Planning a Course With a Looming Writing Test

As this post goes live, my Grade 12 students will be finishing their final assessment in their course, a Provincial Assessment. They will have written a process exam for the past four days. Based around a single theme, which they learn on the first day, they were expected to read, respond and write.  The first day, they answered a series of Responding to Text questions dealing with texts that are provided. This is a three hour block. The remaining three days, an hour per day, they worked on a piece of writing that shares their thoughts about the theme. They also have three other questions to answer: about connections to the theme, a reflection on their writing, and explain the connections between their writing variables.

It’s a big test to teach to. I actually quite like many things about our provincial assessment. It does a decent job of giving students a chance to show their ability to meet a number of the outcomes of our curriculum, and doesn’t ask much more of them than I might. (Full disclosure, there are some logistics of the assessment that make me incredibly frustrated, but that’s not what we’re here for.) We echo the format in our other English courses at our school, and knowing that it’s the final assessment for many of our students in English, it has an impact throughout our course planning.

We are firm believers in finding ways to embed “teaching to the test” into our regular teaching. This is important, because an assessment should ask students to do things that they do in the normal course of their class. Most aspects of our assessment are relatively fixed. We know what kind of responses will be asked of students, and we know the structure within which they’ll be writing. These things are considered when we plan.

One of our biggest considerations is teaching thematically. Each of our courses has an overarching theme. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the provincial assessment. What better preparation for writing about a theme over four days than writing about a theme over four months, four years in a row? We practice making connections within the theme, exploring and explaining our ideas about that theme, learning different genres, forms and strategies as we go.

We echo the tasks of the provincial not just in the final assessments of the previous courses, but where appropriate in other course work. In our thematic study of “Identity, Individuality and Independence” we study the TV show Freaks and Geeks. We watch each episode, and respond. Over the past few years, we’ve been using questions much like the Responding to Text questions on the assessment. This means that students get 18 “lower stakes” chances to respond in ways that they will be responding on the “high stakes” final. Their responses are assessed similarly to those on the final are, and we discuss what goes well, exploring ways to improve the responses.

There is a time management strategy inherent in this as well. On the provincial, they have three hours to write 6 responses, one of which is an extended response. 20 minutes of that time is set aside for discussion, which means that they need to budget 23 minutes per response. (This allows for 46 minutes for the extended response, which asks 2 things of them.) This is 23 minutes to read, and craft a response. In a one hour class, they watch a 42 minute episode of Freaks and Geeks, leaving them 18 minutes to write a response. Obviously,  we have some wiggle room, but I encourage them to get used to the idea of working within time constraints, and we have a low stakes opportunity to practice working within that time frame. This can be adapted to whatever text we’re working with, stories, poems, articles, chapters of a novel, or even full novels. We’re also discussing the benefits of expanding this strategy to other courses besides our Grade 12s, and having students respond like this throughout all their English courses.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how we use exemplars from previous tests’ marking guides as mentor texts. Much as it’s valuable to share previous questions and prompts, there is also much students can glean from seeing what other students’ responses look like. We often look at these exemplars, alongside the rubrics, scoring them. We pepper in some responses that didn’t score well, particularly if it looks, initially, like they should. When we look at responses that scored well, we discuss which elements of the response earned that score, and how we might apply that to our own writing.

Another benefit of having a test that is fairly consistent is that you get a chance to see which areas of it present challenges for many students and plan elements of your course that aim to alleviate those challenges. For example, the responses related to poetry and visuals are two that have challenges our students in the past. Although the Poetry and Image Pairing lessons that we do weren’t developed for this purpose, talking about poetry and imagery, and working with our comfort levels and literacy in these areas pays dividends on the provincial. By the time they get to those questions, they know how to attack a poem or image to find meaning, how to question those texts, and how to respond to them.

The big writing task is one that strikes fear into the hearts of many students. Again, I’m perhaps oversimplifying the planning, but essentially, I built practice for this task into our course, not solely as practice, but as a way of exploring the material of the course.

Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This was a valuable text in this planning. In it, he shares six purposes for writing. Purpose is one of our writing variables, and for a few years, I’ve had students write a weekly piece related to each purpose. (I know I’m skimming the surface of what this book offers. Time is a cruel part of teaching.) We explore and discuss the prompts I’ve chosen, each of which relate to things that we’re doing in class, exploring Identity, Individuality and Independence, or looking at global issues. (We have embedded a global issues credit within our English courses. Planning is fun!) We use mentor texts, do some planning, and come ready to write.

Conscious of the time constraints presented by the assessment, as well as its structure, we used these six pieces to practice not just the writing itself, but the process. On Tuesday, I introduced the purpose and the prompt. We talked through the expectations, and students were tasked with planning their piece. They’re allowed to write in any form they choose, and we discuss what forms might be right for the purpose. On Wednesday, they come in and they have a period to write a first draft. This is much like the assessment, in which they have an hour to write each day. I encourage them to think of their pieces as a “one hour task,” and to be prepared to hammer out that draft.

We don’t go through the full process, because, well, there’s never enough time to do everything, but we talk about what the next step would be – to return on the next day, revise, edit and write a polished draft in their second hour. Instead, I skip ahead to what I suggest for their third day, and we practice our responses to the writing variables question, as well as the connecting and reflecting questions. I assess all these things according to the rubrics used in assessing the provincial assessment, and we look at the feedback, discussing trends I see overall, as well as individually. Having these six attempts at this process piece helps them become more comfortable with the process. This was the first year we did this, emulating the time constraints, and I feel as if this helped them feel prepared. There was much less stress, and more confidence, which was a pleasant change.

For my part in this series about writing tests, I share what we do at my school as an example of how we’ve worked to embed the tasks associated with the test in our regular coursework. I feel that this is vital, not simply as a way of building practice, but in normalizing, for lack of a better word, these tasks. We’ve worked pretty hard to find ways to make it real and relevant – this is not only test prep, but methods of exploring course content. It is less, “How can we practice the test tasks?” and more “How can we use these tasks as part of our teaching and learning?” We work to make these tasks part of not just the course in which the Big Test exists, but in all the courses that lead up to it.

The thing about these tests is that they’re focused upon. They’re a break from the norm, and they provide data that many use as a measure of success. As a result, we feel compelled to teach to them. That’s stressful, for us, and for our students. By planning courses with this test in mind, making the tasks part of what we do regularly, a lot of stress is relieved. On Tuesday, as we began the assessment, I felt completely comfortable telling my students that they were about to write a four day assessment that they were ready for, and that they knew how to do. And we prepared for it without putting our normal course on hold for the last month so I could teach to the test. Planning my course with that final assessment in mind allowed us to be prepared, and this week, I had a room full of calm and focused writers working on that test,

What practices, or tasks, from “the test” do you embed in your class as you plan? Do you include these things in all classes, or just the ones with the test? How do you “normalize’ the expectations of the test?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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