Category Archives: Assessment

Multigenre Magic

Teacher goosebumps. We’ve all had them: students are focused, consulting their Writer’s Notebooks, talking to each other, incorporating what they learned into their writing. It’s what we live for. No moment in the academic year ever evokes this synchrony more than the multigenre project.

Defining Through Experience

Like my students, you might be wondering what multigenre is. I learned about multigenre during my first year of teaching when I attended a workshop with Tom Romano, the godfather of multigenre. Dr. Romano has since become a mentor and colleague and his work continues to inspire my students 15 years later. Shana 

When we begin our multigenre unit, students have, at best, a vague notion of the vocabulary, but no experience.

Before class begins, I conspire with one of the orneriest kids; today it’s Jamal. Together, we quickly whisper a plan. As students finish up their vocabulary quiz, I look to Jamal, eyebrows raised.

“Jamal! I just saw that. You cheated,” I accuse heatedly. Suppressing a smile, Jamal shifts to fake outrage. We verbally spar a bit, ensuring all students tune in. They’re used to firm classroom management. Today it’s different.

Channeling all my inner drama queen, I huff and puff and toss my ID badge and keys to the floor. “Guess, what? I’m done!” I proclaim as I storm out of the door.

I wait a beat. Then before students can get too excited, I burst back in the door and high-five Jamal. Students are confused, excited, hyped. “You’re trying to figure it out, right? Well, before we talk about it, let’s write about it.”

Students grab their Writer’s Notebooks (WNB) as I pass out notecards. On each notecard is a genre of writing with which my students are familiar: Facebook post, text message conversation, letters, among them.

And students write. For three minutes their pens flow and they capture all the nuances — the questions, the perspectives, the layers. We share writing. We collaborate. We grow as a community.

“We’ve just created a multigenre,” I explain and share Romano’s definition of multigenre.Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 2.31.22 PM

Multigenre Tasting

Once we define multigenre, the next step is to immerse ourselves in mentors. Using past projects, as well the ones I’ve curated at Multigenre Library, we participate in a multigenre tasting. We create lists of the qualities of multigenre, as well as a rubric and checklist for this kind of writing. After establishing guidelines, students go back to their notebooks and explore their writing territories, finding compelling topics.

Mini-lessons

The bulk of the time for this unit is spent workshopping, conferencing, writing. We spend time in three main ways:

  1. Genre minilessons
  2. Research minilessons
  3. Revision minilessons

In genre mini-lessons, I stand firmly on Katie Wood Ray’s shoulders, knowing that asking my students to notice things in a piece of text is the key to them reading like writers. So, when we are going to try a new genre, we start by looking at examples of that genre. We make a list of rules/guidelines for that kind of writing and then we write about our own topic. Together we explore double voice poems, recipes, and open letters. Katie wrote about one of my favorite genres to explore in this post last month.

Once students have tried out lots of different ways of writing, from lots of different perspectives, we talk about incorporating research into their writing in a purposeful way. Whether students are writing about personal topics, or more traditional research subjects, they need to know how to add a layer of research because it deepens the writing and builds their own knowledge.

I began to save the research step until later in the process after they’d generated plenty of writing about their topics. They write a bit, then conduct research, then weave that research into writing that already exists. This approach has cut down on plagiarism. More importantly, it’s made the writing and the research more authentic.

Publishing & Assessment

Next students publish. We discuss how important it is to remember that their writing is the engine of the multigenre project. A beautiful presentation falls flat if the writing doesn’t show evidence of craft. This is an English class, after all. Students conference with me and with each other about ways they might present their work. Some choose digital platforms, others create scrapbooks.  

 

I have tried many approaches to assessing student learning within this unit. I used to have a rubric that was so detailed you’d need a magnifying glass to read it (which means nobody actually read it). Now I use a simple rubric, one we create together. Students must have a certain number or pieces, and write in a set number of genres. There needs to be passion and voice. Mostly, though, I focus on feedback. I make notes on post-its and stick them on pages where their voice soars, where images pop. The assessment has already happened through conferencing and workshopping. In the end, we focus on celebrating the work and how far they’ve come.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, working with teachers in all grade levels to move kids as readers and writers. She’s getting ready to introduce multigenre to 150 freshman next week while covering a 3-week sub position. She might be a little crazy (but also really excited).

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Artifacts of Our Learning: A Classroom Museum

One of the things I love most about learning is how dynamic it is–how sometimes there is tangible evidence of growth in thinking, but how (many) other times it’s invisible to our eyes and others’ when we’ve learned a lesson well.

It’s an art, in my opinion, to try to represent our thinking to others–through talk, images, poems, music, or any genre. That’s why in the past, so many of my final projects with students have been multigenre–it’s much too hard to try to encompass learning in one simple genre.

This year, as I wondered how my students might share their learning with one another at the end of the year, I kept coming back to the concept of art. Any creative offering is an artifact of the artist’s mind in one particular time and place–what Picasso created in his early years is much different than his later works.

For a final assessment of our learning, I asked my students to think like artists whose works would be displayed in a museum, and to bring in something that represented their learning. To prepare, I asked them to look back at their early notebook writings and one-pagers to discover artifacts of their thinking about our readings, their writing, and their growth as teachers and thinkers over the semester, and to write a brief explanation of how their learning was represented.

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Our classroom was transformed into a museum that was a diverse, multigenre affair. We played music as we set up our artifacts and their explanation cards around the room.

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Once our artifacts were on display, students set out papers or their notebooks for peers to write on, and we each rotated around the displays and wrote notes to one another. There was lots of talk, writing, and laughter. It was a lovely, celebratory atmosphere.

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Students came into class with representations of their learning; they left with tangible artifacts of their peers’ feedback. Making learning visible has been a key theme of ours this semester, as a book by that same title was our central text study. In addition to a summative representation of learning, I hoped to get my students thinking about how to represent their thinking in a way that wasn’t literally getting it down on paper.

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I paired our end-of-year museum of learning with individual conferences with students about their final assignments and projects. These two activities–the visible representation of our learning, and our talk through it–were the things that helped me not only pop a grade into the gradebook for students, but end the semester on a high point, feeling connected to my students and optimistic about the future of our collective learning and growth…which, as is true for all artists, will never end.

What are you thinking of doing to wrap up your time with students? Please share your ideas for student reflections, self-assessments, or showcases in the comments!

Shana Karnes is wrapping up her semester with students at West Virginia University, finishing a yearlong C3WP workshop with the National Writing Project @WVU, and delightedly bidding adieu to the longest winter ever. She’s excited to start a summer of reading, reflecting, writing, and collaborating with her PLN…and spending time in the sun with her two lovely daughters! Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Trouble with Grading by Abigail Lund

I sit down at my desk. It’s the end of quarter 3 and it’s time for the dreaded report cards — the time where I average the homework grades, find missing assignments, and vigorously come up with something to say. My computer flickers on and my online gradebook comes to life. It happily tells me many students are receiving A’s and B’s and then, as if it is the Ghost of Christmas Past, the dreaded F appears. John Doe: English Language Arts Quarter 3: F. I stare blankly at the screen.

This very moment I had been dreading the whole quarter. What does this F tell me about John Doe? Does it say how much he’s improved in reading over the quarter? Does it say if he knows how to compare two texts or write an introduction to an opinion writing piece? More so, does it tell me about his cooperation with others and his big heart?


A year ago this is how I graded, this vicious, unnerving cycle of grading. Then I found Twitter. Twitter is a beautiful tool, and after a bit of digging I realized that there were other classrooms out there that were gradeless (an amazing Twitter community for all of this is Teachers Going Gradeless; @TG2chat). I wasn’t the only crazy person – so I took the plunge.  The past seven months of a gradeless classroom has changed my perspective and gives my John Does a fighting chance

Gradeless doesn’t mean a lack of assessment. It means giving students an opportunity for success through practice, voice, and self-reflection. A gradeless classroom is multi-faceted and is constantly changing.

In my experience, it offers students more practice, collaboration, observation, conferring, and gives more time to accomplish what I, as a teacher, was asking for previously. Gradeless classrooms take the pressure off of points and focuses on learning and growth (which happens for kids at different times). According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), researchers concluded that “after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.” This very fact was the first step into my gradeless classroom. As teachers, our time is often consumed with grading endless amounts of homework in hopes that our kids will average a decent score at the end of the quarter, but with my gradeless classroom I spend my time on more things of value.

When I finally had this mind shift, I allowed for more student reflection on work, which has a positive affect, and I eliminated graded homework. Previously I spent a lot of time assessing students’ homework. When I decided to move to gradeless I moved more towards rubrics and conferencing, which naturally moved away from homework. Students reflect on the work they have done. Through reflection and rating of their understanding, I am able to confer with them more effectively during our conferencing and small group times – far more than homework ever did.

images.jpgBy ditching homework students have more opportunity for self-reflection and practice without the pressure of having every piece of their work graded. Students take more risks and ask more questions, because there isn’t the fear of failure. For example, student practice work and homework becomes less about getting the right answer and more about the exploration of the process. In the day to day students are meeting in small groups, reflecting on learning using rubrics, and analyzing strong mentor models.

Eventually, as the learning processes unfold, I formally measure students’ understanding through using my State’s standards: student exceeds standard, meets the standards, or does not meet the standard. This assessment occurs after students have had ample time to ask how they need to improve and what they need to learn. There isn’t a specific algorithm for when this assessment occurs, but by meeting with students weekly you will get a strong sense of what your students know and how you can push them towards meeting the standard.

When I started caring LESS about the percentage and MORE about my students learning, I began to let go of control. Gradeless means more attention to detail. As a teacher, I am able to observe student work and evaluate it with a greater purpose in mind. When evaluating, I use standards based grading, which is district initiative. This lends itself greatly to my gradeless classroom because it eventually assesses students on skills and not percentage based scales. Standards-based and gradeless are not synonymous but are blended very easily. If you are thinking about going gradeless, standards based is a route you may want to go, but there are other avenues as well.

This can also be done by creating standards-based rubrics and face-to-face conversations for assessment. It allows for my students to work through projects together to begin with, and after gaining confidence, they often being to soar through the second quarter. Through this gradual release, I am able to create lessons that are multi-faceted and allow students to know what I am expecting, the standards, and how to achieve them.

Some questions come to mind

What will my report cards say if my district isn’t like yours and has percentage based grading?

An encouraging word I was gradeless before my district moved this way. Unfortunately when it comes to report cards you will have to average your students’ work. However, this doesn’t have to be done in the traditional sense of a composite score of homework, assessments, and projects. This can be done with observation notes, through assessing what your students really DO know, and using your knowledge of your students to grade them fairly.

How do you keep track of your students’ progress?

In my classroom I have my students send their work via Google-classroom. This gives me a portfolio of work to draw from when I am assessing with our standards. My students are rated on a 1-4 scale (1: not progressing 2: progressing with guidance 3: grade-level achievement 4: achieving above grade-level). Also students rate themselves on their understanding weekly. I am able to pull from those examples to compile an understanding of where my students’ understanding is.

How did I explain this to my students’ parents?

For the most part my parents were very much on board when I decided to go gradeless, this was probably because we were also going to standards based grading scales, which was a district decision that they communicated to parents. I was very upfront at the beginning of the year, explaining the gradeless philosophy, and had a lot of support from my parents.  With a gradeless classroom I believe that I am talking more to my students than I ever did before, and this translates to home as well. Keeping an open conversation going about student progress keeps parents happy, whether it is concerning grades or not.

Going gradeless is an ever-changing, flexible way of teaching. This isn’t perfection but what in education is? My hope is that my classroom would be a place where students can explore, desire education, and create. My greatest desire is that my students would be known and their ideas & thoughts would be validated. The place I have chosen to start is to know my kids by name and not by a letter.

Abigail Lund teaches 4th grade ELA and math to her fabulous kiddos in Cincinnati. She loves coffee about as much as her husband and cat… and is a self-proclaimed lifetime learner. Catch up with daily happenings and ramblings on Twitter @mrsablund.

Formative Assessment Works!!!

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.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

I bear a striking resemblance to Tom Brady.  Photo by Keith Allison

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:

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I only saunter.

Jumping into this book reminded me of a few important tenets of writing instruction that I let myself forget:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Perfecto!!!

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.

Getting Around the Gradebook: How (and Why) to Go Gradeless

I spent a good portion of my spring break last week catching up on reading all of my students’ writing, and their thinking was a real treat. It is a blessing to work with preservice teachers, whose idealism and energy remind me of the optimistic fervor with which I tackled any challenge that came my way as a new educator.

As I read their work last week, I left comments, asked questions, and gave feedback. Often, I wrote thank-you notes to kids at the end of their papers–thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thank you for sharing them with me. Thank you for being you.

I did not leave grades.

I have believed for a long time that grades are part of the systematic destruction of our students’ love of learning. We’re killing their creativity, as Ken Robinson discusses in his TED talk that my students and I watched on the first day of class this semester:

We began our year with Ken Robinson’s powerful suggestion that we educate students out of their creativity–and yet, that we must teach students to survive in a future that we can neither predict nor imagine.

We next read Paulo Freire, who suggests in A Pedagogy of Freedom that the purpose of teaching is to create the possibilities for the production and construction of knowledge, that “what is essential is to maintain alive the flame of resistance that sharpens their curiosity and stimulates their capacity for risk.”

Just take a moment and let that sink in. THE FLAME OF RESISTANCE! THE CAPACITY FOR RISK! It’s beautiful, people!!!!!

So, where do grades have a place in this utopian vision for great teaching and learning?

My students’ thinking, which aligns with my own, suggests that they don’t. In fact, they create a dystopia: Jamie writes that students have shifted from being “programmed for learning” to just experiencing “programmed learning.” Kat lamented that “students are taught to anticipate rather than participate.”

It is essential that things change.

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See? He’s totally Colin Firth

After becoming enamored with Ken Robinson’s Colin Firth-esque looks (to my mind, at least), I picked up his book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. He narrates the audio version, and as he speaks to me in his adorable British accent, he advocates for a vision of change to the systems through which children learn.

Ken argues that schools and learning have long been erroneously thought of as mechanized processes, and that as such, efforts to reform them have been framed as simple tweaks, such as one would make to an industrial process in order to streamline it. But Ken presents a clear argument that learning is not an industrialized process, but rather an organic one: a complicated, complex system that cannot be standardized.

When I finish the book, I am sure I will be able to go and fix everything that is wrong with education today, but in the meantime, I’m content to a) recommend it to you, and b) stand firm in my commitment to make changes where I can.

I reflected, and found a place to make a change.

The change I made this semester was in removing grades from my classes. I had to cheat a little to do this, but I like the way it’s worked out. While I’ve always longed to do away with grades, I struggled with how to do so within the confines of a system that makes me put grades into a gradebook.

I found the answer in one of Tom Romano‘s syllabi from my Teaching Writing class with him:

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(Yes, I save syllabi for years. Electronically. I’m a teacher, okay?! That means I hoard.)

That was it, I decided. Eureka! Do the work. Do it well and do it on time. You’ll get an A. No ifs, ands, or buts.

 

Now, as I read student work via Google Docs, I focus on leaving organic comments, questions, reactions. I push and prod, pull and praise. I focus on what’s important, as Amy writes here.

My students receive feedback from their critical friends and me, and engage in a conversation with all of us in the comments. We talk about their work in class, read it together, and pull out highlights and paste them into shared Google Docs, like these from our midterm self-assessments:

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(At the end of the semester, I’ll compile those highlights, some variation of which we do weekly, into a printed anthology I’ll give to each student.)

In my grading spreadsheet, I give full credit to match the point values of each assignment–10 points for one-pagers, 50 points for major papers, 25 points each for self-assessments and notebook turn-ins. No thinking about percentages or worrying about fractions. Just an A for work done well and on time, because it removes the pressure from students to worry about their grades.

Because I teach teachers, I get to be very meta about my processes, and I’ve practiced giving strong and thoughtful feedback alongside my students. We study our students’ (and our own) products, discuss what learning we see being made visible, and work to improve our feedback methods and messages each week:

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If I can’t remove grades, and the stress that comes with them, I’ll give all students a grade that makes them stop worrying about whether they’ll attain that A or not. That is what I have been longing to give them: learning unfettered by the pressure to boil down their thinking to a number or letter.

All thinking, reading, writing is worth so much more than a grade. It’s worth a reader, a respondent, a friendly ear, a coaching eye, a nurturing nudge.

This is my cheat code for how I’ve managed to get away from being a grade-doling disciplinarian, and come to enjoy being a truly engaged teacher of my students’ growth.

How do you get around the gradebook? Please share your strategies in the comments.

Shana Karnes teaches preservice teachers at West Virginia University, works with practicing ELA teachers through the National Writing Project @WVU, and reads approximately 562 books a day with her two daughters, ages 4 months and 23 months. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

 

$%^@* Gradebook!

Sorry for the semiotic profanity, but the more research I read, the more conversations I have with students, the more reflecting I do about my practice, $%^@* is what comes to mind. The inherent contradictions between meaningful learning and the system in which it takes place become most apparent about a week before grades are due, which for many of us is right about now–the end of a quarter. And the accompanying frustration and anxiety seem especially pronounced in writing courses, where our emphasis is on process over product.

I teach Advanced Writing, one of several English courses for seniors. The whole of third quarter has been devoted to an author or genre study: students must read 3 full-length texts and a number of critical articles by and about their author/genre, and express their findings through a variety of genre, ie a multigenre paper. Students made their own schedules, although I assigned drafts throughout the process to be workshopped and revised prior to the due date, which is today.

Many students held firm to their own and my deadlines all along, becoming heavily invested in their work — and the work of their classmates. Claire, a self-professed “math & science person,” immersed herself in the work and the philosophy of Camus. RJ, a devoted journal-keeper, examined the work and the critical reception of confessional poetry. Grace, a reader of all things spooky, explored the connection between horror writers and themes of lost innocence and coming-of-age. (I could go on, but I want to save their work for another post). These students and many others made careful, purposeful decisions about how to express their discoveries in a variety of genre, even — gasp! — taking that bold writerly step of abandoning a draft that wasn’t working and trying something new. Workshop and multigenre at its finest, right?

Sort of. Last week, drafts started to trickle in from students who had arrived late to the process party. I gave feedback as effectively as I could and kept my teacherly admonishments about deadlines under control. By Saturday morning, I had returned at least one draft to every student who had submitted work, and so I carried on with my weekend. Sunday afternoon, my inbox was full again with drafts of genre pieces. I still don’t know why I was so surprised, given that the quarter-long project was due in less than 24 hours. As I skimmed the list of submitted drafts, I faltered between pride in the work that finally came in and frustration over how late it was.

grade cartoon Glasbergen_1824This course is about nothing if it’s not about writing as a process. For three quarters, our work has been based on no other principle more than this one. Students who handed in drafts so late clearly did not engage in the work at this fundamental level. Surely I couldn’t award them the same grade as those who had. Right?! Right. So I started drafting a not-so-nice email to those stragglers pointing out that they all have known the due date for quite some time and surely they must have had no intention to revise in the first place so why did they even bother handing in a draft and was it just to get a number in a gradebook but of course I will not award the same credit so you will receive that fat ZERO because you’re seniors and by gosh I’m going to use that fat zero to show you how the world works because it’s time you start …

OK, no, I didn’t go that far, but that’s where it felt I was headed, and it felt wrong. How could I disregard their work yet still claim to value the process? How could I do the talk (and walk) against grades as an artificial, arbitrary, inaccurate measure of ability and achievement and then use them as a punishment? The only lesson they are likely to learn is that yet another adult they wanted to trust is revealed as a hypocrite.

In the end, I made my best attempt at a compromise, the details of which I’m sure resemble what anyone reading this blog would have done. But in that initial moment of composing that email — and that it was my first instinct — reminded me how ingrained the system can be even in those of us who do all we can in our practice to skirt around its limitations. I’m sorry this post doesn’t provide any grand answers to this pervasive conflict between meaningful learning and hierarchical measurements of such, but gosh I feel so much better for having shared with an audience that can commiserate. I hope you do, too.

Assessment Graffitti – Guest Post by Margaret Lopez

After a largely discussion and low stakes writing-based unit on Social Justice with three texts (Half the Sky, Hillbilly Elegy, and Ghettoside), I was contemplating a final activity to assess their understanding.  I wanted evidence of their thinking.  I wanted my students to show me, in any format, they “got” the unit–that they understood what injustices exist in the world, how they’re connected to privilege and access, and what solutions are necessary to equalize the playing field.  

But I didn’t want to have another seminar.

I didn’t want to give them time to write.

I didn’t want to read another article.

And, full disclosure, I certainly didn’t want cumbersome grading as we are in the final stretch and up to our necks in their year-long inquiry project.

I wanted something new, something we hadn’t done all year.  So, I decided to let my students do something forbidden–I equipped them with Expo markers and let them draw on the furniture.

Disclaimer:  I checked before to see that Expo markers washed off my classroom tables with a little elbow grease and Clorox wipes.  Please do so before!

I simply gave my students these instructions:

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Then, I stepped aside.  Students had about 30 minutes to complete their visual and were immediately engaged (likely because they were drawing on school property).  

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Dev and Lisa collaborating on a cause and effect analysis of Appalachia according to Hillbilly Elegy. 

As they were collaborating, students were discussing the issues we had examined throughout the weeks, Students talked about the values of the oppressors compared with those who are oppressed, and how those intersect with community values.  Students connected historical roots with the current issues discussed in their books, structures of power and privilege that exist, and what solutions should be invested in.  Their purposeful talk around the assessment proved they had read deeply, thought critically, and synthesized multiple issues.

The products were great–original and insightful.  Students gained more listening to their peers explain their group’s visual at the end of class because the conversation was extended and connected, again synthesizing ideas between the texts and our world.

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A live tree and dead tree representing opportunity and access for males versus females in Half the Sky.

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Graham explains his group’s problem-solution web for the violent community discussed in Ghettoside. 

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Emma explains the culture of have and have-nots that exist in other countries between males and females, emphasizing the barriers to equality.

While I ushered students out of the classroom, I heard the ultimate combination of compliments:

  • I feel like that actually assessed my thinking.
  • This unit was great, you should do it next year.
  • That was fun!

Mission accomplished.


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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