Monday, April 26, 2010

Interview with Alan Lawrence Sitomer, BookJam: Curriculum Innovator Series

Creating conditions of learning for at-risk students can be challenging, particularly when literacy issues are a factor, and students must perform well in high-stakes assessments. Responding to the challenge has inspired at least one educator to create a set of study guides that respond to students' real-life interests and current, contemporary young adult literature. Welcome to an interview with Alan Lawrence Sitomer, who has developed instructional materials that incorporate popular works while still preparing students for curriculum requirements. Using his materials, for the past 4 years, more than 95% of Sitomer's sophomores have passed the California High School Exit Exam. Surrounding high schools have been averaging a 71% pass rate on the same exam.

1. What your name, affiliation, and relation to e-learning?

My name is Alan Lawrence Sitomer, and I am a teacher, author and a literacy specialist. In 2007, I was named California’s Teacher of the Year. In 2004, I received the prestigious award for Classroom Excellence from the Southern California Teachers of English, and in 2003, I was honored as Teacher of the Year by California Literacy.

As an educator, I work as an inner-city high school English teacher in Los Angeles as well as a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University.

My young adult novels include The Hoopster, Hip-Hop High School, Homeboyz, and The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez, published by Disney. I also the authored Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics, a text used in classrooms across the United States to engage disconnected students, and The Alan Sitomer BookJam series, student-centric reading curriculum that is standards-based and geared toward achieving core curriculum objectives through traditional and 21st century digital literacy lesson plans.

I find it incredibly important to stay connected to the heartbeat of public education as it evolves and shifts in the 21st century. Though, I am still in a traditional classroom, I absolutely have my eye on all of the recent developments being accorded to students through e-learning. And to say I am impressed would be an understatement.

E-learning also allows students, who do not thrive in traditional classroom settings, a venue to still have a chance at becoming well-learned. Even as little as ten years ago, kids who do not fit into the “box of school” had very few alternatives. With e-learning, depth and rigor do not have to be sacrificed in order to provide genuine alternatives to modern-day schools. Peeking out on the horizon, it’s clear to me that e-learning is something that is only going to grow and grow.

Will it ever replace traditional classrooms? I don’t think so. However, will it mature and come to occupy an ever greater space in the way we educate our kids? Most assuredly, yes.

2. What is BookJam, and how is it different from other study guides ?

The Alan Sitomer BookJam series is reading curriculum for today’s high school classrooms. It was developed by me, a real teacher, for other real teachers that are facing disconnected students and looking for a way to engage them into reading.

Each BookJam comes with a class set of three engaging young adult books with teacher materials that take a student-centric approach to learning. The materials are standards-based and geared toward achieving core curriculum objectives through traditional and 21st century digital literacy lesson plans.

A BookJam set comes with:

• Three class sets of 30 books each (90 books total)
• A standards-based study guide for each novel
• An implementation guide
• 21st century multimedia projects for the classroom
• Internet resources
• Audio tools
• Differentiated learning opportunities
• Composition JamBox

Currently, there are 5 Jams available:

1. The Dark Secrets Jam
• Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
• Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
• The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Sitomer

2. The Bad Boys Jam
• The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
• Holes by Louis Sachar
• Homeboyz by Alan Sitomer

3. The Funny, Doofy Weirdos Jam
• Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
• Son of the Mob by Gordan Korman
• Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

4. The Tough Being a Teen Jam
• The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake
• The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
• Hip-Hop High School by Alan Sitomer

5. The Friends, Foes and Crisis Jam
• Monster by Walter Dean Myers
• Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper
• The Hoopster by Alan Sitomer

This is the curriculum that I use in my very own classroom to achieve success with my own students. For the past 4 years, more than 95% of my sophomores have passed the California High School Exit Exam. Surrounding high schools have been averaging a 71% pass rate on the same exam.

My goal is to engage, educate and inspire our nation’s students with accessible, relevant literature so they can authentically own the literacy skills they will need to be successful in a rapidly changing future.

Literacy is the passport to achievement in the 21st century. Study after study after study proves it. This is why, in creating the BookJam (very much a culmination of my life’s work to this point) I sought to:

• Provide real teachers with real tools to achieve academic success measured by elevated test scores and increased literacy levels of today’s students.

• Marry fun and excitement in the classroom to academic rigor and intellectual growth. Years of experience have proven to me that these two elements are not mutually exclusive, but rather interdependent allies.

• Meet the core content standards for English Language Arts through a host of original curriculum materials. Tests, quizzes, activities, graphic organizers, ELL, and GATE materials are all provided in an easy-to-use format.

• Offer a viable alternative to the institutionalized one-size- fits-all academic curriculum.
• Re-shape students’ perceptions about books and literature in order to cultivate lifelong learners and readers.

• Build real-world skills by offering the added bonus of a host of simple-to-teach, important-to-implement new media and digital literacy lesson plans through Project Based Learning activities that cultivate the tools our students will need to be successful in the 21st century.

The 21st century has arrived and brought with it an array of new tools that offer unprecedented opportunities for dynamic, thoughtful, creative, and ambitious student compositions in the classroom. I am always putting new multi-media projects into operation inside my own classroom. Whether it is encouraging my students create podcasts of a book analyses, or getting them to construct slideshow presentations in place of traditional poster boards displays, I want to ensure that my students are developing strong literacy skills and know how to communicate in the 21st century.

However, the technology that I integrate into my lesson plans does not and cannot replace the need for students to think critically. The need for kids to be independent, reflective, creative problem solvers who can intelligently, accurately, and concisely express their insights has never been more important to the modern day student.

Teachers are in a unique and somewhat discomforting position. Undoubtedly, we need to be progressive so we can ensure what we are doing in today’s classrooms will translate into real-world skills that will have value to our students after graduation and beyond.

Today’s YouTube generation may not believe me, but once upon a time there existed a world where being able to construct well-reasoned, well-structured products of your thinking characterized by authentic, diligent, verifiable research and original insightful ideas actually mattered a great deal.

This is why I created the BookJam. It is real curriculum that embraces digital literacy in the classroom, without abandoning the academic value that preceded the invention of the Internet, Web 2.0 and Google.

3. What is your philosophy of learning?

When I was in graduate school working on my Master’s degree in education, the ivory tower institution of academia conveyed the message that successful classroom educators must focus on rigor. Rigor, rigor, rigor. Of course, no one is going to argue with the need for rigor in today’s classroom but the means by which they dismissed the critical nature of student engagement troubled me greatly.

Theoretically, I discovered, through my own experience as a practioner, that motivation and engagement were the way I could remove the barriers to reaching and teaching my students. By that I mean, once they were intrigued, interested and motivated, bringing rigor to my academic objectives was much simpler. But seeking rigor without tapping into a student’s internal desire to participate felt very much like pushing a rock up a hill knowing it would roll right back down as soon as I stopped standing over a student insisting that they do the work.

This is why e-learning holds such tremendous potential; kids love technology and by allowing our students to use the multi-media tools we now have available in order to pursue academic courses of study we leverage their own individual motivation to participate with the learning materials in a way that has previously been unavailable to us as teachers.

Many of the brightest minds in educational theory agree with the philosophical notions guiding this train of thought. Some of my favorites include:

• Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm, who talks about the critical nature of motivation, particularly when it comes to educating boys

• Sir Ken Robinson, who speaks to the need for students to feel a creative interaction with academic content (as opposed to a mere linear transmission from an all-knowing teacher at the front of the room to a passive, receptor-type student sitting obediently in a one-size fits all class)

• James Paul Gee speaking to the dynamic learning which takes place in video games

• Daniel Pink speaking to moving beyond the Information Age and into the Creative Era

Dr. Kylene Beers, Jim Burke and Carol Jago, all of the “big thinkers” I know in the field of education reaffirm my own beliefs that motivation and engagement combined with student empowerment is the path of the future for tomorrow’s schools. Thus, e-learning is a bright, bright star on our schools’ horizons.

4. In your opinion, what is the ideal way to engage students? What are the particular challenges associated with high-school age students?

There is no “one right way” to reach today’s kids. The idea that there is a one-size-fits-all solution is something that has been sold to many schools, but the fact is that it’s just not true.

Today’s teens are diverse and sophisticated so a “this is how you do it” type of answer that fits neatly into a formula which can be easily replicated is something I wouldn’t dare to try and offer.

What I do know is that today’s students are hungry to pursue meaningful academic activities. For every boring, drill-n-kill worksheet teacher that uses bubble tests to assess student performance, there is an educator who is bringing lessons to life through project-based learning that says, “Wow, today’s students are capable of so much… if only we unshackle them and then challenge them.”

Nowhere is this truer than with teenagers. High school students want to feel validated, participate in meaningful activities and be asked to give something of themselves in a manner that reflects who they are. “Dumbing” down the curriculum is not a recipe for better reaching them; making them work harder and asking them to rise up to the level of which we know they are capable is what we ought to be doing.

With encouragement, guidance, discipline and a positive attitude, you can move mountains with today’s high school students. And if you look around – beyond the mainstream media’s persistent message of “Today’s students are failing” – you’ll see that, in fact, kids today are demonstrating aptitudes that might be said to trump those of previous generations.

Does living in a wired world not play a role? Absolutely. However, we underestimate the capacities of today’s high school students all too often in today’s schools. This is misjudgment that we need to change.

5. What is the future of e-learning / mobile learning, from your vantage point?

It is hard to say with a degree of accuracy what the future of e-learning holds. I can certainly guess. With the way the educational landscape is changing, and the rate at which technology is expanding in society – I’d say a safe guess would be that the direction of its growth is immense.

The benefits are obvious. Students will not be confined by what the schools offer. Their minds are thirsty and through e-learning they will pursue their own academic interests. And I am a HUGE advocate of allowing students to, as Joseph Campbell once said, “Follow their passion.”

E-learning allows the esoteric and the erudite to become much more accessible. This is one of the reasons why I believe that the future looks so bright on the digital landscape. Just as iTunes created a system whereby a music lover could really gain access to almost any band, musician, genre and so on, so too does e-learning seem to be able to one day offer a chance for any student to be able to gain access to the study of things such as French literature, astronomy or applied mathematics without constrictions on their physical location.

Ultimately, my feeling is that “self-starters” will be the ones to most benefit in the early stages of e-learning. Right now there are courses available at no charge through universities like M.I.T. for those that simply want the knowledge. In and of itself, this is pretty remarkable.

Admittedly, my vantage point is a bit limited because public education is hampered in its ability, right now, to adapt to what e-learning seems to be able to offer due to budget issues. We simply do not yet live in a world where all our students have a computer, are connected to the internet and know how to take advantage of all the opportunities which are out there. Of course, that is going to change, but the 21st century is already 10 percent over and we still have schools that rely on cassette players and VHS tapes. So essentially, America has a long way to go.

6. Please recommend a few books to read.
I’ll break it up into YA fiction and adult non-fiction since these are pretty much the two areas where I do most of my reading. Truthfully, I’ve got dozens of picks but I’ll keep the list short and sweet, just a few real “home run” titles for those who are on the lookout.

YA Fiction• The Hunger Games
• Speak
• The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
• The Alchemist
• Do I need to mention my own books? LOL. Go to to check out all the titles I’ve written for young adults. They are quite popular.)

Adult Non- Fiction• A Whole New Mind
• Outliers
• Mindsets
• Freakonomics


Good Deeds Society: YA novel that deals with bullying, escaped exotic pets, a mom who was once a child star, and the mysterious disappearance of the only person who grounded the family and kept it on track...

The book available here.

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