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Category Archives: Assessment

Shouldn’t Students Know How to Assess Their Independent Reading?

I have a love/hate relationship with the word authentic.

A few years ago when I participated in the North Star of TX National Writing Project, I wrote my action research goal to align with North Star’s definition of authenticity: “authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.” Of course, I still believe in this definition; I just struggle with redefining it for the individual students in my classroom.

Let’s take self-selected, independent reading for example. How do we ‘authentically’ assess this reading? Shana’s written about this topic lately in posts about too much measurement and alternatives to reading logs. She even started this google doc, a resource for assessing independent reading sans reading logs. There are some great ideas there.

I’m still not satisfied.

A few weeks ago I wrote about shifting control to invite more learning in which I write about shifting the finding to my students, giving them the opportunity to find mentor texts and create text sets we will study in class. I know this empowers students — they want to feel some element of control.

I decided to take the same idea of shifting and apply it to how I might assess student choice reading. Quite simply, I asked students to help me figure it out.

First, I reminded my readers why I am so adamant about independent reading and determined to hold them accountable. Then, I invited students to talk about how I might actually do it and asked that they write down their ideas. They seemed eager to help me figure it out. I listened in — grabbing my camera just in time — to capture some pretty rich conversation.

These are the ideas my class generated.

  • have reading partners that check each other
  • write a summary of what we’e read once a week (Me: “You really want to write more? Them: “No.”)
  • talk about our books for a minute or two*
  • record ourselves reading aloud (I asked:  “The whole book?” They said smiling: “Why not?”)
  • read together
  • summarize in a Google Classroom Q & A
  • pick a line from the page and write about how you feel about the line*
  • write about first impressions when we start a book
  • set reading goals then determine if we meet them by our reading rates*
  • write small summaries (Me: “You really want to write more? Them: “No.”)
  • talk about our books*
  • check for annotations
  • find our reading style
  • do book talks*
  • read novels in groups (Me: “We already do Book Clubs six times a year.” Them: “Oh, yeah.”)
  • write a blog post every week — what page we’re on and something we learned, not a summary because we can find those online
  • require us to finish at least one book every two weeks
  • book talks with our table — explain it to them*
  • write book summaries (Me: “What’s with the summaries?”)
  • check annotations
  • expand on quotes*
  • keep a reading log
  • write a one page summary every week (Me: “For real? a summary?”)
  • keep a reading log
  • create a sticky note system where we mark each hour, a start and end for that day
  • provide an incentive — candy? (Me:  “This will never happen.”)
  • give us due dates, but some will find this stressful
  • give grades to persuade and motivate (Me: “Exactly what I don’t want to do.” and under my breath: Can we give grades a rest already?)
  • write summaries? (Me, sighing: “At least you questioned it.”)
  • show progression through a book rather than setting a due date

And then these two responses:

  • The only way to actually PROVE someone is reading is if they read aloud.
  • You can’t really force [reading] upon someone; people need motivation.

Honestly, I was hoping for more. Something more — shall I say — authentic.

See? Students don’t really know how to assess pleasure reading either. Maybe that’s the whole point.

On that list above, the ideas with the asterisks? — those are things we already do. Plus, more. We study craft in our choice books:  sentences and passages. We pull ideas for expository and argumentative writing from our books. We review literary terms and analyze ways writers use them to enhance and craft meaning. We even occasionally swoon over a particular passage (well, I usually model swooning. It’s hard to get 17 year olds to swoon.)

I still do not know how to “grade” choice reading, and I’ve decided that it’s okay. Maybe I’ll take participation grades when I see students moving through their books at a fairly decent pace or after I confer with them and check for understanding. Maybe I’ll just keep listening in as my readers talk about their reading and lean over shoulders reading as they update their book lists in their notebooks.

I do know this:  The more I make everyday a reading day, a day we celebrate our lives as readers, the more students want to identify as readers.

And somedays they surprise us with their enthusiasm:

Michael came to class on Monday raving about his book. I pretty much shouted “Stop talking until I get my phone and can record you!”

How’s this for authentic reading assessment?

Please share your thoughts on assessing readers in the comments. Have you shifted yet?

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, and she loves her readers. The first book she remembers falling in love with was Anne of Green Gables, but her first memories of recall vaguely  The Boxcar Children. Amy models her reading life with her senior English and AP Language students by reading about books, talking about books, writing about books, and spending money on books for her readers to explore and enjoy. She firmly believes:  “It takes just one right book to make a reader. It’s just that every reader probably needs a different just right book.” Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

 

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Too Much Measurement Is Destroying Our Students’ Potential for Growth

“How many pages does our vignette have to be?”

“Wait, how many lesson plans do we have to turn in?”

“When you say one-pager, what exactly do you mean by one page?”

QUOTE_MEASURING-TEAMS.pngMy students cannot seem to get away from quantifying their thinking, this year and every year. To some extent, I understand this compulsion: despite living in a highly individualized culture, our education system prizes standardization when it comes to measuring student achievement. My kids have been indoctrinated into a culture of numerical evaluation for many years.

This has always bothered me, and my answers to these questions have varied: “However long it takes you to make your argument.” “Just write until you feel like you’ve said all you want to say, and then we’ll revise.” “Sixteen lesson plans, Joe. One per week. Good grief.” “One page. Single-spaced. Don’t be weird with your margins.”

Lately, I’ve honed in on how often we seem to want to measure the independent reading our students are doing, perhaps to prove the rigor of this practice or perhaps because we just can’t get away from quantification. If our goal is to build fluency and have students reading authentically and for pleasure, we can’t keep grading or measuring or tracking our students’ reading lives so meticulously.

A 2012 study, summarized nicely here, showed that the very act of requiring students to track their reading made them likely to read less than they would have to begin with. In contrast, students who were offered “voluntary reading logs” were actually more likely to enjoy reading, and read more often. It seems that choice is imperative.

Similarly, this article details a 2016 study which found that “the more you quantify something that’s rewarding for its own sake, the less likely you are to enjoy it—and the less likely you are, too, to do more of it.” Reading, for me, has always been rewarding for its own sake. This is what I want for my students, too, and perhaps the very reading logs and booklists I asked them to keep prevented me from helping them get there.

We’ve been thinking about alternatives to reading logs for some time, brainstorming ways to read the room between conferences, and our readers have offered this great list of possibilities, which includes:

  • Student-to-teacher booktalks
  • Padlet reading responses
  • “Status of the class” check-ins
  • Reading “focus discussions”
  • Student-created rubrics for self-assessment

If measuring makes us enjoy things less, but we are bound by the rules of school and have to grade things, it follows that we should do lots of qualitative, formative assessment like the methods listed above. And not just in reading–across the curriculum, in writing and speaking and listening, too. We need to move away from measurement and toward a less quantifiable, test-heavy classroom culture.

In this video (which I could just watch on repeat, because she is such a great combination of brilliant and adorable), Nancie Atwell explains how she “doesn’t believe in tests and quizzes,” and rather evaluates students daily through portfolios, discussions, and one-on-one conferences:

We may not all have an entire school of our own like Atwell does, but we do have classrooms of our own, where we can strive to create communities of individualized achievement and assessment. The goals we have for our students–to be impassioned, informed, lifelong readers and writers–are not goals that can be measured easily. Let’s get away from an obsession with quantification and work to move our students toward the immeasurable joys of becoming real readers and writers.

Please share with us how you and your students assess growth in reading, writing, and thinking! Leave a comment or share on Facebook or Twitter.

Shana Karnes is so over being pregnant, and looking forward to welcoming her second daughter into the world within the month.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, sour gummy worms (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog.

 

Shifting Control to Invite More Learning

569059I admit to liking control. I won’t go far as to say I’m a control freak, but I am freakishly close. As I age I realize I like more and more things in neat little rows, even my To-Do lists must be lined up perfectly, so I can make tiny check marks with my Precision pen.

I am ridiculous.

The hardest part of teaching for me is letting go. It’s also been the best thing for my teaching.

To be an effective workshop teacher, we step aside so our students can step in. They want to know their opinions, ideas, and choices matter. They’re hungry for it. We’ve written a lot about choice reading on this blog, and I know many of us advocate for self-selected independent reading, protecting sacred reading time like an O line protecting our quarterbacks.

I wonder what other choices we offer our students. How else do we invite them to own their learning?

Recently, I read this post “The Inspiration in Front of Your Eyes” by George Couros. He begins:

Often when working with educators, I try to give relevant examples of ideas that can be implemented into learning but get very specific to either a class or grade level.  My focus is not adding something to the plate of an educator but replacing something they currently do with something new and better than what they may have been doing before.  For example, instead of a teacher spending hours searching a video to explain a concept in math, or even creating it themselves, why not have the students find the concept and say why it is powerful, or having the students create some form of multimedia to explain the concept themselves? The flip is putting the learning into the student’s hands, which can lessen the work for the educator.

Deeper learning for the student, less work for the teacher.  Sounds good to me!

Couros goes on to explain the importance of being observant and connecting ideas we find in the world, and reshaping them to facilitate deeper learning for our students. Of course, this resonated. This is how we find mentor texts like author bios and user manuals. But Mr. Couros got me thinking about shifting the finding to my students.

Then before school a week ago Monday, I saw Kristen Ziemke‘s Padlet, Take a Knee. And I got another spark to shift my instruction.

I’d never used Padlet before, so while my students shuffled in to first period, I quickly made an account and created a board. I put one thing on it:  Kwame Alexander’s poem, Take a Knee, which I knew was the perfect quickwrite for the day after so many NFL players knelt in protest.

After we wrote and shared and talked in small groups and as a class about the issue. One student said, “I just don’t know enough about it to know what I believe.”

The perfect intro!

I suggested we make a text set that could help us understand the why’s and who’s and what’s of this hotbed of a topic, and I issued the challenge:  As a class of individuals with a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds, we’d search for articles that would address all sides. We’d use Padlet as our storage space. Then we’d use the text set we build together for our learning in class.

With their phones and iPads, students went to work, and in the 10 minutes I gave them in class, they talked. Students talked about where to find information that “wasn’t biased,” “would tell them the truth,” “will help me want to know more.”

I leaned in to these conversations, teaching terms, suggesting sites, encouraging objectivity — and why it is important for our understanding of human needs and desires.

Our Padlet What’s the Argument is not complete. We haven’t had a chance to return to it yet, but we will. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to ask better questions in preparation for whole class discussions. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to synthesize information from a variety of sources. Maybe we’ll use it to spark ideas for the arguments we’ll post on our blogs. It doesn’t matter.

When we return to our Padlet, or even create another one that coincides with whatever peace-cannot-be-kept-by-force-it-can-only-be-achieved-by-understandinghotbed topic fires up the nation (sadly, there are so many), my students will know I value their input. They’ll know that helping them make sense of our world is as important to me as helping them love books and become good writers.

And maybe they’ll remember to look at all sides of the issues, to see into the hearts and minds of those we may disagree with so we can find a space for conversations.

If my giving up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.

What ideas to do have to flip the learning into students’ hands, let go of control, and invite deeper learning? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen is a neat freak in her classroom but not her bedroom closet. She loves sharing books with student readers and reading students’ writing. She is the mother of six, grandmother to five, and wife to one very patient man. She teaches senior English and AP English Language at a huge and lovely senior high school in North Texas. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

Saying Something, Not Just Anything: Student Talk – A Guest Post by Margaret Lopez

Written in the spring of 2017, Margaret Lopez reflects on the value of purposeful communication and strategies to get kids to create questions that get at the heart of a topic and generate meaningful discussions. 

All year, my juniors and I have been workshopping writing and reading different texts for a range of purposes, pairing fiction and nonfiction for some whole class studies (Death of a Salesman and Outliers–a hit!  1984 and current events surrounding fake news and government–loved it!).  I realized a skill I hadn’t closely instructed, we had just “done,” was intentional classroom discussions.  As my juniors prepare to be seniors, Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PMcollege students, and individuals in the workplace, they need to speak purposefully and ask intentional questions.  I want them to be able to say something, not just anything  From this reflection, and students’ interest in recent protest movements and community issues in Chicago, a social justice unit based mainly on speaking and listening with low stakes writing was born.

I selected three books for students to chose from, and those choices became their lit circle groups.  Students could chose from Half the Sky which discusses female discrimination across the world, Ghettoside which examines policing in a predominately African American community outside of LA told by a reporter who spent years reporting on crimes in the area, or Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about growing up in Appalachia.

Throughout the unit, we have followed the same routine:  

Mondays are for lit circles, Tuesdays are for extension activities with nonfiction, and on Wednesdays, we discuss all three texts together in a Socratic Seminar.  My goal was a lot of low stakes writing and fruitful discussion.

I think there is a reason that discussion is a central component of the English classroom, as it builds community, facilitates deeper or new thinking on a topic resulting from other perspectives, and is a college and job skill we have the duty to foster and refine in our students.  However, students need to speak, listen, and ask purposefully.  My students know how to talk–at my small school, where classes can be between 6 and 16 students, class stalls if they don’t have anything to say.  The awkward silence lingers.  Then someone says any random thought they have just to break the silence.  But there is difference between saying anything and saying something.  To elevate students to say something about the injustices across the texts, not just anything so that awkward silence doesn’t linger too long, I began with questioning skills.

Magnifying Glass - Questions

It is challenging students to take the idea they’re wondering about and want their peers to contemplate and thinking about it backwards, writing a question that doesn’t give away their opinion, lead peers right to the answer, or simply confuse others.  

We began by running through the list of essential questions from this school year and reviewing their quick writes on the topics from throughout the year.  I asked students what they noticed about the questions, many came to the conclusion that the questions are BIG, meaning they have more than one answer, but those answers aren’t definitive or “right.”  From there, we looked at a list of plot-based questions I made about the first chunk of their reading to compare the lists of questions.  They easily noticed these questions were the opposite of essential questions, meaning they had a limited scope of what response could be correct or on the right track.

Great, they can notice the difference.  Now to teach them to apply this to their own questions. Thank the teaching gods and goddesses for Jim Burke’s What’s the Big Idea?.  I used his entry points into teaching questioning around three types of questions:  Factual, Inductive, and Analytical, having students label their own questions as one of the three types.  Then, we worked on revising after I modeled some examples.   I challenged students to move beyond the factual so we could get to the big ideas and scale up Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Jacely revised her questions to get to the heart of her concern, which was why law enforcement doesn’t seem to care about women that are in trouble:

  • Factual:  On the very first page of chapter 2, what does Nick ask the Officer about regarding trafficked girls?  
  • Inductive:  Kristoff asks an Officer about what exactly they look for and then mentions if they look out for trafficked girls and the officer mentions there isn’t much to do about them. Why do you think these officers seem to not care about this huge issue?   
  • Analytical:  What implications does this have on the community?  Women’s futures?  Are there issues with law enforcement in the communities in your books?

Mishawn revised to include more perspective and connection:

  • Factual: Why is the crime rate so high in Watts?
  • Inductive:  What allure do gangs have for the young people in the community?  How does this create a cycle of violence and crime?
  • Analytical:  What factors, both historically and recently, have lead Watts to become a breeding ground for criminal activity?  In your opinion, which factor is/has been the most detrimental?

I also provided students with question stems as a guide and encouraged students to use these until they felt comfortable framing their questions.  By the end of the unit, student questions were synthesizing the three texts and major ideas.  I noticed students would lead with a question geared more towards their text, then extended the question to the other two text, thus inviting in more conversation and fluidly moving between inductive and analytical questioning.  The discussions moved from inner to outer, from focused on one book to all three books.

Jordan:  How does Leovy expect the reader to believe in the good homicide detectives while at the same time giving examples of racist and uncaring detectives?  What contradictions exist in your book’s community?  Do these lead to an imbalance of power or other injustices?

Ben: Isolation is discussed by Vance as one reason leading to a disconnected, stalled hillbilly society.  How are the people in your text isolated, whether by location, proximity, cultural norms, or otherwise?  Does this perpetuate the problem or is it a solution that hasn’t been capitalized on?

To springboard Wednesday’s seminars, we often pre-thought through the big ideas for that chunk of reading as a way to anchor thinking and create a common entry point into the seminar, and also, so students had something to say.

  • Google Doc Quick Collaboration:  I posted some initial questions on the google doc to get students thinking, then watched the entire class collaborate on 1 document–so cool!  I limited this pre-thinking to about 3 minutes so students didn’t type all of their discussion points.  I also left this projected during the seminar, serving as an anchor chart and inspiration for more questions.  So easy. Minimal prep.  Great results!
  • Discussion Tables:  I made three table tents at three different tables in my classroom, each with a common idea and thread that occurred during that chunk of reading.  I gave students two minutes to discuss how each topic related to their book.  After two minutes, they moved to a new table and could shuffle up their group.  Again, minimal prep and 6 quality minutes of pre-thinking.
  • Essay Highlights:  Students wrote for 20 minutes about the central injustice in their novel, justifying why that, out of all the intersected issues, is the most pressing for the community in the book.  I then typed the major argument from each student’s essay and used it as an entry point into a Wednesday seminar.  Students were able to see the something their peers had to say, understand how perspective and perception shade one’s reading, and make connections across the three texts.
  • Pass Around:  I asked students to write a line from their book that really just hit them in the gut and explain why.  Then, students passed them around the room, spending a few seconds reading what their peer had been most impacted by and why.  I actually couldn’t stop students from talking. Across the table, students were making “OMG” eyes at each other, whether it was a connection with their lit circle peer or shock over what a peer had written about from another text, the conversation was immediately started.

As I have listened to each small group discuss the same texts, it was amazing to hear how the conversation differs from class to class.  I wanted students to experience that, to give them a chance to expand each others’ thinking.  I assigned two digital seminars using our school’s digital platform, and while this is nothing crazy innovative, students posted and responded, I noted many benefits from this type of “discussion”:

  • Students experienced new perspectives and interpretations of the text from their peers in other classes, and I found more students sharing personal anecdotes–students were sharing their personal experiences with discrimination and inequalities.
  • Shy students or those that need more process time were the space to contemplate, revise their thinking, or deepen their response by not having to think on the spot as they would during an oral discussion.  I have many exchange students from around the world (China, Spain, Thailand, and Italy), who have the extra task of interpreting, decoding, and thinking in two languages  By writing, students had more time to think and contribute at their pace.
  • Students were more thoughtful in their responses and more likely to use text evidence to support their argument or open their classmates’ eyes because they aren’t so “on the spot.”  Students used evidence from the book, as well as other articles we had read, thus adding rich context to the discussion.
  • Students had another opportunity to practice practical writing for college.  Many college courses require blog post or digital contributions, and the reality is that most of my students will take an online course at some point in their academic or professional lives, too.  
  • Students received real time feedback on their questions.  If no one responded, maybe the question was unclear, too narrow, or too broad.  Student-led formative assessment–a new trend?
  • Students had a time and space to learn about digital etiquette and practice, something very important as Snapchat and Twitter become accepted means of communication.  As students move into their post-secondary endeavors, they may be communicating with bosses or professors via email and must communicate clearly, without a misinterpreted tone.  We discussed how to politely disagree and how to ask a follow up question instead of answering with bias, as well as the time and place for proper mechanics.
  • I made time to write beside them, contributing to the discussions, too.

Although these strategies were successful in moving my students beyond saying anything at all to fill the void, the best part was how moved my students were by the injustices that exist in our world.  They spoke with such compassion and concern for those suffering they no longer seemed to be kids, but young adults.


Maggie Lopez has six years of teaching experience at large public high schools in Louisville, Houston, and now Chicago.  A graduate of Miami University, she had the pleasure of learning from the workshop masters and is on a continual quest to challenge, inspire, and learn from her hilariously compassionate juniors and seniors. 


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

ruBRICKS Part II – A Follow-Up Guest Post by Julie Swinehart

Blogging, writing, talking, being part of the conversation about what it means to be an educator in 2017, it’s all easier to do than to actually live it and breathe it and teach it. We can talk about theory, we can read our guiding texts, we can attend professional development conferences around the world, participate in twitter chats, and we can all talk the talk.

Walking the talk is the hardest part.

Theory doesn’t always meet practice. But we try. I try.

I recently wrote about the idea of rubrics – that they should serve more as a foundation than a weight or a wall pinning students in. That they should allow for creativity rather than limiting imagination.

One way that I have tried to allow for student voice and creativity is with the most important thing I can help my students learn.

The topic is the habits of a healthy reading life.

If my students learn to read literary nonfiction, classic novels, and short stories, it will be fantastic. But it’s fantastic only if they actually choose to read these texts on their own. Most importantly, they need to have a habit of reading, to discover the reader within themselves.

This winter I realized that I wasn’t sure that my students knew what the endgame was. So we talked about it. We talked about what it looks like to have a healthy reading life, and we brainstormed the attributes of a healthy reading life.

I did my best to organize their ideas into categories and indicators that made sense. I used our school’s student profile to help with the organization. The six categories are Respect and Integrity, Global Awareness, Reflective Thinking, Critical Thinking, Creators and Innovators, and Communicators and Collaborators.

From that, I created a rubric.

I think the process for this rubric can be re-created with other standards and goals, and can be simplified to a simple yes/no checklist, or a one point rubric for student self-reflection.

healthyreadinglifeprofile-page-001

healthyreadinglifeprofile-page-002

I know, I know… There are still problems with the document. But I think the point is that the ideas in it originally were theirs. The ideas belonged to the grade nine students.

While it’s an intimidating double-sided checklist in its entirety, it is easy to split into the six sections, which means we can examine just one section of a student’s reading life at a time. At that point it becomes smaller and quite manageable, and it’s not a brick wall of text.

I can print just one section at a time, and use it as an exit ticket or as a prompt for a reflective quick write. It doesn’t weigh students down when they simply examine only two or three indicators about their habits of reading.

The document still needs to be refined, and maybe all of the Common Core standards I’ve attached to the indicators aren’t exactly right; it’s still a draft, a work in progress. But this rubric, one that could be revised to a simple yes/no checklist, has been the catalyst for some seriously authentic and relevant conferences with my students.

Because I used their criteria and ideas, it’s not a brick wall, and it doesn’t confine my students between narrow rails. Instead, it’s a conversation starter, a tool for goal-setting while conferring, and it’s something that shows my students what to strive for.

It shows them what this readers workshop is all about: healthy reading lives.

I think the takeaway here is that teaching is always a work in progress, as is learning. Setting goals is important for students and for teachers. Creating authentic scoring guides continues to be one of my goals. This year I created one about the topic that I think is the most important of all – the healthy habits of reading. Next year we will tackle the habits of being a writer.

I will keep talking the talk – that means I am learning and reflecting on my practice. I will also keep trying to walk the talk, which I think has to include student input, because student voice is so essential to readers workshop, and is of course essential to building the habits of healthy reading lives of students.

We can’t weigh them down with our “help” – our rubrics and scoring guides should serve as foundations for growth, which is what I think this one does.
Nothing’s perfect, and we teachers have to be okay with that. We will continue to read, learn, discuss, and to walk the talk. Walking it and living it is a work in progress, and our students are better because we keep trying.


Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for eighteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last three in Amman, Jordan. A recent convert to the workshop model, she likes to blog about and share her learning and experience with others.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Follow her blog https://adventuresinhighschoolworkshop.wordpress.com/


iconCare to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

6 Takeaways from Student Self-Assessments

51W731EdIWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After completing self-assessments in Tom Romano‘s classes in college, and finding them invaluable, I’ve always made them a large part of my teaching arsenal.  At the end of every year, we spend a few days on SAs, or they’re part of the final exam, or they’re what we share as a last-day-of-class celebration.

This semester, my students wrote three self-assessments, with the last one counting as the final exam.  In this particular SA, I asked students to do five things:

  • Evaluate our course materials and routines
  • Discuss your growth as a teacher, thinker, writer, reader
  • Write your teaching credo
  • Give me some advice about what to keep/change next year
  • Make a list of strategies, frames of mind, and ideas you’ll use in teaching

As finals week drew to a close and I was crushed by grading, I looked forward to reading these self-assessments.  Students didn’t hold back on the advice or evaluation portions, used their signature writing voices with abandon as they discussed their growth and beliefs, and made me fill my notebook with pages of ideas and strategies as I read their lists.

In addition to just being fun to read, I also learned a great deal from their honest words.  While I took a whole book full of ideas away from these amazing and inspiring future teachers, I’ll spare you and just share six lessons I learned from reading their self-assessments for this semester.

What we read matters.

Without exception, every student extolled the virtues of our central text, Paul Gorski’s Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap.  I highly recommend this excellent text as reading for any teacher, especially Gorski’s vehement statement that all students, no matter their background, need appropriate challenges when learning.

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Lily cements my belief that a strong central text really helped anchor our course.

By studying a text I was so passionate about, my students could feel my enthusiasm, and I believe it was contagious.  A strong central text anchored our lively class discussions and students’ weekly one-pagers.

Trust your pedagogical instincts.

Our students are champions when it comes to complaining–their stamina is literally unending.  “But I don’t want to write this.”  “ANOTHER paper?!”  “MORE writing?”  “Why are we doing this again?”

All of these gripes can really wear a teacher down.  But, teachers usually know what is best for our students–we know that a high volume of writing will help our students become better writers.  We know that writing about our reading will help our students become better readers.  We know that constant practice with critical thinking will help our students become more literate and conscientious citizens (and teachers, in my case).

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Aaron grudgingly admits that despite the onslaught of papers and projects, he grew in his thinking and learning.

So, despite the eye-rolls or sighs, I kept at it with what my gut was telling me.  I knew that, no matter how much of all of our time it took, students needed to do a lot of reading, writing, and talking about their thinking, with a lot of feedback from their peers and from me, all while remaining appropriately challenged and engaged in learning.  I kept at it and resisted the frequent temptation to revise my syllabus, and students appreciated it–and grew.

Frequent, low-stakes writing often provides the most space for growth.

While the big assignments of the semester may be what most teachers consider the bread and butter of teaching writing, I believe the opposite.  Those long essays or projects, in my experience, are more likely to stress out all parties involved.  For me, the short stuff is where the growth happens, and exponential growth is what leads to student success in writing long and complex pieces.

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Anetta extols the value of informal weekly writings.

My students wrote six major papers this semester–none of which were shorter than six pages, and some that were up to twenty–but where they really displayed the biggest leaps in learning were in their one-pagers, submitted weekly.  Every single student except for one told me that I should keep one-pagers and that, despite how much they sucked/were annoying/ruined their Sunday nights, they were the most valuable part of the class for their growth.

All students crave challenge.

As Gorski reinforced for my students this semester, all learners crave a challenge.  Nobody wants to be bored, and by engaging students in complex tasks of reading and writing, nobody in my classes will be.  With small- and large-scale assignments scattered throughout the course, frequent opportunities for revision, and detailed feedback, all students felt that they could succeed, and had ample opportunities to practice and prove that they could.

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Ryan vows to replicate the challenge of high expectations in his own classroom.

Feedback is invaluable.

It is a lot of work.  A LOT.  I know.  But every student valued, appreciated, and grew because of thorough feedback protocols on any formal paper.

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Erin was appreciative of the attention her writing received.

Students did a lot of writing I never graded–in notebooks, in drafts, in groups.  But what they turned in, I spent a great deal of time commenting on, and while it was definitely arduous, I know I’ll keep it a condition of my classes in the future…fueled by lots of coffee.

Creating conditions for safe student growth is paramount.

Kevin became something of a celebrity in our class with his frequent questions, hilarious asides, and opinionated comments.  He never held back, and because he was welcomed into dialogue with open arms by myself and other students, he really flourished as a learner for one of the first times in his academic career.

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Kevin, with his signature writing voice, reminds me that a safe learning environment is the most important thing we can give students.

By creating a community of trust and engagement and low-stakes learning, Kevin felt safe to take risks and grow.  It’s what I want all students to be able to achieve, and is one of the most powerful reminders about teaching and learning I can think of.

What have your students taught you about your teaching?  Will you utilize self-assessments this year?  Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Have you asked students what they need? It is not too late

I am great at taking notes. I am lousy at looking back at them (a lot like my students).

But my student teacher is done with his semester, and am back reading and writing with my students each day. We’ve done a little AP exam crunch — our exam is today — and we are all ready for that test to be over. I’ve got 14.5 days before the summer bell rings, and my students leave me. Fifteen days to solidify my students’ identities as readers and writers, not just students reading and writing for an English class.

It’s been a hard row with this group. This group, especially my brightest students who let grades motivate their every move. There’s a disconnect the size of the Mississippi when it comes to showing evidence of learning and whining about grades.

Maybe I notice it more because I haven’t been with them every class period for the past six weeks. But something’s got to give.

So I opened up my notebooks and read notes from the class Penny Kittle taught at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute in 2014. Don Murray leaped from the page:

“If you understand your own process, you stop fighting against it.”

“We have to respect the student, not for his product, but for the search for truth in which he is engaged.”

“If you don’t leave a conference wanting to write more, there’s a problem with the feedback.”

“We work with language in action. We share with our students the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, in choosing a true word.”

“Mule-like stubbornness is essential for every writer.”

“One teacher in one year can change a child’s view on reading.”

All reminders of what I love about teaching writers and what I hope for all my students. And I’ve got 14.5 days before the summer bell rings, and my students leave me.

Recently, I read a great post by Tricia Ebaria titled “One Important Thing I Can Learn from Students.” This part resonates:

Rather than join the chorus of end-of-the-year countdowns, instead of giving in to fatigue (or cynicism), what if we reframed our thinking and asked ourselves: What’s the one important thing I can still do with my students? After all, it’s never too late to do work that is meaningful and important to our students and to the world.

Or how about this question: What’s the one important thing I can still learn about my students? studentswriting

So today I asked two questions to help me focus on students’ needs, and to help students focus on our need to keep learning:

1. Have your grown as a reader and a writer this year? And we talked about if the answer is no then we’ve both failed.

2. What’s one thing you still want, or need, to learn regarding reading and writing before your senior year and beyond? And students wrote their responses at their tables.

Some responses gave me pause. Others made me crazy. Many gave me hope that we still have time so every student can answer question one with a resounding YES.

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“Because we’ve really done nothing in class this year” is my first thought, right? But I have to wonder: Why does this students still feel this way?

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I’m celebrating the word PLAY.

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Hmmm. 

We have to be willing to be vulnerable. We have to be willing to ask our students what they need from us as their teachers. If we don’t, we may miss the point of teaching them all together.

I learned valuable things about my students and how they feel about their growth. This lesson is enlightening and humbling. And frightening.

I am almost out of time.

So we started in our writer’s notebooks. Updating our currently reading lists and talking about the books we’ve read, we’ve started, abandoned, and we’ve finished. We updated our challenge cards and checked our progress.

I book talked Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner, my new favorite (I wrote about it here), and American Street by Ibi Zoboi, and let students know I had a fourth copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All books I’d read when Joseph was teaching and was dying to share with kids. Students eagerly reached for them, even tussling over Zentner’s book. (TBH I shudder just a bit when I think about not getting these new books back with it being so close to the end of the year.)

Next, I showed them an idea for their end-of-year writing — a pretty monumental task for teens already dreaming of days out of the classroom. But I think I sold them on how it can answer my question #2.

Multi-genre. Thank you, Tom Romano, and Shana for showing me how a marvelous multi-genre project can light a fire within my writers and let them showcase their interest, their talents, and the learning they’ve acquired this year.

We looked at samples. We talked about topics and research and genres. We talked about how the topics we choose can potentially help us learn the things we still need and want to learn.

We got excited about writing. I think some even got excited about learning.

So with 14.5 days left in the school year, we committed to a pretty intensive end-of-year plan.

I have a mule-like stubbornness when it comes to teaching readers and writers. Certainly some of that will wear off on my students, and maybe someday they’ll look back on their notes and their writing from their junior year in high school and recognize they’ve learned and grown in their “search for truth” as a writer.

How are you utilizing your end-of-year time? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 at Lewisville High School. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy delights her. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

 

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