You are here


Curriculum Update

The latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies

Q&A with Performance Poet Nile Stanley

Q: How do educators tend to respond when you say poetry helps children learn to read?

A: Generally, I find educators know that reading poetry is good for the mind and the soul. Also many [teachers] themselves learned to read through the poetry of Dr. Seuss. I am hearing that poetry is supported by brain-based research. I get a lot of e-mails like this: "You can really have it both ways--skills and fun through poetry."

Q: What do you tell naysayers about the power of poetry?

A: "Neither thorns or nettles do I cultivate, I cultivate the white rose." As the poet Jose Marti wrote, greet everyone, even your adversaries, with a warm handshake and a poem, not an argument. I invite the naysayers, skeptics and even the curmudgeons to come and experience the joy of children learning to read, write and perform poetry. Seeing is believing.

Q: How has No Child Left Behind affected your work?

A: As a participant in the Harvard Literacy Institute, I talked with many of the key crafters of the current legislation. The answer to my research question, "Why can't poetry take a role within the teaching of reading?," [was that there] had to be a resource that specifically shows educators how to use poetry to teach the federally mandated "big five"--phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. In my book, Creating Readers with Poetry (Maupin House, 2004), I advocate a comprehensive approach to literacy, explicit instruction in skills and continued rich literature and writing opportunities. With poetry we can have joy, meaning and "rhyme with reason."

Q: As author-in-residence at a Duval County (Fla.) Public Schools elementary school, how do you incorporate poetry into daily instruction?

A: I begin by asking the literacy coaches and teachers, "What content and skills can I teach through poetry that will compliment the language arts standards you are trying to address this week?" ... [Using] a mini-lesson format, we experience the poem by repeat reading and performing it. We reflect on the poem through thinking, retelling and discussing. We apply the skills we learn through writing, illustrating or using technology.

Q: As a visiting poet, how do you live up to your nickname, Nile Crocodile the Reading Reptile?

A: There is a high level of enthusiasm, excitement and engagement. The teachers and children ... get into the act of reading, chanting, singing, performing and writing poetry. Sometimes the tension of the high-stress, high-stakes curriculum is so high that the poetry seems soothing--so alluring, children break out by dancing to the poetry. A "poetry break" elicits a full spectrum of responses: joy, sadness, surprise, laughter, reflection and relief.

Q: How have you seen poetry help turn struggling readers into successful readers?

A: At the poor, urban school where I work, almost all of the readers are struggling. Does poetry make a difference? Moses Lee Jones (pseudonym) ... is the title of my poem that inspired my book. In fourth grade, Moses was emotionally handicapped and learning disabled. He used to act out in class by screaming. He lived with his grandmother because they took his daddy away to jail. Despite his weaknesses, he auditioned for and made poetry club for his performance of "Dreams" by Langston Hughes. Moses went on to perform and write original poetry. He was a poor reader, but excellent performer. He is now a B+ student in middle school and plays the trombone.

Q: Can you give an example of how one particular school system is embracing poetry?

A: In Juneau (Alaska) School District, three of the six elementary schools support professional development with poetry to a large degree. Principals supported and recognized poetry by attending my workshops and class visits. They help teachers align poetry learning with the district's change efforts and goals. I [worked with teachers to] engage students with poetry and literacy activities that compliment the standards-based curriculum. Poetry is not fluff; it is the real stuff of learning. During a full week at each school, [I modeled] effective literacy instruction [and later offered] follow-up consultations with teachers.

[The district also created] a learning community [around poetry]. Once students perform poetry for other classes, they want their parents to see them as well. [This creates] an entire feedback loop of parents, teachers, community and children--a synergy, if you will. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Nile Stanley is a reading specialist, researcher, visiting poet and professor of education at the University of North Florida.

Banking the Best of Tests

George DeBoer's research team is putting a lot of questions and answers through the ringer. In the end, the concept of having assessments precisely aligned with content standards will be all the clearer to everyone.

As deputy director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061 education initiative, DeBoer is leading a five-year effort to develop an online collection of assessment resources. The $4.1 million project will include a searchable bank of standards-linked test items for middle and early high school science and math students. The collection can be used as a test-writing model.

A previous grant developed the "how" of analyzing alignment of test items to content standards. The "when" is now.

Taking a few dozen topics, DeBoer's team is collecting items from state and national tests. "We'll take kernels of ideas from existing items. Then we'll put these items through this very rigorous procedure ... several times, and each time the items will be revised," DeBoer says. "Alignment does not have to be at a coarse grain size; it can be at a fine grain size."

The completed items will also: include plausible distracters, so that students can't simply use the process of elimination; be written in plain, clear language; and be accessible to all types of learners. Field testing will take into account student explanations for answer choices.

Each of the 300-plus test items in the collection will contain electronic links to national and state content standards, with clarification statements breaking down standards into key ideas. To submit well-written items for consideration or get involved in reviewing test items, contact DeBoer at

Mutual Funds Get in the Game

Diversity--the financial portfolio kind--is certainly an investing rule of thumb. And often mutual funds, generally less volatile than stocks, are a first investment choice. So it makes sense that students in the Securities Industry Association's Stock Market Game Program can now add funds to their portfolios.

Young people in grades 4-12 play by investing a virtual $100,000 in securities and tracking their progress over half a year. The 27-year-old program has grown to incorporate related math, language arts and social studies curricula, increasing its value to educators, notes Lisa Donnini, director of education at the Foundation for Investor Education, which administers the game. About 500,000 students from all 50 states participate annually, with an 11 percent increase in participants in fall 2004 over fall 2003.

Many teachers and financial professionals bringing the program to schools are former players themselves, says SIA spokeswoman Margaret Draper. "We're getting that next-generation influence."

Hopefully the mutual fund generation will keep the competition all in good fun. Sixty-four percent of kids have less than $100,000 when game time runs out, reports Gloria Talamas, FIE's director of development. With the long-term payoff characteristic of mutual funds, students choosing funds over stocks may find it even harder to "win." An end-of-year analysis will help determine if a mutual fund investment requirement is necessary to sell students on diversification. "It's about the learning," Talamas insists, adding that the competition itself is motivation enough.

Of Money and Basketball

Another game promoting financial literacy is played on the court rather than in the market. Cambridge Credit, a credit counseling provider, and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., have created a semester-long high school program that explores credit, saving and budgeting--all through examples related to professional basketball. Distributed through USA Today's Newspapers in Education program, the curriculum includes student incentives such as financial literacy rallies, tickets to NBA and WNBA games and visits from basketball Hall of Famers.

Targeting Reading Difficulties

Identifying a suspected reading disability is the first step in helping a child. With that in mind, Reading Rockets and LD OnLine are launching Target the Problem, a project to help educators and parents recognize specific reading difficulties. The project's Web site defines, in lay terms, problems in areas such as auditory/visual integration, fluency, attention and language processing--and offers suggestions for increasing skills, accommodating weaknesses and building upon strengths.

The project's kickoff is a live online chat at 2 p.m. EST on Jan. 27 with Sally Shaywitz, the pediatrician and neuroscientist who wrote Overcoming Dyslexia (Knopf, 2003).