Thursday, May 9, 2013

If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You’ll End Up Somewhere Else

The following is a guest post by Juliana Meehan.

As I sat with my stack of 100+ personal narratives waiting for grading, the enormity of the task threatened to swamp whatever energy I had.  After thirteen years of teaching high school and middle school language arts, the idea of having to mark those papers with notations like “run-on” and “fragment” ad nauseam drove me to seek a different solution.  In my desperation, I remembered a session I wandered into at AMLE the year before, where Catherine Garrison of Measured Progress gave a talk on formative assessment and learning targets coupled with the Common Core Curriculum Standards (CCCS).  The idea was simple but powerful, and I realized in my consternation that what I had learned from Garrison was the answer to my present dilemma.

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I put all my papers aside and took out the CCCS.  The idea was simple:  select those core standards that pertain to narrative writing (written in “teacher-ese”) and turn them into student-friendly language with the words “I can” in front of them.  For instance, some excerpts,

For composing (A):

A1_____ I can have my story unfold as a series of clear events.

A2_____ I can create a background for my story by telling stories, giving examples.
A3_____ I can organize events so that they unfold naturally and logically.

For publishing (B):

B1_____ I can show that I am editing my work.

B2_____ I can vary sentence length, depending on meaning, reader/ listener interest, and style.

For doing research to build knowledge (C):

C1_____ I can look at ways other writers have created their stories by reading several stories and imitating the style (or styles) that I think fit my work.

C2_____ I can do a bit of research so that my story is as realistic as possible; I will be able to show what I’ve learned and where I found it (from books, the Internet, interviews, etc.).

For using conventions of English (D):

D1_____ I can make sure it’s clear what character a pronoun refers to in my writing.

D2_____ I can use commas to set off an introductory phrase.

D3_____ I can use a comma with a conjunction to correct a run-on sentence.

It took a lot of work, but now my stack of papers could be coded at the end with E17 for “run-ons,” and A7 for “give background, thoughts and feelings.”  I would write short codes once, not many times.

Students and teacher then collaborate to decide which targets should be worked on first (I call it “writing triage”) and then, when a student demonstrates mastery, we put a check mark in their sheet and they move on to the next one(s).

Having done the hard work of breaking down the CCCS and creating those targets, I would now be doing several powerful things all at once:

  • Giving students a rationale for my grading (I would explain the CCCS to them, i.e., “These are not my rules; they’re what students your age are expected to know and be able to do all across the country!”)
  • Putting the CCCS right into the students’ hands, thereby transferring responsibility for and ownership of their work to them.
  • Providing clear expectations.
  • Providing students with measurable targets.
  • Keeping my eyes on the CCCS.
  • Uncovering patterns:  whole-class and individual strengths and weaknesses.
  • Developing a system by which I could easily group students for whole-class or flexible, small group instruction.
  • Providing a solid and easy way to formatively assess going forward.

And the targets were all ready for any future writing assignments too.  I only needed to do this once!

Now students would have feedback and goals set for their next writing work.  They’d know exactly what they should be working on for a better grade.  And I would have done the work of assessment with minimal frustration and repetition, knowing that I was setting my students up for future achievement.

I am indebted to Garrison for her fine work and to Yogi Berra for his catchphrase, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else," which the students loved as our learning targets motto!

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