Archive for June, 2012
Another boat carrying 8th graders has been lashed to the dock and I bid them farewell today. We made it. They survived the foreign text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and made meaningful connections to Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s hard to really measure and document student growth in a Language Arts class because of the many subjective ways we typically interpret growth as readers and writers. I just started the National Board Certification Process of English Language Arts and the first entry for the portfolio forces you to prove that your reading and writing teaching strategies are effective.
Entry 1: Analysis of Student Growth in Reading and Writing
In this entry, you select four student work samples from two students. Two samples are responses to print and nonprint text, and two samples are responses to writing prompts. Your analysis of the submitted student responses shows how you support and analyze students’ growth and development as readers/interpreters of text and as writers. Besides the student work samples and Written Commentary, you provide the assignments/prompts as well as the rubrics or scoring criteria you used to evaluate the student work.
The five paragraph essay response to a novel is still the standard summative assessment method for most English classes. Last week, I completed another ten-hour round of grading and responding to 80 essays on To Kill A Mockingbird. Overall, the essays demonstrated a solid understanding of many of the complex themes. I can feel good about how I spent the last six weeks. Students appeared to generally care about Atticus and Tom and Scout and this troubled place called Maycomb. But, like Maycomb, there’s something just not right in how many of my students approach essay writing – or even writing in general. Let me say that I still feel that learning to craft your thoughts in a coherent and convincing manner is still an important 21st century skill for students to demonstrate. However, if I know that a student will score the same as or below his previous essay score because I haven’t spent a significant length of time actually teaching essay writing, how is this a useful assessment practice? How am I really collecting useful data that supports progress as a reader and writer? The five paragraph essay tells me who knows how to write an essay, not as much about how they’ve grown as a reader. You can make many sound arguments for how the essay does indeed demonstrate many specific reading and writing skills, but that’s not what determines the grade. And that is what matters most to the student.
After reading this year’s set of essays and thinking about our school’s three years of experience in a 1:1 laptop environment, this is what I’ve come to worry about: the computer enables a generation of copy-and-paste essay writers who believe that they are actually writing, putting together their own original ideas, when in fact they are just massaging chunks of Cliff-notes and sample essays. This is nothing new. Cliff notes, Spark notes, there will always be something for those who feel that they do not have something of their own to say about a topic. And that is the saddest truth. If students leave my class and feel that they have nothing to say about anything then I’ve failed as a teacher. If we cannot equip our students with the basic skills to form their own original ideas then school is largely a waste of time. Many of my students and their parents may argue that school is the place where the teacher tells them what to memorize; a high grade on the test means significant learning has transpired. I’m not really adding anything new to this debate. Schools will hopefully retreat from a test-centric approach to teaching reading and writing and focus more on providing opportunities for students to believe that they have something of value to say in a variety of texts. The computer appears to have lulled many students into thinking that they are truly engaged in the writing process because they are on the computer and moving words around on the screen. Using the thesaurus, Googling for relevant quotes and anything related to the topic. I do this also when I’m writing about a topic, but I understand that I’m developing my ideas whereas my students are just fishing for filler to make their essay look like an essay. For all of my interest in using technology to help students become stronger writers/storytellers, the essay still highlights what technology does so poorly – make kids think for themselves.
I’m no longer riding the bandwagon that the computer is an essential tool to being a literate person in this digital age. Many, like Neven Jurkovic, will say that “writing in digital spaces will provide learning opportunities you won’t get from traditional writing assignments.” True, but does it mean it’s helping the students communicate more effectively. The type of writing that Jurkovic details, such as blogging, is much more authentic than the traditional essay, but it all comes back to the key part of the student having something to say. Just because you put your ideas in a blog does not mean that they are effectively communicated. I’ve used blogs, wikis, iWeb pages, Google docs, and digital stories over the last few years and for some students it was just what they needed in order to express themselves in a convincing manner. Many others no so. It all hinges on creating an authentic purpose or motivating the students to want to share their ideas for more than just a grade.