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Susan In Praise of Particularity: A Manifesto

Abstract: Provoked by the need to denounce summer reading packets claiming to hold kids accountable, I found myself thinking about my third grade students, and that, of course, led to Jack Prelutsky as an informational writer.


It didn't take the Common Core imperative to make me antagonistic to education solutions. I think I subscribe to The Solution to Reading Comprehension simply because of the audacity of putting The Solution in their name.

No I won't go into a rant about another group that had the Final Solution but for me the word is forever tainted and I look at anybody who uses it with great suspicion. Of course, I have to concede that no organization looking for funders like this would consider Reading Suggestions as its moniker.

There are no rules

Oliver Sacks offers this conclusion at the end of his memoir, On the Move: A Life:

There are no rules, there is no prescribed path. . . .[W]e are destined, whether we wish it or not, to a life of particularity and self-development, to make our own individual paths through life.

For me this is what good teaching is about: A life of particularity. Particular, individual kids experimenting to find their own particular, individual solutions.

With a tolerance for missteps along the way. Teaching and learning are about figuring out how to deal with missteps and move on.

Right now, The Solution to Reading Comprehension is trying to convince teachers to send home reading packets for summer reading. We are told this about the content:

The difficulty of the texts is based on the TExT model developed by the ReadWorks academic advisor Elfrieda (Freddy) Hiebert Ph.D. This model uses research to identify the words and phonics knowledge that students need to succeed at particular grade levels. These critical words are repeated often in SummerReads.

Summer Hell

And here's the pitch from

Dear 2nd, 3rd and 4th Grade Teachers,

Summer is almost here!

Don't let your rising 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students lose all the reading gains they've made this year. Send them on their vacations with SummerReads, texts designed to prevent the summer slump in reading performance.

SummerReads are written at accessible levels for students entering 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade and cover engaging topics related to summer. Each is ready for student use, complete with guidelines on how to use it, comprehension questions, and a place where students can keep records of their reading. Let your students pick and choose their topics, or print the entire packet.

It is important that students are held accountable for their summer reading, so many teachers like to check in with former students at the beginning of the year or coordinate with next year's teacher.

SummerReads were generously shared by our friends at

Happy Teaching!

The ReadWorks Team

Packets are available for 2nd graders going into third through 4th graders going into 5th. Each grade gets seven nonfiction passages billed as "informational text." I don't need to tell you where that comes from.

Show me the non-informational text.

Here is the table of contents from one text for children getting ready for 4th grade:

Table of Contents
Introduction · ·3
Growing Melons · 4
Kinds of Melons ·5
Fun with Melons · 6
Rate your thinking and reading· 7
Comprehension questions · 7

Yes, for each grade level, each text set is seven pages long and includes five pictures in full color.

Math Question: How much would it cost to print seven text sets for a class of twenty-five students?

Misery Question: How much fun time skateboarding, climbing trees, cooking--and reading real books--will kids have to forfeit? How much family agony will result from Mom and Dad nagging kids into slogging through the 49 pages?

I hope that no teacher will send this material home with children. If it does enter a student's home, I hope parents will toss it where it belongs--in the trash--and take their kids to the library.

The people who produce this offal are divided into: Team, which includes two staff writers who produce very institutional-looking material; Academic Advisers; a Board of Directors with lot of LLC and LLP after their organization names; Technology and Content Advisors, whose "connections" are interesting as well as alarming (including principal investor in Twitter).

Here are the funders who back this message It is important that students are held accountable for their summer reading.

Brooke Astor Fund for New York City Education
Frances L. & Edwin L. Cummings Memorial Fund
Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Imagine K12
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust
Leon Lowenstein Foundation, Inc.
NewSchools Venture Fund
Smith Richardson Foundation
Spotlight Fund
Tsunami Foundation - Anson and Debra Beard, Jr. and Family


I'd like to tell these big pocket funders that to prevent the "summer reading slump," kids need:

  • a library card
  • a family earning a living wage makes a pitch about holding kids accountable, when what we people looking for accountability need to do is look in the mirror. As a society, we need to be accountable for providing all children with ready access to lots of books.

Lots of books that they choose for themselves.

Instead of sending kids home with 49 pages of artificial text adhering to a readability formula and accompanied by low-level recall questions, the above funders should sponsor backpacks filled with free books of the children's choice.

I can testify from first-hand experience that children make good choices when given the chance. When I won a Scholastic contest giving me 100 free books, the company sent me a list of "programs" I could choose from.

"No," I said. "My third graders and I are going to choose from the catalogue--one book at a time."

My students, segregated as the 20 worst readers in our school's third grade, kids whose official emotional and learning difficulties stretched longer than my arm, just about wore out that catalogue examining titles, arguing over which to order. Each child was given three picks: two for himself and one for the classroom library. I chose the rest. I had inspired/encouraged/browbeat those kids who started the year as "rotten readers" (Dick Allington's very accurate term) to start each class day with silent reading--books of their own choice. They fought hard against this plan at first but by January they were complaining when I called a halt to silent reading at the end of an hour.

Yes, an hour. And invariably when I bring this up in talks, teachers ask, "But if they spent an hour in silent reading, when did you teach?"

I haven't yet inflicted any wounds on people asking this question.

Discovering Amelia Bedelia

Jennifer discovered Amelia in December. By that time the children's period of independent silent reading had extended from the initial torturous time of five minutes to forty minutes which I'd call obedient but not enthusiastic. Yes, I read, too, and my principal learned he could not stop by for a chat during this sacred time.

I knew the instant Jennifer discovered something startling in Amelia Bedelia. Her eyes opened wide; she turned back a page and read it again, mouthing each word. Then she giggled and loooked up at me. I nodded and winked. She grinned an nudged Sophie, showing her the page. Then David demanded to see what was so funny, and before he realized what was happening, David, the boy who whined the loudest every single morning, "I hate reading!" was enjoying a book. Before long, 20 rotten readers were scrambling to get their names on a waiting list for, of all things, a book. Then Jesse discovered that there were more Amelias in the library, and we had an Amelia celebration.

It was a celebration of reading. We didn't use the book as an excuse to do something else. I didn't interrogate them about main idea; they didn't make puppets. Each book was an inspiration to read another book. I was appalled a few years later to discover Amelia in a basal. The accompanying teacher's manual carefully listed the objectives to be taught with the story, including:

decode words based on the spelling pattern generalization that a vowel letter followed by a consonant and final e represents a glided (or long) vowel sound.

Never mind that research shows that the final e rule holds true no more than 53% of the time.

What we need to remember is that "the skills" are in the reading and are acquired by reading and more reading, not by doing worksheets.

Now, in the name of Common Core rigor, Amelia Bedelia's First Field Trip is moved to the fourth week of kindergarten, where they spend three days in a close reading of the story.

The teacher reads the story aloud and then asks 27 questions.

Twenty-seven questions.

Then comes the Culminating Assignment:

Read, Think, Discuss, Write

1. Think about the story, Amelia Bedelia. Turn to your partner and tell something new that you learned.

Now turn to your partner and tell your favorite part of the story.

Discuss the things that Amelia's class experienced in order. (Use the powerpoint as a source of information if necessary.)

Have each student to draw a picture of their favorite part. Encourage the students to write about their favorite part of the story.

2. Compare and Contrast Miss Bindergarten Takes a Field Trip and Amelia Bedelia's First Field Trip: Name of Story, Transportation, Setting, Characters, Activities During Field Trip.

Additional Activities

1. Ask a student to volunteer to be traced on brown butcher paper. This will now be Amelia Bedelia.

In groups make clothes for Amelia Bedelia.

Retell the story to Amelia Bedelia.

2. Have each student identify something new they learned. Draw a picture of this new knowledge.

For one dollar ($1), one can buy a Common Core Character Map for Amelia Bedelia

This PDF file is a character map that allows students to demonstrate the characteristics of Amelia Bedelia and practice using quotation marks in their writing. This activity focuses on Common Core Standard RL 3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring to the explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers. This can be used as individual assessment or at a literacy work station to accompany the book Amelia Bedelia.

Everyone in the education universe seems to have jumped on making Amelia Bedelia Common Core-operative. Here's NCTE and IRA in Read Write Think:

Amelia Bedelia Up Close! Closely Reading a Classic Story


With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and its emphasis on complex texts, students need opportunities to read closely and engage in deep thinking. After reading Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish, students discuss text-dependent questions to promote an understanding of the story's character. Through subsequent readings, they construct and support arguments concerning the character traits of Amelia Bedelia and use the text to determine how Amelia Bedelia and the Rogers can have different reactions to the same events. After these discussions, students demonstrate their understanding of character by completing a trading card for Amelia Bedelia.


Trading Card Creator: When using this resource, students answer questions about a character in their text, allowing them to demonstrate their understanding of how the character develops throughout the story.

Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish: Amelia Bedelia is the focus text for this close reading due to its qualitative complexity, which is the result of its use of words with multiple meanings, requiring students to use their prior knowledge to understand the content. . . .

There's more. . . and more. . .

Enter "Amelia Bedelia" and "Common Core" into an Internet search and you'll discover how much horror you can stand.

Meanwhile, back with my third graders for whom Amelia Bedelia was the spark that created both individual readers and a reading community. . . .

Third Graders Choose

By Spring, when I handed my students the Scholastic catalogue, they were ready for it. They consulted each other; they worried over/argued over their picks for more than a week. And their choices were stellar.

I'd put my third graders up against any book selection committee in the country.

Note that at the core of ReadWorks offerings is this promise:

This model uses research to identify the words and phonics knowledge that students need to succeed at particular grade levels. These critical words are repeated often in SummerReads.

This is the corporate version of particularity: The critical words for success at particular grade levels. I can see future teacher exams: Name the words 3rd graders need for success!

In rebuttal, I offer Jack Prelutsky, another third grade favorite. David, mentioned above as the kid who was louder than anybody else about how much he hated reading, hid Prelutsky books so he could always access them. David wrote Jack a letter--and received a personal, handwritten reply that reverberated in the community. But that's another story. . . .

Take a look at a few "critical words" from Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast by Jack Prelutsky:

Coelophysis was a hunter. . .
and its legs were fast and strong.

Coelophysis chewed on lizards,
Coelophysis swallowed ants,
Coelophysis gnawed on mammals,
but it never dined on plants. . . .

From Wikipedia:

Coelophysis was a bipedal, carnivorous, theropod dinosaur that was a fast and agile runner.

As if you needed proof that Jack Prelutsky is a great writer of informational text who captures kids' interest and enthusiasm without resorting to syllable-counting formulas.

Of course, plenty of my third graders didn't give a fig about dinosaurs. They found their reading fun--and information--in a multitude of other books.

Particularity makes the world go round

As a coda, I commend Arnold Lobel's lovely little fable, "The Crocodile in the Bedroom" (in Fables) to the teacher who feels she must be in control--of the skills, the books, and the children:

A crocodile who loved the neat and tidy rows of the flowers on the wallpaper in his bedroom was coaxed outside in the garden by his wife, who invited him to smell the roses and the lilies of the valley.

"Great heavens!" cried the crocodile. "The flowers and leaves in this garden are growing in a terrible tangle! They are all scattered!

They are messy and entwined!" Whereupon he went back to his room, seldom leaving his bed.

He stared at the neat and tidy rows of flowers on the wallpaper and "he turned a very pale and sickly shade of green."

I entreat teachers to remember that Lobel's moral, Without a doubt,there is such a thing as too much order, applies as much to school curriculum as it does to wallpaper. I think it goes hand-in-hand with Oliver Sacks' worldview:

[W]e are destined, whether we wish it or not, to a life of particularity and self-development, to make our own individual paths through life.

--On the Move: A Life


FOOTNOTE: 15 minutes after I posted this commentary, John Merrow sent out his list of Good Stuff. Here's what he said about ReadWorks:

Speaking of reading, Readworks is a wonderful resource for teachers who want their students to become better readers. (That's just about every teacher I've ever met.)

The list hits my rage button on too many things to mention.

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Susan Ohanian

Susan Ohanian, a long-time public school teacher, is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Atlantic, Parents, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Phi Del...