Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Imagined Scene--Student Taking Flawed Training Tests for FSA ELA

Below is an imagined conversation with a fictitious, anxious, super-studious scholar about the new FSA ELA, based on the Training Tests on the DOE website. Setting--the Media Center on the day that I try to help prepare students for the actual Florida Standards Assessments. Students are signed on to the computers and taking the Training Tests for both Writing and Reading:

Scholar Myrtle Schmordsky: Mr Mulhern, will there be a spellcheck on the Writing part of the new test? Sorry, I can't remember the name. It's so long.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Flawed Test--Observations About the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) for English Language Arts (ELA) Training Tests on the Department of Education Website Portal for Students and Parents

Writing Component of FSA ELA (March): If one of the criteria in the writing rubrics (rubrics posted on DOE website) is spelling, why does the notepad function allow students to check if a word is misspelled? Why does the tutorial included in the actual training test say students have access to a spellcheck? Are we testing a student’s ability to use a spellcheck or his/her knowledge of spelling?! The Writing Rubric reads: "Adequate use of punctuation, capitalization, sentence formation, and spelling [emphasis mine]." Should teachers tell students to expect a spellcheck or not? If we want to appropriately prepare students for the actual assessment, we need to have this question answered.

Writing Component of FSA ELA (March): When a student clicks on the tutorial for the Writing Section of the test (the "i" icon to the far right of the blue question number on the line above the actual prompt), the tutorial explains that students are allowed to use a spellcheck by clicking on an icon that is supposed to appear in the menu above the box students utilize to write their essays. In the actual Training Test, the spellcheck icon does not appear in the menu bar above the box. This ability to spellcheck is illogical since students, per the rubric (DOE website), are being assessed on spelling. The lack of the spellcheck icon (mentioned in the tutorial) adds even further confusion. Again, will the assessment have a spellcheck or not? A simple question. We need a definitive answer.

A Poorly Written Essay Prompt?--Comment on Wording of the Sample Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) Argumentative Prompt (Grades 6-8) on the Florida Department of Education Website

Sample Argumentative Writing Prompt 

It’s no secret that sometimes great discoveries come as a result of really big mistakes. But are they always worth the problems they cause? Sometimes the mistakes lead to greatness, and sometimes they lead to disaster. Are mistakes key to making discoveries?

Thoughts about Testing

Our children are losing valuable learning time because of the testing frenzy. The assessments themselves, the practice tests for the assessments, the infrastructure testing for the assessment days, the computer practice tests to familiarize the students with the testing vehicles, in addition to every other interruption that occurs in the typical school day, have lessened the quality of education.

I have no problem with teacher accountability based on an assessment, as long as it is fair and equitable. How one assessment given on a particular day can take into account the many variables that affect the teaching environment is a mystery to me. Done correctly, it would be a challenge for any statistician; we are dealing with people, not widgets. And we are not gods.
More importantly, we are dealing with young people, who at times, do not see the larger picture or merit in the "high stakes" assessments that adults have created. Two hallmarks of youth are obstinacy and defiance. Students often do not understand how a tool for measuring aptitude or learning gains makes sense in the larger scheme of things. Maybe there is wisdom here. Thoreau once said, "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live." Our children are too busy standing up and living. Not a bad lesson for the test gurus. 
And I am not concerned about my evaluation. I did not go into teaching for salary, prestige, or accolades. I became a teacher because I wanted to make a positive difference or two in my short time on earth. Mr. Marzano's new tool for evaluating teachers is absurd, and in my opinion, farcical; the vast majority of teachers will be rated “effective” because of the way the evaluation system works. We have replaced "S" for satisfactory (the former evaluation system) with "E" for effective (the new evaluation system). Millions of dollars wasted; thousands of students, parents, and teachers exasperated. The end result: a letter was changed. It's that simple.
What a waste of money. What a waste of time and energy. And what a waste of wisdom.

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" Analysis Activity--Rhetoric

I use the following activity to develop close reading and analysis skills. First, I have students read and take notes on the text by themselves. Then I put them in groups to exchange ideas and take additional notes. Finally, we have a class reading/discussion of the text facilitated by two scholars and myself.

Monday, January 5, 2015

"Assumptions," A Short Story/Memoir

"Assumptions" was selected as a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize for Fiction in September of 2013:

by James Mulhern

"You are altogether beautiful, my love;
 there is no flaw in you." (Song of Solomon 4:7)

"We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, 
in the twinkling of an eye." (I Corinthians: 15:51-52)

Novel Excerpt Two

The following is an excerpt from the first part of the novel that I am writing: a comic thriller, influenced, in part, by Defoe's Moll Flanders (a postmodern version, with some similarities in plot, character, and theme). The year is 1964, Revere, Massachusetts. Just north of Boston.

We were still hungry when we left the beach so we crossed the street and enjoyed a nice meal at the Renwood Dining Room. I had the fried seafood platter and Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon had sea scallops with pancetta, mushrooms, and fresh tomato. 

Novel Excerpt One

The following is an excerpt from the first part of the novel that I am writing: a comic thriller, influenced, in part, by Defoe's Moll Flanders (a postmodern version, with some similarities in plot, character, and theme). The year is 1964, Revere, Massachusetts. Just north of Boston.

In February, Nonna decided we needed to get money for my college tuition. She knew Boston University was my first choice, and that it was expensive.

Scharole doesn’t grow on trees or maybe it does and we just gotta shake a few branches. So here’s what we’re gonna do,” she said one Saturday morning over a breakfast of eggs and cereal. She poured grappa into her Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies and stirred them with a spoon.

Sample Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) Informative/Explanatory Writing Prompt: The Black Death

I created this sample essay prompt, as well as some others on my website. They have not been approved by the DOE.

Suggestions for Teacher:

Students should type their responses as practice for the exam. Although the directions from the sample test at
do not specify parenthetical citations, I would have students cite any information they use in their essays (both paraphrased text and text that students choose to quote). I would advise students to write the title or an abridged version of the title within parentheses. For example, the first text below would be cited as (“Black Death”), the next text could be abbreviated as (“Sin”) and the third text could be abbreviated as (“Depopulation”).

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sample Synthesis Activity

The following is a sample synthesis activity that can be used with any selections. Brain research suggests that when students are repeatedly encouraged to find common elements and patterns among everything that they are exposed to, their deep thinking skills will improve. I suggest that you have students do the brainstorming individually to begin with; then divide students into groups of no more than four students. Tell each group to make additional links with one another's ideas. Then further the synthesis by having each group present their ideas, and create even more links through whole-class discussion when each group presents. You might consider filling the board with all the links. 

Another idea to consider is to pass a finished document of the best ideas from your "Link Think" session onto another class (working with a colleague). The new class should try to find as many links as possible with ideas discussed by members in their own class. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Native American Literature Unit Plan--Link to HMH Collections Textbook, Grade 11, Collection 1 Resource

In the Broward County Public School district, we now have a new Language Arts textbook--Collections by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Formerly, we used The Language of Literature textbook series published by McDougal Littell. The opening unit of that grade 11 textbook contains the Native American stories "The World on the Turtle's Back," "Coyote and the Buffalo," and "Fox and Coyote and Whale." Using this textbook unit may be a good addition to a Native American literature unit plan. Collections also has some Native American literature in Grade 11, Collection 1. Click Home above to see additional lessons that can be linked to Collections.

Rationale for this Unit Plan:
 “The Literature Task plays an important role in honing students’ ability to read a complex text closely, a skill that research reveals as the most significant factor differentiating college-ready from non-college-ready readers. This task will ask students to carefully consider literature worthy of close study and compose an analytic essay” (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a developer of the Common Core Assessment for thirteen states and the District of Columbia).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

FSA ELA Reading Item Types with Links for Practice

Categories of Item Types followed by Resources with Examples and/or Practice

Grades 9, 10, and 11

  • Key Ideas and Details: 15-25% (based on 20% with 60 items: 12 items)
  • Craft and Structure: 25-35% (based on 30% with 60 items: 18 items)
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 25-35% (based on 30% with 60 items: 18 items)
  • Language and Editing: 15-25% (based on 20% with 60 items: 12 items)
  • Text-Based Writing: The weighting of the Text-based Writing component relative to the Reading, Language, and Listening component will be determined in spring 2015 after analysis of field test and operational data. 

Key Ideas and Details (also good question stem examples): and

Group Work--Enough Already

The time has come for educators to recognize that we place way too much emphasis on group work. Increasingly, in the work world, employers are acknowledging that sometimes the best ideas get drowned out by the loudest, and not necessarily the brightest, member of a group. The corporate world has begun to establish quiet spaces where individuals can work alone. Some of the greatest innovators in history have been the "lone unicorns." Just imagine if people like Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Thoreau, Dickinson, Curie, Einstein, Gandhi, Goodall, Rachel Carson, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates had been constantly forced to "think, pair, share" or work in groups. How many brilliant epiphanies would have been sacrificed because of a group/herd mentality that now permeates our culture? Of course there is a place for group work, but we need to balance it with individual, focussed, quiet, disciplined learning time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Linking Wright's Native Son with Other American Texts (Synthesis)

The movie, Native Son, is a fairly good adaptation of Wright's book, capturing the novel's essence and major themes.  I like to pair the movie with discussions of texts in the McDougal Littell Language of Literature series for grade 11.  Below is a handout that I use to synthesize ideas among a variety of texts.  You might also consider linking all of these texts to President Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech.

Questions for Native Son, by Richard Wright

  1. Tell me your opinions of the movie.  What were the best scenes, worst scenes?  Which actors do you think were most effective, least effective?  If you were making the movie, what would you add, take out, or change?  Describe a scene you might add to any part of the movie.  Be specific.
  1. At the end of the movie Bigger Thomas says,  “I know something now.”  What do you think he knows?  How is he changed by the end of the movie?  How does he feel about the other characters, his life overall, his impending execution?  Do you think the actor does a good job showing Bigger Thomas’s feelings? Explain.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

FSA ELA Argumentative Prompt--Pointers on How to Respond

I provide students with the following suggestions:

The following opinions are mine, not necessarily those of the DOE. Unfortunately, there has not been the best communication about this new assessment and there is a lack of clarity on some issues. My recommendations are as follows:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

AP English Language and Composition: Handout on How to Analyze a Text

Analysis Explanation and Directions
© 2013 James Mulhern,

"Analysis refers to explaining how the author's rhetorical choices develop meaning or achieve a particular effect or purpose" (The College Board).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

BEST SITE: Rationale and Research

Part One: Technology and the Internet: The Necessary Springboards for Curriculum
Integrate technology and the Internet into the American curriculum now.  In the real-world "global village" of today our students must process hyperbolic information communicated in extremes of repetition and speed.  The new world order is a cognitively dissonant place, replete with conflicting meanings and valueless values.  "Driven to distraction" (Hallowell, Driven to Distraction) by explosions of quick-cut lightening-jolt images, students try to make sense of a marketplace of ideas where no single bit of communication seems to be any more relevant than another.  The children before us have brains that are different from the brains of children who sat in those desks fifteen years ago.  We need to adapt to our changed audience by appealing to the modes of learning to which they are most attracted (or in the terminology of brain science, “for which they are wired), as well as help them make sense of the barrage of information that they are exposed to in our modern media.  Our students need to be able to “read” and critically evaluate the most influential “literature” of our day—the Internet.  In the same way that the Gutenberg printing press changed the way human beings processed information—from a more oral society to a written society—we need to help our students adapt to the current digital and image-laden world community.  A focus on Media Literacy and the idea of “reading the Internet,” should be our first priorities in education.  The age of print media, whether we like it or not, has been replaced by the age of digital and electronic communication via the World Wide Web.  We, as educators, need to re-vision our mindset and our approach to instruction.  Education needs a pedagogical revolution.

Narrative Essay Rubric

         The Peer Editing Rubric below may provide ideas.

  • First and foremost, is the narrative essay a true story?  Is the narrative essay a fresh, new, original piece of writing, and not a recycled former assignment?  If not, it does not meet the requirements for this assignment.
  • Does the Narrative Essay have an authentic “story” feel?  You should feel like you are reading a good story.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Handout: Anticipation Guide for Emerson's "Self-Reliance"

Writing Prompts

1. Have you ever felt misunderstood?  When?  Describe the