Friday, September 29, 2017

What Makes a Great Assessment?

Every writer should have the opportunity to experience an audience this engaged with her writing.

I enjoyed being negative and satirical for once (in a piece of writing). I think it was the most enjoyable piece I’ve ever written. It was so fun and interesting to write and think about. —11th grader

I just read what may be the best assessment I’ve ever designed. (It's been three years in the evolution.) As the culminating project for The Screwtape Letters, 11th grade AP Language and Composition students write their own satires—a new letter from Screwtape, a senior devil with a desk job, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter in the field. Except this time Wormwood’s “patient” is a student at our school.

I love it because the students enjoy writing and sharing it, I enjoy reading it, and it demonstrates thorough mastery of our objectives: understanding the book’s content, using the tools of satire, and applying an insight into human nature (one of Lewis’s or a similar personal insight) to a modern situation. In addition, plagiarism is impossible and everyone scores well. What’s more, with my added emphasis this year on model sentences (see last week’s blog), I saw students implementing those patterns of varying sentence lengths and building sentences with introductory appositives. Finally, I didn’t forget to allow students to reflect on their writing.  

The assessment practically graded itself when I asked the students to highlight one place where they had demonstrated understanding of the book, one place where they had used satire, and one place where they had applied an insight into human nature—and explain how each passage did that.

I also asked them to highlight and explain one thing they had done well, taken a risk on, or worked hard on, and to respond to the question, “What’s one thing you learned about writing or life in the process of producing this piece?” Here are some of their answers:
  • I learned that humans are easy to complain about because we are so far from perfect. Our lives are pretty hilarious, filled with tons of follies. I liked reflecting on life.
  • It is a lot easier to write in the style of another author than to work on your own, almost like you have a fallback when you don’t know what to say next.
  • Writing satire is extremely difficult because I feel like it was easy to get carried away and just speak pessimistically.
  • I didn’t feel  comfortable writing about human deficiencies with a satirical effect. Doesn’t really work with my style of writing.
  • I learned that my understanding of satire was rockier than I had previously thought. I’ve been told the definition many times, yet I still struggle to identify it.
  • I honestly really enjoyed trying to make my writing sound like Screwtape’s while reading the book and thought of a low, deep British accent and it really helped me when writing to imitate C.S. Lewis’s style.

I’m looking forward to following up on some of these comments with a discussion of the role of imitating masters’ style as an apprentice learns the craft and develops her own style, and a discussion of discovering misunderstandings and strengths.

In their letters, students displayed creative, satirical insight into the issues that beset them as modern adolescents: 
  • Gossip grows the lack of compassion in a human….Keep her thinking she must have the details of everyone else’s life in order to know how much better she’s doing. 
  • You could give him what he wants, then yank it away from him, leaving him even more desperate, perpetuating the cycle. Alternatively you may go the route of dropping the weighty realization that what he now has has not made him any more popular, nor any happier, hence driving into his head the idea that he is simply too broken to ever be fixed.
  • I see that you’ve shone through her eyes the most beautiful of women with the most unnatural bodies, which delightfully increases the everlasting jealousy gnawing on her insides.
  • Have your patient…dive into this [internet] world of information to the point where he drowns in it. Have him go to CNN, Facebook, Buzzfeed, and keep him sandwiched between all of those websites that keep him on the internet.

Students also applied the practice with mentor sentences. Here are a couple examples of students using introductory appositive phrases (with anaphora and parallelism!):
  • The quick judgement of everyone they see, the quick self-assessment that soon follows, the quick impulse to speak one’s mind—all of which are great for us.
  • Her embarrassment about her appearance, her jealousy of what others have or look like, her low self-esteem, her degradation of herself—all of which you should take into consideration in how to bring her home to us.

Finally, I learned that I might want to more clearly target allusion as one of Lewis’s tools of satire because two students caught my attention with how effectively they did it:
  • Do not take this, my lovely and shortsighted nephew, as a direction to bankrupt the poor patient…for we who have studied here long enough are well aware of the Enemy’s adage about rich men and camels. 
  • …[About hurting people:] It all falls under the category of vandalizing the Enemy’s image. Believe it or not, the enemy considers each individual a temple. A temple! How ridiculous can He be?…Our researchers have tried, and tried, and tried again to find out the relationship between such buildings and humans, but to no avail. It’s simply fictional and makes no sense.

The best assessments are ones that are challenging yet enjoyable, allow choice, and require students demonstrate learning, as well as drive learning in the process. Oh, and ones that teachers can learn from, too!

What’s one of your favorite assessments?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Use Mentor Sentences to Help Students Write Like Readers

This week we dug into writing with mentor sentences in order to become more intentional about reading like writers and writing like readers.  

The context: AP English 11 is in the middle of reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis in order to thoroughly understand the art, tools, and purposes of satire. Each day we come in with a journal recording 3 quotations from the assigned reading and why we found each interesting or effective. The assessment piece will be a new original letter from Screwtape to Wormwood, but the “patient” is a student at our international school in Okinawa, Japan, in 2017 rather than an adult in England in World War 2. 

Three days this week we also spent some time working with mentor sentences from the text. 

Wednesday the topic was using a variety of sentence lengths (especially the power of an occasional very short sentence).
  • Mentor sentences: When I speak of preserving this assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish him with arguments in its defense. There aren’t any. Your task is purely negative. Don’t let his thoughts come anywhere near it. Wrap a darkness about it, and in the center of the darkness let his sense of ownership-in-Time lie silent, uninspected, and operative. (113)
  • Discussion: We turned to pages 112-113 and explored the relative sentence lengths. A couple of them are 5-6 lines long in the book. Most are about 3. The shortest are the 2 adjacent in the section above—2 and 5 words. What’s the effect? What’s lost if those 2 short sentences are instead combined into the previous and following sentences? 
  • Try it: We’d started the class with a 5-minute quick-write exploring the topic on which we were thinking of doing our original letter. Now went back to our quick write and revised it to make one of the sentences really short.
  • Share it with your table group.

Thursday the topic was starting with appositive phrases.

  • Mentor sentences: The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives, and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it--all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. (153)
  • Discussion: We noticed that the main sentence—rather short—is at the end. Four times as long as the main sentence is the preceding accumulation of 5 parallel phrases that expand on “all this.” Lewis could have reversed the order: Many things provide admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition—the routine of adversity…. What is gained by putting the long list first? Well, for one thing, the reader feels worn out herself by the time she gets through the long, depressing list. Form reinforces meaning.
  • Try it: I started out asking students to find a sentence in yesterday’s quick write that they could revise to start with a series of appositive phrases. That proved too difficult. So I provided a sentence stem we could all relate to: “x, y, and z—all this was wearing on me by the end of last week.”
  • Share it with your table group.

Friday the topic was ending with appositive phrases.

  • Mentor sentences: Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful--horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; hatred has its pleasures. (160)
  • This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world--a world in which moral issues really come to the point. (160)
  • Discussion: How is the effect different from starting with the appositive(s) like we did yesterday?
  • Try it: The human foible I want to address in my satire is ___--the x, the y, the z OR The human foible I want to address in my satire is—how people….
  • Share it with your table group.
The best thing was hearing the students interacting, becoming a community of writers, when they shared their sentences in their table groups—“Wow, that was really good,”  “I need to try that!”, “That gave it punch.” We’ll be working on the original letters on Monday, and I think the students are looking forward to it. One asked yesterday, “Can we read everyone else’s letters when we’re done?” Of course. That’s what communities of writers do.

Note: I’m grateful to my peer coach from last year who challenged me to move from the “discussion” to the “try it” part, which I was seldom getting to. I’m grateful to this year’s peer coach who just by her presence on Wednesday and the success of that lesson challenged me to keep it up.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Vocabulary Preview the Quick and Easy Way

11th graders discuss The Screwtape Letters--themes, satire, and vocabulary.

Yesterday in English 10, I saw students in animated discussion of words, asking each other, “What is hamper if it isn’t a dirty clothes hamper?”, analyzing prefixes and roots, admitting, “I don’t know what subsidize means,” and offering, “When I hear the word clutch, I think of a clutch play,” while others made grabbing motions with their fingers. (I threw in “There’s also the type of purse and the part of a manual transmission. How do you think they’re related?”)  

Last week I wrote about the best 15-minute investment I’ve made in teaching my students writing. Today I’ll share the best 10-minute investment in teaching vocabulary. 

I collect vocabulary words from the reading we’ll be doing in a given unit and include the list in the unit outline the students receive when we start. As a preview, I ask students to look over the list and mark each word with a plus, circle, or minus. The plus means you know that word. The minus means you have no idea what it means. The circle can mean anything in between—something like you feel you’d know it in context, though you couldn’t give a definition cold, and it's definitely not in your productive vocabulary. 

When they’ve done that, they ask their table groups about their unknown words to see if any of the other three students can help them. At the end, I ask if there are any words that no one had known. Yesterday ineluctable was the only and unanimous vote. So we talked about that one word briefly as a class—its definition and the context sentence we would find it in. Then we moved on to the reading. 

But with that 10-minute exercise, students not only previewed the vocabulary list, they also became a little more familiar with the words they talked about, and now they are primed to notice those words when we come across them in the reading. And I didn’t even have to create a pre-test! 

What’s an efficient vocabulary learning strategy you’ve used with your students?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Don't Just Hand that Paper In--Reflect on It!

Do you ever remember staying up late to finish a paper, then arriving at class just to hand it in and jump into a new topic? Kind of anti-climactic. Then waiting a week or two, until you’d practically forgotten what you’d written, to get any kind of feedback. 

A finished piece of writing should be celebrated and reflected on, if only to consolidate student learning immediately. But more than that, it gives me information about where the students think they are, and it fosters student ownership of their writing growth.

Having students reflect on their writing when finished with a piece, before getting teacher feedback, is one of the best returns on writing class time. All it takes is 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of the period when a final draft is due. Because when the students can articulate what they have learned while working on a piece, when they can identify what they did well and what they want to work on, and when they can ask me one specific question about their writing in the finished piece at hand—then I know they are primed to learn, and helping them move from where they are to where they want to go makes teaching the best job in the world.

What kinds of things do students say? Here are some things that my 10th graders wrote this week about their personal narratives describing an epiphany they had:

One thing I learned while working on this piece:
  1. Through this assignment I learned how good writing doesn’t always need to contain complex, difficult phrases. Sometimes I try to use complex words to make it seem like a great writing, when in reality it probably just made it confusing. I also learned that there’s no such thing as looking over your writing too much, because I found a few mistakes every time I looked over it.
  2. One thing I learned about writing was that if you already know what you are going to write about, it is easier to think about ideas while you are writing. If you don’t plan ahead, then you are going to run into problems.
  3. While writing this piece, I learned to put the reader in your situation instead of just saying what I did or what I felt.
  4. I learned that writing a good story or narrative first is more important than making sure your grammar is perfect.
One thing I did well, and one thing I want to grow in:
  1. I think I did well in description and word choice, and I’d like to grow in being able to have a strong voice in my writing; I felt that my writing lacked that a lot.
  2. One thing I felt I had done well was my ideas. I felt they were strong and complex, but written simply. One thing I want to grow into is writing in complex language, i.e. strong words and phrases that convey my point in few words, simple and concise.
  3. One thing I did well was varied sentence lengths, although I’m not sure if their structure was effective. I’d like to get better in writing good conclusions. I didn’t really like the one I came up with.
One specific question I have for Mrs. Essenburg about my writing in this piece:
  1. I felt that my narrative was a bit rushed, but I wasn’t sure what to do since I didn’t want to ramble on in my writing. Are there any tips in writing a satisfying writing while keeping it short, concise, and to the point?
  2. One question I have is whether or not my last paragraph made sense. I was told it didn’t and then I tried to change it.
  3. Am I too redundant? Is the sequence of events confusing, do you know what’s going on? I feel a little like some of the descriptions I used were a little cheesy.
  4. What are some tips for using figurative language better?
So, now I know what they want to know, I have my next few writing lessons outlined! (Plus, students have written another 50-100 words. Words that I don’t have to grade, but that are still impelling all of our learning forward.)

How do you engage students in metacognitive reflection about their writing? 

P.S. Full disclosure: The photo at the top is 11th graders doing a different reflection on a different piece of writing. The 10th grade photos just didn't come out well, and I haven't gotten to reading their reflections yet. Yep, it's been that kind of week. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn

Yes, that's the ocean you see in the background. Reading at the beach is better in the spring and fall than in the summer when you live in Okinawa, Japan.

As a high school student I recoiled in horror from the career suggestion of being a teacher—why in the world would I want to go over the same information year after year with students who were frequently indifferent? 

Little did I imagine that effective teaching calls for mastery of so much more than the discipline content—which, by the way, includes understandings and skills as well as information. The other two legs of the triangle are understanding of the students and understanding of pedagogy. 

Even the discipline content changes from year to year—in English, there are that many more books published, any one of which may be the one that will transform a reluctant reader into an avid reader, or open new worlds to a reader, or be the next future classic! (And who has read even all of the current classics? After 30 years of teaching English, I’m still working on the list of 100 books someone thinks every college freshman should have read!) 

The students, of course, change every year—their personalities, experiences, interests, skills, and readiness levels. And in pedagogy, there are constantly advances in brain science as well as social and educational theories, studies, and practices to help us even better connect those constantly changing students we care about with the discipline content, understandings, and skills we care about.

With all those changes, I read (see some of my summer reading here, here, and here) and make plans to incorporate them—unit plans, lesson plans—and sometimes I even learn things in the process of teaching and change those plans on the fly.

Here are some learnings I experienced this week:
  • A new book: I finally got my hands on the award winning graphic novel trilogy March that recounts the Civil Rights movement through the life of Congressman John Lewis. I’m half-way through the final volume and have already book-talked the first one.
  • An old book: I’m also reading East of Eden. Why did I never realize that John Steinbeck can be absolutely hysterical, in a very understated way? The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men...I've read them, but just always thought he wrote with depressing insight into human nature. But this: "Her head was small and round and it held small round convictions" (!!!). Maybe it’s not just the students who are growing in their ability to read like a writer.
  • My students and their writing: Tenth graders are writing a personal narrative about a time they learned a lesson or had an epiphany. We’ve already read two professional models: “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan (in our literature anthology) and “When a Southern Town Broke a Heart” by Jacqueline Woodson (in the New York Times last summer). As we are working through drafts, I’m learning about my students’ lives as well as their writing strengths and next steps.
  • An essential question revision: “What words in what arrangement are most likely to create the desired effect in the audience?” I was just reading aloud from the AP Language textbook, but when a student blurted, “That is a really good question!” I knew it must be better than the one I’d been going with: “Why does style matter?” There is such a thing as being too concise. (Btw, if you're looking for a new AP Language textbook, this one is great. My students even say so, unsolicited, to their parents, at back-to-school night, last night. Full disclosure: I get nothing for saying this.) 

What did you learn this week—about your discipline content, your students, or your pedagogy?

And always keep a sense of humor: This is my "editing day" t-shirt--worn yesterday for the first time this year.