Tag Archives: Assessment

Mini-Lesson Monday: Self-Monitoring Reading Homework

It’s the fourth week of school, and some students are starting to panic as their weekly reading homework grades are showing up in our online gradebook.  When they come to me, concerned, I ask, “Have you been doing your reading homework?”

Sheepish grins, embarrassed blushes, and nervous giggles follow.  I know I need to give my students some tangible reminder of why they need to be reading two hours per week.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  Calculate how much you can read in two hours; Estimate how your reading rate will change over a two-hour time period; Assess your own reading fluency and growth.  Or, from the Common Core: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.


Shailyn, Justin, and Mrs. Karnes’ paint strip bookmarks

Lesson — We begin class, as always, with independent reading.  I ask students to pay attention to what page they’re starting on and start a timer for 15 minutes on the board.

At the end of the 15-minute reading period, I ask students to count the number of pages read and multiply that number by eight to calculate their reading rate.  They complete their calculations and jot down their reading rates as I pass out paint strips and Sharpies.

“Today I want to remind one another about the importance of frequent reading.  We can’t become better readers without lots of practice reading, which is why your weekly homework is to read for two hours.  So, we’re going to make some bookmarks reminding us why we read, and also reminding us how much we should be reading.”

I ask students to take out their phones and look up a quote about reading.  Once we all choose quotes, I model on the document camera, writing my chosen quote on my own paint strip.  Students grab some Sharpies and a paint strip in their favorite color and doodle their quotes on their paint strip bookmarks.


Students modify their reading rates in the Reading Rate column

“Once you’ve gotten your quote down, add your reading rate to your paint strip, nice and small.  You’ll want to change your reading rate whenever you switch books, and you’ll also want to note your new reading rates on the log sheet as it goes around each day.”

Then, I ask students to think about what might happen to their reading rates over time.  Jared predicts, “I think if I sit down for a solid two hours and read, I might read more than my reading rate.  When I really get going I can read pretty fast.”  Shailyn predicts, “My reading rate will increase…majorly!”

“What about if you read a harder book?” I ask.

“Um, I think I’d probably start out slow at the beginning, but as I get into the book, I’ll read it faster,” Shailyn adds.

“Awesome,” I say.  “We’ll have to see what happens.  So, as you use your bookmarks in the coming weeks, keep an eye on how your reading rate changes week to week, and how quickly or slowly you read your required number of pages.  I’ll check in with you in reading conferences soon.”

Follow-Up — Now that students have a tangible reminder of their reading homework to use as a bookmark, they can hold themselves more accountable.  The quotes give them a rationale for reading, and the written reading rates give them a reminder of their reading goals.  By self-monitoring both, students can assess their own reading progress far better than I can, and we’ll confer about that self-assessment during class for weeks to come.

Mini-lesson Monday: Student Writing as Our Mentors for Sentences

I read Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray this summer, and I finally understand the importance of using student writing as the main text in my writing class. While I’ve believed students can learn from

I lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student writing.

I lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student writing.

reading one another’s work, and I’ve often asked them to read and give feedback — on drafts and published pieces — I’ve never thought to actually use the text to teach a concept. I don’t know why. I supposed I’ve always relied on mentor texts by The Pros for that.

I am changing my tune. Here’s a bit of a lesson that worked better than I could have imagined.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will write about their lives, and share their writing. They will recognize a wide variety of sentence structures. They will identify patterns, devices, and/or figurative language and discuss its effectiveness in creating meaning. They will revise their writing, formulate their own sentences, and apply their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson: Project the image, and ask students to write in their writer’s notebooks one sentence that answers the question. Remind them about what they know about various sentence structures and how punctuation works within a sentence.

“We can pack a sentence with a lot of information if we punctuate it correctly. Pay attention and see how you do. You can write any sentence, but try to not write a simple one.”

Give students about five minutes to write.

Next, ask for a couple of volunteers who are willing to write their sentences on the board. Be sure they understand that there is no judgment.

“We just want to talk about sentences.”

While two or three students write their sentences on the board, ask the other students in the class to read their sentences to each other.

one sentence

One at a time, read the student sentences on the board. Ask:  “What do you notice?”

Ethan sentenceTalk through the various comments students make, noting parallels, punctuation, clauses, word choice, etc.

Watch for teaching points. Ethan’s sentence on the left gave us a lot to talk about:  parallelism, use of semi-colons, colons, …

Next, ask students to return to their notebooks. “How can you make your sentence better?”

Allow time for revision (and time permitting, more sharing.)

Why this lesson works, especially for a writing lesson at the beginning of the year:  It’s just a sentence!

And sometimes we get a bonus gift like this one my class got from Edward:Edward C sentence

“I am the guy who picks people up when I, myself, am down; I am the guy who cares so much over things so little; I am the missing piece to a puzzle that has been forgotten; I am now by a sad and quiet shell of my former self; I am Edward Campos.”

The class hushed. All eyes turned to Edward.

“Wow,” I said, “Thank you for sharing this writing today. You’ve made yourself vulnerable, and we value that.

“First of all, we need to know that you are okay. Will you explain a little more what you mean here?”

Edward explained that he used to be fun and outgoing. He felt strong and powerful. Then at the end of last year and over the summer he learned his friends weren’t really his friends so much. Now, he feels alone and like he’s not the person he used to be.

“Hey, everyone, how many of you have ever felt like Edward?

“Look around, my friend, do you see all those hands? Everyone here has been where you are. We understand. You have new friends here.”

Two girls at Edward’s table leaned forward and touched his arm. “We’ll be your friends,” they said smiling.

And he smiled back.

Of course, because I am me — and I never leave a teaching moment untapped — we talked about the structure of Edward’s sentence. And we talked about the word choice:  “Why ‘forgotten’ instead of ‘lost’?”

When we watch for teaching moments in student writing, we will find them. Every single time.

Follow up:  In class the next day we did some free-writing in our notebooks in response to the spoken word poem “Hands” by Sarah Kay. Before we wrote I reminded students to pay attention to their sentences. Then instead of sharing the whole of what we wrote with the class, we only shared our favorite sentence. I consider this valuable formative assessment.

Now, I will hold students accountable for crafting their sentences with care in their upcoming writing assignment.

“The words of the world want to make sentences,” said Gaston Bachelard. I say, “We have to help them.”

Please share your best tips on getting students to pay attention to their sentences.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015


What I Didn’t Teach This Year

The end of the year is upon us (finally!), and I’ve been reflecting as I always do.  This year, though, I’m thinking about something I’ve rarely considered before–not just what I taught, what worked, or what I want to do next year.  I’m thinking about all the things I didn’t teach this year.

There are 180 precious days in a school year, and the way my school is structured means I spend 90 days with each set of students.  That seems so fast.  There was no time to waste, so here’s what I didn’t fill that time with:


As Sabra stepped up for her reading ladder picture, she said, “This is pretty good for someone who didn’t finish a book until your class!”

Whole class novels.  This was a controversial choice for me, given that I love so many authors of American literature–Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.  But, no matter what novels I’ve chosen in the past, there’s always a student that book isn’t right for.  Fahrenheit 451, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, The Glass Castle, Maus–none of them is a perfect match for every child.  I’ve used a wide variety of strategies to get students to be able to read those books, and every ounce of passion I can muster to get them to want to read those books, but still–students have been conditioned to not read, to just get on SparkNotes, or ask an older sibling, or use Wikipedia.  When the stacks of matching novels come out, groans abound and engagement tangibly disappears.  I’ve seen this.  I’ve battled it.  No more.

So, I scratched whole class novels altogether.  Students worked in book club groups twice, and engaged in independent reading challenges two other times.  We read tons of short stories, articles, essays, and middle-length writings together.  But we didn’t read a single whole-class novel, and my readers still thrived.


“I found myself as a reader this year,” Jordan writes.

Did my students grow as readers this year?  Yes.  I watched students who hated reading come to love it.  I watched students who couldn’t read well at all increase their stamina, passion, and skills related to reading.  I watched students who were good readers but bored with books fall in love with nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, or award winners as they discovered new genres.  I watched students who loved to read flourish and challenge themselves with complex texts and childhood favorites alike.  Most of all, I watched a community of real readers spring up in my classroom–students recommending books to one another, self-selecting books and keeping long to-read lists, telling me all about their finds at Barnes & Noble.  These readers have become truly independent.  “Now,” Taylor writes, “I think I can read anything that’s put in front of me…and enjoy it.”


Isaac performs a poem for Nathan on poem-in-your-pocket day.

A movie.  As I’ve walked the halls this last week or so, I hear the unmistakeable sounds of cinema from behind closed classroom doors and darkened rooms.  I have no doubt that students are watching relevant films–movie adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in English, Forrest Gump in History, etc.  But this year, I felt I had absolutely no extra time…there was SO MUCH I wanted to do!  I used to love showing O Brother Where Art Thou with The Odyssey, and my students really delved into the symbolism of both texts.  But this year, my SmartBoard was full of YouTube videos, slam poets, or the still, quiet images of a document camera showing some writing.

I didn’t have time to show a movie, but I also wasn’t pressured by the crush of hours of grading that usually prompted me to show films in the past.  I’ve taken Kelly Gallagher’s rule about student work to heart–students should be doing four times as much reading and writing as we could ever grade.  So, I’ve read and responded to about a quarter of my students’ work, and let self-evaluations, peer conferences, and notebook passes do the rest.

Most of what I taught last year.  Last year was great, don’t get me wrong–but this year, my students were a new batch.  They’re different kids than last year’s group, so the same things won’t work for them.  After seven years in teaching, I know that.  I didn’t waste time trying to figure that out…I just started fresh.  I know I’ll do the same thing next year…out with the old, and in with the new.


Shailyn read almost all of my YA fiction, and wrote reviews about nearly every book for our school newspaper.

Tests or formal essays.  Tom Romano likes to call the typical English essay a “five-paragraph you-know-what,” and it truly is a dirty little assignment.  At an NWP workshop I attended, each teacher was asked to bring some samples of student writing.  All around me emerged typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman, size 12, thesis-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph essays.  From my own bag came photocopies of messy scrawls in notebooks, multimedia This I Believes, strongly-voiced commentaries, poetic musings developed from quickwrites, and lengthy, involved, multigenre research papers.  No two pieces looked alike, and they certainly looked nothing like most other teachers’ samples.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a faint nostalgia for my own high school days, when I took pride in being able to punch out a perfectly formatted five paragraph essay in just under an hour, and which made absolutely no sense but looked great, and which constantly netted me As.  But I listened to my neighbors rant about poorly integrated in-text citations and incoherent thesis statements, I dismissed that nostalgia and read my own students’ work for what truly matters–good writing, heart and soul on a page, and authenticity at work.  As my husband said when he saw me dwarfed behind a pile of multigenre papers to grade, “I could read some of those for you.” “You wouldn’t know what to look for,” I said.

“Good writing is just good writing,” he replied, and he is right.  As the year ends, my students are good writers and good readers–not all of them are great, and there are kids I feel I could’ve pushed harder, but all are certainly better than they were when the year began.  I’ll look forward to our last day of class, when I’ll gift them each a new composition notebook and a pile of classroom library books to read over summer…and to months beyond, when I get to hear their stories of summer literacy in the fall.

Book Clubs in AP English: Just let them talk

Some of it was great. Some of it not so much. I’m talking about the book clubs in my classroom this Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.03 PMyear. The great was actually my students reading and talking to one another about that reading. The not so much — the way I did assessment.

This is what I learned and what I will change for next year:

Book Clubs serve as a way to challenge my readers into the more complex books that many of my students would never choose for themselves. Book Clubs also allow my readers to talk about books in an authentic way without the strictures of guided reading questions or anything else that might lead to Readicide. (‘Read-i-cide: noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools” –Kelly Gallagher) I wrote about the importance of balance literacy and how book clubs fit into that in this post.

I provide a short list of titles that I know contain fantastic stories of resilience, survival, hope, courage, and any other trait that prods readers to relate to the human experience. I introduce the books, usually with book trailers or video interviews of the author’s, and I include either on paper or a projected slide the synopsis and ratings from Goodreads or Amazon.

Students select their books, often talking with one another and making selections together. I ask students to purchase their own books, so they can annotate anything “interesting, intriguing, puzzling, contradictory, or you just plain do not understand.” Since most of my students come from less affluent families, we talk about the importance of libraries and surrounding ourselves with texts that can inform and influence our thinking. Often, students will purchase more than one of the books I introduce for book clubs. I also have a few copies of the texts in my room that students may check out if they cannot purchase their own. I always think my copies will be used more than they are, but I’ve learned that my readers like to buy books. Most feel the sense of ownership that I want them to feel.

Our first book club this year, I gave students a choice of the following titles, all centered around themes of family and parents and how they influence our upbringing and our choices:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (literary non-fiction)

More students read The Glass Castle than any of the others, but every book was represented in at least one book club of three to six students. Students loved The Glass Castle, and they told me that they could relate to much of Walls’ upbringing.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.19 PMAssessment:  For this first book club, I asked students to read with an eye looking for theme. They would work with their book clubs to craft a mind map that included numerous quotes from the book that contributed to the theme, and they would analyze these quotes as part of the mind map. They could create the mind map as a paper poster or online. As they read the book, they were to mark the text like I had taught with the short passages of text we’d read together in class, and they were to also look for sentences and phrases and passage that pointed to theme.

My students did not have a clue how to do that. Most did not mark their books, so when the project time rolled around, they ended up scouring through the book or searching for quotes on Goodreads or elsewhere to find enough quotes that they could plop into their mind maps. I needed to provide more guidance in annotating, and in reading for beautiful sentences, and in making thematic connections, and so much more.

Also, I allowed students to work in groups to create their mind maps. This did not work because no one in the group would rise up and be the leader. They were new in the class and new in their friendships with one another. Group work is a topic for another post, really. This time it failed, and I’ll need to do a lot more prep work before I spend as much class time on this kind of project ever again (if I ever do).

Our second book club, students choice a title from this short list, all centered around themes of culture and how these cultures influence us:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Little Bee by Chris Cleeve

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Klaled Hosseini

More readers chose Sarah’s Key than any of the others. Students find stories of the Holocaust fascinating, and that shelf is a popular one in my classroom library. (Erika’s, too.)  Many students read The Namesake, and at least one book club read each of the others.

Assessment:  This one was even more lame than the first. Sometimes I feel the pull to get back to a Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.33 PMmore traditional pedagogy. I am the only one on my campus who fully implements readers and writers workshop, so I listen in often to what other teachers have their students do. If you teach AP English, at some point, you have probably had students write a hexagonal writing over a piece of literature. (Hexagonal because student write thinking about their knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as it relates to the book. It sounds like a great assignment.)

It was the worst writing my students completed this year — if they completed it at all.

I know why. There was no authenticity in it. Follow the structure I gave you. Each paragraph should be about this… No wonder they didn’t care about writing well. I was their only audience, and I was making them write something worse than a book report.

We wasted a lot of time. (The grading policy in my district requires that I reassess major grades. Hey, let’s write this paper again since you cared so much about it the first time. Right.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.45 PMMy readers would have benefitted more from a gift of time to talk about the books more. Shana posted about the value of book clubs for talk earlier this year, and after two subpar experiences I began to agree:  “asking students to keep the conversation [about their books] going for 20 straight minutes provides valuable time for students to build relationships [around conversations about their reading.]”

I would just let them talk.

Our third book club students selected titles from this short list, all centered on war (or internal war) and its influences on individuals and humanity:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Room by Emma Donoghue

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (literary non-fiction)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The majority of my readers chose to read ROOM or The Bell Jar. They loved Room, and didn’t think The Bell Jar lived up to its hype.

I scheduled more opportunities for students to talk about their books. I wandered the room, sitting at Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.57 PMgroups and listening in as conversations circled in and out and back again. Often, I placed a stack of TableTopic cards for book clubs in the center of their table, and students used these to guide their discussions. (Looks like the book clubs version of TableTopics is no longer available. Sad.)

Next year, I will do this again. I might ask students to look for significant passages so they can practice analysis on a page they select for themselves. Here’s a post that I’ll probably show them with a sample passage for craft study.

I might have them create a found poem or a black out poem.

Or I might just let them read and talk and read and talk some more.

That’s what I do in my own book club.


If you have your own suggestions for improvement, please share them in the comments.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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

6 Ways to Confer in the Crowded Classroom

“My biggest struggle right now is that I have 36 students in each class (60 min periods). There’s not an empty seat in the room! Any ideas?”

Maybe this sounds like you. I’ve been there –trying everything to make workshop work in my over-flowing freshman and sophomore classes. Last year I had 38 sophomores in my 8th period. Talk about ending the day exhausted.

My principal said at the first of this year: “40 is the new 30” regarding class sizes. Most teachers I know deal with bulging class sizes every day. We have to adjust to the new normal.

In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

Last week I read this English Journal article from 2000 (timely with Nancie Atwell recently winning that awesome teaching award), and I was reminded of how Atwell talks about the tension in a workshop classroom.

I’ve said it many times before:   readers and writers workshop is constant motion, and sometimes the tension becomes a tight rope under my feet as I try to provide my students with the best instruction possible.

I believe it’s student conferences that steady the bouncing rope, but how do we confer with all of our students regularly when our classes are so large?

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about reading conferences in high school. Mrs. Thompson wrote that plea at the top of the page in the comments. I’ve thought about it ever since.

These are black board speech bubble brooches. How cool is that? See gadgetsin.com

These are black board speech bubble brooches. How cool is that?
See gadgetsin.com

I am fortunate to have small classes this year, but balancing the tension is still not easy. Below I share six ways I confer with students. I had to be inventive to confer with those rowdy 38 sophomores. Maybe some of these ideas will help my friend Mrs. Thompson.

1. Start before the Bell. Several of my students enter my room two or three minutes before the bell rings. When I am behind in my conferences, which is more often than I’d like, I can talk to a few more students a day when I begin before the bell.

2. Go to Them. My students sit in small groups with their desks clustered in fours and fives. When I want to speak to students individually, I go to them and kneel beside their desk. We talk in hushed tones for a maximum of two and a half minutes. If a student wants to talk longer, before the end of class I pass her a sticky note with an invitation to come in during my lunch. Sometimes she does.

3. Bundle Them Up. Instead of speaking in hushed tones, when I know the topic of the conference will benefit all students in a small group, we speak a little louder. This way I can easily turn to the other three or four students and invite them into the conversation. “You might want to try that, too.”  or “Do you have a question similar to Mark’s?”

4. Make it Voluntary. I know I am not the only one with students who need to talk before they’ve really even started. When I begin conferences with an invitation — “If you’re having trouble getting started, meet me at the sofa, and let’s talk” I can spend five minutes with five to six students, often clarifying ideas or validating their thinking. Once I model how to talk about their work, students learn to effectively give one another feedback. I can leave them talking and confer with a few other students. Five to ten minutes later, I return to the couch. More often than not, these students are now ready to work on their own. They just needed some talk to get them started.

5. Group Them through Feedback. I learned this one from Penny Kittle. Say you are reading through student drafts, and you see the same trouble spots over and over again. Make a note on the bottom right corner, maybe a code like TH if you’re seeing not-so-powerful thesis statements. Then during conference time, ask everyone with a TH on their paper to meet you at the center table. You save time by re-teaching or doing a mini-lesson on thesis statements only with those students who need the refresher. (This works for reading conferences with my most resistant readers, too.)

6. Keep it Silent. Sometimes I get more information about what my students need when they write it out instead of talk about it. I’ve learned to give some of my quiet students the option to confer most often in silent conversations. I leave them notes. They leave me notes back. This is similar to Chris Tovani’s conversation calendars, which when I tried to do with the whole class, challenged my ability to be consistent. When I make the notes optional, those students who want this type of conference take advantage of it — and I can read student notes and respond after the class period.

Do you have other ideas for conferring with students in large classes? Please leave a comment.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Four Ways to Formatively Assess in Workshop

dtrfyguhujSometimes I wake up in the morning, thinking about what I’ll be teaching and learning that day, and feel like a rebel.  That’s right–I think to myself, feeling inexplicably cool–I teach workshop. Yeahhhhh.  Even though this is the most research-based, data-driven form of instruction I’ve encountered in my teaching career, a successful workshop is still such a rarity that I feel like I’m breaking all the rules by employing it every day.  I’m a rebel with a cause.

Still, when I stop feeling like James Dean and reality bites me in the butt, I know I need to be practical and follow the rules by putting some grades in the gradebook–once per week is the suggestion at our school.  If I had it my way, I’d go gradeless and celebrate the myriad acts of literacy within the confines of a classroom.  That’s not possible right now.  I needed another solution, and I think I found it in Amy, right here on this blog.  She writes powerfully about formative assessments in this post.  Her thinking mirrors mine:

I know when I am learning a new skill, I want to be able to practice–free from judgment–so that I might build some confidence before I am formally evaluated.  The same is true for kids.  We should give them opportunities to practice and build confidence.

One grade per week, when I’m grading to evaluate, is impossible.  We don’t master a different skill every single week.  Mastery requires practice.  So, I’ve focused lately on formative assessment for eight out of the nine-week grading periods, and summative for just one.  Here are the four categories I see formative assessment broken down into, and how I put them in the gradebook.


Un-gradeable, amazing writing

1. Writer’s notebooks – I collect writer’s notebooks every two weeks, and students can receive up to 20 points per collection.  If all of our prompts and exercises are present, and I can see the student’s effort, he or she gets the full 20/20.  I also ask students to mark for me anything they’d like feedback on.  I check to see the status of their to-read, wondrous words (vocab), and cool craft (quotes) sections, but I also look for a telltale pink sticky note.  If I see one, I read the marked piece and write back–just feedback.

2.  Reading logs – Our reading logs are quite messy; you can see one example here.  There are arrows everywhere, new reading rates scribbled in, and tons of titles being read every week.  When students complete their reading goal of two hours per week–determined by individual reading rates–they get 10 points, every week.  Reading logs show me the big picture of a class’s progress, while conferences help me go deeper.  The reading log lets me know, at a glance, who’s soaring and who’s not–helping to give my conferences direction.


Word play

3.  Vocabulary – I still remember my orange Sadlier-Oxford vocab books from high school.  Those well-worn paperbacks were the source of many a cramped hand and a frantic fifteen minutes of homeroom before English class.  I know from personal experience that I don’t retain new words by completing fill-in-the-blank exercises–I learn by reading widely.  So, I ask my students to maintain a “wondrous words” section in their notebooks, writing down unfamiliar or unknown words as they read.  Then, I give them a different activity to complete with those words every two weeks.  The activities are worth 10 points each, and run the gamut from writing stories using the words to drawing pictures illustrating their meanings.

4. Honest self-assessments – When we finish a unit of any kind, usually about once a month–a writing unit, a reading unit, a book club, a challenge–I pass out a half-sheet with self-assessment questions on it.  I begin each half-sheet with a disclaimer:  “Be honest.  There’s no judgment here.  I just want to know why you were as successful as you were with this unit, and to know how I can help others be successful in the future.”  Students answer very truthfully, sometimes humorously so.  If their answers are thorough, they receive 15 points.

These four formative assessments total about 115 points per month.  With 9-week grading periods, students’ grades therefore are made up of about 2/3 formative assessments (230 points or so) and 1/3 summative assessments (100 points or so).  Well over half of the formative assessments are credit for the simple acts of doing the assigned reading and writing–no evaluation of those acts, just credit for the effort.  I value practice and process over product–and this grading system reflects that.

How do you handle grading, formative assessment, evaluation, etc.? Please share in the comments!

The Value of Talk

Talk is one of the most powerful tools at work in my classroom.  Now, I’m talking about talknot discussion, sharing, peer editing, Socratic seminars, think-pair-share, or any other structured form of communication that might occur.  The simple act of letting our students just talk is invaluable, and we must create spaces in our curriculum for it to take place.  Here are three ways I encourage talk in my classroom.

Conferences – Reading and writing conferences aren’t just about assessment.  They’re also a valuable time for teachers and students to just talk to one another, getting to know each other as the humans that we are.  Creating a space for talk breaks down the teacher-student barrier, humanizes both parties, and by and large erases discipline problems in my classroom.  I begin every conference with a simple, “How are you today?”, and after genuinely listening for the child’s answer, direct the conference from there.  Some conferences, we don’t talk about books or writing–we just talk, because the student needs to.


Students chat during the ‘Book Bistro’

Book Clubs – Not every book club meeting requires structure or an agenda to be valuable.  During this most recent unit, I simply asked students to keep the conversation going for 20 straight minutes.  They sometimes had to cast about for topics, but they always found something to discuss–mostly their books, but often text-to-text/self/world connections they’d made, which spun off into generalized, real-life conversations between kids who wouldn’t ordinarily find themselves chatting.  After finishing book clubs, Ana wrote, “I loved our book clubs because I felt like I got to know everyone better.”  She wrote other things about how she grew as a reader and writer…but she LOVED the unit because of the TALK that happened.

Root of the Writing Process – My journalism students consistently talk out their ideas at the very beginning of the writing process.  They chat in groups, usually starting with, “so what should I write about?”  It takes a few minutes, but enlightenment inevitably follows–the other day, Shay threw a few silly ideas out for Kenleigh about bathroom graffiti, but then they got serious about that as a story idea.  “You could call your piece ‘Signs from the Stalls,'” Shay said.  “AHHHH, that’s a great idea!!” Kenleigh enthused.  What kids like to talk about is often what they’d like to write about, and they need to talk to get to the heart of those topic ideas.

Talk builds community.  Talk is the tool that made my former student Emily say, “I felt like by the end of the year, everyone in the class became my best friend, including you.”

How do you see talk improving your classroom and its community?  What spaces do you create for talk in your classes?

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!

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