Standards-Based Grading (Part 1)

Consultants' Corner Formative Assessment Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_297479735For the next two years, I will be part of the Galileo Leadership Consortium, which works to advance teacher leadership. In this role, I am asked to learn that I can do better for the profession.

Sometimes all we have to realize is that we only have to know that we can do better. And one of the things that the consortium believes we can do better is grading. We believe that grading doesn’t have to be punitive, and that it can actually relay information about what a child has learned. To help you understand and implement these beliefs, I will share the information I have learned from experts, and how I have used that learning in my 8th grade Language Arts classroom.

Wormeli’s Views of Grading

The first expert I encountered was Rick Wormeli. He is best known for his research on 21st-century teaching practices. Five minutes into a day with him, though, and you realize that he has used all of the research that he presents.

From Wormeli, I learned three things:

  • Teachers are ethically responsible for the grades which they report.

This means that grades that are padded—with scores for neatness, following directions, turning work in on time—are grades that do not represent the amount of learning the student has achieved.

  • Grades should accurately report the amount of mastery that a student has on the standards of that subject.

This means that an A in Language Arts represents that the student has achieved an A level of mastery in the reading and writing of narrative, argument, and information. An A level of mastery is typically coined by the terms “Exceeding Mastery.”

  • Assessments should be connected to standards.

This means that all activities that we ask of students should be related to the learning they should be achieving. So, every assessment should be connected to a standard, so the student’s grade can reflect the achievement of that standard.

What This Looks Like in My Classroom

So, what does standards-based grading mean in literacy instruction, and what does this look like in my classroom?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have some experiences that I will share.

Shift 1: I connect daily lessons to standards, and present these connections to students.amy 1

At the beginning of each lesson, I name my teaching point. Students and I refer to our Self-Evaluation Standards page (you can click on the thumbnail image to the right). On this page, we underline key words and compare how our work achieved that standard. As you can see, the columns represent achievement levels. Students can mark a date and a level they think they achieved. From here, students can see their growth towards achieving each standard.

Shift 2: For every standard that I teach to kids, I create a rubric of achievement.amy 2

I share the rubrics with kids along with exemplars (thumbnail on the right) of each achievement level. Students can see where their work aligns with that of their peers and the way work should look. The rubric and examples help kids to work to meet the standards.

Shift 3: I insist that students walk away each day having learned something.

In order to quantify this, I have started giving quick and varied formative assessments. For one amy 3concept, it may be a post-it of key terms, with verbal descriptive feedback. For another concept, it may be written descriptive feedback about how to move forward in achieving a standard (an example is on the right). For any assessment, students may re-try the work, in order to show more learning. This helps kids learn and apply the material, but it also shows them that they are active learners, and learners who are successful.

Every day in my classroom looks a little different. And I am using different strategies to reach all of my learners. But in doing so, I know what standard that students have achieved and what standard they are working on. We also have a great community that wants to work and grow and show their best work. And all this came from three small shifts.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Camp ALEC 2015

Consultants' Corner

Pulling in on the winding gravel road of Indian Trails Camp, I IMG_1160took a deep breath. I was excited to arrive after the two hour commute on a sunny Sunday morning. To say I wasn’t nervous would be a lie. I was about to embark on what I had heard was an incredible, yet challenging week of intense learning. I, along with eight Oakland County teachers and two of my Oakland Schools colleagues, would spend the next seven days together attending a Level II course in Literacy for Students with Significant Disabilities at Camp ALEC. The course, taught by Drs. Koppenhaver and Erickson, exposes participants to over 60 hours of classroom learning, including providing literacy instruction for campers with significant disabilities. Little did I know that early Sunday morning that the experience would teach me so much more.

I learned before the campers arrived that the two girls I would instruct during this week were 12 years old. I first met Maggie when she arrived with her Mom and younger brother. As her Mom navigated her wheel chair, my first glimpse of Maggie, appearing so helpless and limp in the chair, brought tears to my eyes. You see, my own daughters are 12 and 13 years old. Funny how we can so easily make assumptions about someone based on a first impression. Here I was, a Special Education teacher, feeling so blessed for my own daughters, when Maggie taught me one of the biggest lessons I would learn all week: She rolled her eyes at her Mom, who had just apparently annoyed her with a comment, just like my own daughters do. Maggie could not talk, but boy could she communicate! I knew I was in for an amazing week.

The training I have received over the years reflects a belief that teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities does not require “prerequisites” or “readiness” or  that literacy can only be learned by “higher functioning” students. We all learn to read and write in basically the same ways, but literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities requires a more deliberate and concentrated effort to ensure the student has access to communication and learning. It requires a commitment to lots of time dedicated to comprehensive literacy instruction. If a student is not learning, we as educators need to figure out what is not working. It is our responsibility to provide meaningful instruction that offers repetition with lots of variety to engage and help these students generalize their learning in multiple environments. This and other principles of good ELA instruction are described in a DLM (Dynamic Learning Maps) module.

Camp instructionSo knowing what good instruction is and actually teaching are two very different things. My partner for the week, Darlene, and I spent our planning time designing lessons to reflect what we knew to be good instruction. Maggie and Josie spent two hours with us in the morning and afternoon. Our job was to provide their parents by week’s end a summary of activities we tried and ideas for helping their daughter improve in the area of literacy. We completed some assessments to help guide our instruction and quickly learned that things don’t always go as planned. We needed to give ourselves permission to get to know the girls and understand their interests.

Once we anchored our lessons based on the girls’ experiences, they started to make connections. Josie, for example, loved to play Tag with anyone who would run with her. We started taking pictures of her and others playing, printed them and shared the collection with Josie. I glued the pictures onto paper, showed Josie and waited for her response. She quickly started signing and verbalizing her descriptions of the pictures while laughing and smiling. It was clearly a motivating activity for Josie. I then handed her a pen and asked her to tell me IMG_1754about her pictures. Josie’s smile left her face and she signed “nervous”. She was not comfortable with this request, but with encouragement and permission to write in short segments throughout the week, she created a book about playing Tag. When her mom arrived Saturday, Josie read her the Tag book she created. This process required creativity to engage Josie and patience on my part to allow her the time she needed to express herself.

Another opportunity for making connections to the girls’ experiences came about the last day of camp. Maggie relies on an alternate communication device; she is unable to speak and has physical limitations that make using her hands for signing impossible. Despite these limitations, Maggie had a very typical “goal” for camp: she wanted to kiss a boy! She achieved her goal (Luke gave her a kiss on the cheek) and was so excited. She even texted her mom, letter by letter, using a head mouse connected to her device mounted on her wheel chair.Camp Maggie writing

There was a dance Friday night and one of the counselors suggested that maybe she and Luke could dance. Maggie smiled and typed out “Write a note to ask him.” Unfortunately, Maggie was in a lot of pain that day. Her chair was bothering her and she kept saying that her back hurt. Karen Erickson came by and asked Maggie if she would like to lay down. I was disappointed, thinking Maggie would have to go back to her cabin, but there was a bean bag in the room, and Maggie’s counselor transferred her. In a more comfortable position, but without her device, Karen guided me through an alternate way of helping Maggie write her note. With a pad of paper on my lap, I went through the alphabet, letter by letter, until Maggie raised her eyes for “yes”. I wrote down each letter until she completed what she wanted to write:Camp Maggie note

Maggie gave her note to Luke at lunch, and the two shared a sweet dance. If Maggie had not been given the opportunity to switch positions, she likely would not have written her note. We as teachers need to embrace teachable moments even when obstacles arise. This method was shared with Maggie’s Mom, who immediately saw the potential for using this to communicate with Maggie during car rides. Instead of crying to let her Mom knows she needs something, she now has access to the alphabet when hooking up her device is not convenient.

Based on observations and assessments given to the girls, a recommendation for reading easy books would help with print processing and language difficulties.  One resource shared with both girls was Tarheel Reader. This free site houses thousands of easy-to-read and accessible books on a wide range of topics. Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces, including touch screens and the IntelliKeys with custom overlays. Both Maggie and Josie loved going on the site and searching out books. Maggie even bookmarked the site as a favorite. She now has independent access to thousands of books.

Saturday morning, the teachers from Oakland County and I shared our excitement for the upcoming school year. They agreed that this camp experience was an incredible and yes, challenging experience. They are now teacher leaders and will enter the school year with a deeper, richer understanding of teaching literacy to students with significant disabilities.

Oakland Schools will offer one day sessions on Emergent and Conventional Literacy Instruction in March, 2016. Please visit the Special Education Professional Learning section of our website for more details.

A local newspaper highlighted Camp ALEC during the week. Click here to see the video.

ColleenMeszler photo 3Colleen Meszler joined Oakland Schools in 1994 after earning her special education teaching degree from Eastern Michigan University.  She holds a Master’s Degree in Special Education with endorsements in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Emotional Impairment and is approved as an ASD Teacher Consultant.  Her passion is supporting the unique learning needs of students with Autism.  Her work has changed over the years as Oakland Schools has responded to the changing needs of the districts in the county.  She began as a teacher in the Oakland Schools Autism Program educating middle school and post-high students.  She then provided ASD Teacher Consultant services to the districts of Oakland County, again focusing on the needs of students with ASD.

In her current role as a Special Education Consultant in the Professional Learning Unit of the Department of Special Education, Colleen supports public school special educators as they close the achievement gap between students with and without IEPs.  Specifically, she facilitates the professional learning of special educators in the provision of emergent and conventional literacy instruction to students with moderate to significant cognitive disabilities.  The emphasis is on instructional practices for pre-K through post-high students who are educated to alternate achievement standards and assessed through the alternate state assessment.

Colleen stays busy on the home front as well, attending soccer and volleyball games, boating and snowmobiling with her husband and two daughters.




Triathlon Swimming & Formative Assessment

Consultants' Corner Formative Assessment Professional Learning Research & Theory

I titled this blog post not to try and get your attention, well, all right, partly to get your attention, but really because I have been struggling with the swim leg of a triathlon. Floundering is perhaps more accurate description. At the same time, I became enthralled with the possibilities of formative assessment. Later you will see how I linked the two.

shutterstock_154806206For my first triathlon, actually my only triathlon, I swam with a snorkel. Yes, you are allowed to do so, however you can not win. Being the disciplined athlete I am I was unencumbered by this restriction as I wheezed around the course.

Another indignity; triathlons start in waves. The Elites begin first and, as field thins and the triathletes thicken, the older folk start last. You may be surprised to learn that I am neither an Elite triathlete, nor extremely youthful. Consequently I started from behind and fought to maintain this stellar ranking.

There is another indignity in a triathlon. They write your age on your leg. This does not worry me, I saw it more as an explanation of my performance. However, it is embarrassing to be passed on the run, by a pair of calves boldly emblazoned with the number 74!

To be honest I finished about midway between the Elites and the DNF’s. (Did Not Finish). I wanted to do another tri,  faster and sans snorkel. Enter formative assessment, if it works for kids, it should work for me, and hopefully before I am 74. Formative assessment could help,  it was unlikely to harm my performance, what did I have to lose?

The Theory
Let me clarify what I mean by formative assessment. From my understanding, it is a planned process where one assesses where the learner is in terms of learning (triathlon swimming in this instance). Based on the assessment/s, the instruction continues as is or is modified.

There are three questions that focus the formative assessment process:
1.Where are you going?
2. Where are you now?
3. What do you do to close the gap?

And then there is evidence that the learner (me) is making progress toward the goal.

There is also feedback. which, since I am too tight to pay for a coach, I am going to provide that feedback to myself. This brings to mind a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” A bird-walk but you may see the relevance.

The Practice
shutterstock_113167474Swimming is challenging for me. If the swim leg of a sprint triathlon was 50 yards, I would be fine, but it is not. It is 1/2 mile, which is a long, long way for me. The ride and the run are OK; note I did not say easy, or enjoyable.

Back to the swim.

I have purchased flippers, snorkel, goggles, hand paddles, and even a clicky belt thing that gives feedback (with an annoying click) when you roll your hips. (I do like my toys). I have read books, studied videos, and crawled the web for tips and insight. I have had lessons, (see I am not that tight), and I have practiced in a pool and in a lake.

I practiced body rolling, arm strokes, getting my butt up, and bi-lateral breathing. I am better than I was. (I once read a T-shirt that said, “The older I get, the better I was.” I agree with the sentiment, but digress.)

So why am I not much, much better at swimming by now?

Formative Assessment Insights
Here is what I am learning, thanks to formative assessment insights:

1. I do reflect on my swimming skills ( I use the latter term rather loosely!).
2. I found I check how I am going quite regularly. I even make a mental note of my performance. In most cases, I think I should do a little more of this, say breathing, and a little less of that, say sinking.
3. I do understand the learning progressions needed to swim that distance.
4. I have clarified my learning intentions.

However, I think I need to look more deeply (an unintended pun).

Dylan Wiliam proposed five strategies for formative assessment:

1. Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success.
2. Engineering and eliciting effective evidence of learning.
3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward.
4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another.
5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning.

OK, I’ve got #1 and #5. For me, #4 is hard ‘cause it is just me. So that leaves #2 and #3.

I do get some evidence courtesy of an expensive, and thankfully waterproof, Garmin watch. I can tell lap times, distance, and stroke rate. But … so what?

This evidence is also feedback, but it is limited and after the fact. I have to download it on the computer to get it. What I need is in the moment feedback. I know I could pay for this, but we have been here before. I am too cheap, so let’s move on. I still need feedback.

Interestingly, I just realized the pool gives me feedback, like when I swallow water instead of breathing air, which does make me think about the quality of feedback.

I am highly motivated. I have found that the possibility of drowning is great motivation, but I am hesitant to recommend it as an educational strategy.

What I am beginning to see is that if I address the three focus questions of formative assessment:
1. Where am I going?
2. Where am I now?
3. How do I close the gap?
It is evident that it is quality feedback that moves me forward, that links #1 and #2 to achieve #3. It is the ability to provide quality feedback, in the moment, based on evidence, that is most helpful.

What have I learned?
Well, I think Wiliam’s Five Strategies help me think about learning, be it for triathlons or teaching literacy. The three focus questions are pivotal to implementing the strategies.

Once the direction is known, then it is time to determine what sort of evidence is needed to ascertain progress towards the destination and when each piece of evidence is relevant. Evidence and feedback often appear related at this point.

For example, the number of strokes it takes to get to the end of the pool is useful to know. However, feedback on form while actually swimming with the form of a sunken log, is far more helpful. Effective feedback is what is needed, at that moment, to move me forward (not downward).  It is the immediacy of the adjustment which underscores a central tenet of formative assessment: formative assessment changes the learning while it is still malleable. James Popham‘s definition of formative assessment is:  “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing.”

shutterstock_158438201Effective feedback, grounded in where the learner is in the moment, is critical. It would be helpful, though not always essential, to have feedback from peers and/or a more knowledgeable other. However, in the end, it is the learner’s (my) responsibility for success. Interestingly, this raises the issue of goal setting, which is something for another day.

In the end, Wiliam’s Five Formative Assessment Strategies embedded in the three Formative Assessment Questions, provide an effective learning framework that works as well for triathlons as literacy.

So to put this in a growth mindset, which is pivotal to formative assessment, I can’t swim 1/2 a mile comfortably, YET.

Les HowardPrior to coming to Oakland Schools in 2004, Les Howard worked as an independent consultant across the United States based in San Francisco. Les came to California in 1994 to help establish Reading Recovery in California. He has been an educator for almost 40 years, almost 20 years in Australia. During this time he has been an elementary teacher, assistant principal, and literacy consultant and district literacy coordinator. Les is also a trained Ontological Coach.  He believes coaching is a powerful process that empowers educators. He loves being outdoors and loves bicycling hiking, paddling, triathlons and adventure races, and trying to tire out his border collie. He and his wife enjoy traveling and camping. 



A Dinner Conversation with James Popham on Formative Assessment

Consultants' Corner Oakland Writing Project

dinner2A few months ago, I had the opportunity to share dinner and conversation with James Popham. As an avid fan of his work on learning progressions, I was excited to finally meet him. Three years prior, in the midst of a statewide collaboration to build a Common Core Standards-aligned model 6-12 ELA curriculum, I had hit upon Popham’s research.

To build a model curriculum meant we had the blessing and the challenge of vertically aligning across a K-12 grade span. Vertical alignment meant sequencing not only content knowledge, but also conceptual understanding and application of content. Dealing with content, in some ways, is the easier part of sequencing a learning progression. As teachers, a content approach is ingrained in our practice, district pacing guides, and state standards. The much harder task is to theorize a learner’s learning progression of conceptual understanding and application. As we developed the K-12 curriculum we had to consider:

● what tasks to scaffold across a progression in terms of complexity,
● what embedded instructional practices best support students into increasingly more complex content, understanding, and application, and
● what evidence we should focus our attention on when studying student work to determine growth.

So I now sat across the table from the James Popham with my mind spinning. What would I say to or ask a scholar who has been such an influential voice in education for decades? After the perfunctory jokes about bad Michigan weather, ordering our meals, and performing introductions of our small group of colleagues, the conversation shifted to formative assessment. Why the continued struggle to build system-wide effective formative assessment practices? Popham’s theory: educators are paying attention to the wrong things. Leaning in, we waited to hear what these wrong things are. He went on to share that in his experience and research, teachers focus more on instructional procedures than what happens to students as a result of those procedures. My initial reaction was to push back. Was he saying that instructional practices were not important enough to focus professional learning around? He politely engaged in a back and forth volley with me, but it was clear that the exchange didn’t change either of our minds.

Weeks later, I engaged further with Popham’s theory by reading his book Unlearned Lessons: Six Stumbling Blocks to Our Schools’ Success. If you’re wondering, the six stumbling blocks Popham presents as holding school systems back from maximizing student achievement are:
● Too many curricular targets
● Underutilization of classroom assessment
● Preoccupation with instructional process
● Absence of affective assessment
● Instructionally insensitive accountability tests
● Abysmal assessment literacy

In my second “hearing” of Popham’s argument, I found some common ground. His claim was not that no attention should be paid to instructional procedures but rather, that as teachers and administrators, we can easily fall prey to focusing solely on procedures and lose sight of what happens to students as a consequence of instruction. Now pair this preoccupation with instructional procedures to the underutilizing of classroom assessment and voila`–formative assessment becomes misinterpreted as studying summative student data long after its collection.

I had to admit–I could now see where Popham was coming from. The question remains though: how do we better balance attention between instructional practices and formatively assessing student learning? Over the next few weeks, I will share a story of a statewide collaborative of writing teachers and university researchers who have been working in this particular problem space. Their inquiry: what instructional practices produce effective student peer to peer feedback and what learning does peer feedback make visible? In the meantime, if learning progressions and their relationship to effective formative assessment interests you, the following resources may be useful.

Formative Assessment in Practice: A Process of Inquiry and Action, Margaret Heritage (2013)
Transformative Assessment, W. James Popham (2008)
Transformative Assessment in Action, W. James Popham (2011)

Assessment Literacy in Today’s Classroom
Creating Learning Progressions

Learning Progression to Support Self-Assessment and Writing about Themes in Literature: Small Group

Using a Learning Progression to Help Students Work Towards Clear Goals (K-2)

Susan GolabSusan Wilson-Golab
joined Oakland Schools in 2010 following 22 years of in the field 6-12 experience across two different states and rural, suburban, and urban contexts. Her research and practice focus heavily on the evolving definition of literacy, developmental learning progressions, and formative assessment. At the district level, Susan has served as classroom teacher, Literacy Specialist, and ELA Curriculum Coordinator. These experiences and study helped Susan in her role as Project Leader for developing a model 6-12 ELA curriculum for the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA)— a curriculum resource now globally available. More recently, Susan launched Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC). The mission: to build collaborative participatory research between university and secondary teachers from around the state interested in exploring and developing the teaching and assessing of writing. In 2000, she joined the National Writing Project through the satellite Oakland Writing Project site based out of University of Michigan. She now serves as Site Director for the Oakland Writing Project.

Instructional Strategies & Protocols…a means to an end, not an end to themselves!

Consultants' Corner

I have a son in high school who is, by all measures, a skilled reader and a dedicated student.   When he reads for school, much to his chagrin, I tend to bug him by asking him lots of annoying questions. I do this in part because I am a concerned parent who wants to stay in touch with my son’s education. However, I also do it because I’m a literacy researcher at heart and I want to see what and how he is thinking when engaged in school-related reading.

student testingIn the course of my meddlesome investigations, I noticed an interesting pattern across his assigned reading of three different novels. For all of his novel reading, he was expected to use the FIDDS protocol, in which he was directed to analyze Figurative language, Imagery, Diction, Details, and Syntax. This protocol (often used in AP English and IB ELA classes) is intended to help students focus on elements an author uses to develop tone or express style. Students are then supposed to consider how style or tone contributes to the larger themes, purposes, or meanings of the text. In my son’s case however (and likely for many other students), the use of the protocol became the end for him, and not the means through which he understood the text.

As I understand the task he was assigned, he was expected to identify a minimum number of FIDDS examples and connect them to identified themes of the books in the process of a writing a literary analysis. For example, for one book he looked for examples of imagery and figurative language used by the author to develop the idea that love can both heal and hurt.   With this task laid out before him, his reading then focused on finding and explaining the examples… he wasn’t really engaged with the larger narrative of the novel or the human problem it was exploring, nor was he focused on developing a cohesive analysis of the book’s theme. When I asked about the larger conflict of the novel and why this novel was worth reading, he replied that his assignment didn’t require him to think about that; he just had “to find these examples and write a short paragraph about each one.” The benefit to this was that he learned about literary devices and had the opportunity to consider them in use. The drawback was that he lost an opportunity to consider the larger value of the book as he read; he wasn’t reading with important questions in mind, just the task.  In fact, once he identified a sufficient number of examples and satisfied the requirements of the protocol as assigned, he felt that this part of his work was done, and he no longer seemed to actively consider how the theme continued to be developed by the author.  Reviewing his work and the book, I found quotes and sections that would have better served his analysis, but he felt that he didn’t need to use them because he already had examples for those particular FIDDS elements.  He explained to me again, patiently but on the verge of annoyance, that he was completing the FIDDS task as directed, and that what I was asking for (a thematic analysis of the book supported by multiple examples) was not what he was supposed to do.  I’m quite certain, however, that the goal of using FIDDS is to develop effective literary analyses, but in this case, finding examples of FIDDS had become the goal itself.

Teacher Helping Male Pupil Studying At Desk In ClassroomWe educators love our strategies, routines, and protocols though, especially with respect to reading. Indeed, much of the professional learning that I do with teachers involves, to varying degrees, strategies and routines. So my purpose here is not to say that protocols or strategies are inherently problematic, but rather I want to argue that we run the risk of minimizing the value of strategies if we use them in isolation, overuse them, use them when they don’t really fit, or use them without processing or connecting them to larger themes/concepts.

The challenge of effectively using learning strategies for reading isn’t just a problem in ELA classrooms either. I’ve seen similar issues in many social studies classes. Reading protocols like APPARTS and SOAPSTone present the same problems. APPARTS stands for: Author, Place and time, Prior Knowledge, Audience, Reason, The main idea, and Significance; it is meant to be used when students analyze primary documents. SOAPSTone is similar and asks students to identify, for any document they read, the Speaker, the Occasion, the Audience, the Purpose, the Subject, and the Tone. These approaches stem from the idea that historians question the contexts and sources of documents as a part of their disciplinary practices. What sometimes gets left out for students, however, is WHY historians approach reading this way.  Historians consider these textual elements as they gather and analyze evidence from documents in the process of trying to resolve an historical problem. For historians, the source and context of a document shape its larger meaning and value as evidence. Absent a good driving, historical question to focus these approaches, such protocols become decontextualized lists of steps for students to complete. This is particularly true when students are asked to use such a routine for every single document they read. When the use of the protocol or strategy becomes the outcome, students miss out on the important process of considering why to use such a tool in the first place. In other words, if students are asked to use these routines but are never engaged in thinking about how this information (source, context, etc.) actually matters in an historical investigation, the work becomes just another  routine task.

I want to clearly state that I’m not criticizing my son’s teacher, or any teacher, for using these kinds of tools.  I use them myself when I teach.  Rather, I want us to honestly reflect on how we currently use such strategies and then  talk about how we can use them more effectively! The following questions are constantly on my mind now as I think about this problem:

  • How helpful are some of the strategies or protocols that we use, and when do they get in the way?
  • How can we best teach students multiple strategies and then help them learn to use the tools that work best for them to engage in deep learning, not just task completion?
  • How do we set meaningful, authentic purposes for reading that drive the use of strategies and lead to students’ construction of new knowledge, not repetition of known facts?
  • Who is driving the conversation around strategies, and what can we do to make sure that stakeholders understand that strategies are a means to an end, and not an end unto themselves?

There are no simple answers to these questions, by the way, and that’s okay. We just need to ask ourselves these questions as we teach and constantly seek to get better at what we do. Even so, I think that the last question above is particularly important and merits a bit of unpacking. I carried out professional development in one district where everyone had been trained in Thinking Maps, and the teachers were required to use Thinking Maps at regular intervals. In this context, instructional planning began to revolve around the strategy and was no longer driven by students’ needs and content learning goals. Administrators would visit classrooms looking for Thinking Maps instead of looking and listening for evidence of student learning. Teachers collected data on their use of Thinking Maps, not on students’ learning of new concepts and skills.  The completion of the Thinking Maps became the goal of teaching, and the learning of content was backgrounded. Now, I’m sure that students learned content at some point in this process, but no one ever stopped to ask if Thinking Maps were the most appropriate strategy for each given lesson in which they were used (especially after the district invested lots of money in materials and training!). In this situation, most teachers did what many students do: they completed the task without ever really thinking about the tools or considering alternatives.

Now, I get why this happens. Administrators are under pressure to show “best practices” in their buildings, and there is certainly value in developing common language across classrooms with shared approaches. Requiring everyone to use the same strategy might make some sense as a first step, but never going beyond that and introducing a range of malleable, alternative practices seems very problematic to me. Even more problematic is the use of strategies for reading that is NOT driven by interesting, content-rich questions.

imsis591-033So what is the solution?  How, for example, would I adapt my son’s assignment?  I think I would have backgrounded FIDDS for starters, asking students instead to read with a larger question in mind.  I would have asked students to read the novel as a means of engaging with a range of big, important questions connected to possible themes in the book.  I would then have students track the development of this theme and develop claims about the author’s perspective on our driving questions, perhaps focusing in on key chapters (depending upon the book).  I would ask students to identify multiple examples of how the theme surfaced in the novel and then discuss how these examples might suggest the perspective of the author.  I would then have students make claims about how the author integrated her perspective on the theme into the book, and then review their reading notes to select the best evidence to support their claims (after having worked with them around standards of evidence for literary analysis).  At this point, students could use FIDDS to help them analyze their evidence and consider the types of evidence they had found, and perhaps go back into the book to look for other types of evidence.  In this scenario, students would use FIDDS to serve the larger purpose of reading, FIDDS would not be the purpose itself.

Reading with no clear purpose just becomes an exercise in task completion, and if many of our students operate in this mode, it is because they have learned to do so in our schools. If we want students to think deeply as they read, then we need to anchor our instruction in big, conceptual problems that connect to the texts they are reading. This requires us to foreground disciplinary thinking and problem solving in which questions come first and tools are adapted or shaped depending upon the context. Of course, teaching in this way is not easy work. It requires lots of time and constant reflection, and students are not likely to appreciate more complex tasks in the beginning! Nevertheless, if we want our students to go deeper in their learning and reading, then we have to design and scaffold instructional activities that move them in this direction. Reading protocols and strategies can be of great help in this work, but only when they are processed and used carefully as the means to an end, and not as the end in and of themselves.


Darin-StockdillDarin Stockdill is the Content Area Literacy Consultant at Oakland Schools.  He joined the Learning Services team here in 2011 after completing his doctorate in the area of Literacy, Language, and Culture at the University of Michigan’s School of Education.  At Michigan, he taught content area literacy methods courses to pre-service teachers (and was named a School of Education Outstanding Instructor in 2010) and researched adolescent literacy, with a focus on the connections (or lack thereof at times) between youths’ academic and non-academic literacy practices.  Before this stint in academia, Darin was a classroom Social Studies and English teacher in Detroit for 10 years, working with both middle and high school students, and he also took on curriculum leadership roles in his school.  Before teaching at the secondary level, he worked as a substance abuse and violence prevention specialist with youth in Detroit, and also taught literacy and ESL to adults in Chicago.


Podcast Power: Listening Skills & Curriculum, part 2

Common Core Consultants' Corner Literacy & Technology

In my first post on the power of podcasts, I talked about their place in the ELA classroom.  Not only do they meet important standards, but they develop crucial listening skills.  And I talked at some length about Serial, a must listen to podcast.  So if you’re sold on bringing this medium into your classroom, what podcast do you choose and how do you effectively integrate it effectively from a curricular and skill standpoint?  Below are some ideas for how to think about choosing a podcast to work with what you’re already teaching.

Combine Nonfiction Podcasts with Narrative Reading to Study Theme

this-american-lifeThis American Life episodes are ideal to couple with fiction, especially if you’re focused on theme. The show is structured around a single theme each week.  So it’s quite easy to scroll through the archives and find a theme you might be looking for, especially because of the nice thumbnail descriptions TAL provides. For example:

Most of us go from day to day just coasting on the status quo. If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? But when routines just get too mundane or systems stop making sense, sometimes you just have to hold your breath…and jump. This week, stories of people who leap from their lives, their comfort zones…even through time.  

from Episode 539: The Leap, This American Life

This episode pairs well with texts about risk-taking, the consequences of risk-taking, a desire to leave reality, and escape. I can imagine having students listen to it in conjunction with Into the Wild, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and even Romeo & Juliet.

Or perhaps you’re doing a character study on the morality of characters in a text like Hamlet, Atonement by Ian McEwan, or To Kill a Mockingbird.  Students could list to segments of TAL‘s episode called “Good Guys” and compare these real life stories to the choices made by characters in the fiction text they’re reading.

Lots of men think of themselves as “good guys.” But what does it actually take to be one? To be a truly good guy. Stories of valiant men attempting to do good in challenging circumstances: in war zones, department stores, public buses, and at the bottom of a cave 900 feet underground.

from Episode 515: Good Guys, This American Life

The other beautiful thing is that each episode of This American Life is divided into smaller acts. So you can select one act to have students listen to or several acts.  Regardless of how many acts they listen to, when pairing narrative texts and podcasts, you’re having students read across texts, a key Common Core Standard:

Reading Anchor Standard 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Use Podcasts as Texts for Argument Analysis

themothWhen you use podcasts in this way in your classroom, students identify and analyze the implicit and explicit arguments being made in each “act” of a TAL podcast or other podcast, comparing the arguments within an episode.  They can then respond with their own written or recorded narrative argument about the topic. This American Life episodes provide listeners with a series of narrative arguments around a single theme.

What do I mean by narrative argument?  Each act delivers a compelling story, and that story and the producer’s reflection on the events in the story, create an argument.  The creation of an implicit argument via narrative and reflection is incredibly difficult to do, as students discover when they try to write a personal essay.  But that difficulty is all the more reason to listen to TAL episodes and to even have your students create mini-podcasts, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

Suggested Podcasts: 

  • Is This Thing Working?, This American Life – Stories of schools struggling with what to do with misbehaving kids. There’s no general agreement about what teachers should do to discipline kids. And there’s evidence that some of the most popular punishments actually may harm kids. (tags: school, discipline, inequality, education system)
  • “Partners in Struggle” by Grace Lee Boggs, The Moth – This Detroit native and nationally known activist is inspired to begin activist work in the 1940s and meets her future husband. (tags: Detroit, activism, love, diversity)
  • “Who Put the ‘Pistol’ in ‘Epistolary’?” from “My Pen Pal,” This American Life – The story of a ten-year-old girl from small town Michigan named Sarah York, and how she became pen pals with a man who was considered an enemy of the United States, a dictator, a drug trafficker, and a murderer: Manuel Noriega. (tags: unlikely friends, propaganda, international relations, Michigan)
  • “Prom,” by Hasan Minhaj The Moth – A high schooler encounters racism when he tries to go to prom. (tags: teenage experience, racism, cultural diversity, big events)
  • “Scene from a Mall” – This American Life spends several days in a mall in suburban Tennessee, to document life in the mall during the run-up to Christmas. Also, a rift in a national association of professional Santas—the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (yes, there is such a group). (tags: holidays, working teenagers, suburbia, place/environment, subcultures, competition)
  • “Allure of the Mean Friend, “ This American Life – What is it about them, our mean friends? They treat us badly, they don’t call us back, they cancel plans at the last minute, and yet we come back for more. Popular bullies exist in business, politics, everywhere. How do they stay so popular? (tags: friendship, teenage life, contradictions, bullying)

Developing Close Listening Skills

So you’ve decided what podcast to use and how it works with your curriculum. But how do you scaffold and support good listening skills?

186957826Multi-draft Listening

Just as we ask students to read a text more than once, they’ll need to listen to a podcast more than once.  I suggest taking an approach similar to the one you’d use with close reading:

First Listen – Listen to the podcast all the way through to make sense of the story and get the gist.  Pause occasionally to have students jot down names of people, questions that come up and big ideas that are explicitly or implicitly stated.

Second Listen – With your students, develop a listening agenda.  What questions do you/they want answered?  What’s the main idea of the episode? What aspects of the episodes structure contribute to their understanding?   Chunk the listening by stopping every 5-10 minutes to allow students to jot notes and add to their graphic organizers (see the next section).

Third Listen – This very focused listen allows the class, small groups, or individuals to return to specific points in the podcast to re-listen for deeper analysis in order to confirm or test initial theories they developed based on their early listening.

Student-created Graphic Organizers

Because students can’t annotate this audio text in the same way they can annotate a hard copy or even digital text, graphic organizers become really important.  Podcasts require a bit more work on the part of the student when it comes to annotation.  Below are some ideas for types of graphic organizers to help students structure their thinking:

  • Timeline of Key Moments/Events – A chronological list of key moments in the story that will help them later develop ideas about the episode’s structure.
  • Structure Picture – Students draw a picture of how they perceive the structure of an episode.  This might follow the more traditional text structure graphics we’re accustomed to or might be more of a mind mind.
  • People Map – As they listen, have students develop a map of characters and how they’re related — like this one on the Serial website.
  • Evidence Chart – Have students create a T chart.  For Serial, the two columns would be titled “innocent” and “guilty.”  As they (re)listen, they will record which evidence makes Adnan seem guilty and which evidence makes him appear innocent.  For another podcast, students might be gathering evidence regarding another question.  The columns might be labeled “pro” and “con” or “agree” and “disagree.”
  • Question Web – What questions remain unanswered? Students create a web of both factual and analytical questions, connecting those that relate to and generate other questions.

Have ideas to share about good podcasts for student listening and how to use them in the classroom?  Please share in the comment section.  In my final blog post on podcasting, I’ll provide some ways of thinking about having students produce their own podcasts, and possible pitfalls in the process.

Delia DeCourcyDelia DeCourcy joined Oakland Schools in 2013 after a stint as an independent education consultant in North Carolina where her focus was on ed tech integration and literacy instruction.  During that time, she was also a lead writer for the Common Core-aligned ELA writing units. Prior to that, she was a writing instructor at the University of Michigan where she taught first-year, new media, and creative writing and was awarded the Moscow Prize for Excellence in Teaching Composition. In her role as secondary literacy consultant, Delia brings all her writing, curriculum design, administration, and teaching skills to bear, supporting districts in their implementation of the Common Core via onsite workshops and consultations, as well as workshops at Oakland Schools.  She is currently spearheading the development of literacy-focused online professional learning modules as well as the building of a virtual portal where Michigan educators can learn and collaborate.

Podcast Power: Boosting Listening Skills, part 1

Common Core Consultants' Corner Literacy & Technology

podcastDuring the twelve hour drive from Michigan to North Carolina and back over the holidays, I listened to a lot of podcasts. I admit it: I’m a podcast addict. Any time I have to drive for an hour or longer, I listen to a podcast–This American Life, The Moth, Ted Talks Radio Hour, Radio LabSnap Judgment… All that listening and driving got me thinking about using podcasts in the classroom and why it’s a relevant medium.

Connection to Standards

The Common Core Standards prioritize speaking and listening skills in a fairly rigorous way.  ELA teachers have always valued speaking and listening skills and given students the opportunity to develop them in their classrooms.  But with the adoption of the Standards, these skills are now clearly defined and progress in complexity from year to year, meaning teachers and departments have to think about how they’ll address speaking and listening in a comprehensive way. Often when we think of the speaking and listening standards, our minds immediately go to discussion–how to get students to engage in rich and complex discourse.  But in this post I want to focus on the podcast medium as a fairly exciting way for teachers and students to explore close listening together.  Listening to podcasts as nonfiction texts (a great way to infuse your curriculum with more nonfiction!) directly addresses these two standards:

Speaking & Listening Standard 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Speaking & Listening Standard 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Why Is Podcasting an Important Medium?

484812177I remember talking to a colleague a few years ago who proclaimed that podcasting was not new media.  She said it was just recorded radio and that podcasting was over.  But podcasting is so not over and it’s a lot more than recorded radio.  Sometimes podcasts never appear first on the radio at all.  So why is this an important and popular media form?

  • Podcasts are available on demand via our mobile devices, thanks to iTunes and the websites of popular podcasts. So we can listen anytime, anywhere.
  • There is a growing library of free, high-quality podcasts on a wide range of subjects.
  • They run the gamut of nonfiction genres: storytelling, informational, and argument-focused podcasts ranging in purposes from entertainment to news to self-help (exercise, nutrition, spirituality, emotional health).
  • We can multi-task while we listen–drive, make dinner, walk the dog, exercise at the gym.
  • As with other digital texts, the general public (students!) can create and publish podcasts–and they are in fairly high numbers.

Start with Serial

serial-social-logoIn October, I was over the moon when Serial, a This American Life spin off that follows a single story for twelve episodes came out.  From episode one, I was hooked.  So rather than talk about strategies for integrating this medium in your classroom (that will be my next post), I’m going to make a pitch for using this new podcast.  I would suggest that for high school classes, especially juniors and seniors, Serial is a great place to start.  (I’m not alone.  A California high school teacher has replaced the study of Hamlet with Serial.)  Why?  Well, here’s the context for the start of this story…

It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. He says he’s innocent – though he can’t exactly remember what he was doing on that January afternoon. 

Serial website

Adnan, a popular student with strong ties to the Muslim community, is later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.  He was 18.  And as the very first episode of Serial unravels for its listeners, the evidence was contradictory and, in some instances, spotty.

Other compelling reasons to use Serial in the classroom:

  • serialcollageIt’s great storytelling and relevant to your students.  The cast of characters is almost entirely high school students (or they were at the time of the murder) living through the things your students experience–juggling school and extracurriculars, navigating cultural differences between home life and school life, experiencing young love, making their way through the simmering stew of high school social life. This will seriously engage your students.
  • Serial has changed the face of podcasting.  It’s like the True Detective of radio (with a lot less violence).  People could not wait for each new episode of Serial to be released on Thursdays and there was no telling which direction the story would turn and if the producers would decide to declare Adnan innocent or guilty.  It has been downloaded more than any other podcast–more than 5 million times.  And unlike many mainstream podcasts, it was not orignially broadcast on the radio.  To read more about Serial’s popularity and possible reasons for it, check out this Salon article.
  • It has caused a stir on the internet.  People are blogging about it, arguing about it, and commenting non-stop.  There have been many articles published as the story has unfolded week to week.  The number of Serial-related threads on Reddit alone are a clear indicator of how this podcast has captured people’s imaginations.  And there’s a new two-part interview with the star witness whose testimony led to Adnan’s conviction and life sentence.
  • The Serial website contains all kinds of really cool visual artifacts related to each episode.  Using these in conjunction with the episodes means students can analyze across media–a Common Core dream!
  • Serial provides endless ways to study central idea/claim, argument and evidence, theme, bias, character development and text structure.

If you don’t want to commit to all twelve episodes of Serial, consider using only the first episode.  That 60 minute audio text alone will make for some very interesting and creative teaching and learning. In my next post, I’ll talk about developing close listening and annotation skills and other ways of using podcasts in the classroom.  I’ll also suggest specific episodes from other podcasts you might use.

Do you have any podcasts you love? Please share in the comments section.  And if you’re already using podcasts in your classroom, please share your ideas!

Reading Podcast Power: Listening Skills & Curriculum, part 2

Delia DeCourcyDelia DeCourcy joined Oakland Schools in 2013 after a stint as an independent education consultant in North Carolina where her focus was on ed tech integration and literacy instruction.  During that time, she was also a lead writer for the Common Core-aligned ELA writing units. Prior to that, she was a writing instructor at the University of Michigan where she taught first-year, new media, and creative writing and was awarded the Moscow Prize for Excellence in Teaching Composition. In her role as secondary literacy consultant, Delia brings all her writing, curriculum design, administration, and teaching skills to bear, supporting districts in their implementation of the Common Core via onsite workshops and consultations, as well as workshops at Oakland Schools.  She is currently spearheading the development of literacy-focused online professional learning modules as well as the building of a virtual portal where Michigan educators can learn and collaborate.

Let’s Talk About Student Engagement

Consultants' Corner Oakland Writing Project

Last week, teacher blogger Marcia Bonds explored the idea of engaging her students through developing a learner identity, an identity that she too needs to have and models daily with her students. As I read Marcia’s blog, I couldn’t help recalling how many times over the past two months I’ve heard the topic of “engagement” raised.

493533923Engagement–what does it mean? How do we foster engagement in our classrooms? Like Marcia, I see learner identity as a key part of engaging learners. The idea of mindset playing a role in how a learner engages is well researched. But I’m also encountering more conversations about engagement via digital tools. The use of social media tools in the classroom, such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Instagram, or Vine, continues to be debated as a possible way to re-engage students. I can’t help but wonder: could there be a relationship between learner identity and digital tools in the classroom?

147662769Not long ago, I came across Staci Hurst’s blog post that addresses engagement. Hurst highlights work stemming from the Schlechty Center on Engagement. Not immediately familiar with Schlechty’s name, I did some further digging that led me to his 2010 keynote in which he defines engagement. He claims four types of students exist: academically inclined students, “nice” kids, nice but won’t do much, and finally, those who are going to drop out of school. The real kicker comes when he contends that all but the academically inclined students are doing nothing more than complying in the classroom. He shares four types of observable engagement:

Strategic compliance: student does the work for extrinsic goals (grades, class rank, college acceptance, parental approval)

Ritual compliance: work holds no meaning or connection to the student, leading to the student focusing on minimum exit requirement (what do I need to do to get this over with?)
Retreatism: student disengages for multiple reasons–task holds no relevancy, emotionally withdrawn, task seems too unobtainable
Rebellion: student actively engages in acting out and recruiting others to do the same

So how does Schlechty define engagement? Persistence. An engaged student perseveres in difficult tasks with a personal emphasis to reach “optimum performance.”

Researchers477569935 who have closely studied engagement have developed a multi-dimensional measure of student engagement by tying together both cognitive and emotional components: the theory of flow. More simply put, flow is that magic moment where the learner is so focused in a task that they continue to persevere as complexity increases, finding enjoyment in the struggle.

I’m seeing a common denominator here–task design. Put more specifically, task design that elicits student investment. What I’m not yet clear on is if digital tools are critical to helping bolster students to persevere–to live in the magical flow moment.

Take Aways

So what do I walk away with from this mini-inquiry? I think the most critical take away is the need for opening up conversation between colleagues about how each of us interprets the word “engagement” and what tells us students are engaged. And we need to talk about the context of high engagement. What was the topic? How were students engaging in the lesson? What was the task or tasks?

Possible Conversation Starters

1. Select a video of an instructional session and discuss with colleagues how you would describe task design and evidence of student engagement.

● This 5th grade Social Studies lesson could be a useful artifact to study even for those teaching secondary grade levels.
● This short clip from Minneapolis Roosevelt HS could inspire a useful conversation about task design that engages students.

2. View Phil Schlechty’s keynote and open up conversation inviting colleagues to weigh in: What do they agree with? What do they not? What new questions do they now have about engagement?

3. Have colleagues read the Framework for Post-Secondary Success and describe what ideas it confirms and how pushes their thinking. How does the framework impact ideas about engagement and task design?

There’s no denying the power and role engagement plays in the learning process. It’s a worthy topic to explore both individually and with colleagues. I invite you to extend and deepen the conversation about student engagement. Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Susan GolabSusan Wilson-Golab joined Oakland Schools in 2010 following 22 years of in the field 6-12 experience across two different states and rural, suburban, and urban contexts. Her research and practice focus heavily on the evolving definition of literacy, developmental learning progressions, and formative assessment. At the district level, Susan has served as classroom teacher, Literacy Specialist, and ELA Curriculum Coordinator. These experiences and study helped Susan in her role as Project Leader for developing a model 6-12 ELA curriculum for the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA)— a curriculum resource now globally available.  More recently, Susan launched Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC). The mission: to build collaborative participatory research between university and secondary teachers from around the state interested in exploring and developing the teaching and assessing of writing. In 2000, she joined the National Writing Project through the satellite Oakland Writing Project site based out of University of Michigan. She now serves as Site Director for the Oakland Writing Project.

ALL Students Can Be Readers & Writers

Consultants' Corner

122495245Current research surrounding literacy for students with significant disabilities has demonstrated that, with appropriate support and instruction, all students can be readers and writers. Traditionally, the approach has been a readiness model stating that literacy should be learned in a pre-determined, sequential manner that requires certain skills to be in place before the student can advance to the next level. The rigidity of this model has created barriers that many of our students can not overcome. The current view on literacy learning, however, focuses on enhancing communication and language opportunities to help students make connections and learn to use print in a meaningful way.

david and karen pic

Karen Erickson            David Koppenhaver

This past August, educators attended the Emergent Literacy Academy at Oakland Schools for five days of intense learning. The presenters, Dr. Karen Erickson and Dr. David Koppenhaver,  demonstrated the effectiveness of implementing a balanced literacy approach for students with the most significant disabilities, resulting in a life-altering skill: to be literate.

Like all students, individuals with significant cognitive disabilities need ongoing, comprehensive instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening and language.

Each day, students at an emerging level of literacy learning need to be instructed in the following areas:

  • Shared reading experiences to increase engagement and interaction
  • Predictable chart writing to build concepts about print, word identification and communication skills
  • Alphabet and Phonological Awareness to teach letter-shape/writing recognition, letter-name knowledge, and letter-sound knowledge
  • Independent writing opportunities to help students make the connection that writing is purposeful
  • Independent reading opportunities to allow students to explore text they are interested in reading

This document is currently the most comprehensive review of the research pertaining to literacy in students with significant disabilities.

Important conclusions of emergent literacy research include:

  • The process of learning to read and write is a continuum that begins at birth.
  • Children learn written language through active engagement with their world.
  • Emergent literacy behaviors are fleeting and variable depending on text, task, and environment.
  • The functions of print are as integral to literacy as the forms.

For more information and resources, go to The Center for Literacy Disabilities Studies , a website devoted to addressing the literacy learning needs of persons with disabilities of all ages. This website contains articles, white papers, Deaf/Blind resources, and core vocabulary information for students with complex communication needs.

ColleenMeszler photo 3

Colleen Meszler is a Special Education Consultant in the Professional Learning Unit of the Department of Special Education. She supports public school special educators in their work to close the achievement gap between students with and without IEPs.  Specifically, she facilitates the professional learning of special educators in the provision of emergent and conventional literacy instruction to students with moderate to significant cognitive disabilities.  The emphasis is on instructional practices for pre-K through post-high students who are educated to alternate achievement standards and assessed through the Alternate Assessment.


Teaching Argument Using Courtroom Simulation

Consultants' Corner

177839470In July, I was selected to serve on a jury for an armed robbery trial at the Oakland County Courthouse. I’d never watched a real trial, only seen clips on CNN from particularly salacious, high-profile cases–Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony most recently. The armed robbery case wasn’t salacious, just kind of strange and full of inconsistencies. But just like on t.v., the stakes in the courtroom were high. And even more compelling were the elements of argument present throughout the trial–the defense and the prosecution battling it out over their claims, the witnesses presenting their versions of the story, which the lawyers shaped into evidence with their lines of questioning and opening and closing statements. Over those two and a half days, argument came to life for me in a way that it never had when I taught academic argument in middle school and college classrooms.

When the trial was over, I considered ways to simulate legal argument to help students understand the elements we want them to use in their analytical writing. Simulation provides the best in experiential learning; it’s an active, engaging teaching strategy that allows for both student content application and discovery. Using a trial-based simulation involving the elements of argument could help concepts stick and be a great interdisciplinary activity for ELA and social studies classrooms.

Jury Selection – Bias

I’ve always found bias in texts to be a difficult and complex concept to teach. The jury selection process, which took as long as the trial, proved to be a true illustration of bias. During a process called voir dire, the prosecution and defense attorneys questioned jurors to unearth their potential biases about the case. We were asked about our employment, family, and lifestyle. The answers were fascinating and sometimes awkward. What seemed most important though were questions about any experiences or connections to law enforcement and experience as a victim or perpetrator of a crime.

The prosecutor released the college kid with a mohawk; questioning revealed the guy had an anti-authority attitude, which his hair had told me the moment he walked into the courtroom. The numerous potential jurors who’d been victims of armed robbery (or had friends or loved ones who had been) were released by the defense attorney. A former parole officer was also let go by the defense. Another key element of bias the lawyers tried to determine was whether we would assume innocence until proof of guilt.  A young mother of three freely admitted that she could not, stating that we were clearly “here for a reason.”  The defense attorney released her immediately.

Lesson Idea: Provide your students with a courtroom scenario related to the theme or topic they’re currently studying.  Assign students to the role of potential juror, defense team, or prosecution team.  Have students simulate the voir dire process, with the lawyers deciding which jurors remain on or leave the jury.  Following the selection of twelve jurors, have the class reflect on the bias evident in particular jurors and the nature of the questions the lawyers asked to expose that bias. Finally, have students consider the kinds of questions they can ask of texts to determine bias.

Opening Statements – Claims & Persuasion

78724287The trial began with opening statements–the lawyers submitting claims of guilt and innocence to us with an overview of the evidence, angled differently by the prosecution and the defense. Our attention was grabbed; we were enticed first by one side, then the other.  It felt a lot like the opening paragraphs of a good essay.

Throughout the trial, I was struck by how the personalities of both the lawyers and the witnesses influenced my willingness to believe claims and evidence. I felt one lawyer was sharper than the other. And the prosecutor cast himself as understanding and unintimidating, which seemed somewhat false. Many of the witnesses seemed shady or to have poor memories. None of these impressions were based on pure fact, and so, the element of persuasion came swiftly into my jury experience.

Lesson Idea: To practice crafting complex claims and evidence, provide students with a controversial scenario at school or in their community that they’re all familiar with.  Assign small groups to either the pro or con side of the issue.  Ask them to craft “opening statements” that make a claim and lay out the evidence, angled to persuade a given audience. Ask them to consider how they would change their opening statement for a different audience.  To practice public speaking skills, have students deliver their statements to the class or video tape themselves delivering their “opening statements.”

Witness Testimony – Data vs. Evidence

87349294A few cops testified, then a friend of the supposed victim, and then the victim himself. No one had the same story. Few elements of the witnesses’ narratives even overlapped–there was a knife involved, and it was a bitter cold day.  That was it.  But the prosecutor and the defense attorneys’ lines of questioning were both artful — they constructed arguments with their questions.

We had been instructed by the judge to listen only to the witnesses’ answers, not the lawyers’ questions.  The lawyers wanted our understanding of the answers to be biased by the questions that elicited them.  So we had to treat testimony as data.  It only became evidence once each of us passed judgment on the credibility of the testimony and how it compared to the other data we had collected during testimony.

Lesson Idea: When students research, they collect data. Just like a jury, they must decide how credible sources are and compare all the data collected to determine inconsistencies and facts. This process allows them to then select the evidence with which they will craft an argument.  To simulate the process of how data becomes evidence, provide students with the story of a crime. (A common argument exercise like Slip or Trip is one example.) Assign students to play the roles of key characters in the story, as well as police officers or detectives. Have the rest of the class cross examine the characters, then have a full class discussion about the credibility of each witness and their testimony. Who seemed credible? How come? Have the class make a determination of guilt or innocence based on their decisions about the data they received during testimony.

Deliberation – Arguing with Other Jurors

Being in the jury room became an exercise in argument as well. Two of the twelve jurors felt the defendant was guilty and asked the rest of us to explain our reasonable doubts–to make our case. Some people were general: “It just doesn’t add up.” Others were more specific: “A thief who doesn’t run or makes threats when the victim calls 911 might not be a thief.” I pointed out that the supposed victim started laughing at one point in the 911 recording, so he couldn’t have felt too traumatized. Could we say for sure that a crime had occurred? These specifics were what made the difference in our argument and turned the two “guilty” jurors to “not guilty.” They weren’t 100% convinced of the defendant’s innocence, but they didn’t have to be. They now shared our reasonable doubts. We gave our verdict and were released from our civic duty.

Testing Theories & Relevance

My jury experience reinforced how important it is for students to practice argument by experimenting with different theories through talk before they write. The discussion I had with my fellow jurors during deliberation was all about testing our theories with the evidence we had been supplied. And together we came to a decision that would significantly affect one man’s life, which made the importance of being able to understand and craft an argument take on a whole new kind of importance.


If you’re interested in trying out a court-based simulation to teach argument in your classroom, consider using some of the resources below.

United States Federal Courts website – activities concerning impartiality, collegiality, and civil discourse

Mini Simulation of a Supreme Court Oral Argument

iCivics website

Michigan Supreme Court Learning Center – Teen Court Simulation

Delia DeCourcyDelia DeCourcy joined Oakland Schools in 2013 after a stint as an independent education consultant in North Carolina where her focus was on ed tech integration and literacy instruction.  During that time, she was also a lead writer for the Common Core-aligned ELA writing units. Prior to that, she was a writing instructor at the University of Michigan where she taught first-year, new media, and creative writing and was awarded the Moscow Prize for Excellence in Teaching Composition. In her role as secondary literacy consultant, Delia brings all her writing, curriculum design, administration, and teaching skills to bear, supporting districts in their implementation of the Common Core via onsite workshops and consultations, as well as workshops at Oakland Schools.  She is currently spearheading the development of literacy-focused online professional learning modules as well as the building of a virtual portal where Michigan educators can learn and collaborate.