Low stakes writing: How I reclaimed my sanity and unburied myself from grading.

National Leave the Office Early Day!

My first year teaching AP Language, I was overwhelmed by the grading. The class culminates in a three hour exam; for two of those hours, students are writing three different essays. The amount of prep your average student needs to confidently bang out three essays asking them to do three different things in two hours? A lot.

But, I was new to the class and determined to prepare them well, so I parked myself at my kitchen table every weekend and graded. Essay after essay after essay. By the end of the first semester, all 90 of my students had written at least six process essays (Two of each kind! Gotta show growth!)  Second semester we dove into practicing timed writing so we did two EACH WEEK. There were about 12 weeks in second semester before the test so that means about 24 essays per kid.  Quick math? I easily assessed about 2700 essays that year. That’s insanity.

And it was completely unnecessary.

I know it was unnecessary because I’ve never done it again (my husband threatened divorce!) and my students continue to score better than that first group every single year. Over the years as I’ve shifted to a Writer’s Workshop format, I’ve made more and more moves toward low stakes writing because I’ve realized it’s really the most effective form of test prep.

 

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Teaching to the Writing Test – a Moving Writers series

National Leave the Office Early Day!

Although there may be a horde of teachers who have whittled it down to a perfect science, no teacher has ever been excited or invigorated by preparing his or her students for a standardized writing test.

And yet, it’s something that pretty much every one of us must do in one way or another.

Like it or not, our students’ futures will be full of high-stakes “test writing” circumstances — yes, AP and IB tests as they get into junior and senior year, the SAT and ACT, college placement tests, and even job interviews in which they will be asked to compose a piece of writing on-demand in hopes of securing a position.

It’s not fun, but it’s real.

So, we want to spend January letting you into the reality of our classrooms when matters of writing test preparation are at hand:

  • To what extent do we “teach to the test” and to what extent do we let what we still know to be true and best about writing guide our instruction?
  • How do we prepare struggling readers and writers?
  • How do we prepare older students for AP test, IB test, and the SATs?
  • How do we plan a workshop curriculum when standardized tests are looming in the distance?
  • To what degree do we infuse test prep with writing workshop and writing workshop with test prep?

Regardless of the students sitting in your classroom this year, we hope that each installment will give you food for thought and inspiration for making this year’s test prep meaningful beyond test day! We’ll tackle these questions this month as we look ahead to the spring semester with a desire to prepare our students for what lies ahead on the test and in life as writers.

F.A.R.T.ing Around With Research

I came home from #ncte17 full of ideas, but one common theme from the weekend was…..farts. In my first session about engaging boy readers and writers, Jon Sciezka gleefully told us that he loved fart jokes and writing about silly things. Then, I stood in line to a get a book for my 8 year old–The Unflushables–and discovered it was exploding (sorry) with fart jokes.  Later I thumbed through Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write  and there on page 61? Farts. When I got home Monday, I saw this tweet pop up on twitter:

fart

Either I was slap-happy from the weekend or the universe was trying to tell me something. I was working on a research reading lesson with a ninth grade teacher and this FART annotation thing seemed like just what we needed.

One of the biggest impediments to students embracing research reading and writing is that we don’t give them a way in–an on-ramp.  It seems so daunting, so intimidating, that many turn away before they even start.

Perhaps a F.A.R.T. strategy would be silly enough to be an on-ramp.

 

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Bust a (Writing) Move — An NCTE17 Recap

Says she wants to dance to a different groove

Now you know what to do G bust a move

– – Young MC

 

Among my all-time NCTE highlights came this year as members of the Moving Writing crew gathered in real life to share some of our favorite writing moves to support writers throughout the writing process.

 

THANK YOU to all of you who hung around St. Louis until the bitter end with us. For those who couldn’t be with us in person, we thought we’d share a little bit about our favorite moves — along with our slides and resources — to energize your writing instruction as we head into the winter!

Sit back, crank up some ‘90s dance jams, and bust a writing move.

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Teaching Argument with a Side of Mental Health

teaching from twitter pic

 

Our school has committed to working on addressing mental health issues with our students this year. Our students are carrying heavy burdens and we–the adults in their lives–need to figure out ways to help them cope with them.  So, when this popped up in my Twitter feed last night, I naturally thought of my students:

mandrew

Big shout out to @bymariandrew for providing a teaching text yet again!!

It’s not a tough image to understand, but we squeezed quite a bit out of it in 20 minutes of  AP Lang today.

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3 Steps to Creating Word Nerds

When I started teaching AP Lang, we did a lot of vocab. I gave a monstrous list of “tone words” and students learned 20 each week. I quizzed them weekly, and then we marched on to 20 more.

It was not good.

Some kids adored it. It was concrete, and they could pad their grades. Other kids?  The subtle differences between the words (apathetic vs. aloof vs ambivalent? yeesh) blew their minds, and they tanked their grades.

I tried some different things–more direct instruction on the words,retakes–and eventually got to a place where they mastered the quizzes, but they weren’t using the words in their writing, or if they were, they were using them in hilariously awkward ways. I knew I was doing it wrong. They needed to be collecting words naturally from their reading and exploring vocabulary in context. So last year, we tossed the lists.

It was (also) not good.

The plan was to have kids find words in their reading and record them in their notebooks so they could build vocabulary more naturally.  A few kids embraced it because they were avid readers and already loved words. But most kids were just kinda ‘meh’ about it. I didn’t have a good way to hold them accountable, and they had no interest in becoming word nerds.

We (the three AP Lang teachers) were all frustrated, but we are trying one more new approach. One quarter of the school year down, and I’m happy to report: it’s good.

What did we do? 

3 Steps to Creating Word Nerds

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Why This/Not That? A thinking routine to move kids from identification to analysis

One of the biggest challenges in teaching rhetorical analysis is teaching kids to move beyond identification to actual analysis.  I have found over the years that when I teach kids to look for certain things, they find them!! If we talk about repetition, they can track it down. If we talk about parallel structure, boom. However, I’ve also found that many struggle to move beyond that identification.

“Oh, look!” they cry delightedly. “Parallel structure!”

And then they move on.  

I would press them when we would discuss and analyze in class, and they could usually get to something analytical, but when they would move to writing, they’d still stop at identification.  I found myself scribbling (over and over) in the margins of essays “why is this important?” and “what does this show you?”  

During a class discussion of a text a few weeks ago, I was digging for a more analytical answer and I said, “Yes, but why this word and not another one?” It was one of those teaching lightbulb moments when I realized it was a prompt my students could be asking themselves: Why this and not that?

wilson james

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Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Golf on Fire

#tweaching

Last week I started the year with my AP Seminar students talking about perspectives: our own, those of others, and the ones forgotten or ignored in texts.  Much of the success of their research will be dependent on their ability to see issues from multiple perspectives. Imagine my excitement then, when this popped up in my Twitter feed:

golf.PNG

This has been happening to me more and more in the past few years, and I’ve found myself pulling materials on the fly from Twitter to use in class.  I even wrote about it here and here last year! This year, my teaching buddy (and fellow Moving Writers blogger) Mike and I are going to do a bi-weekly column called Teaching From My Twitter Feed. We think it will be a good way to keep pushing ourselves to add relevant, current material to our class and help our students see the potential for learning in their own Twitter feeds. Hopefully you’ll follow along as we experiment and share your own #tweaching with us as well! (Use the hashtag if you do. We’d love to see what you do!)

 

Now, back to that picture. There is so much to unpack both in the image and the caption. I threw the image up on the projector at the beginning of class and said, “What do you think?”  The questions started immediately:

  • Is that real?
  • What’s wrong with those people?
  • Where is that?

 

Since we were talking about perspectives, I nudged them in that direction a little first. We talked about the perspective of the photographer and the intention of the picture. We talked about the perspective of the golfers. Are they really uncaring monsters who carelessly golf the day away while the wildfires burn? Is there a perspective missing? What would happen if the shot were widened?

 

Then we talked about research. What did this picture make them want to know more about? Not a single student in my class knew that there are wildfires blazing in the west. They were all shocked because the only weather events anyone is talking about right now are the hurricanes.

 

Finally we talked about the caption: “In the pantheon of visual metaphors for today, this is the money shot.” Vocabulary alone, this was a winner. Few of my kids knew the meaning of “pantheon” so we googled it. I had to do some explaining because the dictionary definition was not particularly helpful, so it allowed for a quick convo about sophisticated diction. After that, the class was pretty split on “money shot”; some were giggling because they knew the vulgar definition and others simply knew it meant something vaguely like “most important.”  As delicately as possible, we talked about what he meant and his implicit meaning. Was the term “money shot” effective or just crass? Who was he criticizing? Who did the golfers represent? What did the fires represent?

 

All of this great discussion only took about 15 minutes of class but it showed my students how the things they scroll past can help them think more deeply and critically about the world around them. Could I save this picture and use it next year? Maybe. The discussion about perspectives would probably be largely the same, but it wouldn’t be as relevant or fresh for the students, and I’d miss an opportunity to help them see that there are interesting things all around them to think a little harder about–they just have to stop scrolling for a few minutes.  

 

The next day a kid came into class and told me that he’d read more about the wildfires online and that it “sounds crazy!”  That was all the confirmation I needed that teaching from my Twitter feed (#tweaching! We’re going to make this a thing!) is a good use of my class time. Sometimes I find something small like this that becomes fodder for notebooks or short discussion; sometimes it’s bigger and transforms a whole lesson. Either way, I think it’s one of the best avenues for keeping my class relevant with my students.

–Hattie

Do you find yourself #tweaching somedays? Connect with us on Twitter @TeacherHattie or @ZigThinks. We’d love to know what you’re up to!

Using Tech to Steal Back Time for Workshop

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A few years ago, the writing in my classroom was floundering. Our department had been aligning curriculum for awhile and, in my rush to get my ducks in a row and “cover” everything, I had begun sacrificing key parts of my instruction. There just wasn’t time to fit it all in. One afternoon during a particularly rushed writing conference, I knew I needed to reorganize and rethink what workshop was going to look like in my classroom.  I couldn’t make major changes to the curriculum, and I couldn’t magically make my class periods longer, so I started experimenting with ways to use technology to steal back some time. What I’ve landed on isn’t perfect, but it’s helped me create a space for the thing I believe helps writers grow the most:  face to face talk about writing.

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Machete or Scalpel?

Two and a half weeks from the end of the school year and I’m lucky enough to have kids clamoring to learn! A testament to my mad teacher skills? Unfortunately, no. Rather, they are desperately motivated by the elusive “perfect” college application essay. Several years ago my colleagues and I started finishing our year in AP Language with work on college application essays because we discovered that it is one of the easiest ways to keep the kids invested after the test in early May.  We don’t actually grade them or even collect final drafts, but we spend our last weeks of school knee-deep in writer’s workshop as the students struggle through this high stakes writing and work to produce something of which they can be proud.

 

This year, I’ve been doing daily Google Form “Status of the Class” check-ins to get the pulse of the class and figure out what they need from me in the form of mini lessons. In a recent form, a common theme quickly emerged: word count. They are all way over the dreaded 650 Common Application word limit.  They all need to cut things, but I realized that they needed  some focused instruction on which tool to use: machete or scalpel?

 

Being Concise

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