For the first ten years of my career, this was a question I wrestled with constantly. I purchased my fair share of books and attended more than a few workshops in search of the answer. I DID find it, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Then I kept looking.
The answer came in my third year on the job: Make them write more. That’s it! Make them write everyday. Make them write at the start of a lesson. Make them write at the end of a lesson. Make them write for homework. Write. Write. Write.
How? There are a lot of ways a teacher can do this. For me, the answer came in the form of The Writer’s Notebook.
In year three, I gave it a try. And I failed. Several times actually. And because I couldn’t make it work on those trials, I decided to give up and moved on.
But now I’m back! And I am even more convinced that this is the best tool in a writing teacher’s equipment bag.
My story with goal-setting is one of hits and misses. Mostly misses. I set goals that are too big reach in the time frame I set, or they are out of sync with all the roles I play in my day-to-day life.
But this past year I have had a small taste of success in setting a couple of goals and achieving them. It felt great! When I achieved them, it felt as if that part of my year was a little more meaningful. Afterward, I had a strange new experience with goal-setting: I wanted more. Around that time New York Times best selling author, Michael Hyatt published this book:
It’s that time of the year when most ELA teachers are looking to get serious about writing instruction. Maybe this is point where you start thinking about assigning a capstone-like writing project. And in the coming months you plan to block out a significant portion of your calendar to get your students ready.
“This paper doesn’t read like his other writing. It’s good. A little too good.”
If you have read student writing long enough, occasionally you come across a student who takes a big step up in skill and content. When this happens with my students, the first thing I do is search key phrases on Google. Usually, within minutes, I find the website they plagiarized. But on some occasions, I am stumped.
I know their writing, and I know this piece they turned in is not theirs. But the Google machine isn’t finding it no matter how hard I try.
I received an unexpected, yet most welcome, email the other day. A fellow teacher, and reader of Make Them Process It, sent me this message:
I’ve been reading your book and your blog and they both have been a big help. Thank you for all of your hard work and sharing your ideas with others. The ideas from your book and posts present the direction I want to move in as a teacher.
After years of teaching expository text, I have finally stumbled upon a miracle way to assess my students’ ability (or inability) to comprehend a short expository text. It’s not a four step summary, a rhetorical precis, or a well-crafted summary template using They Say/I Say sentence frames. It’s a selected response, multiple choice assessment . . . plus a brief constructed response.
I taught AP English Language and Composition for 10 years and thought I knew how to teach rhetoric and argumentation. Then I read this book and it filled in so many missing pieces for me. I could go on, and perhaps I will in another post, but let’s get back to the topic at hand.
The Reading Comprehension Formative Assessment
At the time of this posting, I am teaching English IV Expository Reading and Writing Course. I am in the midst of teaching the module titled “Juvenile Justice.” To kick off this module, the students read an article titled “Kids Are Kids — Until They Commit Crimes” by Marjie Lundstrom.
It’s two parts: selected response and constructed response. They are challenged to select the question that is most central to the text. That means that all the parts of the text, taken together, are essentially an answer to this question. I liken it to the gameshow Jeopardy: the short expository text is the answer, and the students need to provide the question.
After they provide the question, they justify their selection, referencing the text. I encourage quoting, paraphrasing, and any discussion of the author’s rhetorical choices (i.e. structure, devices, arrangement of detail/evidence, and word choice).
Here’s the process broken down simply:
The students are given the assessment.
The students take out their close reading of the text.
I explain the assessment.
They are given a time limit of 20 minutes.
I allow them to discuss it with classmates for 5 of the 20 minutes.
For 15 of the 20 minutes, they write their justifications.
The Take Away: Why You Need to Do This as Soon as Possible!
You should see how focused and attentive they are to the text. They furrow their brows. they engage in conversation while leaning over the page. They keep pointing to passages and declaring, “No, it can’t be X because of what the author said right here.”
The activity alone is good enough, but reading over the results shows me what they do (and do not) comprehend. I get a really good read on what they understand and what I need to teach moving forward. And the best part is that it is quick and easy to go over their responses!
Even when I would read summaries and precis, I would get hung up on formatting and wording. I was assessing too many elements of their written response. With this assessment, I am not tempted to look at their wording or sentence structure. I just focus on their ideas and references to the text. It is freeing!
Next Steps for Me (Us?)
I am working on a rubric that can help me score this and put it in the grade book (not that this is a necessary step, but it is clarifying for me). My students tend to get motivated when the stakes are a little higher, so I put it in as an assessment grade for 20 points.
In the near future, I plan to explain the layout of this rubric. It is intentional, starting with the low score on the left and moving to the high score on the right. Also, I am doing my best to take out “deficit” language, where the scoring criteria discusses what the student did not do or where he or she performed poorly. I try to keep it behavioral, describing what the student did rather than attach vague adverbs to a criterion that lacks meaning (i.e. inadequately, effectively, or flawlessly).
What you see here is the rough, rough draft (I put it together just before typing this post). I would love your input!
What do you think? Leave your thoughts as a reply below.