Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays - no worries about the right present or forgetting someone on your list. Just family, friends, food and football!! Does it get better than this?

As I sit on my couch this morning catching up on my feeds with a birthday cake in the oven and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on the television as background, I am thinking about our family traditions with this holiday. Coming from a large extended family where every event was a party, as the years have passed and families grown larger the festivities seem to have scaled back a bit. But we have preserved pieces for the next generation that I hope will continue.

As children, while my mother was busy prepping the turkey and getting things ready for dinner, we would sit glued to the parade on television. I remember the balloons of my day - Underdog, Snoopy, Superman - and watching the amazing musical numbers that would play. Of course, we made sure my parents were always in the room when Santa arrived to remind them that Christmas was not that far away.

My mom is a firm believer in naps and has passed that along to her children. After "cleaning for company" we would have to head upstairs to "relax" - we were always allowed to read, it just needed to be quiet time but she always seemed to know we would close our eyes for one minute that stretched to at least sixty. We would almost always be woken up with the entry of my grandparents - my grandfather and his ever-present whistling sneaking up the stairs to "check on us" but really nudging us awake if we hadn't already gotten up to hide and scare him when he entered the room.

My grandparents came early to be the first of the extended family to be there - but also so my grandfather could be sure to have their car be the first trapped in the driveway and therefore the last to leave despite my grandmother's not-to-subtle yawns and stony looks. My grandfather loved nothing better than having family around him. Slowly- family members would arrive, usually bearing some baked good or another. We would fall into playing with our cousins, looking through Sears and JCPenny catalogs to make our Christmas lists and daring each other to do something we knew the adults would get annoyed at. Sometimes - we would put together a play or musical number to the latest music to entertain the masses.

After dinner, which was a jumble of following thirty different conversations and misinterpreting at least ten of them, thereby causing at least one minor argument - tea would be brought out (we didn't drink coffee in my family) and the desserts would be cut. Not long after that - the doorbell would ring and more relatives would arrive. Cousins of my parents who were off at college or who had moved away with their families, friends who were friends so long they just were considered family, and always there was someone new who was braving meeting the family for the first time (no mean feat I must add!). Sooner or later - the card game would start and we could hear the pennies jingling as the adults separated to play cards or move into another room to continue gossiping and catching up.

Thanksgiving was a magical day that kicked off an entire season of family and feasting and storytelling while we were growing up. It is a bit different now - the dinner table is a bit smaller as time needs to be split with in-laws and relatives are much more far flung. My grandfather has passed and while my grandmother is with us physically and now lives with my parents, Alzheimer's has robbed her of memories and leaves her confused if too many people come to visit. My sibilings and I plan the Black Friday shopping schedule and make sure that cell phones are charged so we can text from different stores to be sure we cover the list. Instead of the card games, the Wii will be out and we'll be boxing or skiing or bowling. What has not changed is that our family is together - as quirky and as dysfunctional as the next one. And for that I am, and will always be, eternally grateful.

Wishing you all a wonderful Thanksgiving with your traditions and hoping that you all find the peace and happiness that I find on this day.

Monday, November 24, 2008

On Scoring Writing

Last week, teachers in our region joined me to score the NYS Assessment in Elementary Social Studies. This test includes, along with multiple choice questions and open-ended responses called "constructed response questions" (CRQs), one of my favorite writing tasks: the Document Based Question (DBQ). Truly - this is one of my favorite writing tasks. In addition to having students write (one of my favorite past-times), it also asks students to think like historians. Well - at least when the task is well written.

Scoring this assessment can at times be very subjective. Who am I kidding - it is incredibly subjective!! While leading the teachers through the rubric, anchor papers and the use of holistic (vs. analytic) scoring - I ask teachers to put their "pet peeves" in writing on a piece of paper to remind them that we are looking for different elements of writing in scoring this assessment. We can't let our pet peeves distract us or get caught up in what the students did not do. Instead, for purposes of this assessment, we need to look for what they were able to do in this one moment in time.

Despite my best efforts, there are always some complaints about how the essays are scored. Claims of bias because the papers came from a small/large/poor/affluent school district or because the student had an IEP/poor handwriting/no clue how to answer the question but tried really hard are often heard when teachers discover how other teachers scored THEIR kids. I try to be sure that we all have the same understanding of the rubrics and anchor papers but I can't score them all myself. I go for the greatest amount of consistency and hope for the best each and every year.

It seemed serendipitous to read 'Standardized You Say? "Confessions of a Scorer" in my latest issue of EdWeek on the heels of this scoring adventure. This article surfaced my deepest fears about scoring - particularly when I read want-ads in the paper asking for certified teachers to score NYS assessments or hear a state ed official tout the benefits of "electronic distributive scoring." No matter what measures we put into place - scoring student writing will always be subjective.

Interestingly, while looking for new blogs to add to my reader (because 104 simply is not enough) I came across this post about a third grade teacher using automated essay grading with her class. What struck me most about this post was not that the automated scoring was such a hit but that what the teacher described in terms of the process was a perfect example of what several colleagues and I have been discussing for weeks now: formative assessment.

The tool may have made the record keeping easier but it didn't change the practice - that much is evident from the description of her class.That teacher likely did all of the things she describes and attributes to the scoring program before using the program - just in a different way. For her students to give scores that were very similar to the program shows that they understood not only the rubric, but their own strengths and weaknesses in writing. Not an easy feat!

Which made me think about what we are assessing to begin with. If we truly want students to do well on the DBQ - we need to teach them how to read and interpret documents, make connections and develop a thesis statement using the documents to support that thesis. And we might have to do that without actually writing for a bit! In my classroom, I scaffolded the student writing of DBQs. After years of reading poorly written essays and getting frustrated at the smallest of writing issues, I realized that I couldn't solve the problem by throwing more DBQs at them. Instead, I needed to pick apart what they needed to do and start S-L-O-W-L-Y teaching them how to do those things, step by step. I spent less time grading poor work, they spent less time creating it. Instead - we grew together as their skills and confidence grew.

I've been working to translate my hard won lessons with others to avoid them having to walk the same path, but I realized that the power of my learning came from those mounting frustrations and failures as a writing teacher. It was then that I realized I needed to be a better writer to understand how to help them become better. My scoring will always be different than yours - my pet peeves are not your pet peeves, my expectations are not yours. But if they are aligned to a larger goal given to us by the state and if we communicate it to the students, we can expect more in our classroom and get proficient results on a once a year assessment - no matter who scores it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Glimpse Inside Two ELA Classrooms

There are days that I love my job and there are days that I LOVE my job. Today is the latter. I spent some time with newer ELA teachers today in my district and got to talk about and think about some very powerful stuff!! Thought I would give you all a glimpse.

First - I was able to meet with the 7th/8th grade ELA teacher. We are lucky to have a visionary principal here who knows the value of middle level education and was able to carve a 7/8 team out of a 7-12 building. The team works well together and the kids are thriving! The NYS Assessment is looming and the teacher wanted to talk about preparing the 7th graders for the assessment. She was a little concerned about the comprehension skills of her students and we talked about the upcoming unit she has with the students reading My Brother Sam is Dead to go along with social studies. After reviewing the start of her unit with me, I asked her why we couldn't incorporate some of the test preparation strategies in with the reading of the book. I randomly flipped to a page and pointed out that we could take a paragraph from that page, insert some grammar/mechanics errors and use it as an editing passage practice. We could rewrite some of her writing questions as multiple choice following the state test format and insert them as smaller quizzes to review both content and test-taking skills. I created a sample quiz for her to use and she is going to work on some additional questions. It was very exciting to talk about a book that my students loved with someone again!! More importantly, I am excited to see how this works with the students!

Two periods later, I got to touch base with a grades 9/10 ELA teacher who wanted to go over some recent assessment results. This is an amazing teacher who has amazing rapport with his students. I have never been in an ELA classroom where I have seen boys as engaged as I see in his class!! But I digress! This teacher shared some sample papers with me and we talked about how he felt about the results. He then showed me what he did with the students after the test to help them understand their grades and what they needed to do differently. First - for each section of the writing test, he culled an example of "exemplary" writing from his classes and attributed that writing to the individual students. He then listed in 2-3 bullet points his thought about why that excerpt was exemplary. In each class, he read those pieces aloud and discussed with the students the finer points of the writing.

The students then had a "mistake manager" form in which they reflected on their individual writing and what they could do to improve it or in some instances, they were asked to actually revise it. At the end of the class, the students shared with a partner one lesson on writing they were going to take away from the activity and the partner shared that lesson aloud. Having this conversation with him really reinforced my belief that when done correctly, assessments can be used in BOTH a summative and formative manner. I can't wait to see how the students take these writing lessons and translate them into practice.

I give these teachers a great deal of credit - they shared openly and honestly about their practice. They asked questions and reflect a great deal about the choices they make and the students that sit before them. Instinctively, they are doing things that are great for kids and when they aren't sure, they ask questions and collaborate which is great for the profession. I know that not all teachers are comfortable in being this transparent (and if they don't read this blog they probably don't even realize how transparent they are!) but I think we need to share more when we see this kind of work to help break down the silos of education. And more than just share - we need to celebrate it!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Scaredy Squirrel and More

Last night was the school Book Fair for first and third grade niece. It is one of our favorite outings of the year - and who can resist buying books to help the school? We always start with a "One Book for Everyone" rule (including me!) but I never hold to it. I thought I would share some of our finds this year - the girls made some great selections!

Third grade niece loves, loves, loves to read books in a series (wonder where she got that from?) and so picked up Eve of the Emperor Penguin, a Magic Treehouse book. What was really great was that we also picked up a non-fiction companion book about penguins! I am pretty excited that she was really into the non-fiction piece and she noticed right away that the text structure and words were just like the other Magic Schoolhouse books. "You know," she said, "you call that voice all the time!" (Any wonder that I love her to bits?)

First grade niece is a huge fan of Fancy Nancy and loves, loves, loves to use the fabulous words she learns from her books (huh, another one of those odd coincidences!). So of course, we picked up Fancy Nancy's Favorite Fancy Words: From Accessories to Zany. After we left and started to go through it, I was bummed that I didn't get a copy for me!! I have always loved Fancy Nancy books for their word choice, but the idea of creating individual word choice dictionaries like this one put me over the top. Hoping she'll let me borrow it for a workshop!

Aunt Theresa just loves, loves, loves books of all kinds and so it was a little hard to find one that I didn't already have (I love book order time!) but I found a little gem! Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his nut tree because the world is a pretty scary place - and he is highly organized about how to deal with emergencies. One day, as a result of something very unplanned, he leaves the tree and learns to love venturing into the unknown (in a highly scheduled way.) Story aside - this book has so many great features. It begins with a summary of the story (how cool is that for teaching summary?) and has loads of different organizational strategies inside - bullets, lists, four-square, you name it!! I have shared it with two principals and three teachers today - and all want my copy!! I can't wait to use this in a workshop!

For the record, we also bought this and this because, well it's still reading right?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It's the end of the world as we know it......

History was made yesterday.

As we left the polling place yesterday evening, my five-year-old niece commented on quickly the voting took. Her seven-year-old and worldly-wise sister stated back, "We've been thinking and talking about it FOREVER!"

Last night was a night of conclusions in many ways - the end to a long season of campaigning, the mark of the end of a term of presidency. But in many ways, last night was also about beginnings. Beginning and endings go together in so many ways.

When I ask teachers their pet peeves in writing, conclusions always seem to come up. Much like Amelia's view of the campaign season, student essays seem to go on and on and on and on - lasting seemingly forever. When there is an end to the writing, the conclusions don't match the thesis or the content of the essay and instead, often take what I lovingly refer to as a "beach trip" or end with a simple "Thanks for reading my essay. This is everything I know about ______."

I've tried to teach my students many ways to help them understand that the endings of their essays should in many ways mirror or match the beginnings. That we are tying up their writing in a big, fat bow. We have folded paper, color coded sentences, played with sentence strips. And of course, revised, revised, revised. In the moment those strategies have seemed to have an impact - in the next writing moment, they have not.

A fifth grade teacher I work with recently invited me into her classroom to help her students with conclusions for the DBQ essays. After discussing things a bit - we decided to have the students go on a scavenger hunt for "good conclusions" using the newspapers that are delivered to her room. (Truth be told, the idea came out of the fact that the newspapers are soon to take over her room and we needed to use them!!)

After sharing three endings of stories that she thought were really good and brainstorming a list of characteristics for great story endings, I took over and talked about expository writing. We had hoped that when talking about the two kinds of writing, the students would identify us with each and it would make it that much easier for the lesson to be brought back while writing. The students went on their scavenger hunt and we again brainstormed the list of characteristics for a "good" conclusion in expository writing. The students then took out a conclusion they had written and then revised it using the characteristics we talked about.

It was a good lesson and most of the kids seemed to get it. I haven't seen the before/after conclusions yet but I am hoping they will tell us a lot about what stuck and what didn't. So in the interest of helping teachers everywhere - I am wondering how others are tackling the idea of conclusions with students.

History was made yesterday. As a nation, we were able to close some chapters and begin others. And that is everything I know about that. Thanks for reading my blog post.

;-) Sorry - I couldn't resist!