Friday, August 17, 2018

Seizing the Moment for Teaching Rhetoric



A teaching book that quotes Ender’s Game in nearly every chapter—along with Aristotle. What’s not to love? Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response by Jennifer Fletcher is an excellent book for any secondary English teacher looking to further develop her own and her students’ understanding as readers and as writers of the significance of occasion, audience, purpose, and language strategies—each on its own as well as their interplay. 

With this all percolating in my mind, today I woke up and with coffee in hand, began scrolling through my Facebook feed—sprinkled with tributes to Aretha Franklin (day 2). A number of friends had posted their own brief tributes, along with a link to this article in The Atlantic. As I read, I was moved, and at the same time, my teacher brain woke up and started nudging me: “What a mentor text for occasion, audience, purpose, and language strategies!” (I got so excited I wanted to write that comment on my friends' posts, but luckily I know enough about occasion, audience, and purpose to stop myself and come up with the idea to save it for my blog.)

Yes, I realize many of my 16-year-olds may never have heard of Aretha Franklin. That will hopefully create insight about audiencetheir age bracket is not the article's target. But there is an important occasion and purpose here, one which the power of the language may imbue them with an inkling of.  

Look at the words—defied, enraptured, transformed, jubilation, alchemy, strenuous. And that’s just the first paragraph! Look at the sentences—their rhythm, varied length, and figures of speech recreate the music of which they speak. Here are the first 4 sentences of the second paragraph: “To hear Aretha Franklin sing was to bear witness as she constructed a one-woman orchestra from the discords of her own agony. Her musical career spanned the greater part of six decades, but every moment vibrated with a distinct urgency. Franklin’s voice hypnotized. It transmuted.” Look at the first and last sentence, the use of examples, and even the mini-narrative of Franklin’s performance of “Natural Woman” at Carole King’s award ceremony. 

I think I’m getting excited about school starting! 

But back to the book I started out talking about. Just as one example, Fletcher shares how she introduces students to critical reading of argument by playing 2 different games: the “believing game” on the first reading, and the “doubting game” on the second reading. The “believing game” is what I think of as reading with intellectual empathy, or what Steven Covey called seeking first to understand. Suspend disbelief and read it “on the author’s side.” Read to see what she’s saying, why she’s saying it, how she’s supporting it, what’s working well. Next, the “doubting game” involves prodding and testing for any holes, weaknesses, inconsistencies, jarring notes, insufficiency of support, rhetorical fallacies. The book includes questions, examples, and graphic organizers for every idea (and a 25-item appendix!).  

Are you ready for school to start?” That’s the big question around here. My answer is “No. But I will be by Tuesday!”

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Reading for, Writing with, and Talking about Writing Tools


This may be an historical summer for me: the first ever that I have come close to completing my professional reading list!
A book about writing well has got to be well written if it’s going to exist at all. Especially when it has as prosaic a title as Writing Tools. It’s the ultimate embodiment of message in medium. And this one definitely succeeds. The writing itself is delightful, exemplifying all 50 tools as Roy Peter Clark quotes writers on writing as well as samples of everything from Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot to newspaper articles and James Bond books. If you are a writer and/or a teacher of writing, read this book. The chapters are short (about 4 pages each) and end with workshop suggestions for the reader to apply the topic in her reading and her writing. This first time through I wanted a quick overview, so I set myself a goal of five tools/chapters per day. Next time through I will follow the author’s suggestion: “We need lots of writing tools…. Here are fifty of them, one for every week of the year. You get two weeks for vacation. Learn and enjoy” (8).

The writing is winsome and insightful. Motivational, with wonderful similes. And demonstrating what it urges. Here are several examples:

  • "All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond. The good news is that the acts of searching and gathering always expand the number of usable words. The writer sees and hears and records. The seeing leads to language." (70)
  • “Good writers move up and down a ladder of language, At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like freedom and literacy. Beware of the middle, the rungs of the ladder where bureaucracy and technocracy lurk…. The easiest way to make sense of this tool is to begin with its name: the ladder of abstraction. That name contains two nouns. The first is ladder, a specific tool you can see, hold with your hands, and climb. It involves the senses. You can do things with it. Put it against a tree to rescue your cat Voodoo. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. Concrete is hard, which is why when you fall off the ladder from a high place, you might break your foot. Your right foot. The one with the spider tattoo.” (107)
  • “The good writer uses telling details, not only to inform, but to persuade. In 1963 Gene Patterson wrote a column mourning the murders of four girls in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama: ‘A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her’ (from the Atlanta Constitution). Patterson will not permit white southerners to escape responsibility for the murder of those children. He fixes their eyes and ears, forcing them to hear the weeping of the grieving mother, and to see the one small shoe. The writer makes us empathize and mourn and understand. He makes us see.” (74)
  • “Repetition works in writing, but only if you intend it. Repeating key words, phrases, and story elements creates a rhythm, a pace, a structure, a wavelength that reinforces the central theme of the work. Such repetition works in music, in literature, in advertising, in humor, in political speech and rhetoric, in teaching, I'm homilies, in parental lectures—even in this sentence, where the word ‘in’ is repeated ten times.” (159)

In the most famous quote in this book, which I've seen make several circuits of the Internet, Clark cites Gary Provost's book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, to both urge and model the orchestration of sentence length to create music:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create must. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium  length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.” (91). 

This morning I sat in a coffee shop reading my end-of-summer, just-for-fun splurge: The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny, #5 in the Inspector Ganache murder mystery series). The following sentences leaped out at me:
  • “These days it was a triumph if she walked across a room and didn’t step on something that squeaked. [Paragraph break.] This place was certainly a triumph. But was it a home?” (36) An agent on Gamache's team goes to interview a witness. Approaching the home, she’s startled by the starkly spare, modern architecture that out of the Canadian wilderness. Reflecting on why she feels threatened by it, she falls into a reverie about her pre- and post-children housekeeping standards. This quote ends the reverie with the first sentence and shifts back to the external moment as the agent approaches the house with the second sentence, the transition accomplished, and perhaps something significant highlighted (or is it a red herring?) by the repetition of the word “triumph.” It’s also a bit of word play—the first triumph is self-deprecating, the second, self-conscious. 
  • “'Havoc!' his mother cried, letting the dogs slip out as she called into the woods.” (37) Did Penny really just do that? Allude to Shakespeare’s line in Julius Caesar, “Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war”? We’ve already had several comments on the oddness of the name Havoc, son of Roar. But as they are Czech immigrants, might the names not be as odd as they seem in English? One of Clark’s tools is the importance of names, and another is playing with language, even and especially when the subject is serious.
My last 3 years of teaching AP Language and Literature have helped me grow in my ability to articulate, model, and teach something I had paid lip service to for a while, but found a slippery fish in practice: reading like a writer and writing like a reader. This book was one important milestone along the way. Two others, in case you are interested, have been Voice Lessons and Mechanically Inclined (or anything else by Jeff Andersen).

Next week is all-staff orientation, and the next week classes start. I plan to finish Writing Tools and at least get a good start of Teaching Arguments. That will make this a record summer: the first I have ever gotten close to finishing all the professional development reading I had on my list. It really feels like time to get back to applying all this reading. May you, wherever you are, also feel the eagerness.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Learning with "Main Course" Projects

Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction, by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, Suzie Boss


Why, how, and what have I learned recently? (1) I'm always looking for ways to teach more effectively, so all summer long I've been reading books and reflecting on my learning in blogs and now beginning to work those ideas into my unit plans for the coming school year--from using podcasts and TED talks as mentor texts for speaking/listening skills to having students brainstorm their own questions in response to a unit's essential question. (2) When our doctor advised us to monitor our blood pressure by diet, I read the information he gave us, did some research online, and experimented with new recipes. (3) Because I have to lead a science curriculum review next year, this English-teacher-turned-curriculum-coordinator has been reading up on science standards, networking to collect textbook recommendations, and preparing a Google Doc to share. I would dare to say that as adults, we are all learning a lot almost all the time. And it's because we have a problem to solve or a project to accomplish. Could we make school more that way for students? 

When I first started hearing about project based learning, I thought, “I do that because my students do projects.” But those projects were what the authors of Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning call “dessert projects”—students do all the learning, and then as a reward or an assessment, get to do a project. Project based learning turns the whole process on its head—prompted by the project or the task, students learn what then need in order to accomplish it. For example, instead of doing pages of practice on finding the area of various 2-dimensional shapes first, and then as “dessert” having students determine how much paint is needed for a given project, you start out presenting students with the design problem and then teach them what they need to know to do it. (Check out this article for more about dessert vs. main course projects.) This is more engaging for the students because they know why they are learning, it’s more satisfying for the teacher because students are more motivated, it’s preparation for life where we are continually encountering problems that we have to learn and collaborate in order to solve. And if that’s not enough, students also do better on high-stakes tests because they’ve been motivated learners and have deeply understood the content and skills.

I read this book this summer less in my role as an English teacher and more in my role as a curriculum coordinator because a number of teachers in my school have expressed interest in learning more about project based learning. Next spring I’d like to offer a discussion of this book for those who are interested. But for now, here are a few of the points I found challenging, helpful, or interesting:

Collaboration: Often cited as an important 21st Century skill, it’s a big no-no for standards based grading (my 2nd read of the summer) but an essential element of project based learning. There are no easy answers, but that’s one of the challenges that keeps teaching interesting!

Resources: Possibly the best thing about this book is all the web-based resources scattered throughout the text. I put little stars in the margins next to many of them—next time through the book, I’ll have to check out more of them. There are "real life" resources for business problem-solving and brainstorming (like here and here), and sites with sample projects and most importantly, the Buck Institute for Learning where you can find everything PBL. 

Other educational initiatives: Project based learning incorporates many of the tenets of other educational initiatives I’ve been working on already, like differentiation, Understanding by Design, and the workshop model. Tenets like starting with the goal in mind, giving students voice and choice, teacher as coach to help students reach their goals, and authentic assessments that are as like real world tasks as possible. 

What will I do? Continue to hone the clarity with which I focus students on the end product from the beginning and help them see what we learn along the way as essential to the end. Implement the step of having students brainstorm additional questions after I’ve introduced the big unit question and goal. Possibly frame one 10th grade unit more as a straight-up project based unit. And offer a book discussion on this book next spring where I can get some colleagues to think through it all with me.

Friday, July 27, 2018

From Knowledge Keeper to Learning Model



“This change in roles may be one of the greatest shifts in our profession—from being the keeper of knowledge to being a model for how to learn” (Jacobs and Alcock 35).


This week I finished reading Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments by Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock. The goal of the book is admirable and huge: to sift through all the clamor of new and competing claims in education, pick out the best, and put them together in a way that schools can be getting on with. I particularly liked the first 2 chapters, looking at students and then at teachers. But the chapter on environment overwhelmed me: I can’t begin to wrap my mind around what it would take in planning and training to make flexible groupings for students, teachers, and time actually work. Still, the way the book structured its discussion of the new roles of learner and teacher gave me a new metaphor, it connected to other things I’m learning this summer, and it motivated me to take some steps in a direction I’ve been meaning to head.

The metaphor is learning as navigation. We’re getting swamped in a sea of information; the need is staying afloat, determining a destination, and then using the tools (boat, sails, rudder) and the power (wind, currents) at our disposal to get there. We want students to become self-navigators, so as teachers, we have to be skilled navigators ourselves, as well as skilled at coaching others. “With Internet-based investigation, we are finding students launched into a vast new world without established game or performance rules. They need navigation coaches” (19). One big danger in that vast new world is confirmation bias—that is going to become an important vocabulary word in all my classes this year.

As teachers act as models and coaches (the term at my school is the “living curriculum”), the list of roles for learners and teachers is remarkably similar. For example, the first role for learners is “self-navigators,” and the first role for teachers is “self-navigating professional learners.” See the chart below for the rest:
Jacobs and Alcock helpfully supply action steps for teachers wanting to develop in any of those 6 roles. See below for the action steps for becoming a self-navigating professional learner (Figure 2.3 on page 34).


One of the things I get most excited about as a learner myself, and about seeing students do, is making connections. I’m reaching that “critical mass” point in my summer professional development reading where everything is beginning to connect to everything else. The innovation role of learners and teachers dovetails with Creating Innovators (they even quote Tony Wagner!) and Sparking Student Creativity. The chapter on assessment and curriculum touched on topics addressed in Fair Isn’t Always Equal, In the Best Interests of Students, and the new book I’ve just started, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning

While I think English teachers have a jump on some of the subject areas as far as being aware that we need to be the chief readers and writers in the room in order to model and coach the developing readers and writers, a lot of us are also challenged by the expanding demands of internet literacy. Reading this challenged me to expand my media involvement by bringing podcasts and videos into class not as “extras” but as texts to study both for content and as models of speaking/presenting. In the Best Interest of Students also emphasized using podcasts and TED Talks as mentor texts for the speaking/listening standards. The first thing I did was look up the Malcolm Gladwell podcast Revisionist History, since AP 11 students are reading Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants this summer. I’d heard of the podcast, and this motivated me to finally listen to it. I really enjoyed the one episode I listened to, and I need to listen to a few more to find one that will fit well in one of our units. I also scanned through my Pinterest boards to find resources I knew I’d stashed there—Cult of Pedagogy’s8 Great Educational Podcasts for Kids,” “5 TED Talks for the AP Lang & Comp Classroom,” and “9 TED Talks Recommended by Students, for Students.” 

In the conclusion, Jacobs and Alcock challenge the reader to take charge of the narrative about what teaching and learning are. That, it struck me, is exactly why I do this blog—to be a self-navigating learner, a social contractor, a media publisher, an innovative designer (as I reflect on my own practice), and an advocate for learners and learning, as I tell stories about the things I learn, think about, and try in my classroom, to put my two bits into shaping the professional narrative. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Teaching with and for Creativity


What do these 3 things have in common with a museum display under construction?

Yesterday we visited a museum, my husband and I.
When we entered a new room full of interesting displays with one corner blocked off, guess where he went first? Yep, straight for dividers and tarps to try to see what was being hidden. 

Creativity is something innate in humans which can be leveraged to engage students in learning; at the same time, it is something we can and must teach, practice, and develop to meet the challenges of the contemporary world. Creativity is also something I’ve been researching the last several months, and the more I learn about it, the more it pops up in places I wasn’t even looking for it—like museum visits.

Two books I read on creativity were Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, a national bestseller by Tony Wagner, and Sparking Student Creativity, by Patti Drapeau. The first is broadly inspirational as well as itself using a creative format, integrating videos throughout. If you care about innovation in yourself or others as a teacher, parent, or mentor, this is a good book. But if you’re a teacher, you may want to then continue on to the next book for specific, concrete ideas (vocabulary, strategies, processes, exercises, rubrics) for talking about, teaching, practicing, giving feedback, and reflecting on creativity, innovation, and problem solving.

Wagner captures the stories of young STEM innovators (ch. 3) and social innovators (ch. 4), including interviews with parents, teachers, and mentors. I found the comparison of the 2 categories fascinating, as frequently STEM and humanities are set at odds, but the world needs innovation of both types to create the items as well as the policies and programs that will steward creation and advance justice. (And innovation in one field can inform and further it in another: Wagner introduces us to an engineering undergraduate school, Olin, that requires seniors to do 2 capstone projects—one in STEM and one in humanities!) The theme Wagner keeps surfacing is that play, passion, and purpose are the forces that form young innovators, and he drives us to ask how we can provide that for the next generation.

So what can I do about that on Monday in my already-full 45-minute period? That’s one of the questions Patti Drapeau sets out to answer in Sparking Student Creativity: Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving. She starts by naming the creative thinking skills: fluency (many ideas), flexibility (different ideas), originality (unlike anyone else's), elaboration (being able to build on and flesh them out). One example of an idea I could easily apply in a secondary English language arts class is to simply use more creative verbs in prompts. For example, ditch the dull "identify" and use “substitute” instead. I could ask students to substitute new nouns for all the nouns in a sentence (a little of Wagner’s play). Or substitute new items of decor to focus on in the description of Arthur Jarvis’s study in Cry, the Beloved Country—and how does that change the characterization? Drapeau gives 40 “Grab and Go” ideas divided among the 7 chapters, from sentence stems for a class working on each of the 4 creative thinking skills (#1) to a “Creativity Self-Reporting Form” (#40). She suggests ways to teach about creativity directly (analyze the process of famous creative people—maybe I should explore more about the creative process of the authors we read) to actually creating products.

Some of the ideas do seem a little over the top. Inventing a device to solve a problem for a character in a novel may work in an elementary classroom, integrating STEM into language arts. But if we’re talking about a secondary classroom with a limited number of minutes in a language arts period, activities like that steal time from my main objectives. However, I can legitimately have students create language arts artifacts—write a paragraph adding backstory to a character you want to know more about; or pick a paragraph, character, event, sentence, or chapter to leave out—how would that change the novel? 

The other night I was playing Bananagrams. I was stuck: there was no letter in a place I could build a new word off of, and I had 3 consonants I needed to use. I felt how stymied I was. I knew I needed to take apart some of those closely packed little words (flexibility) so that I could come up with a bunch of new words (fluency), and what I really needed was a long word (originality) to give me space to build off. It was hard to take the risk of disassembling part of my carefully constructed crossword. I had a moment of panic—What if I can’t think of anything else. And then I did. And it was fun. And I used all my letters. And I used my knowledge of how creativity works in solving problems. And I used it again while writing this post.

P.S. If you’re interested in the idea of creativity as something that can be broken into skills and strategies which can be taught and assessed, but you don’t have time right now for a whole book, try one of these articles. It’s where I started last spring.
  • “Four Myths about Creativity”  (Mitch Resnick, Edutopia, 2017) Do you believe any of these 4 myths about creativity?  This is the shortest article. It summarizes a new book that argues that everyone can be creative—and that creativity can be taught.
  • “Assessing Creativity” (Susan M. Brookhart, ASCD, 2013) We can assess creativity—and, in the process, help students become more creative. This is the longest and most technical article, but you might just want to scroll down to the rubric, see what you think, and work backward from that, if you find it intriguing. 
  • “Cultivating Creativity in Standards-Based Classrooms” (Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Edutopia, 2015) Even in a highly-structured classroom environment, you can foster creativity with strategies like possibility thinking, divergent thinking, encouraging student interests, and collaborative learning.
  • “The Science (and Practice) of Creativity” (Diane Catiergue, Edutopia, 2015) When schools nurture student creativity, they foster inquisitiveness, persistence, imagination, discipline, and collaboration, leading to improved classroom behavior, motivation, attendance, and academic attainment.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Experiencing Cognitive Dissonance by Reading about Standards, Creativity, and ELA



I’ve been thinking about what happens when knowledge coalesces. You know—like when you learn a word you never heard before, then suddenly it pops up everywhere. Like this year, my 5th time through The Scarlet Letter, students asked about a word I didn't remember ever encountering before: nugatory. Last night it popped up in a Jeeves and Wooster video I was watching with my husband. (I almost missed it, because in a posh British accent it sounded like "nuga tree.") Sometimes those connections are easy, magical, and exhilarating to discover, and sometimes they take a lot more work. That's how my professional development reading has been this week.  

First, if you are a 5th-12th grade English language arts teacher and you have not yet read Kelly Gallagher’s book In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, run out and get it now. If you haven’t read him before, it is a great introduction to all the rest of his past books, and if you have, it is just as important—adding new ideas (specific assignments as well as philosophical developments) while reviewing old ones. Definitely motivated me to add his new book out this year (co-authored with another of my ELA gurus, Penny Kittle) to my to-be-read list. It seems most of the rest of the online ELA community is reading this summer, but I think that will have to wait until next summer while I give this one some time to work its way into my pedagogy. Gallagher begins and ends with the title, traveling in between the themes of what is good about the current standards and where they fall short, encouraging teachers to stay true to “what works” in growing students into mature readers, writers, speakers, and listeners by supplying many examples from his own (continuing) classroom experience of 30 years, informed by his continued growth, plans, and adaptations to circumstances.

After my last several professional development books on broader topicsinstructional coaching, standards based grading and assessment in the differentiated classroom, and creativity—all important and stretching topics—this was like speaking my mother tongue again after traveling to exotic lands and wrapping my tongue around learned sounds and syntaxes.

A little metacognition here—I think it is important to watch myself encounter some cognitive dissonance as I evaluate, synthesize, and apply some texts that both reinforce and counter each other--because it's exactly what I hope my students experience in my classroom. That happened for me with the book on standards-based assessment in the differentiated classroom that I responded to last week here, and 2 new books—Gallagher’s specifically on ELA teaching, and Tony Wagner’s 2012 best seller Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World

Standards are important, but none will be perfect, and they will come and go, so don’t get too attached. Gallagher gave me official permission to use what is helpful about the current standards, and to go beyond, when that is in the best interest of students. That freed me from a guilt riptide of standards adherence and documentation I was feeling from Fair Isn’t Always Equal. On the agreement side, Fair Isn’t Always Equal also emphasized articulating the goals and providing a variety of ways for students to get there, and to ascertain that they have. (Gallagher suggested 4 alternate, “In a perfect world” standards for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. His standard for reading is “What percentage of your students can walk into a bookstore [or visit goodreads.com] and know where to find books that interest them?” [188]). The book on creativity intersected with both the book on standards-based assessment and on what works in the ELA classroom in several ways, including the question of how to create standards, rubrics, and assessments for creativity, and what that looks like in the English language arts classroom. Wagner addresses that in chapter 5, “Innovating Learning.” Here are 2 places where Gallagher directly addresses those concerns: 

“It is through literature, [Judith] Langer notes [in Envisioning Literature 1995], that ‘students learn to explore possibilities and consider options; they gain connectedness and seek vision. They become the type of literate, as well as creative, thinkers that we’ll need to learn well at college, to do well at work, and to shape discussions and find solutions to tomorrow’s problems’” (59).

“Standardization rarely leads to excellence. When the curriculum is narrowed into a sameness, when we adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach, creativity suffers and students whose talents are not valued by the tests risk being marginalized. At a time of globalization—when it is crucial that we nurture creativity and intellectual risk taking in our students—this latest round of tests is having the opposite effect by standardizing our students. Instead of ‘racing to the top,’ our students are traveling in herds” (187). (I am fortunate to teach at a private international school where standardized testing of the standards is not mandated, but where PSAT, SAT, ACT, and AP scores are still a currency that makes college more accessible.)

So I am still working on synthesizing all these thoughts about the role of standards in nurturing creativity as well as the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the English language arts classroom. But life is growth, so it’s good that I’m still growing. And it’s good that there are a few more weeks until I need to work this all back into my classroom. 

How are you making connections and growing this summer?

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom



We know as adults that we attain mastery at different rates because of our interests, readiness, and preferred learning styles. So we try to offer students differentiation in content, process, and product according to those proclivities. But when it comes right down to it--to the test and the report card--how does one make it work in an effective and ethical manner?

Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom by Rick Wormeli is an important tool in the answering of that question. It assumes familiarity with differentiation, though the first (and shortest) of the 3 sections does review “Differentiation and Mastery” in 30 pages. The bulk of the book is about assessment (ch. 4-10) and grading (ch. 11-20). (To get that background, I highly recommend How to Differentiate in Academically Diverse Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson, 2017—I facilitated an optional book discussion on it last year, and our entire faculty is reading it this year.)

This book I picked up because a friend (our small school's elementary principal) was ordering it for herself, and I said, “Get me one, too.” (I figured in my role as curriculum coordinator, it would be a good conversation piece. Learning point: read with friends. It will push you beyond your comfort zone, and give you comfort while you go.)

The middle section on assessment is where I am right now in my development as a differentiating teacher. At the end of the book, author Rick Wormeli gives the reader five suggestions for getting traction on the content of his book. I can commit to at least 1, 3, and 5:


  • “Really get to know your students, and look at your lessons in light of that knowledge. Do they respond to what you know about your students” (279). I’ll start by revising my beginning of the year survey to include a few more of the “Sample Individual Characteristics of Students to Consider When Planning Instruction” in Figure 7.1 (79-80).
  • “Read two or more other books on grading besides this one to find elements that speak to you and your classroom situation” (280). Out of the 16 listed, 2 by Susan Brookhart caught my attention: How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students (2017) and How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom (2016). (Though I may not get to them until next summer!)
  • “Choose any three elements of assessment and grading in the differentiated class described in this book and try them out in the next two months. Be sure to give them your full focus and to ask students to help you reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what you’d do differently the next time you try it” (280). I’ll have to extend the time span given that it is currently summer, but I definitely want to commit to a few things:

Descriptive Feedback and Student Self-Assessment (Ch. 5): Wormeli issues the following challenge:  Ask a colleague to walk into your classroom and interview your students by asking two questions:
  • What are you supposed to be learning here?
  • Where are you right now in relation to that goal? (51)
I’ve been thinking of that ever since I read Formative Classroom Walkthroughs several years ago. I think I’ll take the plunge and ask my peer coaching partner next year to go ahead and ask students that during the observation. So I’d best be sure that I build my lessons so students can answer.

Tiering Assessments (Ch. 8): Tiering has always been the most daunting tool in the differentiation toolkit for me. But I will here commit to tiering the major 1st quarter essay.  I’m also intrigued by education researcher Frank Williams’ Taxonomy of Creative thinking (given that I’m concurrently reading Creating Innovators and last year participated in a book discussion on Making Thinking Visible—how do Williams’ 8 levels of creative thinking interface with the list of thinking elements currently posted in my classroom?) The first 4 are cognitive: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration. The last 4 are cognitive: risk taking, complexity, curiosity, imagination (97).

Rubrics (Ch. 9): I have several rubrics (writing, discussion, presentation). I want to explore how I can simplify these to make them more use-friendly. I was really excited about Wormeli’s not just permission but advice: “Don’t write out every level of descriptors for most assessments” (117), but focus on the “exemplary” descriptor because it’s the default target for students, and easy to assess for the teacher. 

I have come to a deeper understanding of assessing and grading in a differentiated classroom as a result of reading this book. I’m more equipped to take the steps I’m prepared to take, more open to and prepared for discussion of standards-based grading, and more cognizant that neither can be adequately “policy-ified.” Simply mandating that all assessments can be retaken as often as requested ends up with students playing both ends against the teacher’s middle. Some students will wait to study until after they take the first test. Others will wait until the end of the grading period. Students will be de-incentivized to understand. There must first be deep cultural change: the final assessment (or a version of it) made available from the beginning with everyone intrinsically motivated to attain mastery throughout the unit.

I expect I will return to this important book for several iterations of my grading policy. For now, I am happy to be further along my journey than I was 2 weeks ago, before I read it.

What is “fair” in your classes—for assessment and grades?

(This is the second book on my summer professional development reading list. See here for the complete list and here for the first book.)