Tagged: Feedback

Create Learning PERMANENCE Through Reassessment

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the learning process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions. We live in a culture that continues to reward, rank, and emphasize grades over learning, points over progress, and recall over creation. 

It’s time to reassess our culture of learning. By acknowledging and acting on the following truths, educators live up to their professional title and create learning permanence.

All students can learn.
Always return to this central truth as foremost in education.

Learning is a messy process; consequently, teaching all students to learn is challenging work. Continue reading

Adjusting the Tee: Respect the Learning Process

Tee Work

Tee Work

As my Twitter handle @RESP3CTtheGAME indicates, I am passionate about baseball–a dedicated student and teacher of the game. Baseball is more cerebral than most sports, not necessarily won by the bigger, faster, stronger team. I crave the competition, strategy, and team success; there is no greater reward than watching players execute the skills emphasized in practice. Baseball is a dignified team sport–especially when played the right way–but those who understand its intricacies know baseball is also a game of individual failure, constant adjustment, and mental combat. Fighting these demons requires sustained focus, patience, and a growth mindset. This is where we lose many participants over time, be it on the field or in a classroom. Learners must be willing to overcome educational adversity and constructive discomfort in order to improve.

In my roles of high school teacher and varsity baseball coach, I attempt to create memorable, brilliant (potentially award-winning?) practice and lesson plans. I love strategically differentiating to meet everyone’s needs, while adding enough variety to maintain enthusiasm. I do not want practice to feel boring, tedious, or laborious–the negative connotation of work. Reality reminds me that the majority of those involved want to skip the preparation and get right to the performance. One of the greatest challenges of any coach or teacher is to get participants to invest in the value of practice time.

Allow me to introduce my coaching staff…

Anyone who has attended one of my baseball camps or practices around the batting cage knows that after I introduce each member of the coaching staff, I present my top instructor… the hitting tee. He gives specific, immediate, continuous feedback; he is flexible, patient, and adjustable; he is always willing to put in extra time without expecting recognition. These characteristics also separate the master teacher from the rest of a staff. Despite the impressive qualifications, even the master teacher must show results to validate effectiveness and earn respect. So, we allow the tee to do the teaching.

We talkin‘ about practice

Some of the most physically gifted athletes overlook the value of tee work. They find it mindless, repetitive, and pointless–an insult to their abilities. Many consider it a child’s toy, a prop used by beginners incapable of hitting live pitching. As I passionately speak of fundamentals, discipline, and work ethic, players hear, “blah-blah-coach-speak-here-we-go-again-blah.” They know better than to roll their eyes, but I see doubt in faces of nonbelievers. Peers look at an invested teammate as an overachiever, or Coach’s pet, rather than a hard worker attempting to avoid a slump.

In an ideal world, baseball players and students would arrive ready to practice–eager to learn. Obviously, this is not always realistic, so we must initiate a level of excitement. This happens naturally in a culture of learning. Hitting consistent line drives to the far end of the cage is not as easy as it seems, but the goal is clear and attainable. The depth of the tunnel reminds the hitter to swing hard, but the ball will not travel properly unless the head remains steady and eyes focus softly on the point of contact. None of this is possible unless the lower half rotates and allowing the hips to clear a path for the hands to follow.

Every learner has strengths, where understanding and skill result in quick mastery. This comfort zone enables students to grasp concepts with relative ease. In hitting terms, this is finding the sweet spot. Given no specific instruction, hitters place the tee in the most comfortable position and hack away. I support these “feel good” reps knowing they increase confidence, build muscle memory, and identify individual strengths. However, learning stagnates when unforced beyond a comfort zone; fear of failure inhibits growth. If only pitchers were more considerate in delivering the ball to the sweet spot with regularity; unfortunately, stepping into the batter’s box is an unpredictable, overwhelming test at times. The enemy scouts our weaknesses and attacks our flaws. Nine players on defense versus one hitter doesn’t seem fair.

Many students approach their academic reps in the same way. They use the most comfortable–often apathetic–shortcut, through the formative process. They fall into a routine of compliance to appease the teacher and keep parents satisfied, especially where points are awarded. An even greater challenge is awarding no points for practice work, especially in a world where grades dictate student “worth.” Will this be graded? Does this count? How much is this worth?

Teachers, coaches, and parents must work with students to shatter this harmful mindset. Yes, it counts–more than any quantifiable grade, percentage, or average–but this is where teachers need to make sure students and their parents understand the value of the learning process. If practice is perceived as worthless, it is disrespectful to students and detrimental to a culture of learning. Formative practice is where learning occurs; this is the time for interaction and growth.

Those who respect the game of baseball, honor the importance of preparation. They find beauty in the art of practice. Classroom learning must be purposeful in relation to course standards. It should be interactive, engaging, and (dare I say?) fun. When students refuse to accept the value of practice, they turn the process into a points game. Maybe the class work is too easy, mindless, or repetitive; they can test without doing any work. Maybe the work is not tied to any standards. The teacher assigns homework because that’s what is expected; there is no clear rationale for completing perceived busy work. So, students rush to complete the assignment, copy a peer’s answers, or accept a zero–none of which prepares them for game time. When formative assessment is calculated to determine an average, the final grade is not an accurate indicator of learning.

Time to reconsider the educational purpose behind instructional practices, home work, and assessment. Time for educators to adjust the tee.

Tee Time

Tee Time

 

Adjusting the tee

Teachers tell students to be more creative but use the same lessons, tests, and plans every year. Schools tell teachers to be innovative, while expecting educators to increase standardized test scores and stick to the curriculum. We have predetermined outcomes that control learning, yet complain about kids’ lack of creativity. Children have wild imaginations (maybe video games are beneficial), but do not have the time nor freedom to express their creativity.

Learning, like tee work, requires the complex thought process of visualization. Hitters must conceptualize scenarios to discover the feel of staying on top of a high fastball, or driving a pitch on the outside corner. Reset. Move the tee out–then in–to simulate various points of contact. Initially, hitters might need situational prompts from a coach, but if effectively modeled, visualization becomes an art. Growth requires multiple opportunities for success–a full bucket of balls. Stretch the imagination. How does it feel to drive in the winning run with two strikes and the game on the line? What if it’s an off-speed pitch? Adjust. Make learning a memorable event–celebrate growth.

While the real education takes place throughout the formative stages of each unit, if treated properly, the final product will reflect successful growth. Formative feedback should guide further instruction and provide clear indication of preparedness for the summative assessment–game time. If I have done my job of providing multiple opportunities while communicating continuous, target-specific feedback, students should want to showcase their learning. In my classroom, such assessments are known as “celebrations of knowledge.”

Celebration of Knowledge

Celebration of Knowledge

 

Allow space for failure and recovery

Learning is messy. The growth process must be nurtured with care. No one wants to be evaluated on every swing in practice. Even with the best intentions, a batter inevitably strikes the rubber tube with such force practice stops to locate the source of the embarrassing thwack. It’s bad enough having to pick up the tee in front of teammates, let alone the judgmental eyes of a coach. As difficult as it is to resist the teachable moment, sometimes I have to step back and allow a hitter to work through his flaws. Proud or stubborn competitors don’t always seek a coach’s advice. The tee provides ample feedback. The hitter makes corrections. Following failure or success, I ask what he learned from the hitting instructor. Self-assessment and verbalization of the learning create ownership of the lesson. The hitter will adapt in much the same way during a game when isolated in the batter’s box.

Such cognition is powerful; this hitter may share his learning with teammates through understanding only one with experience can express. A partner can make helpful suggestions or simply provide support by loading the tee with another ball. The team builds a unique culture during practice, which should transfer to the dugout and onto the field. The chatter around a batting cage highlights my summers in much the same way an active classroom composes the soundtrack of the school year.

 

Join the Culture of Learning team–dominate the Major Leagues of Education. Lead a team where everyone shares a vision of success, outworks the competition, and earns playing time. But we must careful with our analogies. There are plenty of games to enjoy in life; if we make learning a priority in education, we will stop playing the game of school.

 

*Day 21 of @Teachthought #reflectiveteacher 30-day blogging challenge

Meta for You, Metaphor Me

Today I let it slip.

I admitted to my juniors that I write. Then I explained how I’m involved in this 30-day blogging challenge; I asked for their help and meant it. They know my student-centered approach to learning is transparent–a window to worlds beyond the confines of our classroom–but I wanted them to craft their own metaphor about what this class represents to them. At the risk of overly-honest feedback, I collected their responses. English teachers will do anything for a good metaphor.

One student interprets our classroom as “a clubhouse–a group of close friends working and learning great things together with every meeting.” The relationships within the Clubhouse provide a catalyst to our collective transformation into something beyond explanation–something greater.

Our class is CREATIVE & ARTISTIC…
*a rainbow or mural; full of light and colorful ideas
*a blank canvas with each student the paint, ready to contribute to the picture
*a piece of music in which a variety of information comes together as a harmonious chord
*a collection of Shakespeare’s works; some days are full of comedy, some full of tragedy, but mostly just plain weird

Our class is good for HEALTH & WELL-BEING…
*a biscuit–delicious and nutritious for the brain
*a comforting pillow–eliminates stress and gets me through the day
*a cold drink on a hot summer day; a nice contrast to my stress-filled classes
*like Taco Bell–always an adventure, full of variety, quenches our hunger, and might give you diarrhea
*like Lipton–not my cup of tea, but still warm and enjoyable

Our class is DYNAMIC & STIMULATING…
*a tempestuous storm or whirlwind of insight and knowledge; stormy at first, then a peaceful calm of understanding
*like jumping into water–there is pressure to risk jumping in, but after adjusting provides a calming welcome
*a guest of honor at a surprise party–at first you might be startled or shocked, but eventually you relax and enjoy the change in routine
*a television series–we never know how it is going to end
*a circus–entertaining and random, but requires skill to perform (and includes several clowns)
*a pair of 3D glasses that make literature pop with life, keeping students engaged and interested
*an amusement park–once you go in, you can go so many directions; some are crazy, scary, exciting, and you can even get lost in it; but at closing time, you ultimately find your way. You come out with a new perspective.
*a brand new pair of neon running shoes–bright, colorful, and helps get you where you want to go, but doesn’t show you the direction or pull you there. It gives the freedom to be independent on your own adventure.

Our class is GROWTH-MINDED…
*a woodland hike–with many paths to get to the same destination
*an elevator that lifts me up from the boredom of other classes
*a water slide–we climb many steps and put in the work, but have the time of our life going down
*where the students are flowers blossoming through the concrete–in a confined environment Mr. Durst promotes our growth as individuals

I had many of these students when they were freshmen and now I have the privilege to work with them a second time before they graduate. I respect their intelligence and integrity, so I trusted their ability to supply the content of this post. In typical fashion, they did not disappoint.

Feedback: Tour Guide for Growth

As a student, I would work for days to complete a writing assignment, hand it in, and predict the grade before I got it back two weeks later…and sure enough: B+. The comment at the end said, “Nice work.”

Thanks, I think.

So, the cycle continued–regardless of effort, my scores would float between B- and A-. Any red pen marks simply highlighted common writing errors. Fortunately, I cared enough to stop repeating the same mistakes. But what else would it take to earn the coveted A? I never knew. From a sophomore boy’s perspective: I was good, but not good enough.

And then I became the teacher–English, of all subjects.

I made a commitment to communicate not only grades, but paths for improvement. Through thousands of papers, many a red pen has sacrificed its life for the good of students for two decades. My classes used to stop for a moment of silence when another pen passed away–a worthy tribute. Now, thanks to Google Docs, there is not as much red pen, but the feedback continues.

My writers deserve to know the expectations up front. I am responsible for guiding their success. If I do not provide timely, specific suggestions and clear paths for improvement, I deserve to suffer through the large pile of disgusting final drafts. The greatest suggestion I can provide teachers who face similar piles is to front load. It took some time to figure out a better system, but now that I realize the greatest learning takes place during the writing process–not at the end. The Google Apps make this strategy much easier, as I have the students share the Doc as soon as they name it or I create and share through Classroom. Even with a handwritten copy, it is important to collect and return throughout the process. Either way, I monitor progress and add comments (to reinforce what works and what needs revision). The key is to not simply make the comment; there has to be a rationale. That is the lesson and where the most learning takes place. That is also what gets reiterated through peer feedback–a true validation of my teaching.

You do not have to take my word for it (but it would be cool if you did). Catlin Tucker, an expert in blended learning and one of my eduheroes in the Twittersphere, refers to a similar practice in An Epiphany. She came to the same realization about the importance of teacher feedback during the writing process (her blog is full of useful resources on all-things education).

If students understand the standards being assessed, the levels of proficiency and the descriptors of criteria on target-specific rubrics, all I have to do is guide the tour. Point out the highlights, share what deserves more attention, and suggest alternative routes for success.

Day 14: @TeachThought #reflectiveteacher 30 Day Blog Challenge

Two Perfect Sentences

Rationale

Perfection may be a lofty goal in a chaotic school day, but on our quest for mastery, I expect students to:

  • “Determine the central ideas of a text”
  • “Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content”
  • “Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research”
  • “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole”
  • “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience”

I am not superhuman—I am a teacher of high school English and the communication arts.

Whether we use the formal language of the Common Core or make the standards more student friendly, these are daily expectations in most language arts, literature, and composition classes. The purpose of English language arts courses is to develop critical thinking, reading, and writing skills so students become insightful, creative, empathetic citizens—a worthy cause. Best wishes and keep up the good work, English Language Arts department.

Of course these concepts are addressed in language arts classes; however, according to the Common Core State Standards, the aforementioned list is now the shared responsibility of teachers in all content areas. In fact, these examples are quoted from the science and social studies Common Core Standards—not from language arts. Naturally, the expectations have been received with mixed reactions, primarily due to the insecurity of teachers uncomfortable with their ability to “teach” writing.

To alleviate the anxiety, I recommend “Two Perfect Sentences,” a versatile approach to assessing students’ understanding of content, while holding them accountable for the craft of writing. The strategy is as simple as—and may be used as—an exit or entrance slip.

The Process

Each student receives a slip of paper with one sentence on it (I prepare enough so no more than three students have the same sentence). Typically, the statement is an academic thought about a selected chapter, article, or excerpt of assigned reading. For example:

Juliet unknowingly foreshadows her impending doom.

Siddhartha recognizes the downfall of humans competing in the material world.

The directions state:

  1. Find evidence from _____(the text)______ to support the statement.
  2. Practice integrating the “directly quoted evidence with fluency, while adding the appropriate in text citation” (author’s last name page#). Pay attention to punctuation.
  3. Then, add one more sentence of analysis to clarify or highlight the significance of the information. This is your chance to make a connection and show critical thinking.
  4. Two perfect sentences will be assessed on the following criteria: ___________________________

Teachers have the freedom to adjust the focus on specific areas of emphasis, which should be communicated with students in advance. I always check for content understanding, making sure the evidence is logical and the argument is coherent. Quote integration and fluency is also simple for any reader to assess. Do the sentences flow smoothly or is the writing mechanical?

At this point, I hold students accountable for proper formatting of in-text citations. While language arts teachers prefer MLA format, they applaud any efforts to see appropriate use of content area citations. All teachers have written research papers throughout their education; therefore, they should feel comfortable requiring students to credit a source.

Having limited the task to two sentences, there are nonnegotiable expectations of writing conventions, such as punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and usage (I add tense and point of view here). If students receive a consistent message from all teachers, the quality of writing will improve.

Variations, Results, and Teachable Moments

A simple variation is to supply the quote and have students provide a main point before the evidence. This forces students to draw conclusions from the text. The activity may be done in small groups (competitively), with a partner, or individually (especially to check for learning).

Students are undaunted by the challenge of composing two sentences. The word “perfect” simply narrows their focus on detail and craft. They do not have to worry about organization or content development—although many ask if they may write more.

Teachers do not have to stress about increasing their workload by collecting long writing assessments. Missing work is not an issue; this is easily made up after students return from an absence.

Two Perfect Sentences is an ideal formative assessment. Teachers may survey student understanding with efficiency and provide immediate, specific feedback. I often walk around and check for perfection before I accept a submission, especially at the outset of class. I do not provide answers, but I will comment on the criteria not yet proficient. Students revise in front of me or ask their peers for advice—simple, effective peer editing practice.

When used as an exit slip, this strategy guides planning for the following day by organizing differentiated instruction. The learning process is easy to track using the Two Perfect Sentences approach.

We acknowledge the art of writing is never perfect, while the teaching of writing is certainly an imperfect art. In a world of increasing expectations and accountability, let’s work toward mastery two sentences at a time.

The Role of Communication in Standards-Based Learning and Grading

Image

Communicating standards-based learning and grading was the topic of this week’s #sblchat. Question 6 asked participants, “What should be included on a standards-based report card?” The image above captured my initial response, and sparked some personal reflection.

I was reminded of the memorable day when my son returned home from another grueling week of 4K. He had survived the first quarter of his educational career and now it was time to unseal the envelope of truth–the report card. Having sent thousands of grades home to parents throughout my career, I thought I was equipped for this moment–my first experience as a parent receiving a student report card. Intense.

And there it was. A clear checklist of objectives my son had mastered at or beyond grade level. Good kid. Relief.

But wait. Naturally, my attention shifted to two “Not Yet” marks. Allegedly, my son had yet to master tying his shoes and cutting with scissors. The mild-mannered teacher in me transformed into a Hulk-like beast–a defensive parent. How dare this teacher accuse me of failing to prepare my first-born for the expectations of 4K? Surely, my son had successfully used scissors at home. And why didn’t anyone tell me he needed to know how to tie his shoes at this level of education?

Once Phase I (defensive, narrow-minded, fixed on the negative) passed, I moved on to Phase II: consider the evidence and be a proactive parent. Rationalcheck. We practiced tying shoes–one of the countless, precious father-son moments. After some rehearsal, the milestone was conquered. My boy learned to tie shoelaces. He strutted into his classroom the next morning and presented this new talent to his teacher–and even used double-knots. Impressive.

I was more perplexed by the scissors issue. When put to the test, he made straight cuts, but showed no finesse while butchering the outline of a circle. It took some experimenting and a Master’s degree, but alas, we discovered he was more comfortable executing fine-motor tasks with his left hand. Who knew? My right-handed throwing and hitting son prefers to write, cut, and hold a spoon left-handed. The feedback on a first quarter 4K report card made my job as a parent easier, but more importantly, provided an immediate opportunity for my son to learn.

BIG CONCLUSION: A standards-based report card–which separates behavior from academic achievement and communicates proficiency on specific learning targets–presents a clear picture of what a student knows, can do, and needs more time to master.

This information helps guide a teacher’s plans for instruction and answers the most frequently asked question at parent-teacher conferences: “What can we work on at home to help support our child’s learning?” (the question sometimes comes out as, “What can we do at home to help our child get an A?” but I prefer to hear it as I initially presented–makes me feel better about our priorities in life).

So why do we stop providing parents, students, and teachers this useful information? At some point in the educational process, reporting is reduced to meaningless letter grades and several automated comments–the traditional report card fails to communicate learning. Yes, the stakes get higher as students approach high school graduation and institutions want to see a grade on the transcripts. However, if so much of one’s future is at stake, shouldn’t the report become more specific? If I am a respectable post-secondary institution or place of employment, I want to know more about what is heading my way, representing my organization.

A standards-based grading and reporting system is the logical solution. I know because I am an educator, a coach, a parent, and a student. In fact, I am the student who somehow survived high school calculus. My homework average was an A (I completed all work with some assistanceanswers to the odd problems were in the back of the book), quiz scores were in the B range (showed enough work), but my test scores were typically in the C range (sometimes lower). Final exam C-. When the report card arrived, I peeked inside the envelope to discover I earned a B+ in Calculus, “pleasure to have in class.” I was relieved and my parents had no hesitation displaying a Proud Parent of an Honor Student bumper sticker on the back of the car. I might have grasped some concepts, but did not learn calculus. I played the system, which is the one skill a majority of students are quick to master if they so choose.

Afterthoughts:

After learning how to tie shoelaces and cut (but not run) with scissors, my son–now well into the third quarter of fourth grade–continues to enjoy the learning opportunities presented to him. My wife and I gained wisdom from the 4K experience and sent our daughter to school with enough skills to teach her classmates how to tie their shoes. Good thing standards-based grading provides specific feedback and allows for growth over time; I am proficient and improving, but yet to show mastery as a parent.

The Epic Paper War

The question resonates across the battlefield (Room A15) and echos throughout the high school hallways: Will the Greeks win honor, or will the Trojans rewrite history? Forget about Friday night’s upcoming game or what so-and-so said about whomever on social media. There is glory to be won in World Literature this week…

Upon completion of reading The Iliad, juniors in my English classes know a war is about to be waged, with reputations and lasting fame on the line. Here is the prompt to The Epic Paper, an engaging, versatile writing strategy that could be adapted to any content area:

The Epic Paper

“How does Homer portray the concept of HONOR in The Iliad?”

You, the epic hero, have received the call to adventure. After years of training for this moment, your mission is simple–accept the call and prepare for battle. With national pride and individual honor at stake, you must win everlasting glory and fame; your name will be remembered amongst the gods and your words immortalized upon Mount Olympus.

Enter battle armed with a formal essay loaded with critical thought about the concept of HONOR in The Iliad. Simply refer to your concept map to guide your writing, and, if necessary, seek inspiration from the Muse.

[Your basic thesis would look something like: “Homer portrays honor through ___________, __________ , and ___________.” You fill in the blanks and develop paragraphs supporting each aspect of honor.]

MISSION:

Anonymously type [double space, size 12, Times New Roman, 1 inch margins] your paper and hand it to Grade-Slaying Durst by __________. Do not allow hubris, foolish pride, or cowardice to blind you—this ignorance will lead to your demise, and ultimately be the cause of your team’s downfall.

This is war! May the strong survive!

Here are the major stages in the process once all of the papers are collected and randomly coded with a number and color so I will be able to identify the paper and its writer–but fate determines the teams. Anonymity provides a level of comfort for everyone, particularly the insecure writers. Let it also be noted that a Greek paper will remain on the Greek side but never cross paths with its writer.

Prep for WarPrep for Battle 2

Phase 1: Preparation for Battle

*Papers have been collected and divided into armies

     3 Greek Armies = Blue, Green, and Purple

     3 Trojan Armies = Orange, Yellow, and Red

*Each army must select the top two papers in their camp (defend your selections based on the writing rubric standards)

*Write comments on each paper

*Then have discussions to determine the top 2 papers

    1) Complete a rubric for papers not advancing–these will enter 1 on 1 combat

    2) In pairs, become the experts on the paper you want to take into battle!

Phase 2: 1 vs 1 Combat–Each pair of students per camp take the leftover papers (those which did not place in to top two) into direct combat around the classroom, Greek vs. Trojan. In these battles, even the weakest papers get defended for their positive qualities.

*Determine a winner of each WRITING STANDARD on our rubric

1) Content & Critical Thinking

2) Organization

3) Fluency

4) Language, Voice, & Tone

5) Conventions

#/5 = WINNER!

Day 1 Scoreboard

Phase 3: Championship Rounds of Battle–The top six papers from both sides of the classroom now enter a round-robin tournament in which each Greek paper battles each Trojan paper. Every battle is organized according to the criteria of different writing standards.

BATTLEFIELD

BATTLE

BATTLE #1: INTRODUCTION AND THESIS

Which paper has a more engaging introduction ending with a highly developed thesis?

BATTLE #2: CONCLUSION

Which conclusion leaves the reader with a greater sense of resolution and closure?

 BATTLE #3: LANGUAGE AND WORD CHOICE

What paper uses exceptionally rich, lively, and precise language to enhance meaning?

BATTLE #4: CONVENTIONS AND USAGE

1) complete sentences 2) 3rd person point of view 3) present tense 4) pronoun agreement 5) punctuation and capitalization

GLORY

photo 3

DAY 3–BATTLE #5: FLUENCY

1) Seamless and purposeful quote integration

2) Sentence variety

3) Creative, varied, and smooth transitions within and between sentences

BATTLE #6: CONTENT AND CRITICAL THINKING

1) Excellent understanding of subject matter

2) Appropriate evidence and examples to support the thesis

3) Answers the question expertly

photo 4photo 5

And there you have it…the 4th hour Trojans rewrote history, while the 5th hour Greeks did not even need a wooden horse to defeat the Trojans this year.

Phase 4: Written Reflection–In addition to the formative feedback I receive while walking around the battlefield, at the end of the epic paper war I have students write a reflection to verbalize their learning and provide me with more valuable feedback.

1) How did this activity challenge your critical thinking skills?

2) What did you learn about the craft of writing as a result of this activity?

Their responses recognize the benefits of our epic approach to a typical English class writing assignment. A majority of responses mention the intensity of competition and the challenge of defending someone else’s writing. What they are really saying is that because everyone is engaged in a class activity, they must be on their game–preparation, quick thinking, and strategy are necessary to defend a logical argument referencing specific examples (sounds Common Core friendly). Other comments highlight thinking deeper about the content of The Iliad and finding a new level of respect for some of their classmates’ talents.

The immediate impact on their writing includes such responses as learning new strategies for analyzing literary themes, effective (yet simple) changes to make throughout the writing (and thought) process, the significance of vocabulary on the delivery of content, and the importance of supporting a solid thesis with credible evidence. I read several thoughts about spending more time on analysis, less on summary (thank you!). One student concluded, “I have to write as if I am the reader. I have to make the reader enthusiastic about reading my essay, and understand my thoughts better.” One boy called the craft of writing, “…a powerful tool,” while another articulated, “The craft of writing is like art–everyone has different styles and some people are stronger than others, but in different areas.”  Wow. Whose students are these?

As proud as those responses make me, I am most impressed with my students’ new respect for the efforts of their teachers. Many reflections mentioned the time-consuming challenge and “strenuous process” of assessing writing. Yes, minions…yes. Because readers were forced to evaluate standards separately, they gained a greater understanding of our writing rubric–that multiple factors must be considered in assessing the quality of a work. This should provide a clearer appreciation of my standards-based approach to grading, as I attempt to guide their learning toward a growth mindset (material for a future post!).

Organizing such an activity takes plenty of time and effort on the front end, but celebrating our writing in a competitive game–especially early in the school year–transforms attitudes and builds confidence for future assessments. My juniors are epic heroes–battle-tested and eager for the next quest.

“I now understand how papers are graded and I can make future papers better in multiple ways. I feel that my own writing will benefit because of this activity.”

That is honorable.