Tag Archives: assessment

4 Questions We Answer about Exams #3TTWorkshop

We read this tweet, and first of all, let me just say how honored we are to be included with the likes of Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 10.44.35 AMPenny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The link took us to this post:  Reading (R)evolution post where we read about three high school English teachers much like us who are committed to independent reading and working hard to do right by their students. They asked about semester exams, and since Shana and I recently had a conversation that answered many of their questions, we jumped on the opportunity to share that discussion. We think our friends at Mamaroneck High School will find it helpful– maybe you will, too.

#3TTWorkshop Meme

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.


 

What are your thoughts on mid-terms/finals and what should be on them?

Shana:  By their very nature, a lengthy exam of any sort measures a student’s fluency with reading and writing, and that’s one of the reasons I like them.  I’ve been thinking a lot this year about sustaining length of thought and what that looks like–not just thinking about one subject for a long period of time, but continuing to read and write and experiment with that subject for a long period of time.  Thus, I’ve tried to create routines that foster fluency, and a lengthy exam is one way to measure whether or not I’ve been successful with that goal.

As for the exam itself, I believe the format matters most.  If we never do worksheets with multiple-choice answers during class time, why start now?  I try to make my exam mirror our daily routines in class–there is a section for independent reading, for sustained writing, for critical reflection, and for goal setting.

Amy:  Like you, I like the idea of measuring fluency with a lengthy exam — and while I do not think one exam on any one day can give an accurate measure of a student’s knowledge, I do think that sometimes it can give us a clear picture of a student’s growth. The exam itself is only one part though. Really, it all comes down to our alignment. How tightly do we align our standards and the skills we need students to master to our lessons and to our assessments, both formative and summative, within our unit cycle? Our semester and final exams should be another extension of that alignment. Too often, it is not.

 

What does a 2-hour exam look like?

Shana:  My written exams all start with a message from me to my students–a missive that this is not an exam one can or should study for, but rather one where students have the opportunity to demonstrate growth, effort, risk-taking, and clear thinking.

From there, I separate the exam into options by subject, and for each subject, I give students a choice of three tasks to complete.  For example, subject one is independent reading, and option one is creating a video booktalk, option two is creating a themed top ten list, and option three is creating a book trailer.

Amy:  When I first moved to a workshop pedagogy, the thing I had to learn is the idea of skills-based instruction and helping students form habits of mind that relate directly to improving as readers and writers. I was no longer teaching a book. Thinking about the skills helped me choose mentor texts and design mini-lessons that would move my readers and writers. Since my instruction changed, I knew my exams had to change as well. And my exams never look the same from year to year.

In my previous district, and especially for grades 9th and 10th, which take the Texas state assessment, half of the semester exam was a common assessment created by the district. It mirrored the state assessment and could be used as a diagnostic tool to measure student growth as they prepared for the end-of-course exam. The other half of the assessment we created in grade-level teams. The second half was difficult because I was the only workshop teacher devoting time to independent reading and writing on my campus. I was able to convince my team to assess skills rather books, but even then, it was difficult to craft an assessment that reflected the practices in my classroom instruction when I was the only teacher with those practices.

A two-hour exam needs to give students the opportunity to show what they have learned about reading and writing, and I absolutely agree:   it needs to mirror the practices we do in our daily instruction, but I also think it needs to give students the opportunity to show how their mastery of those practices help them tackle the kinds of critical reading and writing they must do in their lives beyond my classroom. For example, my students read independently and for sustained periods of time throughout the semester because I want them to learn to appreciate both the efferent and aesthetic value of books –we discuss this a lot as I conduct book talks, and they discuss books with each other. We read to enjoy but we also read to learn. My students write arguments on their blogs weekly, so one option for at least part of their semester exam is to write an argument about their reading. They marry what they’ve gleaned from their independent reading with the skills they’ve learned about writing. (I often give this portion of the exam in advance since it takes time for me to read and assess, but I’ve also given it as a timed writing on exam days. Students know the specifics of what I am looking for in their writing — this ties directly to the AP writing rubric I use to assess their blog posts — so I am able to score these holistically. And quickly.)

 

What should major assessments like an exam measure?

Shana:  What makes a good reader or writer is not necessarily comprehensively covered in any set of curricular standards that I know about.  Instead of feeling obligated to adhere strictly to the Common Core standards, or our WV Next Generation standards.  Because what we value in our classroom is the process of becoming a strong reader and writer, my exam highlights process as well as product.

In addition, some things I really value, like students’ ability to talk to me and one another about their learning using specific academic vocabulary and evidence-based claims, are not measurable by a written exam.  Thus, I assess those things at other times, like during conferences, rather than during exam week.  I don’t feel obligated to try to assess “everything” on one exam–it’s simply impossible to do so.

Amy:  Ideally, an exam should allow students the opportunity to show they have learned the material, right? If our exams are cumulative, and test the acquisition of skills, students should be able to earn credit by showing mastery — or at least growth — as indicated by their exam scores. This goes back to what I said before about alignment. It also represents a big problem in what I see with “grades.” Too often students receive scores on tasks that have more to do with their responsibility (or lack thereof) than on what they have actually learned. Take this scenario:  say a student does not complete x, y, and z assignments for whatever reason. By nature of many grading policies, she receives zeroes for not doing the work instead of not being capable of doing the work. A major assessment should be an assessment that evaluates a student’s ability as it relates to what we have taught, and if she didn’t do x, y, and z, the final assessment should be a last stop measure to show she’s learned what we needed her to learn that semester.

Shana:  I completely agree with the gap between grades and ability.  The whole grade-feedback-evaluation-assessment-ability conundrum has been frustrating us for a while, I know.  Some of my students did not finish the exam by the end of the week, but I won’t hold that against them–they will take it home over break and return it to me in the New Year.  I’m not sure, really, if I ever feel confident “grading” an exam item by item.  Instead, I consider the urging I give at the beginning of my exam–deep thought, strong effort, and time spent–and give a letter grade based on how well it is apparent that the student did those things well.

 

What would your ideal semester-ending assignment look like?

Shana:  I usually end the first semester with a series of activities like I described above, but I always end the second semester with a multigenre project of some sort.

For my first semester exam, Amy and I brainstormed together how to preserve student choice, our values of having students create products rather than just complete tasks, and how to allow for the showcasing of learned skills rather than a “gotcha” mentality with new material.  In our notebooks, we jotted down ideas and I wrote this up.  I made it available to students the Monday before finals week, so they’d have about a week and a half to work on it.  I think what’s important is that the last activity is reflection and goal-setting–looking back on 2015, and looking forward to 2016.

For this year’s end-of-course assignment, I’m excited to do a spin on Tom Romano’s literature relationship paper, in which students create a multigenre series of writings focusing on their relationship with and reading of a text.  I hope to have students re-read a favorite independent reading novel and write in many genres that include reflection, craft analysis, narrative, poetry, and more.  With that end goal in mind, I have designed more written product assignments that deal with narrative and analysis than I usually do.

Amy: My midterm exam is much different than my end-of-course exam. I loved how we talked through what our exams would look like when we were together at NCTE. As you know, what you wrote up will work well for me. Thanks for sharing that and saving me the time of having to write my own. I did a few revisions, and mine looks like yours, except with one less choice of options — and it is only for 50% of the test. Students will work on it in class the week or so leading up to the end of the semester. We have a week and a half after winter break.

The other 50% will be practice for the critical reading part of the AP exam. The 90 minute block will be enough time to take a full-length practice test, important for stamina, and then talk through a few of the passages. Of course, the second portion of the exam will be more diagnostic for me than anything — although we have analyzed texts in much the same way the exam asks students to do.  I haven’t decided how, or if, I’ll take a grade on it yet — my students are all over the place in terms of their critical reading abilities, so no doubt there will be a curve somewhere. I thought about taking a grade on the level of thinking I see in their annotations, but that isn’t fair. Not everyone needs to annotate the same way to truly think about a text. What I may do is have students write a one page reflection about that critical reading test after they take it, maybe set some goals for how they want to continue to grow as a reader during the spring semester. If they are honest with themselves, this reflection would be more specific about tackling complex texts than the reflection they write about their independent reading for the first portion of the exam. (And now I am just thinking as I write.)

Like yours, my students do a complex writing piece at the end of the year, which combines several different genres of writing. For the past few years, we’ve studied multi-modal feature articles and then written our own. On exam day we present our favorite parts to the class. Here’s a few examples of students’ published work from last year. Anthony wrote “Current and Future Sources of Energy,” Maribel wrote “Beauty Unlimited and Undefined,” Bryan wrote his immigration story. These types of assessments are my favorite.

Students take ownership of their writing and take pride in their finished products. They also evaluate their writing process and give themselves their own grade. After all, they do all the work:  thinking, planning, researching, drafting, revising. They are the ones who know if they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.

Please join the conversation:  What are your thoughts on exams in a workshop classroom?

#3TTWorkshop — How to Hold Students (and Ourselves) Accountable for Reading

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Reading accountability and grading our students’ reading goes hand in hand. Both are parts of a workshop classroom that can seem daunting, and sometimes we have to be flexible until we figure out what works well for our students and for us. Let’s start the conversation with accountability.

How do you hold students accountable for their reading?

Amy:  More than any other year, holding students accountable for their reading is driving me crazy. I’ve tried passing a clipboard like I learned from Penny Kittle. Many of my students cannot get their heads wrapped around a simple “Write down the page number you are on” and then “tally your reading for the week.” I see my students for half a class period on Mondays and then every other day the rest of the week. Seems if they miss the chart at the first of the week they never get it caught up.

Last year I tried an online reading chart. Each student had a page in a spreadsheet that I asked them to keep updated. I gave them a couple of minutes in class right after independent reading time. That worked a little better, but it was more difficult for me to access at a glance. I really like to get a true state of the class.

The past few weeks, I’ve started walking around on Mondays and recording page numbers myself. I decided to try this since my students were moving into book club reading. I can see if they are on target with the reading goal for their groups. It’s worked better, but this is not the kind of accountability I want to inspire in my readers. I’ve made myself the accountable one, and I am outnumbered.

Jackie: I’ve had a love-hate relationship with accountability like you, Amy.  The initial passing-around-the-clipboard method did not work for me either.  I shifted to checking individually two years ago.  I have a spreadsheet in which I enter their page numbers and reading rates on Mondays.  The spreadsheet then immediately calculates the percentage they completed and whether they fulfilled their reading rate for the week.  It isn’t a perfect system and I would much rather be conferencing with students instead of checking page numbers, but there are both pros and cons.

On the bright side, I do like checking in with every student on Mondays, and with a class of 24, it takes me about 13-15 minutes to record pages for the entire class.  The other benefit is that I also immediately know when students didn’t complete the number of pages they were capable of reading for that week.  Instead of telling them they didn’t complete the assignment though, we have a conversation about their reading overall.

Honestly, for my freshmen, this form of accountability is key.  It is less important for my AP Literature students, but I enjoy walking through the class every Monday, touching base with every student, and ultimately starting my week off by acknowledging their reading successes.

Amy:  Like you, Jackie, I do enjoy checking in with every student on Monday morning. The time is a trade off though, since I try to hold reading conferences when students are silently reading. I just don’t feel like I have the time to really talk to my students who are not getting their reading time in (That might be the crux of my frustration — I have too many students still not doing enough reading), and now meeting with each student for a longer reading conference on a regular basis takes that much longer. Seems like time eats my lunch every day.

I ask my AP Language students to read three hours a week in their self-selected books each week. Some students read voraciously, and I find these readers don’t necessarily like keeping track of the pages they read each week. I love that they read because they want to — something I hope for all my students, so I do not want to penalize them for not marking an accountability chart.

Besides just noting how many pages students read each week, what other accountability structures do you have in place?

Amy:  In our writer’s notebooks, we keep track of the books we start, abandon, and finish. We also pull vocabulary words –5 words a week — from our independent reading to put in our personal dictionaries. I know you and Shana just discussed vocab last week.

This year as another accountability piece,  I started asking students to complete an occasional reading one-pager. I have mixed feelings about this because I know the value of reading for reading’s sake, but marking the reading chart wasn’t working, and I have a difficult time conferring as often as I’d like. I also need my students to practice writing about literature. All they want to do is summarize, and the one-pager is one way to help them move beyond that.

I hope to get my students to think about accountability as self-evaluation. We talk a lot about the reason for reading:  We build fluency, acquire vocabulary, gain empathy, and learn information. “How has your reading this week helped you do that?”

Jackie: We also keep track of the books we start, abandon, and finish.  Students add to their “Books Read” list at the beginning of their writer’s notebook and they check off the books they complete.  Students also pull four words per week from their independent reading and log them in their WNB dictionaries.

Like you, I tried one pagers from Kelly Gallagher two years ago, but they were difficult to track and my strongest readers oftentimes slowed down their reading to avoid the one pagers.  I believe they can work, but I haven’t found a perfect fit just yet.  My AP Literature students do keep a critical reading journal (CRJ), which I started using this year thanks to Sheridan Steelman’s help.  Sheri is a phenomenal AP Literature teacher I met at UNH Literacy Institute.  Her structuring of CRJs has helped me gain even further insight into my AP Lit students’ needs and successes.

At the end of the day, my greatest source of information comes from the conferences I have with my students.  Students want to talk about their books, and it is a pleasure to sit beside them and learn every day.

So how do you grade your students on their reading?  

Jackie:  My school has competency based grading, so I file reading initiative grades under “formative assessments.”  I look at reading time as purely formative in the sense that it is necessary practice time for students to explore their interests while also building reading stamina.

Students in my CP Freshman English class must read two hours in their independent reading books while students in my AP Literature class must read three hours.  Each student has an individual reading rate, which they calculate and recalculate throughout the year. I adjust their reading times based on whether or not students are completing whole class or literature circle novels.  Students then receive a weekly reading initiative grade out of 20 points.  At the end of the day though, this structure is in place to help students carve out time for reading.  

One of the greatest complaints from my AP Lit students at the beginning of the year was that they didn’t have time to read anymore.  They loved it but it had been a long time since they’d picked a book on their own.  After a quarter of independent reading, Jessica said, “I love independent reading.  It gives me a break from everything” while Claudia said, “I have read more this quarter than I have in the past year.”

Amy:  I wish I didn’t have to give a grade for reading. I wish I didn’t have to give a grade for a lot of the work we do in class, but that is a topic for another day. All my little reading checks equate to a reading grade, all formative, except for a self-evaluation of their reading lives students complete about every nine weeks — that’s a summative assessment I model after a reading ladders assignment I learned from Penny Kittle.

Really, when it comes to grades, if my students show me growth and improvement, the grading is easy. It’s all about moving as readers. Eventually, most students come to realize that — and they thank me for making reading matter again.

How do you handle reading accountability and reading grades in your workshop classroom? Please add to the conversation by making a comment.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.

Fitting Self-Assessments into Competency Based Grading

fotolia-33988899-xs-photogalleryThis year my school shifted to competency based grading.  For those unfamiliar with this, grading is centered on students’ mastery of the Common Core competencies.  While I have found it differs from state to state, our school has integrated competency based grading by requiring all classes to follow a grading percentage of 80 percent summative assessments and 20 percent formative assessments.  In addition, students are allowed to retake summative assessments as many times as they would like assuming they initially approached the assessments having prepared with good effort.

For me, as an English teacher, this process of retakes and revisions isn’t new.  That being said, the idea of 80 percent of my students’ grades being summative assessments is most certainly a shift.  In the past, while their final product has always served as a large portion of their grade (over 50 percent), it hasn’t counted quite as much as it does now.

I value formative assessments; I cherish the time my students spend cracking apart texts, mimicking authors’ craft, and simply reading.  For many of us, high school was a formative experience.  The time we spent exploring who we were paid off long term, yet competency-based grading values the final product more than the process.

To a degree, I take fault with this.  I understand that once students enter the workplace they are assessed based on their final products.  In the same breath, I also believe that high school must provide a platform for students to explore their interests in a safe and supportive environment that values process.  My life has largely looked like the reverse of my gradebook—80 percent of my time is spent reading, writing, brainstorming, drafting, discussing, and working, while maybe 20 percent of it is actually publishing, sharing, or posting my work.  I learned this process in high school.

Because summative assessments count for so much this year, I hate (even more than usual) applying a specific number to my students’ work.  In turn, to compensate for this competency based grading, I ask my students to assess themselves.

Every time my students hand in a paper or summative assessment like a notebook check, they grade themselves, writing a brief “metacognition analysis” in which they explain their writing, thought process, and reasoning.  In turn, instead of being blind sided by my grades, they have a say in how and even whether or not they met the competencies of the assignment.  Typically, they’re spot on with their grading.

FullSizeRenderNicole wrote, “I think my essay deserves that grade because I worked really hard on it.  I ended up printing it 4 times because every time I printed it I would self edit and have someone else edit it so that it came out just how I wanted it.  Just like always, I put a lot of my personality and voice into this piece.  I wanted people to laugh when they read it.  I added lots of detail about tiny situations and background.”

Ryan, had a similar assessment, “I think I did well with my development of ideas/organization and cohesion, and my ending.  I was proud of all of my writing because I thought it was one of the best things I’ve written.”

Ultimately students are also willing to honestly discuss their shortcomings.  Maddie targeted areas she hoped to improve in future pieces: “I feel I did well but could’ve been better.  I struggled with creating sensory details, but I feel I wrote this piece pretty well.  I would like to try and make this story more vivid, putting the reader in my position.” 

While I’m still addressing these changes and gauging my own understanding of competency based grading, self-assessments are the single most important change I’ve made in my classroom this year.  After I’m done reading rubrics, circling boxes, and checking off competencies, their voice is the resounding voice I hear.

Do you have competency based grading in your school?  Have you shifted to the 80:20 grading system? What changes have you made to better meet the needs of your students?

5 Ways to Enjoy the Last Month of School

Today we start a fun two weeks. Texas state exams and AP exams dual for the attention and time of most every student and teacher in the building.

Two weeks of juggling tests with students in and out of classrooms. Teachers putting on hats as proctors and hall monitors, shuffling to teach in different rooms so students can test in theirs. Stress can make cranky even the calmest souls.

Two weeks until the end of school after that. June 6 is our last day. Some days that sounds like the equivalent of enduring 12 long winters.

smart-goals1I must make the choice daily to be optimistic, to see the possible in all the end-of-year chaos.

5 Ways to Enjoy the Last Month of School:

1. Talk about Books. I will double the amount of time my students and I talk about books and reading. Summer slide is real, even for students in high school and AP English classes. I wrote some thoughts about summer reading here. I want my students to enjoy the reading they do this summer. Most have read double, some even triple, the number of books they read last year. I cringe thinking that many may not read even one book this summer. (The AP English Literature required summer reading holds little promise with Brave New World and Beowulf.) If we talk about books enough, and if my students write down titles that sound interesting enough, and if maybe I allow them to take enough books from my classroom library home for the summer — maybe even my most reluctant readers will read at least one book before they come back to school in August.

2. Sit and Listen. Last week a student tapped on my door during my conference period. “Mrs. Rasmussen, are you busy?” I was but I waved her inside. I shut my laptop and turned my chair, and Mikaila began to talk. She told me that she’d been in her business class when an idea for her writing project “burst in my brain, and I started writing it down, and the more I wrote the more I imagined and the more I began to cry, and then the teacher looked over my shoulder and got worried about what I was writing. I told her, ‘I’m okay, I just need to go see my English teacher.'” Grinning, she finally took a breath. Mikaila stood and talked with me for the rest of the period. She’s got a lot of hurt in her, and she needed someone to hear it. That is all I did. I listened. I still had essays to read and leave feedback on, but that afternoon with this sweet young woman was the best I have had in weeks. I felt needed. During the next few weeks I will try to be still, open my door, and listen. I doubt Mikaila is the only one who needs to talk.

3. Allow Students to Self-Assess. When my students care about their topics, their writing is always better, but after 11 years of school, so many of my writers care more about the grade they’ll get than about the quality of their writing. I’ve tried to change that all year. For the next few weeks, my students will read and revise their own work again and again. They will read one another’s writing and offer feedback, and then they will revise again. We have done two rounds of this already, and with the exception of just a few kids who put forth little effort and scored their work high, most everyone wrote an honest assessment of their writing process. They are thinking about the thinking they do as they write on the page. That’s the best kind of assessment possible.

4. Begin Planning for Next Year. Not full-on planning, mind you. That would make me crazy, but I have started a list of things I will change. I know I need to do a better job with organizing writer’s notebooks and teaching vocabulary. I know I want to read more poetry, although I added a lot in my primarily non-fiction AP English Language class this year. I know I need to do the lessons we did just last week early in the fall. I’ll add tabs in a writer’s notebook that I can use as a sample with my new students in the fall, and I’ll tinker in Drive as I make notes in my lesson plans. Planning gives me energy, so it makes sense to note changes I want to make now instead of hoping I remember them later.

5. Confer and confer and confer. Like you and your students, the relationships my students and I have built all year are strong and trustworthy. I want to utilize this trust and push my students further in their reading and writing than I would have been able to do earlier. The only way to do this is to talk with them more one-on-one. Every day as students read their self-selected books and write their self-selected projects, I will pull up a chair and we will talk. “What are you thinking?” I’ll ask, and they will open up and tell me. They know I will listen and offer feedback that they can take, or not. That’s the beauty of teaching students to take ownership of their learning.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

On Annotations and Assessment in Readers Workshop

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I advocate for self-selected reading in all English classes. My students read stacks of books each year that they choose for themselves, and they read four titles for in-class book clubs that they select from my short stack of complex (mostly) contemporary titles.

The question I get the most from teachers who do not practice this choice pedagogy is “How do you know your students are reading?”

My initial response is usually:  “I ask them.”

But if you practice readers and writers workshop in your classroom, you know that it takes a bit more than that to know that students are developing as critical readers.

We do still have to teach.

Shana wrote a post recently about the value of talk in her workshop classroom, and I was intrigued by one of the comments:

I think we should consider what would be the best balance between between teacher and student talk. As the literacy expert in the classroom, I think the reading/language arts teacher’s voice needs to be heard often. While we all can be our own teachers, we will probably learn more with the wise guidance of a teacher.” 

But, of course.

Balance is key. So is authenticity.

These two ideals drive the choices I make in my workshop classroom.

My new friend, Lisa, sent me a question that got me thinking about both as I composed a response. I share her question here and how I replied to this dedicated teacher who is moving herself as she moves her readers.

Question:  Do you assess any annotations the students do with their reading? I’ve included a rubric we have been using to give students some feedback on their annotation of fiction. Their annotations in the text, and thereby their discussions about the texts, has greatly improved!! However, providing feedback on their annotations takes FOREVER. Just curious how you handle any sort of assessment related to students reading their chosen texts.” 

Response: Initially, when I read your question about annotations, I thought of these two questions:

1) Why do you need to leave feedback on the annotations in their books?

2) You said your discussions on the texts have improved. Are those discussions not enough of an assessment on their annotations?

Then I read your rubric, and it got me thinking.

I love the simplicity of the rubric, and I can see how students would notice more and be able to contribute to discussions more thoroughly and completely if they mark their books accordingly; however, I always use caution when it comes to interrupting a student’s reading flow — you know, reading for the sake of enjoyment.

In my own reading life, I rarely mark up a piece of fiction, unless it is for my own book club and I want to remember a significant passage that I loved, or didn’t understand, or a moment in the text that shocked or saddened me so much that I want to bring up in the discussion.

When I have my students engage in book clubs or self-selected reading, I want them to have authentic experiences and discussions about their books. (I quote Louise Rosenblatt on experiential reading at the end of this post.) That hope for authenticity is what drives what I have students do while they read.

And it is hard, and I have to trust that students notice the nuances and the complexities in the language and all the important literary aspects of their books. Sometimes they just don’t.  Sometimes they need to focus just on comprehension. I have to be okay with that.

Here’s how I try to facilitate learning:

1. Model my reading. I show students the books I’ve read for my book clubs and the kinds of passages I’ve marked so I can remember them for discussion. I encourage my students to mark their books in similar ways. Some will, and others never will. Some show me that they can think about their books without ever marking them. I have to let them learn the habits of readers that work for each of them individually, and I have to trust that they will.

This goes for writing, too. Every major writing task I ask my students to do, I do it first. I show them my process and later my product. For my ESL students, this is the single most effective strategy I do. I’ve asked them, and they’ve told me. I know that if this modeling helps my students who struggle with language, I know it helps all of my students.

2. Teach mini-lessons. Say I want students to focus on literary devices. I show them a variety of “beautiful sentences” from various texts; 51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences In Literature was a perfect resource for this. I pulled several of these pretty slides and put them on a presentation in Drive. I projected them in the front of the room, and students and I talked through what we noticed in these sentences.

We discussed the craft in the sentence and why the author might have made the moves he or she did. This focus on the writing in a text often leads to greater critical reading of a text just as critical reading should lead to better writing.

Next, I asked students to go into their books and look for beautiful sentences. I gave them each a note card, and they had to find two sentences — one for each side of the card — where they could tell where the author did something interesting with language. I instructed them to write the sentence and the page number at the top, and then they were to identify the device/s, interpret the meaning of the sentence, and analyze the meaning, based on what they’d read in the book and what they believed the author was doing there as it related to the meaning as a whole.

What does this assess? A lot.

  • I know immediately if students know how to identify literary and rhetorical devices.
  • I know if students understand what they are reading, especially if the activity is during book clubs, and I’ve read all the titles in which students choose.
  • I know if students can analyze the author’s use of the device versus just summarizing the meaning of the sentence.
  • I know if students are reading their books. They are not going to choose a sentence on page 195, if they haven not read that far. They will not know how to tie their analysis into overall meaning

(The sentences I used for this mini-lesson lead to book talks, too, and I had one girl come in the next day with a copy of Anna Karenina that she’d bought for herself. Hooyah!)

Mini-lessons like this can be done over and over again — perhaps with a different skills focus each time, and the more students see that we are going to ask them to go into their books to focus on a skills, the more likely they are to start marking significant sentences and passages as they read. It becomes a natural move on the reader’s part instead of a mandate by the teacher.

3. Teach Notice & Note signposts. If you are not familiar with Notice & Note, Kyleen Beers and Bob Probst researched the patterns in story arcs and crafted six signposts around the moments in the text that appear the most often in a vast number of fictional pieces — short stories and novels. Students at all levels can apply the signposts as they learn to ask themselves questions as they read. In my experience, their understanding of theme improves dramatically.  If you Google Notice & Note signposts, or join the Facebook group, you’ll find many teachers who share their resources.

My students and I learn the signposts with short stories, and then throughout the year, we practice applying them to our full-length novels. Best thing I’ve done to help students analyze theme, which is SO HARD for some of them. I don’t quite understand why, but it is singularly the thing my students year after year struggle with the most.

For assessment, again, I do a lot with note cards. Quick, short writing snapshots where students can talk to me about what they know. I can grade these easily and leave feedback in the form of questions to direct students to look deeper, or closer, or whatever. I usually score these with check plus, check, or check minus and leave feedback in the form of one thing the student did well and one thing that might need improvement.

4. Write reader’s response. I have 35 composition notebooks that I labeled with thematic topics. I learned this strategy from Penny Kittle (Here’s a handout from 2013 that has a list of topics for notebooks in it.) I morphed her idea with Notice & Note, and it works well for reader’s response, another piece in holding students accountable for their reading and assessing their acquisition of skills.

At the beginning of the year, when composition notebooks are .50, I buy 35, and I label them with a variety of topics like Penny has on her list, plus some. I glue a handout of the signposts inside each one. Then, every once in a while, I’ll pull the notebooks out and set a handful on each table.

Students know to find a notebook that they can tie the thematic elements of their independent reading book to. We write for about 10- 20 minutes, depending on how in-depth I want students to go with their thinking, and then they share out what they wrote with their table mates. (This works as book talks, too, because students hear about what their friends are reading.) I wander the room and listen in. This is formative assessment. If a student has written about theme, shown that he is reading and understands how the book relates to that thematic topic, I know he is learning. Of course, the reverse is also true. I use check marks for grades of this kind of assessment, too.

Now, having told you all of this, I am not saying to ditch your rubric. I am just always trying to figure out how to put more of the responsibly for the learning (and the work) on the students, and probably most important to my sanity — the need to cut my grading time.

Regarding your rubric, I wonder:

A. How can you ask students to practice annotations with short stories?Then when you go to leave feedback on what they have marked, zero in on one or two slices of the rubric — never the whole thing. And be sure your feedback is something that will resonate. All too often students do not care about what we write, they only want to see their grade. I saw this great reminder in a tweet today:  “Put comments on my paper that begin conversations, not end them.”

B. Instead of trying to leave feedback on every students’ annotations for their whole books, how can you ask students to apply what they have learned from annotating?

For example, choose a slice of the rubric. Give students a half sheet of paper (or a notecard) and have them synthesize their annotations into a paragraph or two that answers a question. Something like :  Think about the things you’ve annotated about the characters in your book, how have the behaviors of the protagonist advanced the plot in the story?  Explain how any single or series of choices by the protagonist has surprised, unsettled, or shocked you.

C. How can you use the rubric to guide your conferences?Instead of checking their annotations, ask students to use their annotations as they talk with you about their books.

For example, choose a slice of the rubric. In a one-on-one conference, or in a small group conference if students are reading the same book, ask:  In regard to your annotations about literary elements, what have you noticed about how the author uses them? How do these elements help the author craft the story? Talk to me about some passages or sentences in the book that you’ve been particularly moved by.

You will know if students are paying attention as they read., and you’ll know so much more because your assessment shoots over the annotation itself and gets to the thinking behind why we want students to annotate in the first place.

Lisa and I would love to know your thoughts on annotations and assessment? Please leave a comment

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Grading vs. Feedback

Let me be honest:  I hate grading.

Hate hate hate it.

I hate it, but you know what I love to do?  Read my students’ writing.  Talk to them about their reading.  Absorb the creative projects on display after they’ve completed a reading or writing unit.

So, if I love to listen to and read and wonder about their work, why do I hate to grade it?

The idea of reducing a piece of student work to a number, or assigning some arbitrary value to a reading conference, or trying to measure precisely the growth of a writer from one genre to the next is not only intimidating to me…it also seems a little ridiculous.  Unnecessary.  Trivial.  The beauty of a learner’s work is its creation, its completion, its courage.  It’s out there…for me to read, for their peers to see, for their creators to reflect on.

But, too many of my students only know how to think in numeric terms when trying to measure their own achievements.  Few are well-versed in knowing how to feel proud of finishing a tough book, or pleased with the revision of a piece of writing, or excited about the hard work that went into a project.  They don’t know how to authentically self-evaluate, because for years, they have relied too heavily upon someone else’s assessments of their work–mainly their teachers’.  I keep wondering how that’s fair.  I’ve had conversations recently with the lovely Amy about this, and Jackie wrote a great post about this same dilemma last October.

FullSizeRenderLast week, this tweet from the always-wonderful Kelly Gallagher helped to focus my wondering.  His words are not only true of writing, but of all other acts of learning as well.  A grade can’t improve a student’s skills.  Only feedback can do that–authentic, speedy, specific feedback.

So now, thanks to the combination of conversations with fellow teachers, Kelly’s words, and my own wondering, I know what I need to do.  I need to focus more on feedback and less on grading.  I know if I do less of the latter, I’ll free up time to do more of the former.

So, I’m pondering how to shift the balance.  I’d really like to return written drafts with my comments and questions, but no number or letter grade at the top.  I’d really like to have just one reading conferences without hearing the question, “what grade do I have in here?”  I’d really like for students to abandon the habit of looking to me for grades, and instead look within themselves to figure out how they’re doing.

Because I can’t entirely forsake grades altogether (we need to update our gradebook weekly), I’ll move my focus toward improving my feedback instead.  I’ll do this in three important ways:

During reading or writing conferences.  Until now, I’ve tried to stay fairly quiet during conferences in order to let my students do most of the talking.  Most of my talk is in the form of questions.  Now, I’ll shift to giving students more feedback–much more than the one or two statements I try to make at the end of a conference, which usually are to give suggestions about where to go in terms of goals and growth.  I’d like to comment more on my observations of students’ growth, strengths, weaknesses, and skills, so they can learn the language to begin evaluating themselves more effectively.

In writer’s notebooks.  Although I collect notebooks every two weeks, I don’t read everything my students write–I don’t have time, and shouldn’t–they should write much more than I could ever read.  Generally, I thumb through the pages, check that students have given a good faith effort in all of their various sections, and give a completion grade.  Now, I’d like for each student to flag one page in their notebook they’d like me to attend to–maybe a woefully short to-read list, a favorite quickwrite, or a particular reading reflection.  That way, they can decide what’s important to them, and I can give feedback accordingly…just comments and questions, mind you–without the pressure of a grade for reader or writer.

Through monthly “Meta Meetings.”  I’d like to sit down with each student about once a month and just have a whole-person conference…not a reading or writing conference.  Just a little checkup, to see how their brains and hearts are doing.  I adore alliteration, and I want these chats to encourage my students to be metacognitive…so I think I’ll title them Meta Meetings.  I’ll ask students a few questions about their strengths and weaknesses, and try to get to the heart of all the little bits of the language arts they’re curious about…strengthening their similes, or finding a system for keeping track of found vocab words, or writing metaphorical recipes (all questions I’ve had from students at random times).  I also think that during these meetings, I’ll get lots of awesome curricular ideas–what do my students want to learn how to do?  What things are they really wondering about that I might be able to help them discover?

What are your suggestions for improving feedback?  Shifting away from grades?  Providing more authentic evaluation?  Please share in the comments!

Writing Workshop: Assessment and Hope

Students should write more than teachers can ever grade. I heard this first from Kelly Gallagher, author of the book Readicide, a book, among others, that helped me frame my curriculum around Workshop. If I remember correctly, he said that his students write four times more than he grades. Really?

I pondered this for a long while, and I still struggle, but I think I have some of it figured out. I thought for a long time that my students would not write unless I graded what they wrote. Every assignment:  “Is this for a grade?” Every answer: “Yes, everything is for a grade.” The refrain got old.

Then I tried something new: I began writing with my students on the first day of school, and I had some kind of writing activity every single day. I don’t remember where I read it, but when I was researching the work of the reading writing workshop gurus a couple of years ago, I know I read:  if you struggle with time and have to choose between reading or writing, choose writing.

It’s the complete opposite of what I thought:  My students are struggling readers. How do I give up reading when I know they need it? I thought about it more and realized: If I teach writing well, students will be reading. And they will be reading a lot.

So let me explain how this works for me. Remember, I teach AP English Language and Composition (that’s the top 11th graders) and English I (that’s on-level freshmen)–two extremes.

Writing Every Day

There are many ways to get students to write every day. Of course, some ways will get them to take their writing more seriously than others. I find that when I give them an audience, students will put a lot more effort into what comes out their pens. Audience matters!

Topic Journals. Following the advice of Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, I created “topic journals” that students write in once a week the first semester. I bought composition notebooks and printed labels, using various fonts, of the topics: love, conflict, man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, war, death, gender, hope, redemption, family, romance, hate, promise, temptation, evil, compromise, self-reliance, education, friendship, guilt, doubt, expectation, admiration, ambition, courage, power, patience, fate, temperance, desire, etc. I created 36 notebooks; one for each student in my largest class.

I introduced the topic journals to my AP students first. I set up the scenario:  “I will be teaching 9th grade. I need your help. Do you remember what it was like to be new to high school? nervous, anxious, a little bit obnoxious? I created these notebooks so you could write and give advice to my younger, less advanced students.”

The first task was to turn to the first page in the journal and define the topic. Many looked up the terms in the dictionary or online. They wrote a quickwrite explaining what the topic meant. Then on the next page they wrote about anything they liked as long as their writing fit the topic. I had them sign their posts with their initials and the class period. I told them that they could choose their form (a letter, a narrative, an advice column) as long as they remembered that their audience was 9th graders, and whatever they wrote had to be school appropriate. “If you write about bombs or offing yourself or anyone else, you’re off to see the counselor or the police.” These are good kids, most of them in National Honor Society. They took my charge to help my younger students seriously. This exercise often worked as a lead into our critical reading or class discussion that day, and sometimes students chose a piece they’d started in a topic journal to continue exploring for a process piece.

You can imagine how I introduced the journals to my freshmen. I began by saying, “You know I teach AP English, right? That’s the college-level English class. Well, those students would like to offer you advice about high school, life, and whatever else you might have to deal with the next few years. They are going to write to you in these topic journals. Your job when you see these notebooks on the tables is to choose the one that “calls” to you. First, you will read the messages the older students wrote for you, and then you will respond. Remember to use your best writing.” I then set the timer and had students read and write for 10-15 minutes, depending on the lesson I planned that day. Sometimes I had students share out what they wrote; most often we tucked the notebooks away for another week.

Students constantly fought over a couple of the topics:  love, death, and evil were their favorites. I am certain that is telling (and it did help me when selecting titles for book talks.)

While students wrote in topic journals, I read what students had previously written in the notebooks kids did not select. I’d write a quick line or two in response to something in that notebook. I always used a bright orange or green pen, so students could tell I’d had my eyes in that journal. They knew I was reading them, but they never knew when or what entry. This helped hold them accountable for not only the content of what they were writing but also the mechanics of how they were writing it.

Assessment? Formative. Students have to think quickly and write about a topic on a timed test for the AP exam (11th grade) and STAAR (9th grade).

Blogs

At first I only set up a class blog, and I had students write in response to posts I put on the front page and in response to an article I put on an article of the week page (another Gallagher idea). It didn’t take me long to realize that students would write more and take more ownership of their craft if they created their own blogs. The first year I had students set up blogs I taught gifted and talented sophomores, and I was nervous. Nervous that something would happen:  they’d post inappropriate things, they’d do something to get themselves and me in trouble, they’d be accosted by trolls out to hurt children through internet contact. I chose Edublogs.org as the platform because I could be an administrator on the student blogs, and I had my kids use pseudonyms. This was overkill. Yes, I did have to change two things that year:  one student called his blog Mrs. Rasmussen. I told him my husband didn’t appreciate that much. Another kid used a picture of a bomb as his avatar. Not funny. All-in-all my students did great, and they wrote a lot more (and better) than they ever did for me on paper. I was a stickler for errors and created this cruel scoring guide that said something like: A=only one minor error, B=two minor error, C=three minor errors, F=four or more errors. Students that had never gotten a C in their lives were freaking out over F’s. “Sorry, kiddo, that’s a comma splice. That’s a run-on.” I had more opportunities to teach grammar mini-lessons than I ever had in my career. But see, these kids cared about their grades.

My 9th graders now–not so much. They care about a lot of things, but if I punish them for comma errors or the like, they shut down and stop writing. I learned to be much more careful. Now, I work on building relationships so they trust me to teach them how to fix the errors themselves. It takes a lot more time, but in the end, student writing improves, and students feel more confident in their abilities. I am still working on getting my 9th graders to be effective writers. So far, I have not accomplished that too well, as is evidence of their EOC scores this year.

This past year my AP English students posted on their blogs once a week. I told them that I would read as many of their posts as I could, but I would only grade about every three. I wouldn’t tell them which ones I’d be grading. I let students choose their topics, but since I had to teach them specific skills to master for the AP exam, I instilled parameters. They had to choose a news article that they found interesting, and then they had to formulate an argument that stemmed from that article. The deadline was 10 pm on Monday–every week. This assignment accomplished two of my objectives:  students will become familiar with the world around them, and students will create pieces that incorporate the skills that we learn in class. When I turned to social media to promote student blogs, I got even more ownership from my students.

Assessment? Formative or Summative. Students apply the skills they learned in class regarding grammar, structure, style, devices, etc. Scored using the AP Writing Rubric for the persuasive open-ended question.

Twitter in the Classroom

One of these days I will write a post about the many ways I used Twitter in class this year. For now, let me just tell you:  Twitter was the BEST thing I added to my arsenal of student engagement tools. Ever.

When I began asking students to tweet their blog url’s after they wrote on Mondays, I started leaving quick and easy feedback via Twitter. It was so easy! Kids would tweet their posts; I’d read them; re-tweet with a pithy comment. Within minutes of the first couple of tweet exchanges, students were posting and tweeting more. They were getting feedback from me, and they were giving feedback to one another. They began building a readership, and that’s what matters if students blog. Just because they are posting to the world wide web does not mean anyone is reading what they write. But, a readership, especially one that will leave comments, that’s a whole new story.

Assessment? Formative. Students share their writing and make comments about their peers’ writing. Critical thinking is involved because students only have 140 characters to express their views.

Student Choice. Sometimes.

In a perfect writing class, I am sure students get to choose what they write about every time. This does not work in an AP English class where I am trying to prepare students for that difficult exam. Once a week my students complete a timed writing where they respond to an AP prompt. The guidelines for AP clearly state that the essays are scored as drafts; minor errors are expected. My students must practice on-demand writing. There is no time for conferencing or for taking these essays through the writing process. Unless–we revisit. And sometimes we do. Students are allowed to re-assess per our district grading policy if they score below an 85. 85 is difficult for many of my students, so lots of them re-assess. To do so, students must come in and conference with me about their timed writing. I am usually able to pick out the trouble spots quite easily, and it’s through these brief conversations that I get the most improvement from student writing. Often, instead of conferencing with me, students will evaluate their essays with one another.

I show several student models of higher scoring essays and teach students how to read the AP Writing Rubric. Then, in round robin style, students assess their own essays and at least three of their peers. I remind students not to be “nice” to their friends and give a score that’s undeserved. This will not help anyone master the skills necessary for the AP exam. Rarely do students give themselves or their peers scores higher than I would.

My students also write process papers. For AP reading workshop students choose a book from my short list. After reading and discussing the books with their Book Clubs, students have to write an essay that argues some topic from the book. I model how to structure an essay. I model how to write an engaging introduction. I model how to imbed quotes and how to write direct and indirect citations. I model everything I want to see in this type of writing.

I allow several weeks in my agenda to take these papers through the writing process, and students do most of the work outside of class (not so with my 9th graders).

  • Day one students generate thesis statements, and we critique, re-write, and re-critique.
  • Day two students bring drafts that we read and evaluate in small groups. (I have to teach them that a draft is a finished piece that they are ready to get feedback on–not a quickwrite. So many students type up their rough draft and call in good. This makes me crazy! And I tell them that I will not read their first draft unless they come before or after school or during lunch. They must work on their craft before I will spend my time reading it.)
  • Day three students bring another draft that we read and evaluate again. Sometimes, depending on where my kids are in terms of producing a good piece, I will take these up and provide editing on the first page. Never more than the first page!
  • Day four students turn in their polished papers. I score them holistically on a rubric that aligns with the AP Writing one, or if it’s my 9th graders, I score them on the appropriate STAAR writing rubric.

My freshmen students need a much more hand holding, and we do a lot of writing on lined yellow paper. Most often, especially at the first of the year, they get to choose their own topics. However, I have to give them a lot more structure because on the new Texas state test. 9th graders have to write two essays (about 300 words each): a literary essay, which is an engaging story, and an expository essay, which explains their thinking about a given prompt. Students use the yellow paper to draft during class. I wander the room, answering questions and keeping kids on task. I also try to write an essay every time I ask students to do so. I use these essays as mentor texts in addition to mentor texts I find by professional authors.

Usually I begin class with some kind of mini-lesson if students are in the middle of drafting. I might show students a paragraph with a description that uses sensory imagery and instruct them to add some description in their own writing. Or, I might teach introductory clauses and have students revise a sentence to include one or two or three. This way I am able to get authentic instruction that my students need right there in the middle of their writing time. When I score these student papers, I specifically look for the skills I’ve explicitly taught. If I do it right, I will have read my students papers one or two times during their writing process, prior to them ever turning in their final draft.

Notice I said “if I do it right.” I rarely do it right. I am still learning to budget my time and get to every kid. I am still learning to get every kid to write. I am writing English I curriculum this summer, which I will use in the fall. I hope to get some of my challenges with my struggling students worked out as I focus more purposefully on the standards. I realized this year that while I am teaching writing as a process all the time, I am not necessarily targeting the standards that fit into the process. I am thinking about this a lot lately.

This is still my burning question:  how can I get kids who hate to read and write to participate in writing workshop so their writing improves and their voices are heard?

I am turning to the gurus as I research and think this summer. Jeff Anderson’s book 10 Things Every Writer Should Know has been an excellent start.

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