Tag Archives: achievement

Writing: Diagnostic Assessments in Common Core Style

Getting students to write is challenging enough, but throw is a typical state writing assessment prompt and all chaos ensues. One thing I have noticed in eight years, two states, and three schools is that, for some reason, behavior and attendance suffer during writing. When it comes to research papers, it is even worse. With Common Core, though, we want to try to include the citations and text-evidence of the typical research formatting because this is what will help them more in college. Knowing how to back up an argument, even verbally, is going to help them in all aspects of life, so it can’t be ignored.
I started the year by having students take a survey of their past experiences in ELA. Two questions stood out when thinking of what to do to assess their writing:
1. What activity to you like least in an English Language Arts class?
A: Of the 16 students present, 13 students said writing.
2. What do you hope Mrs. Kirk does differently to help you this year?
A: Of the 16 students, 9 said some version of “Help us write better.” One student said, “Don’t assign essays you don’t teach us.”
Clearly, these students have a strong hate for writing. So what am I to do? I know I can increase motivation if I can get them to believe in themselves and see me as a resource, but getting to that point will be a challenge.

Thus come the next week of instruction: Chunking a Writing Assessment.

Step 1: I wanted to give the students a writing assessment, but I quickly realized this might lead to a revolt without proper scaffolding. First, I asked students what they hated about essays. Students agreed the prompts “never make sense,” and that gave the starting point. First, I used the gradual release to model how to break down a writing prompt. I looked at a prompt and broke it down for the students. I modeled by reading it, rereading and annotating it, paraphrasing it, and listing starter ideas. Next, we did one together. Finally, I let the students choose between two prompts to analyze with the knowledge they would be expected to actually write an essay on the prompt they chose.
> Interesting realization: Not a single student in the class knew what “expository” meant, so I did a scale back and had students take notes on the four modes of writing.

Step 2: I didn’t want to give students too much help with the essay, but I needed to make them feel they could be successful. I reviewed thesis statement with the students, and we broke it down to topic+argument/opinion=thesis statement. Students then wrote a proposed thesis statement to guide their writing. At this point, student had to commit to writing the essay on one of two texts. While the content and assignment was the same, the story could be chosen by the student in order to create higher motivation and provide a better assessment of student ability prior to teaching a thorough writing unit.

Step 3: Verbally, we reviewed the basic structure of a five paragraph essay. With this fresh on their minds, we looked back at the prompt to plan what we might need to use as main ideas for each body paragraph. As the prompt was reviewing the mood as reflected in the plot, students determined they were going to break the story into beginning, middle, and end. Students then reviewed their plot maps of the proposed texts (both stories) to see which one they understood and could explain to a partner the best. This was helpful because 4 students ended up deciding to switch to the other text before getting too far along.

Step 4: Looking at the evidence they gathered from the beginning, middle, and end of the text, we went back to our prompt analysis to see if we were ready to write the essay. Luckily, students reread their annotations and noticed they needed to include the mood aspect of the writing. Students were using words like “sad” and “happy” on their evidence, so I did a short version lesson of using a higher-level of vocabulary. I also found out I needed to do a short teaching of what mood actually is.

Step 5: Students were given a generic outline suggestion to serve as a checklist for writing the essay. For example, under “Introduction” students were reminded to “Have a hook to get your readers interested,” “Include the TAG (Title-Author-Genre) when writing about literature,” and “Did you have a solid thesis statement?” Students were then released to write the essay in one hour as that was the time which matches the actual assessment.

Druthers:
The student reaction to the CC writing prompt was intense. Part of me felt like breaking down the prompt and creating a writing plan was cheating, but the purpose of this semester is to help make Common Core accessible to our students. If they shut down, they won’t learn anything. In order to raise the bar successfully, it is my job to help scaffold the material in a manner which students can understand and feel they can master. I wanted this lesson to take one class, but it ended up taking two classes to help the students properly. They will have to take a district assessment next month, so hopefully the time taken in this activity will stick and prove helpful on their assessments.
As much as I freak out about pacing with my students this semester, I feel for the teachers and students who will be implementing CC as a directive next semester when the stakes are much higher than they are right now. I feel my students’ frustrations, and I hope they believe me when I tell them this will be helpful to them next year. While I support the idea of a common curriculum to put all students at the same level of academic expectations across the country, I worry about teachers leaving students behind in the fury of the year. Also, I worry about how the teachers will break down the objectives and what skills will be a part of the objective and what skills will be forgotten. I wonder if this was a plan we needed more time to plan for in terms of having students prepared for the jump, and I wonder how scores will look with the first round of CC Achievement Testing. Other vocal spokesmen of CC have said implementation with result in a lower score for students, and I wonder how this will affect the students and the teachers.
When entering a round of increase academic standards, I guess there is no perfect way to bring about such educational reform in a manner that does not hurt anyone involved. As I continue my struggles for this semester in terms of implementing CC and doing that which is best for my students, I will have to put forth more effort and work harder than ever before. We can do this. I know it.

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A note on pacing…

With the first week and the first snow days behind us, we will return to school knowing the honeymoon period at the start of all semesters is officially over.

Students have had nearly two weeks to get used to the course, and expectations have been taught, prompted, and rewarded. We have used brain breaks regularly, and behavior has not been a real issue – until they all received the text messages about the early release. We gained four new students this week, which has made the continuum of skills assessments challenging as one lesson has built on the previous lesson.

Academically, I must admit I’m relieved to have the snow day combined with the MLK holiday to revamp my planning and pacing. I learned the students struggle with basic literary elements vocabulary, the desire to complete homework is lower than I have even seen before, and writing is… just as excited as teaching and assessing writing.

Based on my assessments and student surveys, next week marks moving on to Writing Basics. This unit has been designed to teach students writing while working on logic and communication. By teaching rhetoric and reasoning early, it is my hope to be able to readdress these skills as we move through the remainder of the semester. My estimate here is about three weeks, give or take a snow day. And, thinking about pacing is the point of today’s entry.

Pacing is perhaps one of the most challenging parts of designing instruction. When I attended Maryville College, Dr. Simpson, Dr. Lucas, and Dr. Orren all touted the brilliance of over-planning a lesson. After all, chaos ensues when structure is lost and students have nothing to do. Starting out in education nearly ten years ago, this was acceptable. What wasn’t finished one day fluidly became the next day. When we finished early (as rare as that was/is), I extended the learning with an enrichment activity. Here we are, however, eight years and the teaching profession under more scrutiny than even before and pacing seems key to student achievement and teacher evaluations.

The first thing I have learned about pacing is that a solid teacher will teach bell to bell with all lessons starting moments before the bell. I addressed this in my Ten Minutes post, so I won’t go much further on that right now.
Next, I learned that pacing needs to move quickly through the lesson in order to address attention spans. For example, some research suggests students maintain focus for about fifteen minutes. To keep attention, try to plan you lesson in a manner where pacing is broken up between direct instruction (notes), guided practice, and individual task work. I aim for a shift in activity every fifteen to twenty minutes even if it is something as simple as a partnered shoulder discussion to process what we just went over or check a task we just completed. Try to have a coherent structure that is somewhat predictable overall but will keep students guessing about what you will have them do next.
If you are addressing attention spans appropriately, you are going to have to worry about differentiation for individual students who progress at different rates. One easy method for that is a “challenge” question or task an early-finisher can work on while the rest of the class works. This technique will also help with monitoring behavior, but you will have to find a way to keep students motivated to complete the challenge. Most students are not going to fall for the “This IS your job” or “You win by getting an education” argument. You’ll have to do better than that. One technique I have used to address that is by adding required independent reading in the class. Students are required to do SSR three days a week, and when they finish early they can work on that. During our grammar component, I copy a back side to the daily skill. Students who finish early can complete extra practice for one extra point a piece if the answer is correct. This may sound like a lot of extra points, but daily grammar practice is only 10% of the total student grade. A third idea I have used with early finishers is to assign a skill reinforcement packet based on the student’s individual weaknesses (from some data source to get parent and student support). Track this in your grade book as an extra grade opportunity, not extra credit.
While those ideas will help you with students finishing early, there are, inevitably, those who will work at a much slower pace than anticipated. This part was harder to learn to manage than dealing with the early finishers. Part of it was my fault because I was so desperate to see student mastery before moving on. Well, some of my students were in another class bragging about how they could intentionally fail a quiz or act like they did not know answers and I would go back over the same thing over and over, thereby decreasing the work they actually had to do. Hearing this was an eye-opener because it was true. When your students progress slowly, you really have to find out why to help them. For example, is he/she just a perfectionist? Is it a sick/sleepy child? Can he/she really do it? If not, where, exactly, is the dilemma happening? Rotating around the room can help you assess the situation better, but the bottom line is you have to figure out the problem and help the student reach mastery. Extending the deadline and talking with the student and parent both are good strategies.
Finally, pacing must be adaptable for the students within the class block. I can’t put to words how important this is because I am still working to master it. I’m much better at the end of the semester when I have better knowledge of my students, but the start of the semester is much like a guessing game because I need to be well-planned enough to scale back and reteach or skip ahead and move on at a second’s glance. To accommodate this need, start by breaking down the steps of any skill you plan to teach for the day. When I taught plot, I created slides for every single step – plot, character types, setting, components of various settings. Then, when I see students know setting, I just blow through it and tell them how smart they are as I pass through the slides. Typically, I am able to do this on drama and some persuasive devices as well. If the students know it, don’t be the teacher who reteaches it just because that is what was on the lesson plan.

So, pacing is tremendously important. So much so that I am still trying to work it out in my own class. Hopefully these ideas will be helpful to you or you can make additional suggestions for my classroom.

Now… back to reevaluating my pacing and planning my instructional delivery. The EOC is coming May 7.

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