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.
Proud Father…Concerned Teacher
Naturally, the father in me is proud to share a photo of my 3rd grader lost in a book. Although my son excels at math, understands numbers, and absorbs statistics, Maddox loves to read. He is a logical, rational, concrete thinker, so my English teacher persona smiles every time Maddox says he is going to bed early to read for thirty minutes.
The English teacher hesitates to admit the unorthodox methods used to instill Maddox’s early success as a reader. Many of his first words were read off the ESPN ticker scrolling across the bottom of the television screen (we skipped most educational programming in favor of sports in our house…guilty). After mastering team names and major universities, Maddox moved on to the sports page of the morning newspaper. He would find an article that looked appealing and circle all the words he recognized. Of course, he kept word count stats at the bottom of each column. Who needs lexile scores?
Of course, my wife and I read stories to Maddox and introduced him to traditional children’s books, but reading was and continues to be something he explores independently because he wants to. Maddox is also a role model for his sister, a kindergartner who aspires to do everything like her big brother. Watching her follow his lead is most encouraging from a parent’s point of view. My children should be avid readers and healthy learners, yet I anticipate conflict along the way.
I am grateful for Maddox’s positive elementary school experiences with teachers who instill a love of reading beyond carpet-time sessions–educators who invest the time to introduce my son to new books based not only on reading level, but on their knowledge of his interests. They provide opportunities and present challenges, knowing he will reach and likely exceed their expectations.
As soon as Maddox’s third grade teacher recognized his competitive spirit, she challenged him to select from the shelf of higher-level, more complex chapter books; predictably, Maddox attacked it. He began with one series at a time and has not slowed down. I know this sounds like parental bliss, so what’s the problem?
The experienced (realistic, slightly cynical) English teacher in me fears the worst–a gradual decline in my son’s love of reading as a result of misguided motivation and purpose. I have witnessed this downward trend in so many students as they approach high school and no longer want to read books (even given freedom to select an independent text). Now that I’m a parent, I am gaining an insightful perspective of potential sources of ruin.
Maddox currently selects each Accelerated Reader book according to its points rating, reads the book, takes a ten question quiz, and rushes home with a print out of his performance. He needs six out of ten correct answers to pass, but the competitor expects a perfect score. These recall questions can be unnecessarily fastidious; they do not engage complex thinking or stimulate a reader’s passion. It has been a challenge to convince him that his scores of eight or nine out of ten are most acceptable as long as he is comprehending (and enjoying) what he reads. The magic printer confirms Maddox is reading well above grade level–praise that inspires him to conquer the next book on the shelf–and the cycle repeats.
I encourage and support my son’s third grade quest to read one million words–an awesome milestone–but cannot hide my concern for the day Maddox does the math and tires of the ten-point reading game. He, like so many others, will discover shortcuts to undermine the system. Students of all ability levels master this skill at an early age (too bad that doesn’t get assessed nationally).
My wife and I are well aware of society’s test-
crazeddriven obsessions and will continue to make learning something special in our house. But what about the students and parents who do not have the advantage of identifying flaws in the system from the inside? They are unprepared for and unknowingly persuaded by sales pitches of political and educational jargon spewed in conferences or on the news–bombarded with Common Core speak, standardized test scores, charts, benchmarks, acronyms, lexiles, grades, trend lines, and national percentiles.
With little explanation or background knowledge, this is overwhelming. The numbers couldn’t possibly lie. Translation: apply label to
robot student immediately, accept without question, and have a pleasant day.
Thankfully, I’m a parent and an educator.