Category Archives: Assessment

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.

Advertisements

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:

book

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.

23398899.jpg

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:

screen-shot-2018-03-21-at-6-16-36-am.png

(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:

Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 6.50.46 AM.png

(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:

IMG_7286

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:

Lopez

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).  

Lopez2

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.

Lopez3

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

Lopez4

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

Lopez5

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. 


Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PM

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

Remembering How Good Readers Read – Guest Post by Brandon Wasemiller

Happy New Year, Three Teachers Talk! We hope your new year is off to a magnificent start. Hot off the presses from Franklin High School, my colleague Brandon Wasemiller writes about challenging our toughest students to value their voices and embrace the opportunities that reading can hold in their lives and their academic experiences with participation in The Global Read Aloud. 


We often talk about sparking the love of reading in our students. It is our daily, yearly, and career-defining struggle. Over the past few weeks, I tried something new because I was really struggling with a Tier II Intervention class (A class I have taught in the past but was reassigned to this year). I was giving book talks, getting to know the students, helping them with their books, teaching them how to be readers; but nothing was sticking. Most of them didn’t even try.   

It wasn’t until the second week of class that I came to a realization through a reading engagement survey, a pre-assessment, and a set of conferences. It was an idea that slapped me across the face and helped me guide the class. They’ve been nonreaders for so long that they have forgotten what it is to BE a reader.I have to re-teach these kids how to read.

And with that, I was off.

A fellow teacher, collaborator, and 3TT All-Star told me about a great project–The Global Read Aloud. A way for teachers and students in different classrooms (and most of the time different states) to collaborate and talk about the same book at the same time. So what was the chosen book? A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

(Listen, quick aside here,  but if you haven’t read A Monster Calls yet, what are you even doing?)

And so we began reading A Monster Calls. I tried to think of as many ways as possible to teach this book and make it fun and interesting. I started teaching them about active reading and about thinking while reading. I modeled for them how I read, and I had them track questions and comments throughout, but honestly, I felt like I was spinning my tires.

Then, one day, I pulled out the good ole Audible app and I played the audiobook. The chapters (The Wildness of Stories”, “The First Tale”, and “The Rest of the First Tale”) all feature two distinct characters. Conor, a young boy who is suffering through his mother’s battle with cancer, and a gigantic Yew Tree that turns into a monster at 12:07 to tell Conor stories. At the end of listening to all three chapters, we had a discussion as a class. To my sheer amazement, every single student discussed what happened and had amazingly in-depth responses to my questions.

So what was different? Why did the audiobook reach them better than some of my other activities?

And it hit me.

They are listening and experiencing a real and authentic reading experience.

They are actively engaged and plotting along with a READER who is emphasizing words, speaking in different voices for multiple characters, and emphasizing italicized and stylized words, all helping us as readers paint a picture of the novel in our heads. These are the qualities that good readers do independently. These are the qualities my students needed to re-learn.


I have a memory that I don’t think I will ever forget. I was probably six or seven, and I was at my grandma’s house. Every day, after nap time, my grandma would have story time and she would read from this book of Disney short stories. She would read us a few and she always did the voices. My grandma was Br’re Rabbit and talked in a thick southern accent, she was Mickey and squeaked her voice. My brother, sister and I were her captive audience. Our favorite story, however, was the Tale of the Headless Horseman.

One dark, rainy afternoon (I’m being serious, it really was dark and stormy) my grandma stepped out of the bathroom and her head was tucked inside a jacket and the jacket was zipped all the way up. The effect was that she seemed to have no head. She sat down to read the tale of The Headless Horseman as the Headless Horseman. She performed the tale of Ichabod Crane and his race to get across the bridge before losing his head.

That was not story time, that was an experience. I was there on the bridge racing to save my life, I was looking at the evil horseman careening towards me as I begged the horse to ride faster, I was there as the Horseman drew his sword and prepared to strike….

The idea for this unit came to me as I remembered that sometimes enjoyment in reading is lost because we lose what it is that makes us readers.

When you’re a kid, your parents read to you in different voices. When you read out loud to your parents or to teachers at a young age, they encourage you to read like they do. They help you sound out words, understand what a comma does in a sentence, what it sounds like to read a sentence as a question or exclamation; and then at some point–after the training wheels are off–we no longer read out loud.

So we have students who hate reading because it has been force fed to them for so many years. We get them into Workshop and spark the passion of reading, but they have forgotten how to read. My hope for this unit is that it will help those students.

And so, with this new realization, I decided to have my students tell a tale of their own using A Monster Calls as my mentor text.


Prep: Find chapters that will challenge the students to be readers.

I decided to use chapters featuring two distinct characters. Conor and the monster. Students had to create two distinctly different voices (yes, having a monster voice was a requirement) and they had to deal with sarcasm, anger, frustration, and other emotions throughout the chapter. brandon1

There were three chapters all about seven to eight pages long, so I made three groups of seven to eight students per group. Each group was responsible for a chapter, BUT each individual student had to read–out loud–one page. (Huge selling point here, I just kept telling them “It’s only one page!”)

Mini Lesson – Active Reader Annotating

I told my students that the goal for our first class was to focus on how characters speak throughout the chapter. However, for me, this was an opportunity to teach them how to be an active reader and note taker. I did the first page myself under the document cam.

brandon2I annotated after each line of dialogue for how the character spoke. “What emotions are being expressed here?”  I also told them that we needed to pay attention to italicized words and what they are there for.

We looked at the line “‘He’s been very good, Ma,’ Conor’s mum said winking at him from behind his grandma, her favorite blue scarf tied around his head” (41).

“So why is the word VERY italicized?” I asked. The class then talked about sarcasm and how his mom says it that way as an “inside joke” between her and Conor. “It’s so that Conor’s mom shows him that she gets that this is hard for Conor to handle. She wants him to know she is on his side” one student amazingly pointed out. These are the kinds of things I want them to notice. Not so much content, but style and sentence fluency.

Then they set off on their own! It was time for them to work in their small groups and annotate their chapter–together. I knew that I wanted them to collaborate together so I printed out each chapter on extra large (11×17 to be exact) paper, and set them up in areas that they could circle up and all work together. I gave them the space to work it out and let them discuss the dialogue. If they couldn’t get it, I encouraged them to read it aloud to each other and discuss.

I was amazed at how well they did in their chapter prep work. Often there are students who will push back because they are scared to read out loud, but I found that having only one page, and six other students doing the same thing helped them through their stage fright.

The last step of that day: I let them chose the page they will be reading aloud for the audiobook chapter.

 

Practice (Group and Individual)

I opened the next class by reading a chapter to them. I did my deep intimidating monster voice, I did my frustrated Conor voice, and I did my mean grandmother voice. I put myself out there and it made the kids smile (and yes laugh) but that is the point. Model for them what you are looking for, voices and all.

brandon6

I told them that they need to practice and become comfortable with their reading of the page and now is the time to do that. Armed with Screencastify (an easily downloadable Chromebook extension for most computers) and a copy of their individual page with annotations, I send them out to record themselves. After they turn the recording into me, I listen and give feedback. I did my best to coach them away from monotone reading, whispering, reading too fast, or too slow, or most importantly, NOT doing a monster voice.

Clearance and Final Recording

The students were set to go.  As one final step, I called each group into the hallway and had them rehearse the whole chapter, as a full group, for me. I gave them my last bits of feedback and sent them back into the room to do a final recording.


I am already looking forward to revising this unit–make it even better. I feel that it can work in any and all classrooms. So much can be learned by understanding how a book is meant to be read and it is our jobs to help the students learn that.

What do you think of reading aloud and making group chapters come to life? Do you see your students struggling to be authentic readers? How have you encouraged students to have authentic reading experiences in your classroom?


Brandon Wasemiller has been teaching a Franklin High School for the past four years. He graduated from the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin where he majored in Secondary English Education. When he is not teaching, Brandon coaches multiple sports (Girls XC and Baseball) and enjoys listening to audiobooks while at the gym.

 

What It Means to Be an American – Student Poetry Can Change the World

Student voice is at the center of impactful, inclusive, and inspirational education. And sometimes, we are lucky enough to teach a student who embraces the power his or her voice holds. img_8361

In the case of Rameen and Isabella, I am blessed this year with two strong, passionate, driven, and now poetic, young women in my AP Language class. When they were asked what it means to be an American in their Government class, they were soon sharing and revising a poem with several members of our English department. And when I heard the final version, I knew I needed to share it with you.

Raising Student Voice is the focus of NCTE’s call for proposals for the 2018 convention in Houston. In it, Program Chair Franki Sibberson says, “Our students’ voices matter. Their voices matter in our schools, our communities, and beyond. As teachers, we want our students to discover their own voices. We want them to know the power of their voices. We want them to know the power of others’ voices, and we want them to know the power of their collective voices. Most important, we want to help them discover how their voices might impact our world and to be empowered to use their voices to speak out for equity and justice.”

 

Isabella and Rameen are prime examples of what beautiful thoughts, words, and actions can come from students raising their voices for right in this world. The fact that Isabella left class the other day saying she’s writing poetry on her own now, warms my heart beyond measure.

Please enjoy the incredible words of these two gifted young ladies. I could not be more proud of their efforts, their sentiments, or their ever-growing understanding of the power their words can have on the world they are already helping to positively change.

They speak from experience. They speak from the heart. They speak their own educated, inclusive, and compassionate truth.

What could be more valuable to promote both within, and beyond, the walls of our classrooms?


 

Isabella: Well, what does it really mean to be an American? Rameen and I decided to tackle the subject when asked this question in Mr. Belan’s government class. We both come from cultural backgrounds that are considered minority groups in the United States (I am half Mexican) and as Rameen said, it isn’t uncommon for a minority’s American-ness to be questioned. We decided to write a poem discussing the subjects of what it really means to be an American.

Being an American isn’t all about being born and raised in the U.S. but there is so much more that makes this country what it is and it’s people who they are. We often forget the history of this country. As amazing as this country is, we forget that it was built on the backs of slaves. Forget that our founding fathers included immigrants. Forget that we are a nation that worked our way up when other superpowers at the time laughed and were certain we would fail. But our success story thus far has only been with the help of every single inhabitant, no matter how big or small their role.

Rameen and I felt that we needed to remind people of our true American values and beliefs. The values and beliefs of what it means to be an American.

Rameen: Growing up, I heard questions such as “Hey Rameen, where are you from? No, no…where are you really from?” or “Hey, what are you?” more often than I care to remember. I very well know that people are intending to ask about my cultural and ethnic background, but the manner in which the question has always been asked is incorrect. I was never offended, but I wanted to educate people about the true meaning of their statements.

Asking me, where I’m from is asking where I’m born or where I’ve lived, which is and always has been the United States. I am a natural American citizen, born in Cleveland, OH. But what most people intend to ask is, “Where are your parents or your family from?” or “What’s your ethnic background?” Now this question, I would respond to with “My parents are from Pakistan,” but I always made sure to follow this with, “but they’re American citizens” because somehow my parents being born in a different country, questions my American-ness.

I, in a way, feel obligated to prove that my family and I are just as American as someone whose family has been born and raised in the States for generations. Despite my entire family being American citizens, we were often faced with the challenge of subconsciously feeling the need to prove to others that we were deserving of that label. We were always extremely cautious of what we would say and how it could be interpreted as being a brown person living in the United States. We were always careful of where we spoke Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

Being a minority in America often feels as though there are more eyes watching what you’re doing.


Without further ado, we present to you, “What it Means to be an American”

What it Means to be an American
By Rameen Awan & Isabella Barnard

We live in a world where success equates survival.
Where every man, brother, sister, and child becomes your rival.
This is a nation propelled by our wealth.
A place where working for your family is more important than one’s health.
They say that we are a nation of dreamers.
That people flock to our borders in hopes of earning the support of the believers.

We live in an era categorized by numbers on a screen.
Where narcissists are obsessed, wanting their every move to be seen.
Crafting the perfect one-forty characters is everything they strive for,
Forgetting that when it comes to life, there is oh, so much more.
They forget the knowledge that can come from simple conversation,
And will speak with their neighbors with fierce hesitation.  

We live in a country where we are to believe that we’re protected by our rights.
But after hundreds of years, many are still fighting those same fights.
Many fail to realize the true struggles that some endure,
And how becoming united as a nation is our only hope for a cure.

We live in a nation with members still supporting the Confederacy.
Supporting the ideals and beliefs of the current U.S. presidency.
It’s as though our slow and steady progress is being completely reversed
It’s as though the change we’ve tried to make is under an inescapable curse.

*****

We live in a land where many claim that the man in office is “not their president”
However, those that concur proclaim, “He is if you’re an American resident.”
But what is one to do if we believe that statement untrue,
If we believe that “America is a place for everyone,” except for me, you, and you?

We live in minds that expand the definition of innovate
Minds that test the boundaries of what man can create
We even sent the first man to the moon so he could gravitate
Other nations try but just can’t seem to replicate

We live in bodies that have the power to shape the future
With precise hands that perform the most intricate suture
With each generation growing when valued is the teacher
With souls that are not afraid of any sort of venture

We live in a society of the best and the brightest
Are we perfect? No. Not in the slightest
But with a military named the strongest
And people that constantly work their hardest
Being an American means having the option of going on your own conquest

It means exploring things to see in which you yourself should invest
It means having the right of choosing if and how you want to be blessed
It means enduring the most in order to find success
It means no restrictions on your mind or your word when in distress

If what it means to be an American is what you are attempting to define
Go back and carefully reread and consider each and every line
You are entitled to your own thoughts but here you’ve heard mine
If you want to better America, do it. Just don’t run out of time.

%d bloggers like this: