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.
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:
- Find evidence from _____(the text)______ to support the statement.
- Practice integrating the “directly quoted evidence with fluency, while adding the appropriate in text citation” (author’s last name page#). Pay attention to punctuation.
- 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.
- 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 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.]
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.
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
4) Language, Voice, & Tone
#/5 = WINNER!
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.
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
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
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.
I recently completed a post about going paperless in my Foundations of College Writing course. As I continue to experience the benefits and efficiency of the Google Apps in the classroom, I want to share a simple strategy for formative assessment using Google Forms. The spreadsheet creates a visual model of every student’s research paper thesis statement. I provide meaningful, specific feedback (by color) to my seniors simply by reading one column of sentences and highlighting according to the standards on our writing rubric. Students immediately locate and compare their work to that of their peers, creating conversations before I start teaching.
RED=BEGINNING, ORANGE=DEVELOPING, YELLOW=PROFICIENT, GREEN=ADVANCED
Obviously, modeling is a best practice in the classroom. If you spend hours preparing writing lessons, which may or may not leave a lasting impact on learning, consider using the spreadsheets created by student responses to Google Forms. I use similar strategies to formatively assess samples of student work, including: effective introduction paragraphs, conclusions, organization of an argument, quote integration, word choice, and any other writing standards I wish to address. I insert comments to explain the rationale behind each writer’s assessment, but students often know the reasoning before I unveil the feedback.
This instant feedback teaches more in a mini-lesson than I can model or attempt to explain (especially for struggling writers). Students in Foundations need to see their words removed from the computer screen and hear their sentences read out loud. Immediately, they want to make adjustments before I even have a chance to comment or suggest improvements–so I let them. This promotes independent and critical thought. Writers gain confidence as they make minor revisions to attain proficiency, and beam with pride if their work is already green; they are not accustomed to receiving positive feedback–a major cause of their writing inhibitions. As revisions are completed, I change the color of highlighting for all to witness–simple, authentic, and lasting.
I have never been much of a technology expert in anything beyond the basics, although I was quite an Atari legend in the 80’s, made a smooth transition from VHS to DVD in the 90’s, and more recently converted from Windows to Mac. With all the talk of twenty-first century learners entering high school, I accepted the opportunity to become the first member of the English department to use a smart-board in my classroom (when Wisconsin’s educational budget was more promising). I learned how to incorporate PowerPoint into my lessons and entertained students with some less-than-artistic illustrations using smart-board tools. After a dozen years of inhaling chalk dust and smearing transparencies, I have grown fond of my new toys.
One of my favorite applications of technology in the classroom is Microsoft Word’s comment feature, which I use to provide quality feedback to my writers. I have designed numerous lessons in which students utilize the comment functions for peer editing while rotating from station to station in the computer lab. I have also crafted assessments based on students’ ability to comment on the revisions they make within the text of their own papers. Students must identify and articulate any changes to their previous draft on which I have typically provided feedback. I gain an accurate understanding of each student’s learning by reading the rationale behind the improvements. This is an excellent practice but it is inconvenient to access student school accounts, save as a new document with comments, or exchange emails with attachments. If only there were a more efficient system…
Last year, our high school’s library media specialist introduced me to the functionality of Google Docs during a freshman orientation session with my class. While many of my freshmen were not paying attention (naturally) to Google’s accessibility and collaborative capabilities, I was intrigued by the potential.
I had already set up a personal Gmail account and was in the process of constructing a classroom Google website, so looking into the rest of the Google Apps made sense. I set a professional goal to learn the system and teach students to utilize the new technology, knowing our district is heading that direction. A collection of new documents soon accumulated in my Drive (impressively organized in folders)–easily accessible from school, home, and my phone when needed. A creative vision of increasing student success and accountability began to form: no more misplaced flash drives or emailing between accounts; no more printer dilemmas; no more forgetting to save; no more “it’s on my home computer;” no more excuses; and not nearly as much paper.
At the outset of this school year, I explored the idea of going paperless in Foundations of College Writing, a semester-long senior composition course stationed in the department computer lab. I experimented with Google Docs for the majority of writing projects throughout first semester and learned with my students. Very few students were even aware they had a Google account already established by our district technology coordinator so I proudly guided them across the threshold. Initially, I relied on several tech-savvy students, who had no problem grasping the system (it cannot be that difficult if I taught myself). They communicated when something was unclear and helped me explain areas of confusion to their peers. By the time I officially assigned the research paper–the required touchstone of the course–my seniors showed no hesitation (how refreshing).
In response to a Google Form consisting of several guiding questions, students generated ideas for their research based on articles (informational texts) independently read throughout the semester. They identified issues worthy of further investigation, narrowed their topics, and composed a preliminary thesis. Student replies were neatly registered on a spreadsheet grid–a highly teachable document–in my Drive, rather than through multiple documents or a stack of papers.
The copy-and-paste generation learned to record and properly document research in a Google Presentation rather than on cumbersome note cards (so 20th Century). Visual learners arranged slides by topic or color–depending on individual preference–and soon sentences formed paragraphs. Bibliography slides were alphabetized and posted to a works cited page. All stages of the research process were organized and digitally recorded without having to save progress. Students shared their work with me, permitting access to monitor each step.
When writers composed ample content, I had them share with at least two other students. I have never witnessed such quality feedback through a peer editing exercise. They offered constructive advice to each other, while verbalizing their knowledge about writing (but is not always reflected in their writing). I learned as much–if not more–by reading peer feedback to check editors’ understanding of writing (see formative assessment), and was most impressed to see a student insert a comment reflecting my teaching.
The seniors appreciated the authentic conversations about the craft of writing, and preferred the immediate and ongoing feedback, “not days or weeks later.” They considered this exchange “educational” and “not as embarrassing” as begging for help from a writing instructor. Ultimately, after years of neglecting feedback scratched in the margins of their work, they were “more willing to pay attention to advice” and “finally understood what [I was] talking about.” My red pen was slightly offended, but technology had impacted my effectiveness in teaching students to write.
I sense the contempt of critics chiding me for selling out to the Cloud–paranoid of Big Brother. What about days when the server is down? Doesn’t reading student work take even longer? What’s the point? Well, Big Brother should be proud of our productivity, efficiency, and human progress (or does that make us a threat?). It is also our nature to adapt to technical difficulties as they occur, hence we store writers’ notebooks in a file cabinet, and occasionally practice our fine motor skills of manipulating a pen. Yes, the process of reading and commenting on student work is time-consuming, but the technology opens new opportunities to multitask; I can even read student work on my iPad while running on the treadmill without worrying about sweating on their papers. At the risk of alarming some, good teaching is time-consuming; the learning process is a journey requiring trust, patience, and commitment from teacher and student alike.
After a successful semester of experimentation, I confidently welcomed a new group of seniors to my first hour, paperless composition class. I will continue to reflect on my experiences, challenges, and improvements, and share the results. I am well on my way to understanding NCTE’s definition of 21st Century Literacies (see http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/21stcentdefinition), but more importantly, so are my students.
Note: no trees were killed nor red pens sacrificed in the 2012-2013 writing process