Sunday, July 24, 2016

Letters to New English Teachers Post #3-- Beginning of the Year-- Assessment

Today we will be discussing how to assess your students at the beginning of the year.  Letter number three, Beginning the Year, was split up into three sections.  Please click the following links if you missed either of the previous two posts on procedures or building relationships.

3. Assessing Students' Skills
When you think about the first week(s) of school, much of what you plan is going to fall into the first two categories above.  You will find that without spending time teaching the procedures and building relationships, more time later will be spent "putting out unnecessary fires."  However, as an English teacher, I also feel the need to bring in literature and writing during the beginning of the year.  This comes back to having balance within your class.  Most teachers will have at least 45 minutes a day with their students.  You should be able to infuse literature and writing into the previous two categories (procedures and building relationships) as a way of getting to know where your students are academically, without sacrificing anything.

One method of bringing in literature at the beginning of the year is to do read alouds.  There is something special about bringing in children's books and reading them to your middle school students.  If you have a document camera, you can easily show them the pages as you read.  You can even fashion a document camera out of an iPhone, tripod, and the AirScanner app (which I did last year).  One of my favorite read alouds is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  I use this as a jumping off point for discussing literary devices and elements.  It is also important to have vulnerable moments discussing the plot of stories, and The Giving Tree has a great plot for that, too.  Talking about the characters and the choices that they make allows the students to connect their lives to the story and to each other.  This helps them to feel more comfortable with the other students in the class, thus you are building relationships at the same time.

Another way to bring in literature during the beginning of the year is to have the students do a project with their summer reading book.  Each school has different summer reading requirements, but hopefully your students have read at least one book for fun over the summer.  The project that I did last year involved students working in groups to find similarities between the literary elements within their books.  The end result was four sheets of construction paper put together with string.  I wish I had taken a picture of the finished product because they turned out really great.  Here is a link to the project description and a view of the project from the assignment document.

It is also important to set the precedent for free choice reading at the beginning of the year.  One way to do this is through reading time at the beginning of class.  Students should be encouraged to bring the book they are reading for fun and then the first 10 minutes of class is designated for silent reading.  If students don't have a book they are reading, you should have articles/short stories ready to provide to them.  Then, conference with those students individually to help them find a meaningful book to start reading.  I usually had one day a week set aside for bell ringer reading, but you could increase that.  In fact, some teaching models designate as much as 15 minutes a day.  I would definitely recommend reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.  She has great ideas for how to infuse a love of reading within your students through independent reading.

I also ensure that there is writing in my classroom on a daily basis.  This could be something simple such as a paragraph reflection or exit ticket; however, the beginning of the year is also the time to see your students' skills on "meatier" writing assignments.  One teacher author that has inspired me is Lucy Calkins.  In her Units of Study program, I learned about the on-demand writing assignment.  At the beginning of the year, have students write a multi-paragraph piece for each type of writing: informational, argumentative, and narrative.  This will show you (and them) what they remember from past years.  It is recommended that you do all three on-demands at the beginning of the year, but you might prefer to do each type directly prior to teaching that type of writing during the year.  This year, I invested in the book Writing Pathways by Calkins, and it provided me with a wealth of rubrics and checklists to help students on their writing journeys.  The day before the on-demand assessment, you should inform your students that they will be writing with a speech like this one-

"Think of a topic that you've studied or that you know a lot about.  Tomorrow, you will have all of class to write an informational (or all-about) text that teaches others interesting and important information and ideas about that topic.  Please keep in mind that you'll have only 40 minutes to complete this, so you'll need to plan, draft, revise, and edit in one sitting.  Write in a way that shows all that you know about information writing."

Here is a glimpse of one of the checklists from Writing Pathways.  When you purchase the book, you get the checklists within the book and you get them on a disk for your computer as well.  This is ideal for convenience.
After students write the piece, they can start looking at the checklists to see where they think they fall on the spectrum-- not yet, starting to, or yes.  Of course, you should also assess the pieces using the checklists.  Then when teaching your writing units, you can refer back to the original on-demand piece to gauge progress.  At the end of the writing units, students should do another on-demand piece to show their growth on that type of writing.

On another day, I will go into more depth about writing and rubrics to help Jamie out, as per a previous request.  Any other questions or comments regarding beginning the school year, let me know with a comment.  Happy planning!

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