For those of you who haven’t taught Seniors, trust me on this: Formative assessment during the second semester is challenging.
If you’ve taught seniors, then you might understand where I’m coming from: Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they aren’t grasping a concept, or they are just too tired of school to have the energy to engage.
I hurts my heart to even consider that my precious learners are worried about bigger issues than Comparative Literary Analysis essays or finding examples of bias in their self-selected texts. Prom looms five days away and graduation seven weeks after that. They work, they compete in extra curriculars, they deal with the adults and peers in their lives. I forget, sometimes, that their plates are filled with important thoughts. I remind myself I’m not doing their stress levels any favors by point out that we still have important work to do before June 2nd.
Last Monday we reviewed an excerpt from Niel Schusterman’s Thunderhead as a mentor text for practicing literary analysis through all the lenses that should be crystal clear to these literate learners. I needed to assess their understanding and thinking so that I could make decisions about the instruction leading up to the summative assessment. That’s the point of formative assessment; to “form” a plan for instruction.
I read the short selection with them, and asked them if they would, please, mark their thinking on this first lap through the text. They should, as they’ve done many times before, underline or highlight what they noticed about the words the author chose through the lenses of diction, bias, author’s purpose…literally anything they noticed within the realm of literary analysis. It’s the last nine weeks of their public education career. They should be able to look at a text through a variety of lenses.
Some of them made some marks on the page while others wrote notes next to highlighted lines or words. Others, though, marked nothing. [Alarms wiggle and stir in my head. Something’s not right.]
I asked them to share within their groups what they noticed. Muted whispers of ethos, tone, and metaphor struggled out of some groups, but again, most said very little. Very few connections were being made. For them and for me, the picture was as clear as mud. This, by itself, is important formative assessment. This wasn’t working. [Def Con 55- Full tilt klaxons at maximum volume!]
Yet, I refuse to blame them. I fully believe that it is solely on me, the teacher, to facilitate engagement with the text. Somehow I need to do a better job inviting them to take all those useful tools out of their tool belts and dissect this very meaningful text.
In football parlance, I needed to call an audible in the middle of the game. What I had hoped they would do; they won’t or can’t. It’s time for me to jump in and scaffold this concept to a place where they can see the connections they can make and I can assess their thinking. I’m not going to put them in a position to fail on the summative assessment if I know they aren’t ready for it.
In a whole class mode, I read over the text, mark what I notice and verbalize my analysis.
Now I ask them to talk about what they notice. There it is…an increase in discussion, an inflation in dialogue. The alarm volume turns down a notch, but it doesn’t turn off.
I wrap the class period up with an invitation to write about what moves the author is making and as they do I confer with a few students who seem completely flabbergasted. The bell tolls, signaling an end to their literary torture session.
Thus was the source of my salvation:
Jumping into this book reminded me of a few important tenets of writing instruction that I let myself forget:
- Give them choice- I was allowing no choice in the subject of their analysis. I know better than to restrict their reading and writing experiences and I let my, and their, end of the year exhaustion affect my decision making.
- Show them, not tell them, what you want to assess. I wasn’t showing them examples of literary analysis and again, I know better. I was expecting, wrongly, that Senior English students would confidently engage in literary analysis and move forward with their thinking in a way that shows me they can write a response in essay form.
After school, I tore up my lessons plans for the next four days and re-wrote them to reflect what I SHOULD do to support my students in this exploration.
On page 5 of their amazing new book Marchetti and O’Dell introduce a mentor text written by Joe Fassler from The Atlantic. His recurring series “By Heart” is a collection of responses from a diverse group of thinkers and writers and is an amazing resource. A simple Google search returned a link to this series of essays. I scanned the list of the titles and discovered an article from September titled, “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.” In it, Celeste Ng describes her feelings of the children’s book and how it “informs” her writing.
This checked so many of the boxes of what I was looking for in a mentor text. And…I get to read a children’s book to “big” kids. I know enough about my students to know they will love this.
Also, I used Marchetti and O’Dell’s five part descriptions of literary analysis on pages 11 and 12 to create a glue-in anchor chart for their readers’/writers’ notebooks that helped to clarify what exactly we should look for when reading and writing literary analysis.
Confidence restored! Disaster averted… kind of.
We Ng’s reflection and discussed how this was a perfect example of literary analysis. They asked questions, we laughed about Goodnight Moon. I saw their confidence grow and I knew we were back on track and ready to move toward our essay.
Thursday, we started the drafts and I hope to see many of them tomorrow.
Being responsive and intentional is a crucial part of the workshop pedagogy. I can’t stress enough how this one piece can make our break my teaching. My lesson planning skills have finally reached the point where I plan for and anticipate opportunities to change up what we are doing to match what the students need. This was an opportunity for which I hadn’t planned, but we made the adjustment and made it work.
Sometimes, that’s how it goes.
Let me know in the comments below when you’ve had to make big changes on the fly to support your students’ learning. I know I can’t be the only one.
Charles Moore is neck deep in Children of Blood and Bone. He’s spending the day taking his daughter to school and then having lunch with her. It might be the best day of his life. His summer TBR list is growing uncontrollably; feel free to add to it in the comments.