Thursday, December 11, 2008

Seriously, There's More?

After grading and returning the research essays, I am always stunned to find I need one more short unit before the holiday break. It reminds me of how everyone wants to eat again on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Really? But didn’t the meal I spent weeks planning, preparing, and cleaning up for buy me some free time? What’s the lesson plan equivalent of ordering pizza?

My students greet a new assignment at this point with genuine shock: “But we just finished the research project!” I would joke with them and tell them I got special permission to not meet for classes the last week because they worked so hard, but I’m confident half of them would be out the door before I could stop them. I’m especially fond of my note taking unit at this point in the semester because it requires concrete skills and classroom focus. Also, it doesn’t create lots of complicated grading for me because after finishing the research process, I, too, feel like my IQ has been diminished.

However, sometimes I want a pre-vacation unit with a little more pizzazz. This year, I’m adapting an activity from Discovering Arguments, edited by Dean Memering and William Palmer which uses the Pulitzer Prize website. Students select an award-winning photograph or political cartoon about which they feel strongly. (They pick by the year menu at the top, scroll down for images, and then select the “Works” tab to actually see images.) I ask them to explain what the artist is using the image to convey and what choices the artist made to emphasize that message. Sometimes I’ve done a mini-lesson with some photographs before we begin, showing examples of the use of light and dark, perspective, framing, etc. Students write a few paragraphs about how the artist’s choices reinforce the message he or she wants to communicate via the piece, complete with the MLA Works Cited entry for the image off the website.

That’s the core assignment, but I’ve used a couple iterations. I like the basic assignment because it uses “an image as text.” Essentially, students must explain elements about the image similarly to how they’ll be expected to discuss literature next semester. I’ve put students in teams for this assignment, and then had each team present their image and conclusions to the class in presentations. Students could also hang small posters of their pieces, complete with the image and then complete a “gallery walk,” going around and filling out a questionnaire on the images, with questions like “Which image did you find most powerful? Why?” “Which image could serve in an ad campaign? Describe what message it would reinforce.” I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve considered asking students to build their product on a web page and add a soundtrack with lyrics they think accentuates the artist’s message. Then the “gallery walk” element could be completed by a web tour…

I like this unit because it’s different, it’s multi-media, and it incorporates the socialization that is inevitable at this point in the semester. Students genuinely want to share the images they discover off the site, and we end up having lots of “teachable moments” about the historical, medical, or political stories being told in the images. I like the energy it fosters as we ride out the last days…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Prophylactic Grading

Over the years, I’ve learned to use grading to prevent bad writing instead of using it to record the grievances dealt by bad writing. Ever since I started teaching, I have believed in writing as a process, especially with a big project such as a research essay. It took me years, however, to realize that I should stretch my grading energy and investment across that process, too. In the early years, I gave students a folder with a checklist, and I gave them points for finishing each step, but I thought my time for detailed grading came at the end, on the final essay product. I would pour energy into marking those final essays with margin notes and thought-provoking questions. I then spent too much time feeling frustrated and hurt that my students didn’t even seem to read those markings, let alone reflect upon them.

By choice, I teach writing to people who have yet to identify themselves as writers. Many of my students write because writing has been assigned. Therefore, my grading comments best serve students when they come during their process. Mentor teachers taught me this technique, and I think after spending the better part of two decades grading, I may be polishing a system that is working. I think I finally get that if students cannot use my feedback to improve their grade, they don’t spend much time processing it. It may sound silly, but it helps my own enthusiasm to know my grading feedback can be “part of the solution” instead of just a record of the problem.

Here’s a run-down of the assignments throughout the research essay process that I grade:

· a potential topic discussion thread, complete with a potential source

o At this point, students reply to each other’s ideas. I make comments if potential topics seem like a dead end, but mostly I just keep track that this assignment has been completed.

· a finalized proposed topic, complete with an initial source

o I provide individualized responses to each student, approving each topic.

· an Annotated Bibliography

o I grade this assignment closely; I mark MLA mistakes and provide directed guidance for correcting errors. I evaluate the quality of the sources, ensure that some balance is represented, and encourage students to look for additional information where necessary.

· an essay proposal, stating why people should care about the issue and what problems the student anticipates with the essay

o I read these and respond to students about the problems they identify. Mostly, this assignment asks questions that get students thinking more deeply about the essay they plan to write.

· a thesis statement

o I grade this assignment closely; many students write this thesis statement several times. I want to be sure each student has a strong argument in third person voice; sometimes students are slipping into writing a report instead of a persuasive argument, and I’m usually able to determine that problem (and fix it!) at this stage. Once students have actually written an entire report, they are much more reluctant to revise it!

· a loose outline, which identifies a specific audience, the opposing point of view, and main points

o I read these and respond to problems. Mostly, I make the grading equivalent of reassuring noises: “Looks interesting!” “I can tell you’re really starting to think here!” Yadda Yadda. This assignment falls in the category of activities that help students think.

· a rough draft and the peer review of another person’s draft

o I don’t line edit rough drafts. I scan each of them, looking for flagrant problems: the wrong voice, tragic MLA format, too few sources, lack of quotation integration…If I see a big problem, I write notes back to the student. Most often, I look at all the drafts and create a “Checklist before the Final Draft” document, identifying all the various problems I saw throughout the drafts, which I distribute and go over with students. Students provide each other feedback about arguments at this stage. (With various degrees of success…I’m still working on the perfect peer review process…)

· the final essay

o I use a grading chart at this point, including a personal note to students about their argument. Do I mark lines throughout the essay? Yes, sometimes. I’ll write a question in the body of the essay or circle problematic prose. But I really try to restrain myself and save my energy for writing a more detailed personal note at the end…

Does all this effort improve students’ products as well as their process? I think so. To be completely honest, I think how well a student writes a research essay depends most upon how much research writing experience he or she has before the assignment, an element I don’t get to control. Mostly, I think investing more of my grading energy on the process (rather than saving it all for that final essay) helps students replicate the process in other classes, which is one of my goals—a teach a man to fish kind of thing. It also puts my energy more in parallel with students’ energy. They care about the essay before the end. Putting more detailed feedback into the process allows students to immediately apply my feedback, too. The entire effort has more momentum, more meaning. Here comes the stack now, so I’ll see how well it worked this time…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher