Category Archives: Assessment

Q & A: How do you grade the writer’s notebook?

Questions Answered

For all the years of my teaching career, my students have always kept writer’s notebooks. We personalize our covers and create our own book lists and dictionaries, practice writing, sketching, and glue-ins to make every writer feel at home, and then go about the work of filling those empty pages with ideas, practice, drafts, and beauty throughout our time together. I do this work beside my students, and we inspire each other–the same way I see my teacher mentors do this.

Because of this framing, students are invested in their individual writer’s notebooks, and they are carefully and creatively cultivated. As a result, when I collect the notebooks, it’s not for the purpose of accountability: it’s for the purpose of students sharing something they’ve chosen with me, and for me to gather some information about where my students might need more instruction.

Just as students have their choice reading books lying open on their desks when we talk about their reading lives, they have their own writer’s notebooks lying open when we confer about their writing lives. I can see, and guide, students’ work in the notebook on a daily basis, so when I collect notebooks, most of what I’m seeing isn’t new to me.

Students select two pieces of writing they would like feedback on and flag them with post-it notes, then turn in their notebook every two weeks. I browse through their writing, have a look at their TBR lists and personal dictionaries, and write back on the pieces they’ve noted.

Once per quarter, I ask students to do a “journal harvest,” in which they revisit their writing from that quarter, assess their growth as a writer, set new goals going forward, and choose one piece they may have abandoned to harvest, revise, and polish.

If my classroom were gradeless, that would be that: daily conferences, biweekly turn-ins, quarterly harvests. That gives students a variety of feedback types and times, and gives me, the teacher, enough information to help move individual writers and the class as a whole in their writing growth. Because I have always been required to enter grades weekly into an online gradebook, I make turn-ins worth 20 points and quarterly harvests worth 60 points.

Students who do the work with fidelity and demonstrate growth earn the full points possible. Daily conferences are filled with self-assessment, which informs my “grading”–it’s easier to help award points to students when they’ve already set their own goals and assessed their progress during our conversations during the week.

As always, I treat the notebook as “workshop, playground, repository,” via the guidance of Tom Romano in Write What Matters. It is a place for students to “think, ruminate, speculate with the pressure off and the stakes low” (16), and as such, our grading should reflect that.


Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin and teaches writers, educators, and her own small children how to improve their lives with literacy. As a new resident to the Dairy State, she’d love your recommendations about things to do. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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5 Things Students Say That Give Me Life

It seems like each year of teaching is more intense than the last–the highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the chaos is more…chaotic. This year was no exception, and as my 7th and 8th graders leave the classroom this week, I am an exhausted mix of relieved and saddened to see them go.

Each year, while the bureaucracy of school politics, students’ disengaged behavior, and the heartbreak of kids who slip through the cracks drags me into despair, my students are the ones who pick me back up again. They, in their own words, give me life. Here are five standout things students say that lift me up when I’m down.

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JC creates a blackout poem from a dictionary page.

“This is fun!” The surprise and delight in a young teen’s exclamation about learning being fun never fails to bring a small, secret smile to my face. Learning is fun, engaging, and challenging in equal measures when students have choice, agency, and confidence in their work. My students created blackout poems as part of their final multigenre projects, and many students wrote in their final reflections that this was one of the most memorable activities during our time together.

“Can you conference with me about this?” After leaping right into reading and writing conferences with students when I met them in April, the verb “confer” became a standard in our classroom. Conferences about choosing which books to read, about how to improve a piece of writing, or even about those pesky grade questions take on more gravity than a simple comment here and there. Students learned that conferring was a time for one-on-one conversation, during which the participants were not to be interrupted. With the simple introduction of the term “conference,” the culture of the classroom shifted to one where talk was still vivacious, but was also more focused and productive.

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Logan shows off his final multigenre paper.

“I’m proud of this.” My middle school students are boisterous at their most basic level, but each time they submitted a best draft of a piece of writing or turned in part of a project they’d worked hard on, they became suddenly shy. They’d look at me, almost confidentially, and tell me quietly, “I’m proud of this,” as they slid their work into a turn-in folder. Their multigenre projects this year were some of the longest and most complex pieces of work they’d created in their middle school academic careers, and Logan’s shy smile sums up their feelings of pride and accomplishment about their pieces.

“You should be proud of your daughter.” During my plan period one afternoon, I was chatting with my mom on speakerphone. A few students walked in with a question, and I told them I was on the phone with my mom and asked if they wanted to say hi. They greeted her and said, “you should be proud of your daughter. She’s an awesome teacher.” This mark of respect made me tear up and embarrass the two boys, but nonetheless it restored my faith in the sensitivity and manners all teens are capable of possessing.

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“Now look at me.” My students’ final self-evaluations are some of my favorite things to read each year. Page after page of student writing is filled with students assessing their accomplishments and detailing their own growth. I ask them always to tell me how they’ve changed–something they don’t always know until they begin writing about it–and this year I was floored by one student’s response. Her struggles with addiction began at a young age, and as she found a more stable home and her life improved, she transformed herself into an avid reader and writer. This powerful self-assessment–“Now look at me! I’m a writer, a poet.”–floored me. It was a forceful reminder that literacy saves lives.

As difficult as a school year can be, I just keep coming back for more–and the students are really what keep me in the classroom. Each May, as my will wilts from the stresses of testing and schedule interruptions, my students’ energy and vitality give me life at the end of each year…just when I need it.

What do your students do to give you life? Please share in the comments.

Shana Karnes teaches in West Virginia, but only for three more weeks. She’ll be moving to Wisconsin with her family, her books, and her love of teaching. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

One Pagers as End of Year Reading Reflections

Ending the year should be a ton of fun. Once the standardized testing season is over, it’s not time to let the days drag. It’s time to continue the learning, the fun, and the reflecting. As Angela wrote, it’s important to end the year strong, and on a positive note!

I think one-pagers are a great answer to some of the end-of-year-dilemmas we teachers face.

The possibilities for one-pagers seems to be endless. They are fun, they are hands-on, reflective, and what student doesn’t want to use markers and crayons in the classroom?

I’ve shared some of my experiences with one-pagers before, and I thought I’d share another idea or two here now.

At the end of the first semester, I asked my AP Lang students to reflect on their reading habits and experiences. This was our last assignment of the semester, and it was so fun and positive to grade. What a way to wrap up!

The requirements for the reading reflection one-pager were as follows:

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I modified this assignment from one a colleague shared with me. It originally focused on one book that a student would read for independent reading, so when I modified it into a semester reading reflection for AP Lang, I was unsure, yet hopeful, about how it would turn out.

One of the big differences between doing a one-pager for a book vs a semester reading reflection is the idea of What’s Your Number? I told students they could use any unit of measurement they wanted: pages, hours, books, chapters, inches, pounds, it didn’t matter. It just needed to represent their reading for the semester, as it acknowledges the accomplishments!

I was so happy with the results.

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I plan to ask my AP Lang students to do this again in a couple of weeks, but to focus on either second semester or the entire year, whichever they like.

It’s a positive way to end the year. It’s a celebration of learning and reading and growing, and it puts a smile on all of our faces.

How else have you used one-pagers in your classroom? I’d love to read all about it!

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, and are loving their new adventure.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

 

 

So Many Great Reasons to try One-Pagers!

 

I’m always trying to find valid, fun, and interesting ways to assess different reading standards without assigning essays or quizzes. This year, in addition to conferences, graded video discussions, and “short story clubs” (instead of book clubs), I’ve assigned one-pagers to my students.

Most recently, I assigned a one-pager to my grade seven students. We have been studying poetry for the last several weeks, reading, writing, and talking about it. We developed a list of words we should use in order to raise our discussions to a more academic level, and my students created a word wall with that list.

When it came time for a summative assessment over the poetry we’ve studied, I decided to assign a one-pager.

A one-pager is exactly what it sounds like: one page of illustrations and information which demonstrate the student’s understanding or reflection of whatever the topic and learning that has been studied and practiced in the previous unit. With seventh graders, I allow them to make their one-pagers larger than the typical A4 size paper, so sometimes their “one-pagers” end up more like “three-pagers”, but the idea is that they are a cohesive unit, and taped together as one large captioned illustration rather than a series of pages that are stapled together in the corner like an essay might be.

Before assigning the summative assessment, I assigned a practice one-pager. All three of my seventh grade classes practiced with Shel Silverstein’s Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout Would not Take the Garbage Out. It was a big hit. It’s funny and chock-full of poetic devices. Plus, it’s relatable to seventh graders and has a nice lesson at the end.

We spent a couple of work sessions practicing, talking, coloring, writing and generally having a nice time learning and reflecting on what we have learned. During the third work session, I asked my students to self-assess their practice one-pagers, using the rubric, and writing on the back of their papers what they think they earned in each of the three categories.

The rubric covered three standards, so students weren’t overwhelmed by small pieces and tasks. There are requirements for this assignment, but still a lot of room for individual choice and creativity.

This extra day of working with the practice poem paid off. I overheard students having their own “ah-ha” moments, checking the word wall for definitions and ideas, and talking to each other about things like couplets and alliteration. The conversations were really fun to overhear.

When it came time to complete the summative assessment, my students were ready. Each class was given a different Shel Silverstein poem: Cloony the Clown, Clarence, or Sick. Each of these poems contains several of the poetic devices we studied, and were written by a familiar poet. The final products were knock-out. Below I’ve included a few samples.

This is one of the many ways I’ve used one-pagers as a tool for learning and as a tool for assessing. I’ll share more later, and I look forward to hearing about how you use them in your own classes!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Managing Feedback: A Tool for Teachers

Whenever I talk to a group of teachers about writing instruction, we talk about the core elements of writing workshop: choice, time, and teaching. We hone in on this idea of how much practice writers need. As Kelly Gallagher writes in his blog post “Moving Beyond the 4 x 4 Classroom,” volume is essential:

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 9.21.40 PMWithin 30 minutes assessment comes up. “How do we grade all this?” teachers ask.

I think what we mean when we say this is “How do we manage all this feedback?” We know that feedback is key to supporting our writers. If we want students to grow as writers, we must figure out ways to offer them feedback that is both actionable and timely (Wiggins, 2012). 

Enter ProWritingAid  (with thanks to Jennifer Gonzalez’s post). This online platform has been a game changer for me as a writer, and I think could be for our students too. There’s a free version, along with a paid subscription. I’ve only used the free version, but even with the limitations, it has impressed me.

How it works

Writers paste a piece of writing into the text box, then run a summary. Through the magic of algorithms, the site creates a report on the writing. And I have to say, it’s a good report. You get information about the general readability of your writing, along with more detailed feedback.

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The above report is from the first draft of this essay (yikes!).  As a writer, though, I find this report helpful. It gives me a goal to work towards — I want to get those yellow scores to green, and the red one to at least yellow. I’m not recommending that these numbers correlate to a grading scale. Rather, they tell me about areas that I can strengthen as a writer.

One of my favorite areas of the report is the section on Sentence Structure. I love how this section graphs out my sentence length. I can see if I’m using a variety of lengths, as well as where I need to focus my attention if I notice an overabundance of long (or short) sentences.

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Another part of the report addresses what they call Sticky Sentences. I love the way this tool talks about the elusive fluff. We all know writers who tend to be verbose, or who fill their writing with words that just kind of take up space (apparently, First Draft Angela is one of those people).

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This overall report is only part of what ProWritingAid analyzes. Using the toolbar at the top of the page, writers can drill down into specifics.

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Based on my initial report, my Style score was pretty low, so I start there. I click on the Style button and the screen below shows up. When I hover over the underlined areas, I’m given specific recommendations. Eliminate adverbs. Change “which is different from” to “differs from”. The recommendations don’t change the message of my writing; rather, they strengthen it.

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I love this tool. I’ve noticed that the feedback it gives me as a writer is similar (if not a little better) than what I would give students. And the best part is that it puts the ownership back on students. I love that I know what to do after looking at this report. I have specific, actionable steps. And honestly, it’s fun. I like revising and then running the scan again to see if it’s better.

After I’ve looked at the suggestions from the site, I choose which suggestions to accept and which to ignore. I own my writing. I notice that most of the feedback focuses on my use of adverbs. I need to, as Tom Romano says, weed the garden. After revision, my scores increase considerably.

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How I might use with students

Conferring: I can imagine asking students to run a report on their draft and to bring it to a conference. What a great place to start talking to students about their writing. The report summary would help us focus on areas students might want to ask me about, or it might help me know what a good teaching point would be for that writer.

Reflection: I have been thinking about asking students to print their full report and attach it to the final draft of a piece of writing (or to screenshot it and insert with their doc). I would love for students to highlight places where they’ve made revisions and then reflect on how their writing changed and what impact those changes had on the writing.

Peer feedback: I think this would be a great talking point for students to talk to each other in partnerships. I struggle with peer conferencing because students don’t always know what to say to each other. With this, though, they begin to internalize a vocabulary around writing that will elevate their conversation.

Independence & Transfer: My biggest hope for our student writers is that they leave our classrooms with tools they can use their whole life. This tool gives them a place to go when they need help with their writing. Because that’s what real writers do. They’re not always going to have us and our red (or purple) pen to tell them what to do next as writers. Instead, I want them to know they have some places to go.

Try it. Before you introduce to students, take a piece of your writing and run it through the algorithm. Better yet, do it in front of students. Show them how easy yet powerful it is to utilize this tool. And then, enjoy the gift of time you have. Use that time to confer with students, to talk about mentor texts, to increase the volume of writing that’s happening in your classroom. 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH area, where spring is showing off every day. Currently she and her three kids are fascinated by the robin’s nest in the tree out front. It’s up to four eggs today! You can find Angela on Twitter @WordNerd.

A Word About Test Prep

If you are like every teacher I know, you are feeling … stressed. It results from many things: stacks of papers to grade, reading responses to catch up on, blog posts to comment on, your own life to organize, spring break taking too long to get here.

And, probably, The Test.

Whether it’s the AP test, the state test, the SAT test, I’m noticing that the words most on everyone’s lips right now are “but what about the test?”

Usually, I say, “Don’t worry about the test.”

Screen Shot 2019-03-20 at 11.06.29 AM.pngToday I say, “I get it.” Because a few weeks ago I received fall test results on my third grader. The state labeled him “Basic.” This kid who at 9 earned a black belt in martial arts. Who competed in a chess tournament for the first time, who carries a Big Nate book with him everywhere he goes. The state was telling me, a mother who is also a teacher, he barely met the 3rd grade benchmark. Well, I freaked out.

Even though I work with teachers and reminding them that their students are more than those test scores …when I saw these numbers, I forgot myself for a moment. And so I called his teacher. And she so beautifully, gently, and wisely reminded me: “He’s is more than a test. He’s doing great.”

I share this to say that even though I am not currently in a classroom, I get how these numbers can make us forget ourselves. I know we’re going to worry about the test. But, also, can we stop? Can we please remember that we’ve been doing the dang thing all year?

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Today, this week, next week it’s not the time for “test prep”. We’ve been prepping. Perhaps we should rename this window of time Test Transfer?

What does this Test Transfer look like in action? I love the ideas Lisa Dennis writes about in her post 5 Ways To Avoid the Trap of Test Prep. These are excellent routines to put into place all year to help you feel more prepared.

I love too how Nancie Atwell suggests treating test writing as its own genre (see Lesson 56 in Lessons That Change Writers for a great example).

Standing on the shoulders of these folks, along with work started at the Ohio Writing Project with my colleagues Beth Rimer and Megan Rodney, we have been approaching these weeks as a chance to show students how to transfer their learning to the test:

Demystifying The Prompts

Using chart paper, we print out the writing prompts only, allowing students to walk amongst the prompts and think about what they notice (these are easy to grab in a screen shot from your state’s student practice test site). We ask: What do you notice a writer has to do when they show up at this writing? We outline the steps together, even making a game plan. First, we do this. Next we do this. Then we write.

Then we practice just the planning part. We project another writing prompt, and we again practice the planning. We get faster and more fluid. It becomes no big deal because the students see, “oh, we’ve been doing all these steps. Now I get to show it off.”

Thinking About Our Thinking

One of the things my colleague Kelly Taylor started to notice is that her 6th graders weren’t necessarily missing questions because they didn’t know the answers. They just weren’t reading the questions correctly. Duh, right? But once she began showing just questions and talking about how she would go about thinking about how to answer it, kids slowed down. She pulled the curtain back and helped kids develop a vocabulary for thinking about their thinking. We often assume they know how to do that. They didn’t.

We don’t want to send students blindy into a testing situation. That’s not fair to them, and it doesn’t set them up for maximum success. Instead of just giving them a bunch of practice tests, I like how Kelly is taking apart those tests, just like we do with any genre, and holding it up to the light.

Relaxing, Kind Of

We are trying to remember that in every core class, in every grade, we are up against a “BIG TEST.” And the kids are picking up on that tension. What we don’t want to do is do so much test-prep that by the test comes along, kids are completely burnt out. So, we’re reading more poetry. We’re looking at picture books. We’re collecting novels in verse for a book club that will take place during testing. We’re remembering that for six months we’ve been hard at work teaching these kids how to read, how to think, how to write.

Last week we played Minute to Win It games as we reviewed questions. In between questions, we played games. We laughed. We worked hard. We transferred learning.

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a group of teachers playing Minute to Win It games as a form of Test Transfer

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take a moment to look back at the post I wrote last year about teachers. Our students are as ready as they’re going to be. Trust yourself that you’ve done the work. Cheer them on as they head into the testing season.

And remember the words of my son’s third grade teacher: You are more than a test. You are doing great.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati, OH area. She is on her first day of spring break today and reserving all the books from the library to devour. 

 

No Accountability Book Clubs

Prior to starting a round of Book Clubs with my AP Lit students, I questioned what would be a “just right” accountability fit for my very different first and fourth periods.  Third quarter always hits juniors hard.  It is a reality check that changes are ahead.  It seems to be the time students are in full swing with clubs, theater, sports, and other projects.  My students are invested in their independent reading, with many switching between texts they can use on the exam and fun YA selections, and developing reading identities.  My students are also chatty and friendly–Book Clubs seemed like a perfect fit at this point in the year.

But how to keep students accountable in a non-punitive way when they’re already overbooked.  I thought about my goals for the Book Clubs, which extended far beyond adding another text of literary merit to their tool belts for question three.  I wanted them to read, to engage, to think.  For students to have fun meeting together to discuss books like adult readers do.

For some, a bit of accountability helps spur their reading and processing.  I have many students who like to document their thinking with annotations or dialectical journals and be rewarded for their visual thinking.  I understand that. For others, a bit of accountability becomes a chore that interferes with their engagement. Students have reflected that tasks associated with reading pull their focus away from the text and onto the assignment.  I get that, too.

I have been ruminating over my grading practices this year, taking notes on what is helpful and what can change next year as we progress, seeking practices which keep students accountable in non-intrusive, authentic ways.  Letter grades in the English classroom can be tricky. Our content lends to subjectivity when grading. Add in the pressure for college-acceptable GPAs and authentic learning can be lost in the quest for an “A.” It can be difficult to accurately measure understanding, as well as the more essential habits for success beyond our classrooms–effort, improvement, depth of thought and questioning–with five letters.  I am trying to shift from grades and points to accountability, effort, revision, second-laps, and reflection as tools for building skills and taking risks. I want anything I evaluate to have meaning and to be balanced by a lot of low stakes participation, effort, and reflection.

Book Clubs are like independent reading, just a bit more social.  Why grade it with check-listy parameters?  I wanted students to read, engage, and think with one another.  To come to the table with questions, thoughts, and connections, like a college student would.  To process challenging books together, like an adult book club would.

So I decided I would assign no accountability checks.  Nothing. I only asked students to be accountable to one another, as adults would be in a “real” book club each week, with the schedule they set.

Knowing they wouldn’t be receiving a tangible grade or reward, I was concerned students would see this as an invitation not to read deeply, or that some wouldn’t feel invested in the payoff. However, my hope that our months of community building and sharing in reading experiences as readers outweighed my tinges of fear.  Why not step aside and set them free?

I gave Thursday’s class period over to the Book Clubs and student-driven conversations with the ask that students use the class period to process together.

Students owned it.  

There wasn’t a lull in conversation on Thursdays.  Student groups chatted with each other while I circulated and enjoyed their voices and insights.  I wasn’t roaming the classroom with a clipboard or checking an assignment in while half listening. I was a floating member of each club (hence why there are no pictures accompanying this post!).

I noticed there were discussions about the gray areas of the books, like what is the Combine Chief Bromden references and what the heck happened to Nurse Ratched to make her the adult she is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I noticed the crew reading Ceremony worked to make sense of the non-linear structure and researched the myths of the Laguna Pueblo people. Readers of Brave New World connected the text to Oryx and Crake, a summer read, as well as our world.  Readers of The Road hypothesized on the events before the book begins.  Many students annotated their books, kept a notecard of questions to ask one another, took notes during the meetings, and referenced the text throughout their discussions.

There was no need to dangle a carrot in front of their noses or keep track of data to issue a grade.  Students did the work because the elements were there:  choice, time, conversation.  They made meaning together, employing the habits developed throughout the year while practicing being adult readers–readers who read, engage, and think in a realm where there isn’t official accountability to turn in.

I’m not sure what my digital gradebook categories will look like next year, what practices and procedures I will put into place to promote authentic accountability, but I know I will challenge myself to step aside more often, to trust students will do the work if the environment is right.

 

Maggie Lopez is entering the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City upon returning from spring break.  She is currently reading Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower. You can find her at @meg_lopez0.

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