The Science of Good Writing

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_380117134“Hattie. Take a look at this. One of your kids wrote this, and I don’t know what to do with it.”

My friend Brian, a Physics teacher, handed me an essay. It was by one of my AP Language and Comp students from last year.

I read the first line and snickered. She was breaking down a complicated physics concept with an unexpected and slightly silly tone. It was funny. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but she had taken some liberties with her punctuation and phrasing to achieve a relaxed, informal tone; it was definitely intentional, and I was proud.  

I could tell by the look on Brian’s face, though, that he didn’t share my delight.

“Who was her audience supposed to be?” I asked.

“Me?” he replied uncertainly.

I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation, but we quickly realized that we had very different ideas of what a good piece of writing could or should look like in a Physics classroom. Our district, much like many others, has spent the last few years grappling with the increased writing demands placed on content area teachers by the Common Core. Our science and social studies teachers have stepped willingly up to the plate and increased the writing in their classrooms—fantastic!—but we’ve discovered along the way that all of that new writing creates new challenges.

Are all teachers really writing teachers now? Can we hold kids to the same standards in science that we hold them to in ELA?  

Yes and of course! But…that’s easier said than done.

Enter Collaboration  

This is not my first rodeo with collaborative, cross-curricular writing. For the past seven years, all of the English 10 teachers and all of the Civics and Economics teachers at our school have combined forces to help our students write research papers. Though it was challenging to coordinate instruction with 12 different teachers, we made a lot of strides with improving the quality of our students’ research writing. Unfortunately, due to scheduling and class alignments, that project is no longer feasible, but I’m not quite ready to give up on this idea yet.

Luckily, Brian, the Physics teacher, was willing and eager to work with me on tackling these cross-curricular writing challenges. The more we talked, the more we zeroed in on a common goal for our students: We want them to think like writers.

We want students to write with their audience and their purpose in mind, regardless of the class. We want all kids to be able to look at any writing assignment, in any discipline, and know how to tackle it without asking, “How many paragraphs?”

That’s a pretty big goal, but we think combining our writers might help us get closer to it.

Bridging Science and ELA

My AP Language class is largely skills based. All year we’ve been working on crafting arguments, analyzing texts, and synthesizing research. These are all skills that should translate nicely to scientific writing, but it’s the translating part that kids are having trouble with, we think.

We wanted to create a bridge between the classes during our actual class time. This, we thought, might help students in that translating of skills. Though it would be ideal to just combine our classes for a few days and run a large writing workshop together, schedules and numbers of kids made that impossible.

shutterstock_309290015So our first step was a tiny one. Brian’s kids wrote some essays, and he dropped the students off to my classes, where they received some feedback about focus and organization. It was a great experience for my students to practice giving constructive feedback, and Brian was happy with the help his kids received.

Still, we both think we can do more. Having my students edit isn’t really helping students translate their ELA skills to their Physics writing. In fact, it almost seems to reinforce the idea that writers exist in ELA classrooms alone.

So what comes next? In order to keep the assignment meaningful and relevant for both groups of students, we realized, we needed to clearly articulate our goals. For the argumentative essay he is about to begin with his classes, Brian wants his students to have more confident, natural voices in their writing. He wants them to take their scientific writing from good (but perhaps dull) to interesting and engaging. My students have been working on developing a confident, natural voice all semester—specifically through the lens of their grammar and syntax.

This can be our focus. Rather than simply have my students “fix” the essays, I can challenge them to teach their peers some of the syntactical tricks we’ve been learning this semester. To get past the shared-class-period hurdle, we plan to pair students virtually, using shared Google Docs.

I’m not sure that this gets at our ultimate goal of making students think like writers. To truly achieve that, we’d need to have the students co-writing right from the beginning, and we just can’t work out the logistics of that right now. Still, this is a step in the right direction. We’re connecting writers, and we’re helping them to model good writing and revision with their peers.

I’m no science teacher, but this is an experiment, right? Hypothesis: we’re all going to learn a lot.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Bad Data, Good Data, Red Data, Blue Data

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_148016636Back in part one of this post, I explored a problem that my PLC had while attempting to gather accurate data from student assessments. 

This post, while still recognizing some problems with data, is more upbeat, and provides some reassurance that you can (and should!) continue to gather and use data.

In my last post, I described how the word primitive was a foreign term even to some “A” students, and how this proved to be a problem for an assessment on the use of textual evidence. Beyond such content-specific vocabulary, there’s a secondary issue of assessment lingo: we ask kids to examine, analyze, compare, and evaluate, but few teachers directly instruct exact meanings for these terms.

The solution here is simple, but often bothers English teachers: define terms for the kids. When students ask you what you mean by contrast, you should be willing to explain that for them every time.  

Why? Because the term itself isn’t the skill you want data about. If diction is the learning target, independence is obviously an expectation. For all the other assessments, though, you’re damaging your own data if you don’t make sure the students understand every word.

Aim Small, Miss Small

Here’s one of the most regular, self-inflicted data failures we bring upon ourselves: writing questions that attempt to assess too many things at once.  

If I’m writing a short-answer question for an assessment about a passage’s tone, my expectation is for:

  • complete sentences;
  • a clear response to the question;
  • a quote (embedded and cited) to help prove the answer is correct;
  • and an analysis of the quote to tie it all together.  

Even without getting into partially correct responses, you can see where my expectations have created six (!) potential point reductions. 

But what have I done to my data if I take off one of two possible points for, say, not including a quote? If students paraphrased the text effectively and were right about the tone of the passage, then they’ve actually provided me two separate pieces of data about two different learning goals; they have mastered tone analysis, but they are deficient in using textual evidence to prove their arguments.  

shutterstock_258993743When we conflate the two and give them a ½ on the question, we have provided ourselves a sloppy data point. And by the time we’ve graded a set of 120 of that assessment, we might come to a wrong-minded, broad conclusion that sets the class back needlessly. Do they even know what tone is? Or are they just averse to quotes?

Consider that tone example once more. Does the question need to be rewritten? Maybe not.

As long as you’re willing to grade the assessment question for only the core skill (tone or textual evidence, but not both at once), then it can provide you some excellent data. 

Writing questions that address one clear skill is ideal. But sometimes a question that entails multiple skills can be highly useful—as long as you aren’t attempting to score it for every skill at once.  

Post-Assessment Interventions

Logic suggests a problem with this, though. Even if I narrow the learning target I’m assessing, it doesn’t clarify the problem’s source. Did a student choose her quote poorly because she doesn’t know tone, or because she lacks the ability to choose textual evidence well?

The solution to this, I think, is the post-assessment tool box most teachers already put to use. Conference with students for a couple minutes. They can speak effectively to where things went wrong, and data then becomes highly reliable.

When you don’t have time for one-on-one conferencing, having students self-reflect while you go over the assessment as a class can be just as useful. Ask students to make follow-up marks that you can look over later (“T” meaning “I didn’t understand the tone that well,” or “Q” for “I didn’t know what quote to select.”). This might seem like an inelegant solution, but think about what you’ve created: a robust data set that includes your initial impressions of their skills, alongside a self-evaluation where students have provided input on exactly what skill failed them.  

There are obviously dozens of other solutions to the problem of inexact data, but I think the simplest takeaway is to be vigilant about communicating what you want your students to know, and explicit about how your grading rubric measures each learning goal in isolation.

It takes time to fix these sorts of systemic problems. But I’d argue that it amounts to less time than we spend reviewing concepts in class that we’ve misidentified as problematic, having listened to the lies of Bad Data.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Building Digital Portfolios

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_170012141For the past several years I have been having conversations with different people in my district about having our students create digital portfolios. This effort is finally gaining some ground, though the way has been painfully slow from my perspective.

As a classroom teacher, I have been talking with my students about this, and having them create pieces of digital writing in different formats that they can retrieve in future years.

Why Digital Portfolios?

Ever since earning my Master’s in Educational Technology, in 2009, I have had a passion for the power of technology and its ability to transform teaching and learning. I have also recognized the untapped potential for our students in having digital archives of their learning journey. My vision is that our graduating seniors would have a website that they could use for job and college applications, one that would contain documents, videos, recordings, and other artifacts from their K-12 years.

While this vision is far from being realized, we are making some gains. The Media Specialist in my building has been working with our Music teacher to store voice recordings of our students from each year in elementary. She has also begun to have students store Google Docs in a folder that could someday be tapped for a full portfolio.

What Can I Do Today?

Here in my world of 5th grade, it might seem frivolous to have students thinking about digital portfolios. Not so, I say. There is such power in students’ revisiting their work from the beginning of the year and seeing growth, or revising a favorite piece to make it even better.

Every year I tell my students that when they go to middle school, they can show their teachers their websites that they created for informational writing. (I’ve had teachers e-mail me, so I know they do this.) Often, these students will be a bit embarrassed by the lack of content or the mistakes they’ve made, but this is evidence of growth!

shutterstock_118599142This project has also inspired students to create other sites about personal interests. Seeing the application of this skill in their personal life is exactly the kind of transfer we hope for, and the kind of artifact that students can highlight down the road.

Because I have my students blog on a platform that I provide, I have to archive the class blog each year. Before I do, I tell them to copy and paste their favorite pieces into Google Docs, so they can access them later. This causes them to really evaluate what writing is their best and what is worth saving.

An Eye to the Future

These are small steps toward a full portfolio—a vision I’m not sure will ever be realized. However, I can plant the seed of the idea and have my students begin collecting and archiving their best work. The more that technology integrates into our students’ lives, the more inclined I think they will be to continue creating their portfolios. At least I hope so.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

A Really Bad Day (Redeemed)

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_155402741I’d been experimenting with standards-based grading, gradually building trust with a group of seniors I’ve had for two years by “respecting their learning process.” I’d ask them to read something, negotiate a time frame, and I’d plan based on the assumption that they’d come prepared. I quit using reading quizzes for “accountability” in favor of Harkness-style discussions, and I thought it was working. 

Then came the really bad day.

Picture: The room is set for a Harkness discussion. I told my students, as always, that I’d be evaluating the quality of the group’s discussion. They’d all get the same pass/fail grade—and if they weren’t prepared, or had not completed the reading, they shouldn’t put their classmates’ grades at risk.

I knew a few would self-select out—but not all of them! Not one student finished the reading, apparently.

There went all the trust I thought we had. They’d never read anything I’d assigned, I thought. Not an essay, book, short story, not a poem. It had all been a sham and I’d been an utter fool!

Where would I go from here? Back to chapter quizzes, and kids memorizing plot points in the hallway before class, only to forget them seconds after the quiz?

Luckily, a few students came to me and said that they had read, but were afraid to join the discussion because the group was going to be too small. They might not be able to sustain a good conversation with so few others. Interestingly, most of the ones who had completed the assignment weren’t the ones with the highest grades in my class. These were the kids who usually read the books but maybe didn’t regularly complete assignments, so they didn’t always make straight A’s. They told me they liked the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and they wanted to talk about it.

The Response

It was time to differentiate my instruction. 

shutterstock_342973556I created two paths for students to demonstrate their skills. One was the Harkness option for students who’d read. Student’s who weren’t comfortable with that, for whatever reason, were assigned a series of dialectical journal entries which I’d read and grade.

The students who chose the Harkness method sat down and proceeded to discuss the book with great authority, great insight. They were passionate, original. Their conversation was so smart. I wanted to join in, but that’s one of the prime rules of a Harkness—I don’t participate. I did fill pages of my notebook with their ideas.

Watching these students set me thinking. They’d come prepared and they were demonstrating all the high-level skills we’d been working on. They used the text to lend authority to their arguments, extend them, and support claims. They might not be the ones who got A’s, but whose fault is that? Did the assignments and grades I’d been giving honestly reflect my students’ abilities?

The next class period was also interesting. I let the students who discussed the book continue their conversation by creating graphic representations of their ideas. I let them talk, tape ideas on the wall, and use yarn to connect them. I gave time to the rest of the class, so they could read or complete their assignment. But they could not join the discussion until those were completed.

No one lost points or got marked late. I let them learn from each other at their own pace. The students who hadn’t read, and who were working independently, worked very hard to get into the group, which was strange because so many of them complain about “group work.”  

The Takeaways

The whole experience left me thinking about my practice. 

Trust but verify. I understand the philosophy behind standards-based grading, but the sad truth seems to be that some students aren’t ready for this level of responsibility. I still need a system that “holds them accountable” (ick).

Points aren’t accountability. Based on what I saw, students want to be part of high-quality activities that allow them to demonstrate how smart they are, points be damned. Getting back into the circle wasn’t about points. They had ideas and things to say.

The process is important. When we started our next book, there were students who had to prove that they’d read the book by submitting dialectical journals. Most of these students admitted that doing the writing, and being true to the process, had spurred their thinking and anchored their ideas in the text.

Pay attention to the outsiders. I’m ashamed to admit that I was taken aback by the abilities and intelligence of “mid-level students,” who showed me again that grades and points aren’t a good indicator of ability, understanding, creativity, or anything that matters. What I really need to do—and this brings me back to the beginning—is to stay out of the way, and give them ways to be brilliant.

So, my horrible, terrible, really bad day turned out to be . . . horrible, sure, but instructive.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Online Writing: Beauty and the Beast

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_348905468Each year I have my students engage in a variety of online writing experiences: blogging, Google documents, websites, and presentations. At this point in the year, I find that there are two sides to online writing, and finding a way to balance them is my greatest challenge.

The Beauty

I love having my students write online. Online writing is easier to edit, I can leave comments, and I don’t have to lug tons of notebooks back and forth. I can sit with my computer in my lap at night and toggle through a wealth of student writing. It is by no means faster (sometimes I feel like it takes a bit longer digging through my links) but I do love not having to worry about whether assignments were turned in, or if I left papers at school, or somehow something got lost.

Digital archive

Online writing allows me to have a digital archive of my students’ writing, which is invaluable at parent-teacher conferences in the spring. It is amazing to see the growth—or sadly sometimes the lack thereof—in student pieces. Because I give lots of craft assignments early on, I can easily show parents my assignment posts and their student’s writing in response. This allows for easier conversations about why a child is beginning, developing, or secure in his or her writing skills.

This encourages revision. With this kind of online portfolio, some students have asked to go back and revise and edit—a teacher’s dream! They actually want to do this? Sometimes I take screenshots of the “before” piece, so that I can have them to compare to the revised and edited work. This helps me when I confer with both student and parent.

Authentic audience

Establishing partnerships has been a beautiful thing as well. This year we are blogging partners with two 11454297503_e27946e4ff_h5th grade classes in Maine and we are participating in the Two Writing Teachers Classroom Slice of Life Challenge. My students are excited to log on each week to see what their long-distance partners have written, and to leave and receive feedback. In the classroom challenge, they are looking at writing from classrooms around the globe, which makes their own writing more purposeful. They grapple with their subject matter because now that they have an audience, they want it to be interesting.

Without fail, I have at least two or three students from each class who ask me what to write about. Convincing some of my students that they have moments that are writing-worthy is a constant challenge, but in spite of all this, I am finding every student engaged to a greater degree than they would be if they were only writing in their notebooks. That is beautiful.

The Beast

Of course, this all sounds great. What could possibly be a problem? Well…

Greater responsibilities for feedback

If I had the time each and every night to read and leave private comments on students’ blogs, life would be grand. But I don’t. So, I let the posts pile up, and pretty soon I am harassed by my students enough that I sit and power through countless blogs in one night.

I’m still not able to allow my students to comment freely on one another’s blogs, which means that I have comments to approve as well. All of this can become a monster to manage, and I confess that this year I have not done as well as I would like. Now that we have blogging partners, the SOLSC, and the interface on our blog has changed … it is very time consuming and at times, downright annoying.

Problems with technology

Every year, I have my students create individual Google Sites for our informational reading and writing units. For the units, we take notes, do our writing in packets, and then transfer our writing to the pages of our sites—my attempt to help them avoid plagiarism. Again, this allows for easy conferring on my part. It also unleashes a whole new animal.

Ten-year-olds often believe that they know more about technology than the adults around them. While this is frequently true, their tech confidence becomes a nightmare when working with certain programs. No matter how many directions I give, there is always that group of students that thinks they know better. (Or the group that totally misses the directions.) This leads to a lot of time spent undoing, re-doing, and re-teaching. Grr. My students discovered the hard way last year that copy-paste doesn’t work all of the time in Google Sites, even though someone had told them that. This resulted in many hours spent finding, downloading, saving and uploading pictures, not to mention having to create the citations all over again.

Happily Ever After?

At the end of each project, I find that I’ve learned something new that will help me (and my students) in the future. I also find new challenges with technology and the individuals who are in my classes. This is truly a never-ending journey, but one that I am still happy to be on.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Historical Fiction—Hot off the Press

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

51UN6ZK2TYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_-1I love historical fiction. Strangely, the reason I seem to love it most is that I find it humbling in two ways.

First, the characters of historical fiction are almost always experiencing horrendous events or struggling against impossible odds that I have never had to face. Second, though I consider myself to be reasonably well versed in U.S. and world history, historical fiction routinely smacks me in the face with some historical event, time period, or consequence that I somehow completely missed. How, before I read Orphan Traindid I never know about the organized movement of thousands of young children into middle America during the Great Depression?

And how was I naively unaware of the largest maritime disaster in history before I read Ruta Sepetys’ new novel, Salt to the Sea?

The Plot

This brand-new piece of historical fiction follows four narrators during World War II: three teenage Prussian (now the area containing countries like Latvia and Lithuania) refugees and one young German sailor. Each carries a troubling secret that he or she has never told anyone. The three refugees meet on the road, each coming from a very different background and set of circumstances. They are all headed for the Baltic Sea, hoping to escape an encroaching Russian army by boarding a German ship headed toward relative safety. Unfortunately, it seems that safety does not always come as advertised.

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is so much to this book and its characters that make it fascinating and exciting. But it is also a well-researched fictional account of what may have occurred leading up to and during the worst maritime disaster in history. We’re talking about nearly six times as many deaths as the Titanic, and yet I had never before heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff or its epic demise.

I initially picked up this book because I am a huge fan of the author, Michigan native Ruta Sepetys, and her works Between Shades of Grey and Out of the Easy. This book did not disappoint. I was immediately captured by the fascinating and mysterious cast of characters: a talented art restorationist mixed up in the Nazi art-thievery plot; a nurse-in-training who is compelled to step in as local doctor wherever she goes; a naive and self-important German boy, bound and determined to serve the Reich in any way that will garner praise. How can one not be drawn in by these varied tales that come together so seamlessly?

The fast, short chapters, which each character tells in succession, added a sense of suspense and action that really kept me turning pages as well. I regularly hear from history teachers that they are always on the lookout for World War II novels that aren’t necessarily focused on the Holocaust, and this one is sure to be a hit, particularly because of its high-interest content but relatively low reading level. It’s a great classroom-connection novel and a fantastic find for historical fiction lovers everywhere!

Book Details

Reading Levels: AR = unknown , Lexile = HL560L
ISBN: 9780399160301
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Awards: None yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it received some eventually. It’s only been out for 3 weeks and it’s already got 4 starred reviews!
Source: NetGalley (I received an advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Good Teacher, Bad Data

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Professional Learning

shutterstock_268996268I think it’s safe to say that there’s a bit more mathematical calculation in your normal English classroom pedagogy than there was, say, five years ago.

And you know what? That’s a good thing—a great thing if you’ve found meaningful ways to use the data gathered from formative and summative assessments.  

But data can also be pretty misleading.

The idea of using data to improve instruction has always been presented as a simplistic and elegant solution: gather data that shows which students miss which questions and, voila!, you know  where to direct differentiated instruction, to help every student reach mastery of the learning goals. 

To wit: An easy question about the tone of an author yields 90% of your students who correctly identify and explain the tone, but the second tone question on the same assessment—testing the same learning goal but providing a much more challenging passage—reveals that only 50% of your class can really decipher tone when the going gets tough (or the tone gets subtle).  

This is really fantastic information to have! Ten percent of your kids need to go back and review their notes and probably do some formative practice. But there’s another 40% who need to work on applying their newfound skill. They clearly know what tone is, but at some point when the tone isn’t smacking them in the face, they actually aren’t that great at recognizing the trait in writing. The needs of these two groups are different, but now you know whom to direct to which formative task!

The Signal, The Noise, The Headache

51Ui-zv3m7L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The funny thing about data, though, is that numbers aren’t as clear and objective as all those charts and bar graphs would have us believe. If you don’t want to take an English teacher’s word for that, get ahold of Nate Silver’s excellent book The Signal and the Noisewhich reveals just how difficult it can be to get data to tell you the truth.  

Or, for that matter, believe your own experience, since I’m fairly certain you’ve also experienced the sort of data debacle I’m about to describe.  

A few years ago, my professional learning community rewrote all of our assessment questions so that they were clearly labeled by learning goal. When we tested a student’s ability to support an argument using textual evidence, the question might look like this:

Using Evidence: Using at least one quote, explain how Jon Krakauer establishes Chris McCandless’s desire to live a more primitive lifestyle in Into the Wild.

Now everything should be clean and easy to parse—if kids get the question right, they have mastered the use of textual evidence. If they get it wrong, they have not. And if they can explain Krakauer’s methods but fail to use a quote, we can presume they’re halfway there.

So would it surprise you to learn that my PLC ended up getting incredibly muddled data from this question? And that we eventually had to rethink how we were interpreting much of the data? Here are some of the issues that we encountered:

  • How can you tell when a student lacks a skill versus when they lack vocabulary? Three of my stronger students asked me what primitive meant—in my first period alone!
  • Did all the students recognize the implicit meaning of the verb explain? Have you been clear about what various verbs (contrast, analyze, challenge) demand of them in an assessment?
  • How do you decide whether a student just hasn’t written enough? And what should the takeaway be when students can vocalize an answer that is thorough and accurate?
  • How much should you be concerned when a student’s example is the one you’ve already used in a class discussion? What if that brand of example shows up on every single assessment a student takes?
  • If you give the students one passage to focus on, is a correct answer an indication of mastery of this skill or only partial mastery (since on their own they might not have been able to select the relevant part of the text from, say, an entire chapter)?

Any of these are good reasons to have a careful data discussion in your PLC. But let’s just take that first one—lacking a skill versus lacking vocabulary—as an example. 

I couldn’t write off as a trivial minority the students who asked the question (what primitive meant)—these were the grade-concerned kids who were good about asking questions. If they didn’t know the term and said so, then there was a good chance that A LOT of the other kids also didn’t know the meaning of primitive. They just didn’t bother to ask.  

Is Data Doomed?

All of a sudden, our data about this fundamental writing skill seemed really murky. And this was a learning goal we thought was pretty transparent and objective!  There was a sudden temptation to go back to the more instinctive, less numbers-driven approach to gathering feedback about students.

Even though gathering good data in English is tougher than it seems, it is both possible and essential for effective instruction. I’ll revisit my own case study in my next blog post, in order to elucidate a few of the counter-measures my PLC took to help avoid “fuzzy” data points.

In the meantime, think about the next assessment you give to students. Whatever data you take from it, ask yourself whether more than one “theory” about the kids’ performances on it would fit the data you’re staring at.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.