Tag Archives: Assessment

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

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

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

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

I’m still not satisfied.

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

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

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

These are the ideas my class generated.

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

And then these two responses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And somedays they surprise us with their enthusiasm:

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

How’s this for authentic reading assessment?

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

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

 

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2 Ways to Prioritize Student Talk in the Classroom

Workshop affords so many opportunities to explore with the students in front of me as opposed to present a set curriculum to whomever happens to be seated in my classroom. It’s teaching through interaction, and in this case, it’s teaching straight from the kids themselves.

We see it in workshop all the time. Students given the tools to explore the world as readers and writers, and encouraged through personalized learning, quite often take their learning to places our old lesson plan books didn’t always accommodate.

One of the best opportunities for this classroom growth is having students do more and more of the talking. With the right modeling and specific expectations around that student talk, the classroom becomes a place students lead through inquiry, as opposed to follow through completion of teacher set tasks.

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Morgan quotes Judy Brady’s “I Want a Wife” to analyze how the repetition supports the sarcastic tone and proves the point that since they do SO much, everyone should want a wife. LOL!

It happened yesterday morning, in fact. My AP students were participating in small group graded discussions. Just reading the last sentence makes me cringe (yes we use a rubric, no, the conversations don’t have to be formulaic as a result), but with choice in which readings from our unit they wanted to discuss and some guiding questions throughout the discussion, our conversation about gender and the implications of historical stereotypes on a modern world (their direction for the discussion, not mine) took an interesting turn.

“Mrs. Dennis…you’re smiling weird. What did I say?”

I stop furiously typing comments and look up. “I’m sorry?”

“You had a look. Did I say something wrong?”

“Sarah, you said nothing wrong,” I smile and glance around the table. Seven intrigued faces look back at me. “In the last few minutes this group has, largely unprompted, connected several essays through the lens of analysis, used terminology we’ve not discussed since September, Trinity uttered the words, ‘I don’t believe gender pronouns are even really necessary anymore,’ and then supported her opinion with specific text evidence, and several of you actually just murmured sentiments of excitement to shift the discussion to Judy Brady’s satirical 1971 piece ‘I Want a Wife.’ I’m smiling because I was just thinking about how I used to give short answer reading comprehension quizzes on these pieces.”

“Oh,” said Sarah, “This is way better.”

Yup.  This was a discussion they wanted to have. This was a discussion I wanted to hear. They took the lead, in fact one of our rubric bands demands that, and they came to the

discussion

Part of a small group discussing racial stereotyping colliding with gender stereotyping in the Brent Staples piece “Just Walk On By”

discussion prepared to drive conversation from the perspectives of authors like Brent Staples, Deborah Tannen, John and Abigail Adams, and Judith Ortiz. Perspectives that regard gender through stereotype, race, satire, narrative, an exchange of letters almost 250 years ago, and visual texts.

Did I just sit back and let them talk, free-for-all style? No. This conversation took practice, feedback, and correction over the past few months. Today, it took redirection on some occasions and additionally it took specific intervention for those students reluctant to participate. Additionally, had it been a lower-level class, I would have been a bit more actively involved to start. But as you well know, students at any level are capable of, and actually far more likely, to get actively involved if their efforts for comprehension are supported and their exploration of the text is encouraged. We work specifically on ways to communicate both agreement and polite disagreement, so students can help clarify the text as well as analyze it.

Like any solid workshop component, it involves careful teacher planning and modeling, but equal parts careful student leading as we gradually release them to own their own education. 

We assess students on their preparation for the discussion with visible notes and use of specific text to support their points and their leadership within the group. That leadership can be exhibited through meaningfully involving others to bring them into the discussion with a question, synthesizing ideas they have heard so far, and/or including insights from additional research on a particular topic to extend discussion beyond the reading.

I spend a whole class period for discussions, breaking the class into groups of 7-10 students so all voices have more opportunity to be heard. Students not in the discussion have specific work to complete, sometimes by the end of the hour. For feedback, I type comments and insights while the students are speaking, so I can quickly copy/paste them into the comment section of my feedback form (A Google form emailed directly to students with 2 Common Core based rubric bands as dropdown tabs so I can just click the score for each band, include specific typed feedback, and often get that feedback out to kids the same day).

Another opportunity for seriously impactful student talk, is handing over the daily book talk to the class.

One of the many benefits of this scenario is that I can tap into growing student enthusiasm about books and have my kids spread the book love directly with each other. Don’t get me wrong, my book talks are something to behold. Part forensics piece, part reader’s theater, and part screentest for the literary loony bin, I sell books much like I would envision the traveling vacuum salesmen of yore putting food on the table with a pitch of salvation not just for the home, but the soul. It’s not just going to clean your carpets, it’s going to change you life, Ma’am. Your life. 

But, let’s be real. Though I sprinkle my classroom with good will, good cheer, and good books, I’m not the best salesperson in the room. If you’re going to sell the vacuum with radial root cyclone technology (I Googled that), or the book with 389 scary looking pages on dystopian fantasy rooted in a chromed society, you need to know your audience. You need to relate to your audience. You need to be one with your audience.

There are plenty of reasons to get kids doing your book book talks, not the least of which is I can’t read fast enough these days to keep up with the need for the type of really passionate and informed book talks that come from having read the whole text (Books do sell themselves sometimes, just by reading the back cover and a page or two at the start, but I love to hook kids with a section from the middle to show the impact of the rising action or depth of character development).

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Priyanka book talking Stitches, a graphic novel by David Small, under the document camera.

  • Students trust one another’s opinions. Yes, often more than mine. I sell hard, but at the end of the day, I’m usually still the biggest book nerd in the room, and therefore I think I am occasionally regarded in much the same way  as the Dancing Grannies in a holiday parade: Enthusiastically adorkable, but a bit of an anomaly to be trusted only at a distance.
  • They find titles, authors, and series that aren’t yet on my radar. Despite my best efforts, I can’t read fast enough or comb enough best of lists to meet the recommendation needs of over 120 kids. But when the classroom experiences a new student perspective on reading each class, additional book talks at their tables after reading, speed dating with books,  and an invitation to help grow our classroom library with tax free, gluten free, guilt free donations of gently used books, everyone wins and the depth of our classroom repertoire grows.
  • Their enthusiasm is relatable and often focused on books that don’t speak to my own bibliophilic tendencies, but can ignite the reading sensibilities of their adolescent peers. For example, I took several YA Lit books home at the start of last summer. Two days in, I was already struggling with the voice. It grated on me (no offense scholars) after hearing it all day in person for 180 days. So when a student book talks The New Guy (and Other Senior Year Distractions) by Amy Spalding, and two sophomores in my class (who have struggled to meet reading goals week after week) add it to their “I Want to Read List”s, that’s another win, because we can’t push kids to deepen their reading if they aren’t reading. First hook them, then book them with more challenging pieces.
  • I offer up the option to produce their book talks digitally and for some students, this is what makes the entire experience meaningful. Students sell their books through book trailers, compilations of related imagery and voice over to meet the same requirements of a live book talk. I’ve had kids include clips of author interviews, live action fight scenes with voiced over dialogue directly from the text, and this year, I have a student who wants to read over the top of a mannequin challenge he plans to shoot to represent some of the major action in the text.

What results is growing book lists, renewed enthusiasm as students go back to books they’ve read and revisit their love for the text, and involving each and every single student as a valued reader in our classroom community.

We’d love to hear from you! What tips and tricks for student talk make their way into your daily workshop practice? Please comment below! 

Keeping it Simple: Setting Up a Writer’s Notebook

Teresa wrote:  “I have a few questions about how your students setup their writing notebooks. What are the sections in the notebook, and how many pages do you have them section off for each? Also, does one composition book usually last all year, or do they have to get another one at semester?”

I met Teresa at a workshop training I conducted this summer. She’s getting ready for her school year to start, and I am glad she sparked my thinking about how I will have my students set up their notebooks this year. This is it:

First of all, and you probably already know this:  it’s hugely important to have students personalize their notebooks.  So during that first week of school, my kids will be using scrapbook paper, wrapping paper, and whatever to make their notebooks into something that represents their life or their personality in some way.

I’m thinking of having students email me three photos from their phones, and I’ll get those printed (since I doubt many would do that on their own), and they can use those photos to decorate inside and outside the covers of their notebooks. It’s also a way for me to build a contact list of all my students. Doubling up on purpose there.

Last year I skipped this important step of personalization, and it was a mistake. Students must take some time to make the writer’s notebook their own — it can make all the difference as to the care they take regarding ideas and writing they put into that notebook.

Now, to get to your question –the notebook set up:  For years I’ve made it complicated — so this year I am simplifying. Thanks to some discussion I’ve had with Shana about our writer’s notebooks, I finally have a plan for this year.

Since the focus of my instruction is to advance all readers and writers, I need to make sure my students know that their writers’ notebooks will be the tool we use to measure their movement. So on the very first page, I ask students to write big and bold at the top:  My Reading Goal for my Junior Year. Then I ask them to draw a square in the center about the size of a standard sticky note.

“Write your goal in the center,” I tell them, “How many books will you read this year?”

Most students write a goal of 4, 5, or 6. They don’t think in big book numbers yet — they are used to reading (sometimes) the assigned texts in their English classes. They don’t know about reading volume or choice or the engaging titles in my classroom library — yet.

I model and write my reading goal in the center of my square on the first page of my notebook:  37. My students gasp.

Then, I show them the list I’ve kept of the books I read this summer — and the stack of books I pull from under the table. “I read all of these just this summer,” I say and watch their eyes grow real wide.

“My goal for you is that you will read many more books than you think is possible this year. Let’s set those goals a little higher.”

Sometimes during the same class period, sometimes a day or two later, we read our choice books for ten minutes and then calculate our reading rate. (# of pages read in 10 minutes times six equals how many pages you can read in an hour for that book. Multiply that number by three (the amount of reading I expect my students to do each week) and that equals your individual reading goal for the week) We draw little charts of the Reading Rate formula at the bottom of our goal page right there in the front of our writer’s notebooks.

After we calculate reading rates, we often have to return to goal setting. Students realize that if they plan to meet the expectations I have for them, they will read many more than the four-book-goal they originally set for themselves. This discussion often leads into important discussions about reading volume and how it leads to fluency, vocabulary development, more background knowledge on a variety of topics, and improved writing skills. This is where I start the mantra that I repeat over and over throughout the year:

The only way to become a better reader is to read. 

Next, in our writer’s notebooks we move into our plan as to how we will reach our reading goal. First, we have to have a plan. Readers have a plan. They listen in on conversations about books. They become familiar with book titles. They come to know topics and genres they like to explore. A big part of helping students come to love reading is helping them identify themselves as readers. So many of my students do not know how to do that.

An easy way to start identifying as a reader is to walk the walk of one. We make a plan, and our plan looks like a “What am I going to read next? List.

We make this list on the back of our goals sheet. This is where we write down the titles and the authors of books we learn about through book talks, talking with peers, exploring the bookshelves, etc — all books we think we might like to read throughout the year.

This list serves as an accountability piece. If students’ lists grow, I have one way to measure their involvement in our reading community.

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I like the idea of having students include genre and start/finish or abandoned dates. I can learn more about a reader at a glance.

We also need a “What am I Currently Reading List.” We keep this list on the next page — right across from our TRN (to read next) list. This way students see how to transfer a “hope to read” into a “now I’m reading.”

Students record the title of the book, the author, the genre, the date they started the book, and the date they finished it or abandoned it. If they abandoned the book, which is absolutely fine — there are too many awesome books to suffer through too many we do not enjoy — I want short notes about why the book is being abandoned. I model statements that may work here. “It was boring” is not one of them.

“The narrator annoyed me because he seemed like a whiner,” or “I thought this book would be an engaging story, but it’s really a non-fiction book about information I don’t really care about” are both appropriate “I-am-abandoning-this-book notes.”

This list serves as an accountability piece. As students lists grow, I can see at a glance the titles and genres they are reading. I can see the start and finish dates to gage if their reading rate goals match with the dates recorded on this list. I can see where I might need to confer with a specific student about abandoning book after book after book — just from a scan of their CRL (currently reading list)

We need a space in our notebook for Response. We skip a page after our CRL and label this section of the notebook for what it is. This is where we will write our thinking. We will respond to a variety of texts: videos, news reports, poems, articles, stories, etc.

This is where we will deposit our initial reaction to and thinking about provocative things. This is a place for our quickwrites, our thinking on the page. We need a lot of space here, so in a composition notebook of 100 pages, we will reserve at least 20 for this section. (And we may need another notebook all together in the second semester.)

This serves as an accountability piece:  are students engaged in the writer’s community? Are they giving a ‘best effort’ at capturing their thinking on the page? Are they showing revision moves in their quickwrites? Are they playing with language like I’ve suggested as they develop their thinking and writing abilities?

Now, to really keep the set-up of the writer’s notebook simple, we just need three more sections:  reading, vocabulary, and writing.

Reading. In this section, we will record notes from reading mini-lessons, academic words

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Low-stakes student writing about her reading life. We can learn a lot about a student’s reading and writing this way.

that live in those lessons (and highlight them), tips on reading strategies, and our writing about our reading that we will complete on occasion.

This serves as an accountability piece:  Are students engaged in the reading community? Are they doing their part to advance their reading abilities? Are they competently writing about their reading?

Personal Dictionary. I used to give lists of vocab words for kids to student and then take a quiz over. Little authentic learning took place around those word lists. A much more authentic and useful way for students to learn vocabulary is for them to generate their own lists. Ask them what they do when they encounter words they do not know as they read. They’ll tell you: They skip them. No more.

We capture words we do not know in our choice reading books, and we record them in our own personal dictionaries. I ask students to record five words a week. They list the date of the week, then the title of their book (even if it’s the same book a few weeks in a row). Then they make a list of the five words they found in their reading that week, define them in context of how the author uses the word, and write down the sentence in which the word is used. We do this week after week, collecting words throughout the school year.

This serves an accountability piece:  If students are not reading, they will not have any words to record. If students are not reading a complex enough book for them, they will not have any words to record. I can help students determine if they are reading a book suitable for their comprehension abilities if I take frequent looks at their personal dictionaries.

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What started as a brainstorming activity to think about topics, lead to opportunities for discussion with this student I would not have had otherwise. Students reveal their lives to us in low-stakes writer’s notebook writing.

Writing. This is consistently the greatest chunk of our writer’s notebook. In the writing section, we craft a variety of writing territories. We take notes on writerly moves that we learn in mini-lessons and from mentor texts. We practice imitating the craft of our favorite writers. We take notes on grammar and mechanics. We practice sentence structures and the moves of writers we study as a class and in small groups. We build a tool set here of craft moves we can experiment with in our own writing. And we brainstorm and draft in this section of our notebooks.

This serves as an accountability piece:  Are students engaged in the writing process? Are they giving their ‘best effort’ attempts to create a toolbox of tools to use in their writing? Are they understanding the writing mini-lessons and practicing the application of those skills? In their drafts, is their thinking evident? Do they have strong ideas that will carry a piece before they every work on revision and craft?

And that’s it. Our writer’s notebooks are set up — with sections labeled and homemade sticky-note tabs to separate each section. These notebooks become gold. They are precious to the learning that takes place in my workshop classroom. Not only do students have one central place to keep notes and ideas. They have a personal place to practice their craft and write.

The writer’s notebook– and all these accountability pieces– mean relatively easy, though sometimes time-consuming, formative assessment for me:  I can choose to check the whole of student notebooks say every three weeks, or I can choose to check a section (I usually choose this option.) Either works to see if students are engaged in the workshop classroom and advancing readers and writers, which is my ultimate goal for all students all year long.

See more on writer’s notebooks by searching the TTT categories.

Please share your ideas for the set up for writer’s notebooks. I’d love to know if you think I’m missing something important that will further advance my students’ learning. And I wrote this post without having access of photos of each step. I hope the description will be enough.

#3TTWorkshop — Assessing Student Work in a Workshop Classroom

What does assessment look like in a workshop classroom?  #3TTWorkshop Meme

Amy:  Interestingly, I just saw a tweet by @triciabarvia yesterday that said “Growth, when ss do something better than they did before (as a result of assignment/lesson, that’s success.” In away that’s really what assessment should be, right? We should be noting growth and improvement, and celebrating successes. I think we forget this sometimes, especially in regard to what we view as assessments and students call grades. Too often we overlook the learning and focus on the 78 or the C+. (That is all most of my students focus on.)

Assessment in my classroom drives my students crazy. I think they feel like I am that elusive balloon they cannot pin down and pop. Poor darlings. I refuse to give in to the grades routine. I want to see improvement. I want to see them take the skill I know I’ve taught and then apply it — better yet, go beyond and do something clever with it. So to answer the question, “What does assessment look like?” is kind of tricky. I think too often teachers spend time assessing student work in ways that is not meaningful. We can waste a lot of time.

But if we’d plan a little differently and make assessment a natural and moving part of our learning journey, we would save time scoring work and enjoy talking to our students more. At least that is always my goal.

In my classroom, assessment takes the shape of written work:  play in notebooks or on notecards, exit slip quickwrites, and sticky note conferences, plus, of course, major writing tasks with formal and informal conferences and oral and written feedback. Assessment also shapes itself into lots of student self-evaluation: “Look at the instructions, the model, the expectations, did you meet them, why or why not?”

If I didn’t have to take grades I wouldn’t, but I assess everything all the time.

Shana:  I go back and forth when it comes to how I value process vs. product vs. what Tom Romano always called “good faith effort.”  There are students who have mastered skills important for reading and writing, but who haven’t fully committed in terms of being vulnerable and trying to advance their skills.  Then there are those students who explore powerful themes and show amazing growth in their abilities, but still can’t spell or use commas to save their lives.

Because I wrestle so frequently with this dilemma, I end up grading not on where each student is at in relationship to our academic content standards, nor on where each student is at in relation to their peers, but rather how far they’ve come since the start of the unit/school year/week.  And I do this by doing what Kelly Gallagher does– “a lot of fake grades.”  🙂

Amy: Me, too!

How do you design assessments?

Shana:  I used a lot of scantrons my first year of teaching.  Those kinds of assessments were pretty easy to make, if time consuming–long, multiple-choice tasks that were topped off by a few essays.  After a year or two of fighting with the scantron machine and my conscience when I noticed that oftentimes a kid’s essay was much stronger than his multiple choice section (or vice versa), I threw tests out the window.  I haven’t given a test in five years.

Now, I focus on designing assessments that are as unique as the units we work through.  A unit of study revolving around the exploration of complex themes cannot be assessed, well enough, in my opinion, using a multiple choice test.  So instead of trying to gauge a student’s interaction with Macbeth that way, I use Socratic Seminars.  Or projects.  Or reflections.  Or presentations.

Amy:  Yeah, I tossed out the multiple choice tests at the same time I introduced choice-independent reading. Even the shorter texts we read together as a class are worthy of much more than a scan tran. Harkness discussions and writing about our thinking allow students room to stretch a bit and show us what they really know.

I design assessments by thinking through my end game. Of course, teaching AP Lang means I must prepare my students for that exam each spring. I know my students have to write convincing arguments, synthesize sources into their arguments, deconstruction other writer’s arguments, and read critically — sometimes some pretty old texts. To design assessments means to start there and then work backwards into the instruction.

For example, I know my students must be able to synthesize sources into their arguments. So I may decide on a couple assessments — say a Socratic Seminar where students discuss three related texts. They must come to the discussion armed with questions, annotated texts, and join the conversation. Then, I may challenge students to find three more texts related somehow to the first three. Now, we move into writing an argument in which they must synthesize at least three of the texts. That essay becomes another important assessment because all along the way I’ve taught mini-lessons:  academic research via databases, proper citation, embedding quotes, transitions between paragraphs, interesting leads, combining sentences, etc.

Everything I teach as a mini-lessons gets a matching mini-assessment somewhere along the line to learning. By the time I read those synthesis essays I have a pretty good idea of which of my students understands and can apply each of those skills. I’ve conferred with them and retaught as necessary, and when I read that final paper I rarely have any surprises.

I think maybe one of the reasons I love a workshop pedagogy so much is because of the grading. It is just not the same as it was when I taught in a traditional model — it is better!

 

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

 

Talking About What Matters by Catherine Hepworth

guest post iconWe’ve all been there. The conference room is crowded. It’s too hot. Every third person is clicking away on their laptop, answering emails or checking their phone, answering their kid’s plea to bring their forgotten gym socks to school. The presenters drone on, flipping through slide after slide on a fairly average power point. At the front of our minds, a constant throbbing pulse: how will I ever use this in my classroom?

There is no interaction between presenter and audience. There is no spark. All of us wonder: is it too soon to take another bathroom break?

Fortunately, this is the exact opposite of what we experienced when Amy and Shana came to teach us how to implement the workshop model at Franklin High School on two dreary days in February. The time working with them inside our little classroom was anything but dreary.

And teach is the key word here. The most important realizations I came to at the end of the second day were:  I can do this…and, I was treated as both a student and a teacher.

It invigorated me.

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I’m in the plaid, exploring a possible independent reading book during “speed dating with a book”

We were exposed to a variety of activities for getting students to think, write, and talk about what they read and wrote. To really know how something will work in the classroom, you have to try it out for yourself. A big idea in the workshop model is that you must read books and write stories and essays alongside your students. As part of our two-day workshop instruction, we were reading and writing as if we were the student, so we could feel how each activity might go from the student perspective. Then we were allowed ample time to discuss and reflect on these activities as professionals.

Amy and Shana’s presentation modeled everything a teacher is supposed to do with a class of students.

Objectives were evident right from the start.

  • They gave clear directions.
  • They listened intently and attentively when we spoke.
  • They circled among us so they gave ample time to each group during small group discussion.
  • Their enthusiasm was palpable.
  • They made me feel like I mattered. They made me want to go out into the world and be somebody.

At the end of the day, isn’t this what we all wish for our students?

The best reading workshop strategy Amy and Shana taught us was one that engaged students in reflecting on their independent reading as well as talking with a friend about what they read. It all took less than 10 minutes.

First, students grab a post-it and write one insight they had about a character and provide a quote from the book that helped them achieve this insight. Then, students find someone else in the room (preferably someone they have not talked with recently), and share their post-it with that new student. The listener paraphrases what the student says and then they switch roles. The teacher collects the sticky notes from everyone, comments on the sticky notes, and hands them back (either within the hour or the next day).

As a “student,” this activity was really fun for those of us who like to talk about what we read. Because we are seeking a peer instead of being forced to talk to someone, it makes talking about what we read fun too. Lastly, each student must practice active listening skills. I especially like that Amy and Shana explicitly stated that the listener must paraphrase what they hear. I’ve already tried this activity with my students, and when we were done, several of them exclaimed, “Wow – it’s so nice to talk to others about what we’re reading; we need to do this again!”

For anyone who wants to change things up in their classroom and get kids more engaged, switching to workshop is it. The best way is to start small – dedicate 10 min of your class time to reading. Don’t think of it as “we have to read,” instead, think of it as “we get to read.” (This was an old trick used at Girl Scout camp. We didn’t tell campers “You have to collect firewood; rather we’d say, “You get to collect firewood.” It seems sneaky, but it’s not; it’s just a lot more appealing).

So teachers, think of it this way: you get to talk to your kids about the books and writing that matter to them, and those conversations will matter to both of you. Keep reading this blog for ideas and inspiration — it definitely helped me and my colleagues at Franklin. If you have the opportunity to invite Amy and Shana into your classroom/district, make it happen. We’re glad we did.

Catherine Hepworth has been teaching for 10 years; she currently teaches English and coaches Forensics at Franklin High School in Wisconsin. In the summer, when not reading books or frantically sewing historical clothing, she participates in living history events around the Midwest. Check out her living history & sewing blog at https://catherinetheteacher.wordpress.com/.

Doing More with Essential Questions: Where and How Do I Belong?

As I read through Cyndi Faircloth’s post a few weeks back on Applying Essential Questions in Workshop, it got me thinking about the role of essential questions in my own classroom. As Cyndi said, I needed to do more. Using the essential question to choose mentor texts, guide quick writes, and frame discussion, we had done. I also encourage students to see the essential question as something answered by each and every text we encounter.

But this was about doing more. This was about students answering the question for
themselves; students lending their unique voices as “texts.” I was going to need to look at this from another angle.

My AP Language and Composition students recently finished a unit on community. Theyimageworked in and around the essential question, “What is the relationship of the individual to the community?” Through the study of a variety of essays, including everything from Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” to Scott Brown’s “Facebook Friendonomics,”  to student selected current event articles, I watched my scholars analyze text to connect author’s purpose with rhetorical strategies. However, beyond that, I was blessed to be able to witness a conceptual development in these classes too. 

Students seemed genuinely surprised when they considered just how many communities they are a part of: geographical, family, faith, school, sports, friend, experiential. But when they started to consider their roles within those communities and words like responsibility, conformity, and balance began to dominate class discussion, I knew they were really on to something.

Students spoke of the dangers of conformity alongside the necessity for it. They explored the freedom found in chosen communities and the often unwelcome responsibilities to those communities we fall into by default. I saw them wrestle with the concept that communities rise and fall based on the actions and inactions of their members, and then saw evidence in more than one journal entry of the very real concern students have for their own part in that equation.

image_2As these kids get ready to head off to a world beyond the insulated suburban existence most of them have known all their lives, they know many of their foundational communities will be changing. For some, this change can’t come soon enough. For others, I think it will be a rude awakening. And still others, a chance to move toward the authentic selves that they so desperately need to discover.

To bring this unit to a close, I wanted to harness all the unique inquiry that we had experienced. To do so, I borrowed from my American Literature class. Throughout this year, my sophomores have started each unit by doing a bit of research on literary movements in American Literature (somewhat of a snoozefest to many). I wanted them to have some contextual understanding of the mentor pieces we would study, and so they gathered information on historical events responsible for the movement, major themes of works at the time, elements of style popular during the period, connections to music and art, and famous authors working within that movement.

Students gathered and compared their research findings in small groups and then were charged with symbolically representing their research on poster sized paper. For the imaginative qualities of Romanticism, we saw Sponge Bob. The Transcendentalist faces of Emerson and Thoreau became flowers in a pot, watered by Walt Whitman. Mark Twain held up a mirror to a map of the American South. In image_1short, students captured the movements and we hung up the evidence to remind us of the context of what we were exploring.

And so, for my AP Language students, I chose to end their unit on community by bringing
them together in small groups as well, to choose a specific community and illustrate an answer to the unit essential question. I figured if they answered the question without a specific community in mind, we’d get a lot of generic posters with people holding hands around the world – thank you, Google.

Instead, they had to choose specific communities to show their understanding of the complexity of the essential question and then supply textual evidence from the mentor texts we explored in order to support those symbolic meanings.

imageStudents shared some phenomenal work and I was impressed not only with the depth of their thinking, but the synthesis of texts this activity produced. And, because my own artistic development was apparently arrested in the second grade, it was such fun to see some of my visually gifted kids shine through the use of a new medium.

Zoey and Alyssa, who created the Statue of Liberty visual said the exercise allowed them to express their “artistic qualities – which is many times put on the back burner in AP courses.”

Creative expression of understanding put on the back burner? Shame on us.

And I know for a fact that AP classes aren’t the only place to suffer a similar fate. If we are going to do more with essential questions, we need to not only have students to be directly involved in answering them, but also give our kids more voice in the demonstration of their learning.

Ultimately, it was an assessment that combined creativity, common core standards, direct connection to the unit essential question, analysis, entertainment, synthesis, and genuine student enthusiasm. Not bad for mid-February in the frozen North.

How do you use essential questions to effectively deepen critical thinking? Please share your comments.

TTT welcomes Lisa Dennis, inspiring teacher and innovative leader at Franklin H.S. in Franklin, WI, as a visiting contributor on this blog.

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?

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