Tag Archives: testing

Week 36 – A Pop Essay to Make You Foam at the Mouth


As the year is winding down, I’ve been wanting to assess my students on the writing process when left totally up to them.  I also wanted to know what they took from the movie “A Knight’s Tale” that we watched in class as part of our unit on the middle ages.  (We watched a safer, denuded, and cleaned up “airplane” version.)   So when they came back from recess, I said, “Okay, Pop Essay!  Get out binder paper and your notes.”


Using your notes and the True/False list you made while viewing the A Knight’s Tale, outline and write a first draft of an expository essay.  You have one class period only.

 Here is your prompt:  How historically accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”?  Describe the most important moments that are accurate and explain why, and then describe the most interesting  moments that are inaccurate and explain why.  What conclusions can you draw about our popular notion of the middle ages based on the film?

Do your outline here.


The students never batted an eye.  They all got out paper and their notes, and we looked at the prompt.

We took a minute to “deconstruct” the prompt.  First I asked them where we would find our thesis statement.  We underlined the first question.  I explained that they would need to turn it into a statement, but clearly I need to go over it again because one student used the question as it was written.

Then we numbered the jobs that the prompt was asking to be answered.   We put a 1 at “describe” and drew an arrow to what we were to describe and circled it: the important moments.  Then we put a 1a at the word “why” to remind us to give examples and reasons.  Then we put a 2 at the second “describe” drew a circle around the words “interesting moments” and drew a squiggly line under the word “interesting” to make it clear that “important” and “interesting” are two different concepts.  Then we put a 2a at the word, “why”.

Then we looked at the last sentence, and students were relieved to see the word “conclusions”. They accurately connected the word to a conclusion paragraph.  You don’t need to do it that way, but it does make a nice way to wrap up your thoughts.

Then I introduced the idea of the magic number 3.  They need two sets of moments.  Emphasis on the plural.  I told them that it is always useful to pick three ideas to support their thesis.  This meant that with a topic sentence they would be looking at about seven sentences for their body paragraphs.  Each moment must be supported.  The three moments plus three examples plus one topic sentence equals about seven sentences.  That gave them an idea of the length of the paper.

I wanted them to give me strong outlines, and so I told them that they needed to make the outline specific enough that if they didn’t finish the paper, I could still give them credit based on what they were planning to say as shown in their outline.  One the other hand, I warned them that they didn’t want to make the outline so specific that they didn’t have time to write it.  Only one didn’t get to write.  But his outline is amazing.  (We’ll work on it.)  Some finished early.  I told them that in this case, they need to check that they were on topic, then do as much revision as possible before the essays are picked up.  They needed to think about legibility, grammar and mechanics, idea and content, organization, word choice, and voice.

It takes time to master timed writing. They should not beat themselves up because they didn’t finish, but to consider why they hadn’t.

Instead of posting several essays, I thought I could get more student’s work up if I cherry picked some paragraphs and moments that I found to be most interesting.

Here are some openings:

The movie “A Knight’s Tale” focuses on medieval times.  But is the movie accurate to history?  In this paper:  What is accurate?  What is inaccurate? and why?

How accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”? This movie is about a squire, the helper of a knight, named William, and how he changed his stars.  Which means that he went from squire to knight.

Is “A Knight’s Tale” historically inaccurate? Or is it both?  Let us find out.

And some 1st body paragraphs:

This will be the accurate section of my paper.  Training daily is a huge part of a knight’s  life.  That is how they have lots of power to hold these huge swords (not always big swords, but heavy).  Courtly love is love in the nobility.  One of the rules is when you speak to your lover, you will foam at the mouth.  The Black Prince is a real character.  His real name is Prince Edward.  He is famous for his victories.  He does help other kings and, yes, he does tournaments.  There is still many more. 

First of all, this movie had a lot of accuracies, some unexpected.  There was, in fact, daily training for all knights.  William wasn’t doing a lot of extra training. All the rules of jousting and the stuff that happened (including getting hurt) did happen.  This is important because it was actually unwarped despite how silly it sometimes seemed.  William also followed the rules of courtly love.  That is very important because to some people could see that it would be crazy how one would follow and constantly think about another.

Now I will describe a few accurate parts.  Most of the dances were accurate, but not all of them were.  This was important because William got closer to the girl he liked.  Only widows having men’s job (blacksmithing) was accurate.  William needed a good blacksmith.  People were hanged.  Roland uses this to show William what could happen to him.

First, I will discuss the accuracies of this movie. First on accuracies is Knights.  Knights had to have people pay them taxes so they can go to a tournament.  Also, in Europe, if you are not of noble birth, you cannot be a knight.  Next is Ulric von Lichtenstein.  Ulric was an actual character from history who was a knight.  Next is apprentices.  Most children were apprenticed around the age of 7.

And some 2nd body paragraphs (I didn’t give the whole paragraphs for some of these because there was a lot of repetition.)

This next paragraph is about how inaccurate it is.  They filled the lances with pasta.  The makers did that so they could have an effect.  The blacksmith put a Nike symbol on the armor.  First, they didn’t have Nike, and second the blacksmiths did not put a symbol on armor (as far as we know).  They did not know what people looked like back then.  For example, the Black Prince, we don’t know what he looks like.

Now I will explain three false moments.  One of them is that David Bowie did not exist then.  He was born very recently.  The outfits for women were very inaccurate. They looked like “Star Wars” clothes!  The lances broke.  They wouldn’t have been able to afford so many.

Next,  the inaccurate moments.  They had no trial for criminals.  When William got arrested, he went straight to public humiliation.  They also filled the lances with linguini.  I would not expect to see that in the middle ages, but it did add pop to the jousting.  Finally, the women used hair dye.  We know that women would dress their hair elaborately, but did not color their hair. 

Finally, roses were pink and white, not deep red.

They did not eat turkey legs.

First, in the middle ages, there was no hair dye and women would have worn their hair up and covered.  I know this because we have watched many middle ages documentaries and they said exactly that.

And for some conclusions:

Not thinking historically, this movie was funny and exciting.  If we had not learned about the middle ages, everyone in the class would think that the middle ages wasn’t all that bad.  They also would think most knights were mostly too snobby and proud to congratulate anyone else.  If everyone had thought these things, they would be totally wrong.

I learned that some movies are accurate and some aren’t.  Example, this one was more accurate.  I learned and saw some of the rules of courtly love. Like when the two lovers, William and Jocelyn, are talking and William is tripping over his words and you can hear him.

I am very pleased with the results.  The students’ voices come out loud and clear while strongly reflecting what we learned in class.  They also had little problem transferring the writing process to a quick essay test.  So, yay, yay, and yay.

So, here’s to Heath Ledger (god rest his soul), people having fun with History, and whoever created the essay.  Add them all up, and you get statements like “when you speak to your lover, you foam at the mouth.”



Week 32 – Where to Find Success


I’ve been struggling recently with what it means for students to be successful. I’m concerned about a recent trend in educational policies that swing from one extreme to the other, i.e., testing mania versus free range learning.  It has struck me that both ends of the spectrum often use “success” as the reason to do what they do.  But, I think both miss the point.

Let me start by defining my terms.  When I talk about testing mania, I’m really talking about school-wide quantitative research.  The No Child Left Behind Law essentially requires this type of research because it has to be “scientifically proven”.  Evidently, this will ensure success.   Completely out of the game is qualitative research which is more in-depth and is done in a small group (like a single classroom) and therefore doesn’t have a big enough cohort, nor can you create a testing environment which creates a “sterile field.”  The problem with it is that it cannot be generalized to all students. Only quantitative research, large group testing, is supported under the law which is why states are clamoring for it.  Without results from these types of tests, the federal government will not provide schools with needed monies.  It’s the power of the purse-strings, baby.

It seems to me that the problems with basing a school’s modus operandi on these juggernauts  are obvious, but out of fairness, I’ll list my favorites.  One, big testing as an assessment is only one of thousands of important assessments educators do and by only looking at one marker, you seriously misread your students.  It’s the problem of trying to use a snapshot to write a biography.  Two, and most importantly tests are written and read with certain purposes in mind.  It is not unusual to run across tests which are specifically written to boost the scores of one group over another.  More frequently, and less nefariously, tests are used to come to conclusions which they never meant speak to.  And some of our best minds fall victim to it.  Enter Ken Robinson.  It’s the reason why I support the Seattle teachers’ boycott of testing.  The MAP testing is not a fair or reasonable test and it’s results are used incorrectly.

At the other end of the spectrum, when I talk about “free-range learning”, I am talking about those schools that do no assessments what-so-ever, qualitative or quantitative.  They are absolutely certain that criticism damages children’s innate ability to grow and discover.  These are schools where the words “fun”, “student-centered”, and “student-driven” outweigh all other concepts.  They are based on the idea that all children are perfect learners, are naturally equipped to learn all things, and if society would only get out of their way, they will succeed.  These are often schools where students only do what and how much of a project they want to do.

Sounds great doesn’t it?  But there are some major disadvantages which I’ve seen qualitatively.  I’ll explain the major one, and I think it is by far the most important.  In my experience, these students are frequently unable to take appropriate risks.  They become very, very good at what they like or want to do but will categorically refuse to do anything they have to work for.  Dig deeper, and you discover that the reason they don’t like to do it (whatever “it” is) is because there is an underlying problem making it difficult for them. If the school stops paying attention when the child decides he or she is done, learning issues do not come to light. I’m not qualified to state whether or not a student has a learning disability.  I am, however, qualified to identify a learning deficit.  When a child is not making progress, I start asking questions.  Time and time again, my questions have unearthed an issue (vision, dental, silent seizures, are some examples) which, once identified and acted upon, allows the child to take the risks needed to grow.    Students realize that they aren’t “stupid” (their words, not mine), they just needed someone to recognize they were struggling.

So this is what I was musing on when I saw this article.  The Guardian reports that British teachers in a primary school make the statement that a quantitative test given to students will 1) get rid of their arts program and 2) make the students feel like failures.  I’m not sure why this would be.  You can have an arts program and testing.  I’ve seen it done.  Also, students will only feel like failures if you present it to them in that way.  Although I’m clearly not a friend to standardized testing, I’ve seen it have its uses.  Their teacher’s union is giving me emotional reasons why the test is bad for the school, not reasonable ones.

Large quantitative tests do not necessarily make students feel like failures.  (Although, I strongly suspect that the real fear is how it will make the teachers feel along with any repercussions attached to the findings.)  The adults who report on the findings of the test are the ones who make students feel like failures by how they talk about it.  Sure, if you nail up on a wall all the students’ scores and then parade them all past whacking each one who didn’t pass on the head, yeah, you’re gonna make enemies.  As you should.  But a respectful dialog, with transparency about what’s being tested, and how to fill those gaps?  No.  Students will understand.  Even young ones.  What they will feel is respected because you are talking to them like they matter, and further, you are going to help them fill those gaps.  But then, you must actually help them fill those gaps.

Which brings me to the question of what makes students feel successful.  I’ve come to know that those things I have to work for, those things I struggle to do, are more important to me than those things that were easy.  This is why I cringe when I hear about schools where students are not required to take appropriate risks and push their comfort levels.  When they come to me, those students have often had an inflated egos and yet were enormously afraid of work. They have been so afraid of failing that they have been academically paralyzed.

Which brings me to the last thing I have seen recently concerning feeling successful.  It’s this:

6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person | Cracked.com.

Let me say, it’s not for the kiddies, unfortunately.  Although the message itself would be understandable by middle schoolers, the foul language David Wong uses makes it inappropriate in a professional environment.  To paraphrase, drastically, Wong posits these six ideas.  1) The world only cares about what you can do for it.  2) The world expects you to be successful.  3) Success is about benefiting others.  4) When you are successful, you like yourself more.  5) Self-esteem comes from success not failures.  6) Success is hard work.  But click on the link.  It’s also really funny.  And don’t forget to answer his questions at the beginning.

Wong’s truths are what both the testing world and the free-range learning world miss.  Both take students at face value and both attempt to create their academic world by these conclusions.  The score on a standardized test may make or break a student.  (Ask me, I’m currently facing down the GREs.)  On the other hand, a school where a learning disability is not recognized will definitely make or break a student.  (Ask me, I wasn’t recognized as dyslexic until college when my academic life became absolute hell.)  If a school really wants students to be successful, it will not shy away from testing if it will help get a better picture of the needs of the class or the student.  It will also demand that students learn how to work, even when they don’t want to.  That way success lies.

Week 7- Tests as a Learning Tool (How boring does that sound? Ipes!)


Do my kids know Alexander of Macedon or do my kids know Iskander the Accursed?  They know both, and I’m bubbling over.

Structuring a test for success takes a lot of time, but it pays off.  This unit’s process looked something like this: First, students took notes on a few PowerPoints and Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.  Second, students use their notes to write questions for a game.  I usually use a chutes-and-ladders style board on the overhead projector.  Third, I use the questions they created (and I have vetted) on the test.  By the time they get to the test, they have reviewed the information several different ways, not counting any of the studying that they might have done on their own.  A student has to work very, very hard to fail the test.  (And when they do, they are generally trying to tell me something that has nothing to do with History.)

The test is presented in short answer questions if not an essay.  I like the short answer questions method over anything else.  Students can learn to dig for an answer.  For example, students had a hard time remembering that Alexander’s engineers built a bridge to Pir Sar where they massacred the refugees (according to Arrian, one of Alexander’s biographers — poo to historian Lane Fox), but 300 of his men climbed the Sogdian Rock where he accepted the Bactrians’ surrender.  For a short answer, they don’t need the names Pir Sar or Sogdian Rock, per se.  They can describe the scene, and I will know what they are talking about.

So, they really knew their stuff.  Yet, many of them failed it, officially.  I require students to write using Academic English.  The number of answers correctly answered are checked, answers with grammar issues but are correct are circled, and wrong answers get an X.  When I was finished grading, I called those students with a B or less up to the desk.  First, I praised them for their command of the information.  But then, I focused on capitalization issues and periods at the end of sentences.   As I graded, I circled the places where mistakes were being made.  I want students to get so used to capitalizing sentences and using periods that then never have to think about it.

I offered these students a deal.  They could keep the grade they earned, or they could take their recesses and breaks to re-write the questions they missed either grammatically or informationally (is that a word?).  Anyway, they asked the best and obvious question?  “Will my grade go up?”  Yes.

I get some flack from other educators for giving students full credit on re-doing tests.  But I look at it this way: 1) students review the material again, adding more myelin to the brain.  2) Students learn what the Academic norms are with minimal fuss.  3) They are generally happy to be able to say to their parents, “I got an A!” with just a little more work. This improves their work ethic.  4) Failure is really their choice.  They can’t really say that I just gave them a grade if they have the opportunity to go back and fix mistakes.

Some educators have said to me, “But that’s not real life.  In real life you don’t get to take tests over.”  But that’s obvious bullshit.  I can rip out a sweater as many times as I like.  I can take the Bar exam over and over.  I can take my driving test and the GREs again and again.  The question I have for these educators is, “How badly do you want your students to remember the information you are trying to cram into their heads.”  Furthermore, being drug away from your recess/lunch/after school activities for most students is worth more in the long run than taking points off of some ephemeral test.

So, half of the class will be in here, taking up my prep period to re-do the test.  Hallelujah!

Week 7- My Test Anxiety


Test on Alexander of Macedon today! Let the panic reign (or rain, whichever.)

It is fascinating the number of students who have never taken a test before.  I’m talking of students who are home-schooled or went to institutions of free-range learning.  Test taking is just as much of a skill as learning to tie your shoes, and so I maintain a very rigorous testing environment.  I also explain why this environment is necessary. For example, the no talking rule is necessary so that I can know what is in their heads, not what is their neighbor’s heads.  Same goes for looking at someone else’s desk.  I tell them that I’m not a cop or a detective, and I have to go with what I see.  If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, I’m not qualified to state it’s a platypus, even if it is one. So, the no talking and no wandering eyes rules are very important. This is very hard on classrooms where co-operative learning techniques are used.  Students learn to help each other, and it is stressful for them to know that the person sitting next to them needs help.

Students are also very used to calling out for help from me which means that I have to really help them not call out during a test.  Things that are distracting have to go.  This includes sharpening pencils, getting out more paper, or getting tissues from the box, mostly things students do without having to think.

This test was interesting because I needed to juggle the needs to two groups of students. The new students are struggling to write complete sentences while the old group are ready to write an essay.  Old students were given the essay question yesterday, but they needed to do all the work for it today.  In the time that the new students have answered 3/4s of a 20 question short answer test, the new students have brainstormed, outlined, and written the first draft of a 4 paragraph essay.  When I presented this to the olds yesterday, not wanting to surprise them with it, I expected wailing and gnashing of teeth.  What I got was a nodding approval.  One of them asked if they also needed to do the short answer section, but no, the essay is in place of the questions.  The old students did not want to do the short answer test and the new students did not want to do the essay.  It worked out well, I think.

This is also the first time I’ve allowed students to use laptops for tests. About four of them decided to use them, one essayist and three newbies.  One newbie’s computer wouldn’t work, so she ended up writing the test out by hand.  One newbie only has TextEdit on his computer, one has Pages, and one has Word.  If you are going to allow computers into the classroom (and the school isn’t controlling what the students have) you really do have a wide range of knowledge about computers.  I often call for tech support, i.e., my husband, bless him.  It’s good to have a geek in your life.