Sunday, September 27, 2015

Assessment Doesn't Have to Mean Test

Great satire!
Assessment doesn’t have to mean test—and that includes summative assessment as well as formative. I re-realized that this week when I gave an assessment that I’d formulated just as a sort of creative break from the essay grind.  

Last week in AP Language we wrapped up our study of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. I chose the book for prolonged exposure to satire, which students have trouble identifying on the AP test, for its classic status, and for its Christian perspective. 

And then there was the slightly quirky assessment: A new letter from the senior devil Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood advising him on the best ways to tempt his “patient”--who is not now a man in World War II London, but a student at our 21st century international Christian school.

Students got into the writing far more than I’d expected. (I told them, “Just a journal page—you may type it if you want”; most papers were 2 pages typed.) 

Even better, every single one nailed satire and nailed Lewis’s purpose of calling attention to human foibles and temptations so the reader can better avoid them. Here are some excerpts*:
  • This place reeks of our Enemy’s presence, but no matter, I always appreciate a decent challenge. I must point out that we do have a few things going our way for this matter. One is that the very fact that it is a Christian environment will be their undoing, with all of their rules and regulations. As we both know, the more rules that are placed upon a teenager’s shoulders, the more they will go out of their way to break these rules.
  • Start off with making the girl annoyed with everything her parents do: the way they chew their food, the way they cough, and even the way they hum a song while doing chores. 
  • Exploit her own wit, Wormwood.… Convince her that she may say whatever is on her mind, no matter what the circumstance. Not only will this cause a problem for her elders, but also conflict her internally. She will not know what is whimsical and what is a wisecrack. Rudeness and retort are your strongest tools. Dare her to use them as weapons of sarcastic destruction.
  • His mind is filled with anxiety and embarrassment from being a new face at the school…. His classmates are the believers of the Enemy, welcoming the patient’s arrival.…“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). This verse is what the Christians repeatedly use to spread the great “love” from the Enemy. However, do not let them inspire your patient’s spiritual perspective just because he is treated with “love” they had given. Keep him distracted with egotism and the superiority of his thoughts and ideas.   
  • Relationships are the soft spot of your patient, and by soft I mean softer than the clouds up in heaven.… Let your patient be fooled by the lust of her partner; let the word “love” be used when it is not true. 
  • It is amusing just how hypocritical humans can be.  They often express their idea of individuality and love for those who are “different,” and yet they immediately conform to what everyone else is doing.… Their friends become their source of purpose and happiness.
Why did this work so well? If I can figure this out, I can do it again!
  1. I had clearly articulated objectives: I wanted students to understand how satire works, and to understand the purpose of this particular satire.
  2. This assignment was not just a fun break from “real” writing, but because it called for transfer—taking what they knew about Lewis’s style and purpose and transferring it to a new character and a new audience—it really demonstrated mastery of that purpose and that style. They made it their own.
  3. Students could choose the “patient” within the school (themselves, a friend, or an imagined person—sometimes one of the opposite gender, which is an act of imagination that always awes me) and the situation, and—yes—could every so often write in a non-essay format. Even in English class. 
  4. The assessment caused as well as demonstrated learning.  Students had to extrapolate what Lewis said about the foibles and temptations of an Englishman in 1941 England to general human weaknesses, and then apply that to teenagers in their own situation. 

I know they learned some things for the AP test. I hope they learned some things for life. I wonder how I can apply what I learned to other assessments in other units and other classes.

*Student writing used with permission.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Using Rubrics in Formative Assessment to Improve Collaboration

Telling other people what to do--there's nothing quite like it to hold you accountable to following your own advice. 

I realized something as I prepared to facilitate a teacher professional development meeting on formative assessment last Monday. I realized that while I’d given my Honors English 10 class a rubric on small group discussion and allowed them to discuss it, to self-assess, and to set goals, I had not given them time to revisit those goals and assess how they are doing. 

The rubric of which we speak. Yes, I realize I'm missing criteria for 1-4. But as I've said elsewhere, something is better than nothing!

What we had done with the rubric had improved discussion. Everyone was participating, and not just sharing the one thought they’d been required to record, but asking questions, making predictions, building on other people’s comments, referring to the text. 

However, as I thought about grading them on that rubric, I realized (1) there were a couple of students who could improve some more and (2) the students who were doing really well needed to understand what they were doing really well—rather than simply having students celebrating, protesting, or shrugging off their grade. 

After all, the goal is not for me to give them a grade—it’s for them to become productive collaborators who advance their own and others’ learning in group discussion. A grade is just a way of communicating to them and to their parents how they are doing at a given point in time. But transparency of expectations, goal setting, and personal reflection are the things that will ultimately drive the growth I want to assess, and give them proactive control in their lives over influencing the groups they are part of. 

Tuesday I asked 10th graders to take out their rubrics with their goals and discuss with their table-groups of 4 how they were doing on their personal goals and as a group. What surprised me most was the real leaders acknowledging that they were doing well, and then looking for ways to do better. “You know, we don’t really check to see that we have all done the reading and held our thinking.” 

At this point I considered interrupting and letting them off the hook—that that line was really for personal awareness and for me, to allow me to demonstrate to a student not doing the basic work how they were failing themselves and their classmates. But then I realized that if they were aware of holding each other accountable to doing the background work, that was a real life skill—to be able to identify what makes for functional and dysfunctional groups, and to exert their influence to increase functionality. 

That moment when you realize that simple best practices in education—like having a rubric and using it to bring students into the formative process—actually do prepare students to impact the world. 

I love teaching. I love these kids. Monday I'm going to hand out that rubric in AP English 11.

How do you use rubrics for formative assessment?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Educational GPS: Goals and Formative Assessment

Do you know where you're going? Or are you just going? 
I love Agatha Christie's Poirot, but I identify more with Colombo. Poirot is so confident that his little gray cells will eventually supply the answer. I feel as surprised as Colombo appears every time he turns up the convicting evidence. 

Why must it be one or the other? Because teachers are detectives. We are always hunting for evidence—evidence of understanding, of obstacles to understanding, of misunderstanding. Except this isn’t about a murder, where all we can do is convict the guilty party. We can go back into the situation and alter it—supply more of what helped understanding, remove what hindered it, and offer correction for misunderstanding. We call it assessment—formative assessment. 

My new role as curriculum coordinator gives me an even broader scope for sharpening my detective skills: 
  • I observed a middle school class playing a game to review for a test. The question: “At what angle is the earth’s axis tilted?” A girl glanced at the globe at the back of the room and asked, “At the top or at the bottom?” I suppressed a giggle, imagining a curved axis. In retrospect, I wish I’d thought to ask her why she wanted to know. I imagine she was thinking of a geometry diagram of two parallel, vertical lines, tangential to the top and the bottom of the earth, and the earth’s axis transecting them, and wondering whether it was the acute or the obtuse angle’s measurement that was wanted. That would have shown a lot more understanding of the geometric concept of angles than just memorizing the degree given in the book. It would also have shown less understanding of the meaning the earth’s axis having an angle than would be hoped for. The correct answer—23.5—may or may not have represented understanding of any type. It may have just represented the memorization of a fact. 
  • An ESL teacher showed me a range of journal entries. The students had 10 minutes to write on a topic. She’s concerned about the students who wrote a half page riddled with grammar errors. I’m concerned about the students who only got out 3 lines of text in 10 minutes—grammatically perfect though it be. And suddenly it dawns on me: “There are 2 different skills here—fluency and correctness. What if you and the students knew which one was being targeted at a given time, and could work on improving each one separately?” 
  • Another middle school teacher was showing me her Bible curriculum, trying to separate out content and skills. Finally she said, “The students come out of elementary thinking they know all the Bible stories. I want them to apply the stories to their life.” The lights came on: “You want them to apply the thinking strategy of synthesis and extension to their reading of the Bible!” “Yes!” she replied. That’s a reading skill.
Articulating what students need to understand, know, and be able to do is important—not so I can write it in my lesson plan or unit map, or post it in my room. It’s important like having a destination is important. There may be some detours along the way, but if my GPS has the destination entered, it can always recalculate and get me there.

What did you want your students to understand, know, and be able to do last week? How did you check understanding and recalculate in order to get to the destination? What about next week?

P.S. I know I switched metaphors midstream (and now I'm adding another), but they are both important for how I think about planning and assessment. My apologies. Pick whichever works for you. Or both.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

On Essays: Model, Reflect, Transfer

With credit to for the only royalty-free image of Mr. T I could find on the internet, and gratitude to Chris Toy, who several years ago in an instructional workshop used a mnemonic for good teaching that I have referred to again and again, learning every time: Model, Reflect, Transfer--MR. T!

This class is undoing everything I’d thought essay writing was!” exclaimed a student Friday in AP English Language and Composition. I hope that’s a good thing.

It’s good they are realizing that…
  1. “Essay” does not necessarily mean a 5-paragraph academic exercise assigned to students.
  2. “Essay” can be anything from Ayn Rand’s response to the Apollo 11 launch to Virginia Woolf’s musings on the death of a moth. 
  3. An essay can have a variety of structures, whether it develops by logic, by story, by example, by appeal to authority, or by a combination. 
  4. An essay can be in (horrors!) first person.
  5. A good writer intentionally “bends” rules for an effect.
It’s not so good that these are new ideas—for my classroom, and for these kids. 

But back to the positive—here are some more snippets of the discussion: 

One student observed, “‘On the Death of a Moth’ didn’t even seem like an essay the first time through—it was just what was happening in front of her eyes. But then I thought, ‘It must have a deeper meaning.’”

I pointed out a sentence that piled up a series of nouns, all connected with “and’s.” The students wondered why they have gotten the same move marked in red. For the very reason, I suggested, that professional basketball players can do things that might be called carrying over or traveling on a middle school player. Why? Because all the rest of the context shows that a master is in control and doing things for a purpose. What’s the author’s purpose with all the “and’s”? They make the list seem bigger and more overwhelming. There was a moment of epiphany.

Meanwhile, I’m having my own (many-times revisited) epiphany. Before I taught AP English Language, I thought laying more groundwork for it in earlier grades would involve teaching rhetorical appeals and fallacies earlier. Now I see that it is so much more basic: Students need models. 

Why do we English teachers tend to have students read fiction and write nonfiction? If we want students to write better nonfiction, they need to read nonfiction—and analyze it not only for its ideas, but also for its organization, argument, and style. 

To nurture writers, give students models of the kind of writing they will do, then guide them in reflecting on the models and in transferring what they see there to their own writing. Model, reflect, transfer—a good instructional progression for any skill.

What models (of nonfiction writing, or of any other skill) do your students study? How do they reflect on them? How do they transfer their reflections to their own skill practice?