — listening, speaking, reading and writing with clarity and knowledge. It is not about covering, ever so lightly, a wide breadth of content. It’s about depth. It is a way of avoiding “The Shallows” as Nicholas Carr so aptly described the dangers of exposure to an infinite amount of content available through the Web without the critical thinking skills needed to discriminate the wheat from the overwhelming chaff. It’s about exposing students to coherent thought.

One of the bright lights illuminating pathways (or “avenues”) through this gloom is Dr. Myra Zarnowski, of the School of Education at Queens College, CUNY. Myra is an expert on children’s nonfiction literature and teaches both undergraduate and graduate students on the value of using high-quality reading material as mentor texts in the classroom. Fiction by great writers has long been required reading in English classes so that students are exposed to the thinking and writing of masters. Myra has the same attitude towards children’s nonfiction. Why should children read banal, watered-down “informational texts” by people who use the topics listed in curriculum guidelines as a book outline when there is rich nonfiction literature out there that communicates the same content in imaginative ways? 

The CCSS stress process over content, but since you can’t teach process without content, content is taught along with the thinking about it. Traditionally, high-stakes testing has measured knowledge of content, so it is understandable that educators are on tenterhooks about the new assessment tests that purport to measure the CCSS. I have just sold one of the major test-creating companies three paragraphs from one of my books that will be the text students will have to read and answer questions about. All I can say is that if students have lots of opportunities to read for meaning on many subjects, they will ace the test that has my words in it even if the subject is new to them. Children’s nonfiction literature is written so that the content is, above all, accessible. The more kids read it the better they will do on the tests. Myra contributes her insights in The Uncommon Corps, a group blog written by notable champions of using nonfiction in instruction for children and young adults. 

Myra has been supported in her efforts at Queens by the generosity of The Henry and Lottie Burger Children’s Literature Program to benefit children’s learning in a dramatic and groundbreaking way. In the interest of full disclosure, I personally benefitted from their largess last spring when I presented a program to six classes wearing my author’s hat. But the dramatic effects of the program were brought home to me when I recently witnessed the presentation of the distinguished author/illustrator, Rosalyn Schanzer to an audience of 4th and 5th graders from three Queens public schools. Here’s how the program worked:

Several weeks before the author presentation, Myra personally delivered enough copies of Roz’s book “George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides” for each child in the invited classes with the request that the books be read before meeting the author/illustrator. The children would get to keep the books. Aside from the lively kid-friendly illustrations, this is a history book that humanizes the two protagonists of the American Revolution as men who had a lot in common (both were farmers and hunters who cared about their people) yet were put in positions of leadership with conflicting agendas. In other words, there is some complexity to the issues the led to the American Revolution, and the book unpatronizingly assumes that children can appreciate these complexities.

On the day of the event, Roz told the story of her book with her art brilliantly displayed as a slide show. Her spoken words were different from the words she had written but that only enthralled her audience more because they already knew the story. Roz is a practiced and entertaining storyteller and, at many of her talks, the audience is hearing a story for the first time. But the attention of an audience is always enhanced if it is not coming cold to the subject.

The questions Roz was asked at the end of the program reflected much deeper thinking on the part of the students. Since much of the book includes the real words of participants from diaries and other original source material, one kid wondered how she found this material. Another student asked a question about the art, which gave Roz the opportunity to describe all the travels she did to historic sites to make sure that the art was accurate, even to the buttons on the uniforms of the soldiers. The students were impressed with the amount of work she had put into the book, and asked how long it had taken her (“Two years, working every single day. But it was sooo much fun!”) The subtext of Roz’s presentation was that she loved doing such “cool stuff” every day. This was not lost on the students. 

Kathleen Fallon, another Queens education professor had her students attend the program. Their responses to what they witnessed: “Unexpected.” “Very exciting.” “ A revelation.” And they immediately saw the possibilities for themselves as teachers for using such wonderful books in their classrooms. And the engagement of the students with the author is something the Burgers travel from California twice a year to enjoy the students involvement.

The take-away is simple for those of you who are confounded by the prospects of meeting the CCSS: if you want children to think critically, speak well, write with clarity and know how to read to learn, expose them to people who do the same, namely award-winning children’s nonfiction authors. That’s the only way the bar will be raised, which, despite NCLB, the Race to the Top, and now the CCSS, has always been the goal of education.
I recently attended a conference that was a huge culture shock for me. It was the BMO Capital 12th Annual Back to School Education Conference at the Grand Hyatt on 42nd St in NYC. Let me explain: This was my first conference with Wall Street types. I have gone to many education, children’s literature, and library conferences where the dress code is eclectic if not casual and the population is predominately, if not equally, female. I immediately noticed that this conference was overwhelmingly male (maybe 20 percent female) and about 95 percent of the men wore jackets and ties. It brought to mind something a businessman once told me in regard to my college-aged son who was then sporting an anti-tie button. “When he’s invited into the room where the money changes hands, he’ll put on a tie.” The attendees were primarily private equity people, investors looking for opportunities to park their money in the for-profit sector of the education market.

 If the dress code was my first and most obvious clue that I was in foreign territory, I soon discerned other differences from my familiar literary and education worlds. People were silent, polite and seemingly attentive at all sessions. There were no rustling of papers, no up-tempo ringtone interruptions, hardly anyone getting up and leaving for a bathroom break. No one, who asked a question, got up on a soapbox; they asked short and intelligent questions, probing for more information. Conversation among attendees had a buttoned-up quality without gesticulating passions surfacing. It was almost as if revealed emotion signaled vulnerability and everyone had his game face on. It reminded me of how I felt when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and made his historic comment about the moment with the same vocal inflections as when he chatted with Mission Control about the readings on his instrument panel. Something momentous was going on under the surface and people were engaged yet dispassionate. And, although I arrived with a slight prejudice that “for-profit” and “education” were antithetical to each other, I decided to stay quiet and really listen. After all, I had come to observe and to learn.

First, I had to get my arms around the notion that education is not a small market. It’s estimated to be worth $1.3 trillion, 7 percent of the GDP, second only to the healthcare market! No wonder it attracted a crowd of money people! It is also highly competitive. Most of the sessions were presented by entrepreneurs who had succeeded in doing well by doing good. Some examples: Renaissance Learning is a resource of data on best practices, taking the guesswork out of finding and using instructional materials, Catapult Learning provides consulting services to close the achievement gap, Educational Services of America is a leading provider of K-12 alternative and special education schools and programs for at-risk students, Achieve3000 is a resource for differentiated instruction. These were just a few of the companies showcased and every one of them, without exception, stressed the importance of providing an excellent product. Their CEOs believe that if schools are going to outsource services like professional development, or if they are independent schools charging parents a hefty tuition, they must deliver what they promise. (Hey, I understand this. After all, I’ve been out there in the freelance world most of my professional life.) In other words, if you want to make money, you must deliver excellence. 

The problem, for budding entrepreneurs, is the question, “Assuming I produce excellence — how do I make money with it?” The solution to this problem is not a gimme and it’s not the reverse of the last sentence in the previous paragraph. Just because you’re good, it’s not a given you’ll be rich. (We authors know this better than anyone.) And behind it all is the lurking suspicion that if you are producing something for the public good, like education, connecting money to it somehow makes one’s motives less pure. 

No one has grappled with this issue more than Chris Whittle, whose pioneering efforts with Edison Schools spearheaded the charter school movement. And the lesson learned through the proliferation of charter schools is that there is no magic formula for a good school. It takes savvy administrators, talented teachers, best practices support and money. Edison Learning continues as a company with solutions for rescuing failing schools and students. Chris Whittle has most recently set his sights on developing an international company of high-end prep schools called Avenues, designed to be a gold standard in education for the 21st Century. The flagship school opened in NYC this fall. 

In my confusion about the good vs. evil of profit in education, I asked Mr. Whittle: Is there antipathy towards entrepreneurs who are looking to make education a for-profit enterprise? If so, how would you address these skeptics? His response was tantamount to, “I’m so glad you asked.” He emailed me a recent document he had written for the American Enterprise Institute entitled “Would Steve Jobs Be a Hero If He Had Built an Education Company Every Bit As Good As Apple?” His arguments are very persuasive: Yes, good companies are in it to make money, but that is not their only raison d’etre. (Look at Apple.) He points out that good companies make money for their share holders by building up the equity of the company, not necessarily by siphoning off profits to pay dividends. No, non-profits are not so pure when it comes to money; not all their resources are channeled into educating their students. (Some of it is used for fund-raising extravaganzas; some goes into pensions plans for faculty.) Given the magnitude of the challenges that face us in educating the world’s children, Whittle is adamant that there is no single solution, no single financing option, and he welcomes all innovative comers. 

So I spent a day immersed in another culture and found a lot that resonated with me. Here’s my take-away from my encounter with capitalists and for-profit education: Good ideas attract investors, which brings in capital to develop ideas for the market that might never otherwise see the light of day. Then the consumer gets to choose; some investors will get returns and some will take a loss. That’s the game for the money people and entrepreneurs. And the results will be uncounted contributions to the success of our children and some talented people will be able to earn a living. (This is undoubtedly the initial lesson of econ 101, which I probably took in college but it didn’t sink in.) The business of education is not so different from the publishing industry, the source of my livelihood. The competition is a winnowing process. It is definitely not a get-rich-quick scheme and not for the faint of heart.

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