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Beyond the Pop Quiz

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May 30, 2013 08:00 pm

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It’s Thursday, and that means it’s time to talk digital learning! Today’s post comes from Sandy Hayes, an English teacher in Becker Public Schools, current president of the National Council of Teachers of English, and a member of the Project 24 Team of Experts.
Evaluation, test, critique, measure, grade, feedback, rating, informative, summative, appraisal.  Assessment has become a complex and multi-headed hydra in our classrooms.  As a full-time 8th grade English teacher with 8 days of school remaining, this challenge is certainly in the forefront of my thinking.  How much growth have my students made this year?  How do I know?  What have they learned to do or do better that I haven’t noticed?  Am I looking at the right things?  How could I have done better?  What really matters?
Informative Assessment
In the beginning of my career, my assessments were what I myself had experienced –  multiple choice tests and quizzes given after class discussions of the reading and that tested memory more than understanding and the dreaded pop quizzes that were intended to punished those who hadn’t done the reading rather than give guidance to the teacher in directing instruction. These were multiple choice assessments of declarative knowledge, certainly the basic starting point of understanding of literature, but not an authentic exploration of the interpretive skills that make the reading of literature worthwhile.

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Today, after 41 years of teaching (gasp! Even I am amazed at the number of years) and of learning (first from James Moffett’s Student-Centered Language Arts and continuing today with Jeff Wilhelm, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Kevin Hodgson, Will Richardson, Carol Ann Tomlinson), I am constantly seeking and borrowing more effective ways of  giving students feedback and guidance while they are in the process of reading and writing.  This feedback can be exhausting, but technology tools not only make the process easier for me, but also spread the effort among my students.  Three of my favorites:
  • Nicenet.org, my first venture and still a favorite in ease of use.  It’s an private, basic, easy to use online bulletin board that gives teachers editing and deleting control. I use it most often for anytime discussions of novels students are reading, either as a whole class or in literature circles.  Threaded discussion topics or dipstick questions can be set up for different sections of the book so that faster readers don’t spoil surprises.
  • Todaysmeet.com, a backchannel chat room.  I used this on iPads this year when we read the play The Diary of Anne Frank.  Students could ask questions about something they didn’t understand and I could answer immediately or could stop for class discussion if needed.  I also periodically stopped the reading at some points where I would normally have an all-class discussion to check for understanding, make predictions, note character development, make connections.  Not only did the tool allow the students who need more thinking time to contribute, it didn’t matter if ideas were repeated..
  • Google docs comments.  I have used the comment feature in the past but now am also experimenting with commenting during their initial drafting of longer works, particularly work involving research.  I have students include all their work (research notes, paper, citations) on the same document.  To make the in-process commenting manageable, I only comment early in the assignment giving encouragement, clarifying the assignment, suggesting additional points or resources, commenting on their progress, or observe common trends I need to address in class.
  • Explain Everything.  Next year my 8th graders will have 1-to-1 iPads so I’m looking forward to trying this powerful feedback app.
Standardized Assessment
While the capability of these tests to adapt to student performance, appears to be more humane, it has lead to testing students more frequently, which is not.  This was the first year our state reading test was computer-based.  With the seasonal testing already mandated by my district, students at some grade levels spent at least 12 days testing at computers, and even more if they are slower testers since none of these tests are timed.
My school is fortunate in having a ratio of one computer per 2.6 students, and because of this ratio our students use computers frequently for research, projects, simulations, and writing in both traditional and multi-media formats.  However, the proliferation of testing made all of our labs completely unavailable for almost 5 full weeks this spring.  Over half of this testing was not state-mandated but rather was done at the direction of our district.  This test, the test that sparked the teacher protest in Seattle, claims to test our state standards, but one-fourth of the “reading” test contains curriculum questions that are not part of Minnesota standards or even Common Core standards.  Some of the questions my students were asked included: What propaganda technique does this passage illustrate?  What type of poem is this? Which literary period does this work represent? Which of these is an example of onomatopoeia?
Digital Skills and Assessment
I’m blessed that Minnesota’s version of the Common Core Standards includes at every grade level a strand of standards for media literacy and media production. I appreciate that some of the work I most love to do with students has a firm and valued place in the curriculum that cannot be displaced by computerized test preparation.  As I have integrated digital tools into my curriculum, I have also looked to two additional frameworks for inspiration and guidance.  From NCTE: The Definition of 21st Century Skills and the companion Curriculum and Assessment Framework.  And from ISTE: The NETS for Students standards.
Mindful of Minnesota standards, I have incorporated argument into public service announcements, reading and writing of informational texts into documentaries and Ignite presentations, and literary analysis into comic books and book trailers.  In evaluating these projects, I do find that I still need to guard against the Wow Factor of projects with impressive dazzle but on examination might not demonstrate much substance. For example, an Animoto project where the student merely dumps in some related images, a few words, and selects music from Animoto’s limited library does not represent the kinds of analysis and communication skills that meet the standards.  I now weigh student reflective writing on their process, intentions, and rationales for their choices more heavily than the product itself.  This writing also adds individual accountability to a group project.
As we are finishing up a final book trailer project this last week of school, both students and I have a lot to say about what they have learned this year, how they have grown, and what they would like to do next.   And that’s a lot better than a pop quiz.
Sandy Hayes has been a full-time classroom teacher since 1972 and is a member of the Project 24 Team of Experts. Earlier on in her career, she taught students from seventh-grade reading through twelfth-grade honors English, but she has been teaching eighth-grade English in a team setting since 1996. Ms. Hayes is National Board Certified (and renewed), earning her initial certification in 1995. Ms. Hayes served on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) executive committee that created the curriculum and assessment framework for twenty-first-century literacies. She also served on the NBPTS committee that wrote the language arts certification standards document just released, and served on Minnesota’s state language arts standards committee on the Common Core State Standards. In both groups, she worked on creating standards that attend to digital writing and media literacy skills. She is currently president of the NCTE. 
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Categories:
Digital Learning Series, Gear: Data & Assessment

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