Monthly Archives: April 2013

Week 31 – Student Response: Brainstorming

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Here are two parts of the brainstorming work that Student A did in order to write the Compare and Contrast paper, the rubric for which is on the previous post.  There are a series of questions that I ask students to consider as a way to scaffold (help them with) it.  This student chose to compare and contrast the main characters in the novels To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Whether you agree with her answers or not, the work she is putting into it is impressive.  She is clearly thinking about her answers and looking for evidence.

Comparing Francie to Scout

Comparing Francie to Scout

contrast brst tree

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Week 31 – The Compare and Contrast Essay

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Here is the rubric from which students started working on their Humanities 4 paper.  Because they read two novels over two months, students were asked to compare and contrast either the plots, the characters, or the settings.  In the coming days, I will be uploading student responses to this prompt.  I will show you their work as they moved through the rubric.

Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 7.01.51 PM

 

Week 31 – The Creativity Trap

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Terry Pratchett in his book Wee Free Men describes a scene where a little boy is sitting on the ground bawling his lungs out because he can’t choose one candy to eat from all of the choices at his fingertips.  He is so frustrated and overwhelmed that he is unable to move forward.  Fortunately, I don’t teach young children, but I’ve seen the equivalent of this behavior in the students I have taught when it comes to creativity.

As a society, we seem to cherish creativity.  And don’t get me wrong, according to the American Management Association (AMA), it is one of the four most important skills a worker can have.  Leaving aside the question of whether or not creativity is a skill instead of an inherited trait, I have to agree, creativity is enormously important.  One of the most important abilities (better than “skill”, wouldn’t you say?), it can also be a huge burden to students.

And, as a middle school teacher, I have the enormous responsibility of preparing my students to be scholars.  (There, I just placed myself inextricably in a particular camp of educators — bring on the firing squad.)  For me, this means that my students will be prepared to continue being prepared to go to college. (It is amazing how much pressure is put on public school teachers to get their students into college, no matter what.) Done correctly, this should also prepare them to live successfully in whatever world they choose to inhabit.  And trust me, I get how different college is from the real world.  It’s a big, hopeful leap of logic.  Still, I need to look parents, heads of schools, governors, and, most importantly, my students’ future teachers in the eye and say, Yes, these students are educated.  So, how do I prove that and allow students to be creative?

Honestly, I find rubrics to be the answer.  Whoa, you may be thinking.  But doesn’t a rubric cap creativity?  Well, yes and no.  Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, a parent came into a teacher’s classroom clearly intending to rip said teacher a new one.  The parent was really upset because her child was up until all hours working on creating a world map for class.  The child was tired and cranky and upset because she hadn’t finished by morning.  The teacher had already collected and graded the maps.  She pulled the student’s map out of her stack and opened it up with the rubric.  Amazingly, the child had colored in the map by showing the elevation of all land masses in different and graded colors.  No wonder she was up all night.  The teacher explained to the parent that this work, although beautifully done, was not what she had asked for, and she showed the parent the rubric.

The parent then saw the grade her child had earned.  Then she really freaked out.  The teacher had graded the child on the knowledge she had proven, whereas the parent wanted her child graded on effort spent.  “But she worked so hard!” the parent wailed.  True enough, but the World History teacher needed to know that her student knew the continents, oceans, and seas in order to move forward in class.  “This rubric doesn’t allow my child to be creative!” the parent accused, apparently forgetting that the reason she had come in was because the creative child wasn’t sleeping because she was being creative.

The parent was told that the child would have the opportunity to go back and label the items she was missing for full credit.  Then the parent argued that her daughter’s self-esteem would be crushed if she had to re-do it.  The teacher began to wonder, at this point, if the parent hadn’t done the work herself.  The teacher explained to the parent that it was very important for students to do what was required on the rubric first, and then, when finished, he or she can add whatever they like as long as they don’t obscure the work.

Later, when the work was returned to the student, the teacher explained to the child that all she needed to do was label the map properly and then her grade would be an A.  The child wasn’t happy about it, but she elected to stay in at lunch and do the required work.  She finished it in under 20 minutes and skipped out into the sunshine with her peers.

When the next map happened, she shyly asked if she could add mermaids to her map.  The answer was, “Yes, but do what is required on the rubric first.”

The rubric covers your tushie as a teacher and as a student.  It clearly explains what the students are responsible for and helps them to learn to prioritize.  It does not need to be a cap on creativity, but rather to help channel effort so that everybody is getting out of the assignment what is needed.  Boundless creativity can lead to not just small boys whining and crying on the floor, but, if my experience is anything to go on, parents, too.

Week 30 – The Teacher Is Out

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I hate being sick. I hate having to have a substitute, no matter how capable. I have had all of these ideas (the greatness of them to be decided at a later date) which may be lost forever in fever dreams. With less than sixty days until I’m done, this is not the time I would have chosen to be out. Oh well… It is what it is. More to come when my brain clears.

Stay well, everyone.

Week 29 – Writing Rubric Dissection

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So, I’m going to dissect one of the easiest rubrics I use to guide beginning students through the writing process.  Imagine that everything in the bordered cells is on one sheet of paper (more or less as shown in “Week 29 – Why a Rubric?“). All the rest is comment.

Rubric for Humanities 1 Paper
Notice that there is no real prompt yet.  Learning how to read a prompt will be another lesson.
Part 1 – Independent Grades
Students can see the parts of the writing process which they will be responsible for.  Many students sit down and write a paper the night before it is due; they brag about it.  Of course they can, but nine times out of ten the paper they will write would have been improved by having put their ideas through the writing process, even if it means just an editing.  They also get a sense of the kind of work that makes a strong paper.
Brainstorm and Plot Map 10 Due:
10 points total for this work. This is not about quality. Either they did it or they didn’t. This always means when they need to have it in class.
Brainstorms and Plot Maps are really two separate things.  The brainstorming happens as a series of questions that students answer as a way to think more deeply about the elements of literature.  The plot map is a series of steps that ask the student to put the events of the novel in order.  This may look like outlining, but it isn’t.
Outline 5 Due:
Students are taught a basic outlining format.  They pick up information straight off of their brainstorm and plot map and put it into an outline form.  They are required to skip lines between ideas and not to write in complete sentences.
Rough Draft 10 Due:
The due date is super important here.  Our next task simply cannot be done if students do not come to class prepared.  Students who do not have it finished write their papers while everyone else is doing the Clang Session.
Students start drafting.  They are asked to write paragraphs based on their outlines.  I ask them not to worry about grammar or spelling or anything (at all) that keeps their hands from moving. They are exhorted to shut down anything that keeps them from turning the phrases on their outlines into sentences and paragraphs on their papers.  If they are working on a computer, I ask them to shut off the grammar and spell check totally.  I want to see their eyes moving from the outline to the paper, from the outline to the paper until it is written.  Damn the torpedos!  Full speed ahead!
Clang Session 5 Due:
Students get credit for reading another writer’s paper back to them.  They are not allowed to make any comments whatsoever unless they are specifically asked for help by the writer.
The clang session is the place where students learn that their first draft is not good enough.  What we write and what we think we write are often two separate things.  The process is simple: a student trades papers with another writer and has their own paper read back to them.  As they listen, they stop the reader to make changes on their own paper.  They will learn to change out words, fix sentences, and move ideas around to make their writing clearer by ear.
Second Draft 10 Due:
Students make the corrections and changes based on what they learned in the clang session.  We’ve now hit “crafting”.  They also know that this 2nd draft will be given a score for quality for one of the 6+1 Writing Traits.  They have anchored the trait by the time they get to this step, but until they have to give a classmate’s paper a score, they really don’t “get it”.
Peer Edit 5 Due:
This is the point where they score a classmate’s paper.
Third Draft 10 Due:
Students make changes (I won’t call them corrections) based on the recommendations of their peer(s).  They also know that they will be turning this paper into me for a final grammar and mechanics edit.  As such, they want to make any corrections to ensure that their paper is as grammatically watertight as possible.  Officially, this is the first time I’ve seen their work, although I’ve been coaching them from the sidelines since the beginning.
Personal Skills Record 10 Due:
This gets picked up with the final draft.
Upon getting their paper back, students learn the grammar rules they broke so that they can not make them again.
Total: __ / 65 pts.
Students turn all of the above in when they turn in the final draft.  None of the grades go in the book until I see all of the above.   I am looking evidence of how the thinking of the student changed throughout the process of writing the paper.  Did they hear problems in their paper when they heard it read back to them?  Did they take into account the score they were given and make appropriate changes?  Did they correct all of the grammar and mechanics mistakes?  Is their final paper the result of a writing process?
Part 2 – Final Draft Due:
This will be the result of all of the above labor.  It also tells the student what they will be writing about.  Students will refer back to it as they write.
Paragraph One – Introductory Paragraph
Introduce the paper  (Touch on setting, characters, and plot) 1   2   3   4   5
Here we see points given for the quality of the work.  If the student receives a 1, 2, or 3 which is underlined, then they will have a writing conference with me.  Students get a choice to either fix the paragraph right then or wait and put it in effect in the next paper.
Author 5
Title 5
Remember I’m working with young writers.  They honestly do not know that they need to name the author and the title of the book they read in the introduction.  In later papers, I add these points to the overall grade for the introductory paragraph.  They get five points just for remembering to say the author and the title.
Paragraph Two
Setting 1   2   3   4   5
Atmosphere (tone) 1   2   3   4   5
Paragraph Three
Main Character 1   2   3   4   5
For each of these above, I’m looking for the amount and quality of information in the paragraph. But I’m also looking to see what transferred from the brainstorm to the final draft.
Paragraph Four
Plot Development 1   2   3   4   5
Similar to the character and setting paragraphs, I’m looking at their plot development chart to see how they rearrange the information to make it read as a summary through to the final draft.
Climactic Moment 5
Similarly to the author and title bit, students have a hard time not giving away the resolution even when they identify the climactic moment.  They are really getting five points for not giving a plot spoiler.
Paragraph Five
Conclusion Paragraph 1   2   3   4   5
(Remind readers about what was important in tone, character and plot)
For very new writers, I sometimes dump the conclusion paragraph entirely.  I don’t count it against them.  If they are expected to write one, I’m looking to see how effectively they wrap up their ideas.
Over-all paper
Idea and Content Trait 1   2   3   4   5
As we move through the year, we will add Organization, Word Choice, and Voice.  This is the only time when their grade might be compromised by having a lower score on a trait.  Overall, it helps me to see if they have taken on board the suggestions from the second draft.  I’m looking to see if the score their peer gave them is reasonable and if their score improved by the changes they made.  I have been known to give extra credit if the students made changes which seriously improved their papers.
Grammar and Mechanics 1   2   3   4   5
I never take off points for the first grammar mistake.  No matter how many times you edit, you will always find a mistake.  Students find this reassuring.
Rubric 5
Students receive five points just for turning in this piece of paper with their work.  I rarely, if ever, write on a final draft.  I use the rubric to give feedback.  I know they are reading the rubric; they will never go back and read the notes on the paper because they are not writing another draft.  My time is frankly too precious to waste in writing things that students are not going to read.
Total for Final Draft: __ / 55 pts.
Students are always asked to add up the points to make sure I’ve done it correctly.
Total Paper: __ / 120 pts.
Et, voila!
Students are required to keep the work in their portfolio at school.  The rubric, however, can be taken home for “bragging rights”.  Although I always ask that they bring back the rubric, they never do.  It’s okay.  It’s all in my grading program in the end.

Week 29 – Why a Rubric?

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Essays are an important part of academia and scholarly thought from Plato to Ben Franklin to Carl Sagan.  Writing them and reading them place us in good company.  They are by no means the end all and be all of academic thought.  (Please see “The Readiness Is All“.)  However, I think that for sheer portability and packaging, the essay does such a lovely job of allowing thoughts to be communicated widely.  It seems such a shame, then, that essays which are being used for testing purposes are being deleted from databases, when they could be used to move thinking forward.

So we practice essays.  And to do this, we need a rubric.  I like rubrics.  For one, it requires my grader to prove that they are invested in the work I’ve done.  Once, in college, we were asked to do a project which we were then expected to present to the class.  I remember being truly hurt (not just my ego&#8212but my grade&#8212I was a scholarship student and couldn’t afford to have low grades) by the fact that the grading became a popularity contest.  And I argued, strongly, in class, that it was unjust to grade something when there was no way of knowing what the expectations were.  At that point, people were simply judging on what they liked.  That’s fine for Facebook, but it is a serious mistake in the classroom.  (I have to say that this still rankles.  I felt totally betrayed by my classmates and my professors. Hung out to dry.  That class was hell, and I think those professors should have known better.  Come on, HDSR, I hope you aren’t still pulling that crap.)  I vowed when I came into the classroom that my students would know how and why they were earning their grades.  Which brings us back to rubrics.

Here is an example of a rubric I usually start with at the beginning of the year.  It is a simple, five paragraph, expository essay.  Students tend to come to me having written “book reports” if they have written anything at all, and that’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with that.  However, book reports tend to be persuasive in bent.  They may give some information on plot, extol the virtues of the book that the student thinks the teacher wants to see, and wrap up by telling the reader to read the book.  As you will see, for the first few papers students write, I categorically deny them the right to say whether or not they liked the book for the purpose of moving them away from book reports.  First I teach them some basic elements of literature: plot, character, and setting.  Then I hand them this:

Rubric for Humanities 1 Paper
Part 1 – Independent Grades
Brainstorm and Plot Map 10 Due:
Outline 5 Due:
Rough Draft 10 Due:
Clang Session 5 Due:
Second Draft 10 Due:
Peer Edit 5 Due:
Third Draft 10 Due:
Personal Skills Record 10 Due:
Total: __ / 65 pts.
Part 2 – Final Draft Due:
Paragraph One – Introductory Paragraph
Introduce the paper.  (Touch on setting, characters, and plot.)

1   2   3   4   5
Author 5
Title 5
Paragraph Two
Setting 1   2   3   4   5
Atmosphere (tone) 1   2   3   4   5
Paragraph Three
Main Character 1   2   3   4   5
Paragraph Four
Plot Development 1   2   3   4   5
Climactic Moment 5
Paragraph Five
Conclusion Paragraph 1   2   3   4   5
(Remind readers about what was important in tone, character and plot)
Over-all paper
Idea and Content Trait 1   2   3   4   5
Grammar and Mechanics 1   2   3   4   5
Rubric 5
Final Draft Total: __ / 55 pts.
Paper Total: __ / 120 pts.

And that’s the beginning.  As the year goes on, and as students gain new skills, the rubric reflects what has been learned.  I think I will copy and paste the rubric into the next post so that I can dissect it for you.  The why is more important than the how.  But now I need to focus on which rubric to hand to my students tomorrow.  It may just be time for “Review/Reflection”.