In Defense of Reading Fiction

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of DCPS.

Amie_LittmanBy Amie Littman, Summer ’17 UELIP

Recently, there has been a dramatic shift in what students should be reading in the classroom, jeopardizing how much fiction students will read in ELA classrooms. The Common Core State Standards state, “in grades 6‒12, ELA programs shift the balance of texts and instructional time towards reading substantially more literary nonfiction…and other literary nonfiction that is built on informational text structures.”  While nonfiction reading is integral to learning, exposure to ample nonfiction in the ELA classroom would abolish most of students’ in-school exposure to fiction, which in turn may have adverse effects on their development.

For example, students glean empathetic tendencies as a result of reading fiction. When students come into contact with fictional characters, they are able to expand their experiences beyond what they happen to come into contact with in their daily lives. By exposing students to fiction they are able to break from their own personal bubbles and broaden their understandings of different cultures or life experiences. “[Researchers] argue that the use of images, metaphor and inner dialogue can lift people out of themselves so that they develop a sense of growing connectedness.”  From this, we see students gain profound aspects of development needed for social emotional learning from exposure to fiction, and are exposed to important professional skills by discovering how to connect to the world they live in.

This is not to say that nonfiction is not just as important for a full learning experience. There are valid arguments behind the desire for higher volume of nonfiction reading. Exposure to informational texts helps students understand concepts that will be prominent in their educational careers and beyond. Nonfiction allows students to enhance their content-area literacy, and without it students would be rid of strategies, information, and cognition that will help them further along in their lives. For instance, “reading nonfiction… allows for multiple modes of thinking, as well as smoother pathways to learning and self-efficacy, teaching students how to search out the information they are interested in learning.”

However,  nonfiction should not be the entirety of students’ reading. Currently, Common Core State Standards recommend that nonfiction texts should comprise 70 percent of students’ reading by the twelfth grade. If schools evenly distribute nonfiction reading across other core classes, such as science, social studies, and math, the 70 percent threshold would be easily met, which shows there is less of a need to make the bulk of reading in ELA classrooms consist of nonfiction readings, and ELA curriculum should allow for more flexibility.

While it is clear that Common Core’s primary goal is for students to be successful and enlightened young adults as a result of schools, the changes that have been articulated will not ultimately serve as a way to produce the finest students. The change in curriculum will inhibit students from the creative, analytic, and critical thinking they will need not only in their English classes, but their careers, too. Additionally, this change may greatly deter students from reading.

We cannot assume students read at home for leisure; their access to fiction texts in English classes requires them to exercise parts of their brains that no other class will stimulate. While nonfiction is definitely to be encouraged as a part of the curriculum, it should not be at the cost of students’ exposure to fiction.


Telling Stories and Asking Why

By Kyle Hietala, UELIP WordPress Editor, Summer ’17

This summer, I’ve taken it upon myself to become a storyteller, of sorts, about this program and its participants. I’ve sat down with dozens of my fellow UELIP Associates and asked them a range of questions–some bread and butter about their interest in education, others curveballs about themselves, their quirks, their frustrations, and their dreams. My interviews have been delightful, not because I like hearing about my fellow Associates’ summer work (though I do), not because I like hearing about my fellow Associates’ reflections on working for a large urban public school district (though I do), but primarily because I like hearing my fellow Associates’ stories.

I judge the success of my interviews and the strength of my written pieces about my colleagues based on the extent to which I asked and got answers to the “why” questions. “You want to become a teacher,” I’ll say. But then I’ll follow it up with, “why?” If I get a cliche, (e.g. make a difference, help kids to grow, improve society, etc.), I’ll pry more. “So why do you want to make a difference?” I’ll query. I wonder if my colleagues find me difficult or even rude, because I incessantly ask them “why?” in response to just about whatever response they offer.

Perhaps the greatest misconception I’ve come across is that when I ask “why,” I expect a clear and detailed answer in response. In truth, I never know what to expect, and so I have no expectations, at all. The most interesting conversations I’ve had have been when I’ve gotten a candid “I’m not sure” or an “I don’t know” in response. I think these answers are genuine and profound, equally as meaningful as carefully thought-out answers that reflect a found and followed passion. I appreciate the uncertain and unclear answers because they allow for the most candid exploration. No one has said “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” and stopped talking; instead, they start to tell a story.

These stories usually reflect nuance and conflicting and competing interests, passions, and dreams. They are refreshing because they show moments of self-doubt, yet perseverance to continue searching for the right words to articulate their passion. From these admissions spring the most sincere and believable stories. Many great stories begin with a clear purpose and move linearly, but many great stories do not.

As an interviewer this summer, I’ve begun my storytelling without any direction or expectation other than a desire to find out why my colleagues do what they do. What I’ve learned is that the first few minutes of a response to a “why?” question aren’t usually the most meaningful. It’s in the latter minutes, when the rehearsed responses have been exhausted, when the doubts and hesitations have been overcome, and the comfort of predictability has been left behind that the good stuff really comes out. And this is the stuff of good stories.

Chancellor Henderson to Step Down: A UELIP Perspective

By: Shyheim Snead

Last Wednesday, June 29, Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced that she would be stepping down from her role on September 30, 2016. Chancellor Henderson began her tenure as head of DC Public Schools in November 2010, after serving for three years as Deputy Chancellor of DCPS.

In the Chancellor’s six years of service, she has been at the helm of increasing student enrollment, improving student satisfaction, and recruiting and retaining top talent to lead schools and classrooms. In her June 29 bulletin, Mayor Muriel Bowser thanked the Chancellor for her “steadfast resolve to improve education for all of our students.”

As UELIP Associates, we had the unique opportunity to attend the “All-Hands” meeting where the Chancellor made a personal announcement to Central Office staff. This quarterly meeting is an opportunity for Central Office staff to hear major announcements and updates on District progress.

The meeting opened with two exceptional student performances: violin selections from a rising DCPS Sophomore and an impassioned speech on literacy from a graduated Senior. The Chancellor followed by recapping accomplishments from the past year, including study abroad programs and paid internship opportunities for DCPS students.

Immediately following, the Chancellor gave an emotional, passionate speech about the joys of leading this school district and her high hopes for its future. Akanksha Shah, UELIP Associate in the Office of Talent and Culture, remarked “as an intern you don’t really expect to see anything really important beyond the day-to-day work…This was an experience you won’t get anywhere else…witnessing actual change impact actual people.”

The 2016 Summer UELIP Cohort joins the masses in thanking Chancellor Henderson for her distinguished service to DC Public Schools, and we are confident in DCPS’s continued commitment to students. We are excited to continue supporting the DCPS team for the remainder of the summer.


UELIPs Go to the Senate

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This Tuesday a group of my fellow UELIPs and I headed out of the central office and over to the US Capitol to hear the Senate debate on the Every Child Achieves Act. The Every Child Achieves Act is a long overdue attempt to overhaul No Child Left Behind of 2002.

A summary of the bill can be found here.

Congress does not release a schedule of events until the day of, which does not allow much time to plan ahead. Luckily, at DCPS supervisors encourage you to take part in all the incredible events the city has to offer and so we were able to take the afternoon to check it out!

We headed over to the capitol and were discouraged to realize we needed a pass from our senator in order to get into the viewing gallery. It turned out we just needed to find our senator’s offices (right across the street from the capitol!) and they gave us the passes right away! With our passes in hand we headed back to the capitol, went through security, waited in line, went through security, waited in another line, through another security point and then finally we were in the gallery.

As you can imagine security is very tight at the capitol here’s the list of items that you can bring into the capitol itself, but not into the viewing galleries:

  • Cans and bottles
  • Battery-operated electronic devices (Medical devices are permitted)
  • Cameras
  • Creams, lotions, or perfumes
  • Strollers
  • Video recorders or any type of recording device
  • Packages, briefcases, backpacks or suitcases

They provided you with bins to store these items while you visit.  I had to place my extra pair of shoes in the bin (maybe there is concern that visitors might throw shoes down at the Senators below?), phone, and previously emptied water bottle in a bin.

When you actually make it into the gallery you are directed to open seats where you may not talk, lean on any banisters, take notes, or sleep (a hard one for the younger tourists missing their nap time).

If you are seriously interested in watching what is happening on the floor, CSPAN is probably the best option. When in the gallery you can’t take notes and you aren’t able to pick your own seat so you might end up sitting in a spot where you can’t see the person speaking.

I would recommend visiting the House or the Senate while they’re in session at least once, it’s definitely a bucket list worthy experience!

More info on visiting the Senate here.

The Leadership to Succeed

By Junior Associate Evan Traylor

Can you imagine what Apple would look like if Steve Jobs, and now Tim Cook, weren’t able to effectively envision the future of their company? What about South Africa if Nelson Mandela wasn’t able to mobilize people toward ending apartheid? And what if Orville and Wilbur Wright didn’t have the motivation and skills to take flight for the first time? All of these icons found ways to achieve their dreams and make the world a better place by tackling tough challenges and effectively practicing leadership. Our world needs these visionaries, innovators, and activists to continue changing our communities for the better; however, we especially need these leaders them in our schools to provide all of our children with the bright future they deserve.

During my UELIP experience, I worked on the Principal Recruitment & Selection Team, helping to recruit, interview, select, and place highly effective principals and assistant principals into DCPS schools. While many school districts, including DCPS, groom their school leaders internally by developing their teachers, DCPS believes that we need to find talented and bold school leaders outside of our district in order to achieve our goals. Finding candidates from all over the country, including Boston, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Chicago, my team sends them through a rigorous process, including interviews with Chancellor Henderson and a panel of community members, that challenges them and ensures that we find the very best school leaders to inspire our teachers and children to success.

From student organizations to Fortune 500 companies to public schools, strong and effective leadership is a necessary component for any avenue of success. I’m glad that I could contribute to this important aspect of helping DCPS hire and support the school leaders that are the visionaries, innovators, and activists necessary to help us become the best urban school district in the country.

Serve with a Known Purpose: A UELIP’s understanding of the need for Service Learning

By Junior Associate Andrew Blickle

I remember the first time I served. It was at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving one year. I wish I could say it changed my life, but it didn’t. To be honest, I was only there because I had to be. I was young, I was dumb, and I wanted to be watching football.

Fast-forward a few years. I was still young and dumb, but I now served my community through my passion—sports. I umpired Little League baseball, helped out with summer clinics, and eventually became involved with the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Reading, PA. I served there each summer for about 6 years.

Now I am a UELIP attempting to transform the DCPS community service requirement into a service learning program. Too many students serve their community because they have to, unaware of the amazing opportunity that comes with service. Too many students pick up trash or rake mulch at the mall, not even in the community they call their own, unsure of how this helps them. Too many students cannot complete their hours, or don’t have the accessible resources to find where they can meaningfully complete their hours. Too many students who serve never learn the bigger picture—how they’re helping, who they’re helping, and why their service is necessary. Too many students serve without realizing that every second they serve is making the world a better place.

It is not their fault, either. The resources are not currently there. A Service Learning program, which DCPS is working hard to implement, can make sure that students’ service is tied to their passions, and can make sure they both prepare for their service and reflect on what they’ve done, and why they did it. The program would connect the classroom to the community in new ways, showing students the value of both their education and their civic engagement. Teachers can be facilitators for their students to fully see the value of what they have done.

I was lucky to have those resources, to have someone push me to serve in something I was passionate about. Now, for example, I am passionate about ending hunger and homelessness, because I have learned exactly how a soup kitchen can impact the world. I hope DCPS students who volunteer at soup kitchen are able to reflect on what they are doing and why they are doing it. I needed that knowledge to see the value in service. DCPS students need that, too. And with a service learning program, they will get it.

The Power of Multilingualism: Insight from an OSI UELIP

By Junior Associate Lindsey Benjamin 

After teaching seventh and eighth grade writing for two summers in West Philadelphia, I found my passion for urban education. My experience in the classroom not only instilled in me a love for the teaching profession, but also sparked my interest in bigger picture education reform. Therefore, I was extremely excited when my advisor at the University of Maryland recommended the Urban Education Leadership Program (UELIP), because it would provide me with the perfect way to explore this interest. These past few months with UELIP have been truly eye-opening, providing me with the opportunity to effect tangible change.

As an intern with the Language Acquisition Division in the Office of Specialized Instruction (OSI), I assist in developing programs that support English Language Learners in the district. The central project I have been working on throughout the semester is called the Seal of Bi-Literacy program. The purpose of the program is to award high school seniors who have achieved proficiency in two languages with a seal on their diploma. This program is for native English speakers who attain proficiency in a foreign language as well as for ELLs who attain proficiency in English during their high school career. The students demonstrate their second language proficiency through a combination of language assessments and out-of-classroom experiences. In order to assist in facilitating the roll-out of this program, I created a database of language assessments that students will be able to take in order to demonstrate proficiency. I also created an internship database that provides information about various organizations in the DC area seeking bilingual high school interns. Finally, I created an online application for students interested in participating in the program.

I see enormous potential in the Seal of Bi-Literacy, because not only does it provide students the recognition they deserve for accomplishing the difficult feat of speaking more than one language, but it also completely changes the perception that the community has of ELL students. These students are considered to be at a disadvantage compared to native English speakers. It is important to realize, however, that once ELLs attain English proficiency, their bilingualism puts them at a great advantage and equips them for success in this multilingual world. The Seal of Bi-Literacy has the power to shift the community’s mindset toward this population. Therefore, it has truly has been an honor to work with my supervisor, Katarina Brito, to bring this incredible program to fruition.