Archive for October, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 1.57.46 PMSo, I’ve been thinking about authentic audience for student work for a while. Sometimes I do more than think about it; I talk about it. Often, this doesn’t go well. My audience in those conversation may be authentic, but is not enthusiastic. Given the reaction to the last time I brought this up with a group, I haven’t discussed it in certain circles for a while. However, the winds may be shifting. It’s like el niño. You don’t always know when the shift is coming, but it feels really different when it does.

Ok, I so desperately want my students to create for their peers. It kind of makes me crazy. And yet since moving to high school, I have not been able to get this going in a way that is acceptable to me. But now that el niño is in town, I am trying again.

Here’s my plan.

Students choose a sentence from our book (so far Slaughterhouse-Five and Life of Pi), a sentence that has grabbed them in some way. Then, they write a short piece of fiction or non-fiction (400-600 words) that includes that sentence. The “expert sentence” could appear at the beginning, middle, or end of the student’s work. Finally, once the piece is complete and edited, students record it as a podcast that also includes a very short conversation with a classmate about why they chose the given sentences.

I had an old podbean site that was sitting around from years ago. So, I repurposed it and we are up and ready. When I shared this idea with the class, a few of them were worried that people might be mean. As we got working and writing, I heard things like “I don’t like my story,” or “this isn’t going anywhere.” I responded with some variation of “this is your work going out into the world with your name on it. Don’t put something out there that you don’t think is good.” I did not reply with anything about the deadline or due date.

I am not going to sit here and claim that all the students have written amazing pieces or took the entire enterprise with total seriousness. However, a number of them were interested in the chance to write creatively; something that they mentioned they haven’t done in a while. Plus, we will do a piece for each book we read, so they’ll get to write and read more of their work.

Feel free to listen to the stories that are ready so far. Truth and Fiction on podbean. I found a few other teachers who said they would have students listen and give feedback, but I know everyone has her own class as well. We need to build a wider audience to get some responses. I have put a link to a google form for feedback.

The students would love to hear from anyone.






So, I’ve been thinking about differentiating recently. Partly, it’s something that as a school we have talked about. Partly, it’s an area in which I could improve my teaching practice. Partly, the awesome @LisaCinPa posted this on FB the other day (I asked her if I could post this screenshot.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 9.09.44 PM

To backtrack a little in time, I learned to teach, for real, in the Chicago Public School system on the Westside. There were rules in my school. One of them was: language arts happens in reading groups, always. End of story. That meant that for 30 minutes I sat at a table with 1/2 the class (usually more than a dozen students) and the other 1/2 had to have something to do that was independent. Then we swapped. I got good at groups. I got good at determining what was independent work and insisting that kids figured some things out for themselves. Otherwise, I would have been answering questions during my entire reading group. I got good at mixing and remixing the groups of readers. I didn’t talk about it with the term differentiation, but sometimes that was what I was doing.

Then I moved to my current, suburban, independent school, and we had smaller classes and more whole class reading discussion. We had books that kids took home and read! How great is that?! Not all actual reading had to happen at school. My 5th graders read for homework, and we talked or did skill based lessons based on the reading the next day. Group work happened on projects, which I did spend a lot of time thinking about and carefully planning. Instruction did not have to be tied to groups. My entire class was only a little bigger than the size of my “small group” from before. Then I moved to Upper School and there was even less group time that was instructional time. I have to admit I got out of the habit. It’s not that I never had students in groups or that I never grouped based on skill or need etc, but I don’t think I did it enough. I’m trying to change that.

Let me tell you what I did the other day.

First, we had some whole class discussion about a few things. Then, I grouped students based on what they chose to discuss in a an online forum post the previous night. We are reading Slaughterhouse-Five and the prompt for the online discussion for chapter 8 was this:

Free choice today. Pick something that you noticed in the chapter–a big idea, an interesting detail, a pattern–and share your thinking on the topic. What issues did this raise for you, what other parts of the book did it make you recall?

Students brought up all different topics, but they also fell into groups. So, after our big group (of 12!, sometimes I still pinch myself) discussion, I met with students based on their interest from the forum. Other students were working on creative writing (which I will write later, because it is a going well). I got a chance to extend the conversation that each group had started. No group was larger than 4, a few were individuals.

It was great to sit right across from a person or three or four and have what seemed like a very personalized conversation. I made a few notes before coming to class–what did each person mention, what did that bring to mind for me, details they should connect to the chosen topic etc. Some conversations were more basic, calling attention to important information that might have been missed, but others extended the conversation well beyond the basics. But because it was on a topic the student chose, I knew I would have more interest, attention, buy in, etc. For a few students who are not big talkers and are easily distracted in class, this represented prolonged interaction.

I’m a glass 3/4 full type of person, mostly, but I swear every student appreciated the personal attention. Plus, I connected with each person around ideas and academic work. Seriously, who doesn’t want to think that he or she is the one having the important conversation and adding that key idea?

A Balanced Diet

Posted: October 15, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,
flickr photo by smiteme shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

flickr photo by smiteme shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

So, I’ve been thinking about assessment. One my “duties to be assigned later” is to co-chair, along with the three Division Heads, my school’s Prek-12 curricular group. This group consists of teacher leaders and academic deans or the equivalent. We focused on assessment last year and are continuing that topic this year.

One of our goals as leaders of the group was to broaden the types of assessments in each discipline. While we did not want to dictate that each department had to do one of this and one of that, we did want to diversify. I have taken to lobbying for a balanced assessment diet. I feel like this term respects that each discipline is different, while making it clear that all assessments being the same format is not the goal. I hoped that this phrase would give the department leaders a way to begin discussions with their department members–a way to say, “Let’s look at our assessments for any given course and see if they spread out the way we want them to.” Or, “Are our assessments assessing the skills that we teach?” Or even, “Are there skills we want to promote in our students that we are not assessing?”

A few of the chairpeople have adopted the balanced assessment diet term. And, what I hear when they speak is that they feel they have a framework that makes sense to them, that they can own. Again, it’s important, I believe, that as the leaders of the group we have not said your balanced assessment diet should be x. Maybe your department is going meatless, maybe your department loves a good milkshake. Fine, just mix it up with some fruit, some grains, some veg, a little good fat.

To continue with the food analogy, there should be something in the meal plan for everyone. I was discussing this issue today with @Betny802. My goal in assessing students is to find out what they have learned, give the students feedback on my findings, and report back to parents. If a particular type of assessment does not give me good information, I need to rethink that format. For example, when I taught 5th grade I had students write essays about the books we read. I used this writing to assess their writing skills. I did not use these papers to assess student reading comprehension for the most part. For 5th grader writing an essay was not an effective way to determine comprehension. Now that I teach in high school,  papers are a more common tool for general assessment in English class, but not the only tool. Students are more experienced readers and writers, and the expectation is that they should be able to write effectively enough that their writing is an accurate reflection of their thinking. Sometimes this is true. And, writing will not be everyone’s best format for communication.

Over the course of a semester or year, I want students to learn content and skills and be able to demonstrate that knowledge. Some of what students will learn is how to demonstrate knowledge in a particular format. However, I never want a student to know that all assessments will that dreaded format x. Therefore, if I assess everything in this one form, knowing there are students who are better in other forms, I have ensured that the information I gather is really about student ability in a particular format.  I should assess in a variety of ways over the course of a semester. In fact, I believe it is my responsibility to do so. Am I super-assessment-teacher all the time? No. Sometimes I am more successful, sometimes less. But by keeping the goal of a balanced assessment diet in mind, I think I can come closer to my goal.


So, I’ve been thinking about participation and how to teach and evaluate it. This has been a topic of discussion among the English teachers in Upper School as well. We all agree we want students to participate. Some of us agree on the desire to give some points/grades for this. Fewer of us agree on how to asses or determine the points or grades.

I am of the opinion that if I am going to grade something I need to have taught it and made it clear what the expectations are for good work in that area. I knocked around a couple of ideas, even got documents ready with rationale etc. and then went another direction. Here’s what I did.

Set up:

  • students were given the following homework assignment:
    • Read p110-136 (Slaughterhouse-Five)
    • Reply to a classmate’s comment on Ch 4 forum (on our online class page on Moodle)
    • Be prepared to be an active participant in a discussion where the question is: We learn in the first part of ch 5 that Billy voluntarily entered the hospital to try to recover from the war. “They had both (Rosewater and Billy) found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war…So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe.” Given the evidence, how successful has Billy been in this task? Come with details ready to support your thoughts.
      • Using this rubric, you will evaluate your participation in the discussion, as will I. It will count for a quiz grade.
  • When class started I had us all sitting around a number of big tables and made a diagram of who was sitting where. 
  • I told the students I was not there to answer questions or to say yes or no to statements. My only job was to record or maybe ask more questions. I shared that I would record comments (I) and references to the text (T). My goal was 20 minutes. (Note: I based this format on my recollection of the Junior Great Books discussion format that I used many, many years ago.)

Discussion starts:

  • A student reread the prompt and someone began.
  • I recorded comments as described above (and added a Y symbol for times students indicated agreement, but not much else and C for connection to another text!)
  • Initially conversation was stilted and the kids called on each other to “take turns”. That stopped after some encouragement from me, and conversation became more free-flowing. I did not enter the discussion at all until probably 15-20 minutes in, maybe more. I then did as I said I would and asked some more questions that would push some ideas that others had begun. Conversation continued in full force for 26 minutes, at which point I decided we had talked this idea out.
  • I recorded the conversation, but don’t know how well that went and have not listened yet.

Student Self-Reflection:

  • Post conversation, students filled out this rubric on their participation and turned it in. We then did a few other quick things.
    • Note–one student commented he felt prepared and hopes we do this again. Another was very honest about her lack of comments and explained her reasoning. A third believed he should be rewarded for not wavering at all from the stated topic.
  • I had the next period free and responded on the bottom of each self-evaluation with a few sentences and a grade out of 20 points. For those who did not participate enough or barely enough, I asked if there was anything I could do to encourage/support more commenting. I returned the rubrics with my comments the next day in class.

Here is the picture of my discussion notes.

Conversation notes

Conversation notes


This discussion took place 6th period on Thursday of our first full week of school, after back to school night. The students clearly came in ready, for the most part, and did a great job, again for the most part. Good energy and momentum in class. 

Now I am thinking about our next discussion. I think I will set some individual goals with students. For some, the goal will simply be to contribute more. For others, I would like them to focus on connecting ideas, doing what I often do in other discussion. A few others I plan to ask to think about being influenced by others, letting themselves hear new ideas and be altered by them. These couple of students have clear ideas, but tend to come in feeling strongly, share their ideas strongly, repeat their ideas again, and then leave thinking the same thing. While there are times that it is ok to hold firmly to ideas, I believe a few of my students need a little encouragement in allowing themselves to bend. (This will be a bit tricky to say tactfully.)

What else should I consider? What recommendations do you have for me?



flickr photo by ClevrCat shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

flickr photo by ClevrCat shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and what students struggle to do when they write.

With my new class this year (a section of senior English) I can now say that I have taught Language Arts or English to students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 12. When I first made the move from 5th grade to Upper School and started teaching a section of 9th grade English, I was expecting a big difference in the writing. And to some extent there was a big jump. The sentences were better; the ideas the students were wrestling with were more sophisticated. Yet, in many ways what separated the more and less successful papers was familiar. The more successful essays were about an idea, not the book. They moved easily and built an argument. The less successful essays had too much summary and ended up being more about what happened in the book than the student’s thoughts on an idea. These essays were more awkward and did not flow.

Now, I realize there are a number of theories on what is most important in paper grading. How much should the grade be based on content or form? I fall quite heavily on the content side myself, but even for me, content girl, there is a form threshold below which I find the entire enterprise to be pretty well doomed. Having read the first set of papers in my section of senior English, I am finding many of the old, familiar distinctions between the successful and not successful essays. Certainly, the question I asked my seniors to consider was much more sophisticated than the questions I used to ask my 5th graders. And, the book with which they were considering the question was more complex. Again, as I saw between 5th and 9th, the sentences the seniors wrote generally in better shape than those the 9th graders wrote. In this batch of papers I’m not sure I saw a fragment, maybe few coma splices or run-ons. At the sentence level, most students were in decent shape. The form issues centered around organization, order, and specificity. It came down to having an idea (that answers the prompt) and making a point.

With this in mind, I think I can hone in on some editing shorthand. (I have written about looking for the appropriate feedback to give students several times.) I plan to borrow heavily from Danny Lawrence, the veteran North Carolina teacher who led one of the summer writing sessions I attended. He had 3 comments he used when doing quick, holistic grading:

  • AP–address the prompt
  • BS–be specific
  • So What –need to make a point

While I have a small class and will give some additional feedback as well, I think these three biggies will be my updated version of my 5th grade wavy line (meaning this sentence needs to be rethought) and * (meaning add more detail/specifics here or keep going).

If you have taught at a number of grade levels, what has been your experience with student writing? Have any magic tricks for helping students move away from retelling?