Archive for the 'Stories from the classroom' Category

A +/- Approach To Assessment

grade-156087_1280by Elizabeth Jorgensen

A retired colleague entered my classroom today, grunting, his hand in the air. He’s now long-term subbing at a neighboring district. “You know what’s stupid?”

“What?” I asked.

“Rubrics. I was reading short stories and assessing them using the teacher’s rubric. Creative writing earned a four; highly creative writing earned a five. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the difference between what’s creative and what’s highly creative.”

“Yeah, that’s my problem too. Too subjective.”

He told me after his first attempt at scoring, he had a conversation with his students. “The kids, they all agreed that they didn’t know the difference between creative and highly creative either. So I told them we’d scrap that rubric and I’d score the papers differently.” He went on to remind me of his assessments: he awards positive points for everything students do well (stylistic devices, action verbs, entertaining openers) and negative points for errors (run-on sentences, incorrect punctuation, clichés).

When I started teaching thirteen years ago, he shared a favorite assignment with me. In this exercise, students told the story of three people trapped in an elevator. The students wrote in narrative format with correct indents and punctuation and the dialogue tagging rules.

He told students, “You are in charge of this story. You can add as many details as you wish. The rules of reality are also up to you. Maybe people change into sandwiches on this elevator. Whatever! The reason the elevator stalls is also up to you. But your story tells what happens on that elevator with those people. Don’t focus on people outside the elevator, like rescue squads or repairmen. Write about what the people in the elevator say and do.”

He gave students three rules: “1) No ultra-violence. No guns. No bombs. No strangling. Don’t kill off your characters. Be a more astute writer and don’t rely on death to solve your story; 2) No telling the reader what a person thinks or feels. Show us through the character’s actions or words; 3) No graphic sexual scenes!”

And then, he explained his scoring: “You will begin with 50 points and earn your grade accordingly: +3 for each piece of realistic diction used in dialogue; +3 for impressive description that is not overdone; +3 for a WOW (something funny or deep); -3 for repetitive or incorrect tags; -3 for any incorrect grammar, spelling, punctuation or indentations; -3 for inappropriateness or immaturity; and -3 for telling.”

Students, if they felt he missed something when scoring, could argue for more points. He encouraged students to score their own essays before handing them in. Finally, he gave students an example featuring Britney Spears, Elvis, and Buzz Lightyear:

Britney squealed as she twirled her kinky, blond hair and snapped her gum. “Um, like you guys, I think that, um, like, the elevator has like stopped or something. Like hit that button one more time.”

“Hey, baby, how about you and me stop at the Heartbreak Hotel after we get outta here? Priscilla won’t mind,” said an overweight man in a sequined jumpsuit, gyrating his hips so fast it shook the entire elevator.

From out of nowhere, a one-foot tall plastic space man flipped open his space helmet. “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue! This is an intergalactic emergency! Push the button, blonde girl!”

“Like I’m not a slave for you; I’m not a girl, not yet a woman. Treat me with some respect little space man or I’ll send my bodyguard after you!” she said as she applied her pink lip gloss.

And on and on…

My colleagues all grade differently. Some use rubrics; some use the four point system I outlined in an earlier blog; others use the plus and minus system my former colleague favors. No matter your method of assessment, grading challenges instructors to communicate achievement accurately and effectively. I hope your method doesn’t make you throw your hands in the air and grunt.

The Perfect Book for the Perfect Time


Claudette Colvin

Bill Waychunas

I was unpacking some boxes the other week and I came across a box (one of too many) that contains some of my “teaching stuff.” Every teacher has these boxes stashed somewhere, and I’ve even heard nightmare stories of former teachers finishing their careers with storage units full of these boxes. Anyways, in this particular box was a book that I used last year in my 9th grade Activism and Social Justice class called Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose. It’s a story about a teenage hero who’s name you probably don’t recognize. She was an African American teen living in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood up against segregation by refusing to give up a seat on a bus before Rosa Parks.

That’s right. Before Rosa. One could even argue that Claudette inspired Rosa.

As I pulled the book out of the box and flipped through the highlighted and dog-eared pages, I thought to myself about how perfectly relevant this book and this story are at this very moment in time. As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, here is Claudette Colvin, the perfect figure to bridge between the months as a Black woman (though she and this book are great for any month of the year). But even more striking to me is how after the rash of mass shootings which our country has recently faced, we’ve seen teens leading the charge towards justice, just as Claudette Colvin and so many other young people have done throughout history.

It might seem obvious by now: I’m recommending this book. If you are a middle school or high school social studies or ELA teacher, you need to consider using this book in your class. Heck, if you are a human being with a pulse, you should probably pick yourself up a copy. First, it’s a Newberry and National Book Award winner, so you know it’s good. Second, it’s only about 125 pages long and written in a style that lands somewhere between a narrative and non-fiction, making it the perfect length and genre for hitting those oh-so-important teaching standards.

But even more important is the way that this book speaks to students by allowing them to connect with a true story about the challenges and opportunities to make the world a better place. The discussions and writing that I saw from students when reading this book were truly incredible and even beyond the typical subjects that one would expect to arise when reading a book that takes place during the Civil Rights Movement. In a quick thumbing through the book, I’m reminded of following topics which either students were able to connect to in this story or that I was able to provide supplemental materials to deepen understanding: school inequity, the criminal justice system, confronting stereotypes about light skin and dark skin African Americans, debating the straightening of hair vs. natural African hairstyles, teachers as activists, diversity in the teaching force, “hidden figures” of the Civil Rights Movement beyond MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks, sex education, adoption, and–most importantly–the difficult individual choices that we all make in pushing our world towards or away from justice.

I’m honestly disappointed that I’m not sharing in that experience with a new group of kiddos this year. But maybe after reading this, I’ve convinced a few more people to give the Claudette Colvin story a read and hopefully get it into the hands of more young people.


Favoring Feedforward Rather Than Feedback

Forward ArrowBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

In my approach to providing feedback and assessing student work, my students produce multiple drafts and then use my feedback to elevate their work. In each assignment, students compose at least three drafts and receive at least three rounds of feedback from me. In addition to this, students receive feedback from peers. But I have struggled with why other teachers don’t want to provide this type of feedback. Do they find it too time consuming? Do they not know what to say to elevate student writing? Are they too attached to rubrics?

I believe growth and learning happens when students edit, modify and update work. This philosophy is the bedrock of my classroom structure and helps justify the time I spend providing feedback.

Today, I read the article “Moving from Feedback to Feedforward by Jennifer Gonzales. Gonzales explains why the feedback teachers traditionally give might not be the most effective. This article also put a fancy name to the type of feedback I provide my students: feedforward.

Jennifer Gonzalez states “the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it. And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace.”

Gonzalez references The Feedback Fix by Joe Hirsch. In this book, she says Hirsch explains that feedforward is more effective than feedback because it regenerates talents and expands possibilities; it’s particular and authentic; and it’s impactful and redefines dynamics between people.

Gonzalez suggests instead of providing feedback that focuses on past performance, teachers should focus on students’ improvement going forward. Gonzalez wrote, “Instead of waiting until she is finished, then marking up all the errors and giving it a grade, I would read parts of the essay while she is writing it, point out things I’m noticing, and ask her questions to get her thinking about how she might improve it.” Gonzalez’s suggestion is consistent with my classroom structure and model. I wonder if teachers shift from a backwards approach to a forward approach if students will learn, grow and ultimately enjoy school more. I also wonder if teachers would be more inclined to provide feedback if they saw the direct connection to progress.

As Gonzalez wrote, “There’s nothing simple or straightforward about telling people how to improve. So it’s no surprise that we’re still figuring it out and finding new ways to refine it. If the feedback you’re giving to your students, your coworkers, and even the people at home isn’t having quite the effect you intend, try shifting to a feedforward approach. Doing so can help us, as Hirsch says, stop seeing ourselves just as who we are, but who we are becoming.”

Doing Too Much

An_apple_a_day_by_LD_CrossBy Stephanie Nicoletti

I think every single teacher would agree that their focus throughout the school year is for their students to grow academically and behaviorally. While behavior is important, academics seems to get the main focus throughout the year. I have been lucky enough to see a lot of academic growth this year — especially in literacy.

However, this has been our sole focus. While a lot of growth is excellent, we need to be cognizant of the fact that trying too much for academic growth can have the opposite effects. Often times, we try many different interventions, instructional practices and activities to meet the needs of every single student. Do not get me wrong, meeting the needs of every single student should always be our goal. But when too many initiatives are going around it places burn out on teachers and also on our students. We need to focus on tier one instruction, evaluate growth, and when that growth is limited that is when we intervene-one step at a time.

Students Explore Ideas, Make a Difference and Win Money in Teen Ink’s “If I Were Mayor…” Competition

LJ 1By Elizabeth Jorgensen

Teen Ink is a monthly teen magazine with over a half million readers. In addition to publishing student work online, Teen Ink also prints a monthly subscription magazine.

According to their website, Teen Ink is “devoted entirely to teenage writing, art, photos, and forums. For over 25 years, Teen Ink has offered teens the opportunity to publish their creative work and opinions on issues that affect their lives—everything from love and family to school, current events, and self-esteem. Hundreds of thousands of students, aged 13-19, have submitted their work to us and we have published more than 55,000 teens since 1989. Distributed through classrooms by English and Art teachers, and available in libraries nationwide, Teen Ink magazine offers some of the most thoughtful and creative work generated by teens today. We have no staff writers or artists; we depend completely on submissions from teenagers around the world for our content. Teen Ink has the largest distribution of any publication of its kind.”

In addition to publishing student work, they host writing competitions.

During the fall of 2017, Teen Ink editors asked students to compose an essay on this topic: “If I Were Mayor of My Town…” Students, in an essay of 1,000 words or less, wrote about which issues they would address and why. The winner, according to Teen Ink, would receive not only publication, but also $500 and the opportunity to interview Congressional candidate David Kim; $100 would be awarded to the second and third place winners; and seven honorable mentions would be recognized.

The deadline to submit essays was November 30th, 2017. And then, in the January 2018 issue, five student essays were published. One of my students, senior Cole Siepmann, was published. You can read his essay here. Readers were asked to vote for their favorite essay—with the winners and honorable mentions to be announced at a later date.

I want my creative writing students to engage in purposeful writing assignments. In this particular contest, I encouraged my students to first educate themselves on local government. We discussed the mayor’s role and read about famous mayors. In class, we spent time looking at the Waukesha County’s Mayor website. Students learned about what the mayor can and can’t do and made plans for what they would do in that role. As a class, we discussed how each student could use his or her passions to craft a successful essay.

I enjoyed hearing about what each student would change if they were mayor and I was impressed with my students’ ideas and passions. Each student had something to say—and something they wanted to contribute to their community. In addition to writing about their passions, the prize money and the chance at publication served as motivation for my students.

In his essay, Siepmann stated why he would be a good mayor: “I would improve the lives of Milwaukeeans by addressing the three major issues that influence our society most: drug abuse, education, and road repair.” Siepmann also stated how important the improvement of drug education is: “In addition to the drug treatment center, I will expand drug education and addiction programs in schools so children in our community know the lasting effects of drugs and addiction.” Siepmann also stated how roads are a major issue in the state of Wisconsin: “The amount of traffic in Milwaukee creates accidents, and is not what will bring our city future success. Rather than spending money on the inefficient and impractical trolley system, I will focus on decreasing traffic, making our roads safer, and making travel in and out of Milwaukee easier.

I am eagerly awaiting the contests results and even if Cole (or any other student of mine) doesn’t win, I am proud of his accomplishment.

Let Our Students Write

095_objects_pen-pencil-marker-free-vectorBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

As part of NCTE, I receive daily emails from the Teaching and Learning Forum. In the forum, English teachers—ranging from kindergarten through college—regularly post (among other things) about how to best assess writing.

On 12/19, Dr. Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, started this thread: “The Nearly Impossible: Teaching Writing in a Culture of Grades, Averages.” In it, he writes about “a nearly paralyzing frustration with students’ resistance to draft and revise their essays.”

In response, Cameron Carter’s blog was referenced. Carter’s a second grade teacher and the Elementary Lead Ambassador for NCTE. Carter suggests “reading and writing are interconnected processes that are woven together like a spider web” and that “if reading and writing are interconnected, then we should treat writing instruction just as we do reading instruction…In reading, teachers ask their students to read for at least 20 minutes every day. Do we ask the same in writing?…Each and every day, my goal is to inspire writers to take what they are already doing ever so well, and help them exponentially grow!” He suggests the fastest way to dishearten students is to place focus on assessment rather than practice, enjoyment and growth. I see similar things in my students.

My students walk into Creative Writing believing, asserting, declaring there’s one way to write—and that one way was on their previous teacher’s rubric.

But then I ask, besides your teacher,

Who says the thesis has to go at the end of the first paragraph?

Who says each paragraph needs a transition?

Who says there’s one way to format a paragraph?

Who says you can’t use conjunctions as sentence starters?

Who says the five paragraph essay is effective?

Instead of telling my students how to compose each sentence, paragraph or essay, we look at professional writers, published essays, and journal articles. I ask students what they notice.

Do they see a thesis at the end of the first paragraph? No.

Do they see transitions starting each paragraph? No.

Do they see each paragraph formatted the same way? No.

Do they see authors avoiding conjunctions as sentence starters? No.

Do they see the five paragraph essay? No.

So what do they see? They see authors, writers, essayists and novelists who evoke emotion and tell interesting stories. They see surprise, innovation and exploration. They see entertaining characters. They see thought-provoking research. They see stylistic devices like metaphors, action verbs, varied sentence structures and lengths. They see that each author is unique, original, true to themselves.

Carter is on to something. Let our students write. Let them play with language, discover themselves and most importantly, let them engage in a dialogue with the teacher while they are writing. To grade and assess through rubrics and mandates is to stifle expression and exploration. To only provide feedback after a “final” is handed in counters the very purpose of writing and encouraging growth.

And as Carter suggests, we need to help our students by focusing on their strengths, by allowing them to be creative: “Encourage free choice…If we want to continue to build a future of readers and writers, we must instill the art and passion of reading and writing.” And that—rather than assessment—should be an English teacher’s focus.


The Milwaukee Public Museum Poetry Competition Provides Inspiration, Motivation and Authentic Writing Opportunity for Wisconsin Students

By Elizabeth Jorgensen

Looking for a way to energize my classroom with authentic writing opportunities, I scour websites, newspapers, and online announcements for student-friendly writers’ markets. Although I could formulate a hypothetical audience for my classroom writing assignments, I find that student motivation increases with authentic opportunities. One Wisconsin-wide writers’ market is the Milwaukee Public Museum’s annual poetry competition. Now in its tenth year, the competition is open to Wisconsin students in grades 3–12.

The competition fits naturally inside Wisconsin English or social studies curricula as students are challenged to compose a poem in 30 lines or fewer as a response to the Museum’s permanent or temporary exhibits, collections, or fields of research. During the 2017–2018 school year, the Museum will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the competition with the theme “10 at MPM,” which focuses on “ten iconic exhibits that highlight the Museum, its collections, and mission, and celebrate its legacy as one of the region’s most treasured cultural institutions.” The ten exhibits are the Hebior Mammoth, Humpback Whale Skeleton, Streets of Old Milwaukee, Butterfly Vivarium, Hell Creek, Native American Pow Wow, Crow Indian Bison Hunt, Masai Lion Hunt, Crossroads of Civilization, and Japanese House and Garden.

(From left to right) Joey Hassler, Andrea Beaudry and Kenneth Walloch won the poetry competition during the 2016–2017 school year.

The submission deadline for next year’s competition is April 27, 2018, and teachers may submit one poem from each student by surface mail or submit electronically from a link on the poetry competition webpage. Although students could visit the museum, online resources allow them to research and create original poems without leaving the classroom.

Void of a rubric, student poems are “judged on creativity, originality, imagery, artistic quality, and sense of poetic expression.” But what do these terms mean?

To begin, I have students read the contest guidelines and create their own definitions of the judging criteria. They connect “imagery” to showing instead of telling. They define “artistic quality” as “how a poem is like art.” They agree that effective art evokes an emotion and makes the viewer (or in this case, reader) think or feel differently. Creativity, they decide, makes one submission stand out from the others, and they surmise that of the hundreds of statewide submissions, theirs will need to not only address the theme, but also be original. Throughout the discussion, I jot down notes for them to access later. This discussion helps them form an imaginary guideline of their own.

To further guide the writing process, students read and analyze previous winning poems, such as this 2013 winner, noting commonalities and how the poems fit the judging criteria:

Brenda Suhan, author of “Porcelain Deathbed”, won the MPM Poetry Competition during the 2012–2013 school year.

Porcelain Deathbed
Dresden Tete-a-Tete Tea Set
By Brenda Suhan

“Porcelain, the chilly

white of fresh Dresden snow

sits on the windowsill.

Kaleidoscope of rich

maroon and gold dances

in the winter sunshine.

The one gift she asked for.

He saved all his money

to grant a final wish:

Her childhood fantasy,

one luxury glowing

in the winter sunshine.

Fragility of life

released in wispy breaths

of steam soon extinguished.

Warmth of blood grows colder

than snowy porcelain

in the winter sunshine.

Just one more final sip,

smiling, content and free.

He smiles back, an echo

of their love forever,

cherished in this moment

in the winter sunshine.”

I ask the students what they notice. “There is a story,” one student says. We discuss how Suhan drew inspiration from a museum artifact (Dresden Tete-a-Tete Tea Set) and used her own creativity and voice to tell an original story that fits with the authenticity of the artifact. One student highlights the characters, themes, and conclusion. Another notices “interesting language choices.” I push for specifics, and the students say they notice the rule of thirds in the line “smiling, content and free,” and action verbs — “dances,” “sits,” “grows,” “released,” “extinguished,” “asked,” “saved,” “cherished.” Earlier in the semester, students learned about stylistic devices and literary terms. This discussion carries throughout the MPM poetry competition. No matter the writing assignment, they learn to identify stylistic devices and purposeful writing choices in exemplars and utilize them in their own work. “Her structure is strong,” another says. Students note six lines in each stanza, each line contains six syllables, and a repeating sixth line. While they comment on the use of enjambment and emotion, I continue adding notes to our brainstormed list.

You can find previous winning poems going back to the 2014–2015 school year on the Milwaukee Public Museum’s poetry competition webpage.

After we collaboratively analyze previous winning poems, I provide students with independent work time to immerse themselves in the MPM Poetry Competition’s website to look at additional poems for themes, inspiration and ideas. Although exemplars provide ideas, I caution them about mimicking a previous winning poem: “Your poem should be uniquely yours.” I remind students that poems will be judged on originality. The goal of the discussion is to remind them of their writing toolbox and inspire creativity.

Once students understand the purpose and background of this assignment, they decide on a topic that coincides with that year’s theme and something that interests, inspires or intrigues them. “Don’t do too much. Don’t take on everything all at once. Start small,” I say.

After choosing a topic, students share ideas and brainstorm. “Just brainstorm and freewrite about your topic. What does your topic smell, sound, taste like? What connections can you make between your topic and your own life? What stories could you tell? What do you want the purpose of your poem to be?”

Then, we make a list on the board of how to incorporate a structure: number of lines in each stanza, a repeated line or phrase, number of syllables in each line (or pattern of syllables), shape, headings or subtitles, theme, punctuation, pattern, rhyme, repetition. Students also share what structures were used in previous winning poems. They write first and second drafts of poems, peer edit, receive feedback from me, and continue to polish and perfect. Additionally, they take turns sharing drafts with the class and in small groups. They enjoy creating their own story and structure. They also appreciate the opportunity to write for an authentic audience and writers’ market.

Joey Hassler, a junior in my Creative Writing class, said, “I enjoyed submitting my work … I definitely didn’t think I had a chance at winning the competition, but writing is an art, and you never know when something you write might strike someone.” Another student, Andrea Beaudry, a junior, said, “Regardless of winning or not, each piece tells its very own story. I think that [students] should not feel pressured or think about the prize, but let the words flow. When you peacefully write something it ends up being a lot better than if you were stressed out trying to make it the best.”

During the 2016–2017 competition, three of my students were selected as winners: juniors Beaudry for “Summer Time Snack” and Hassler for “The Story Behind Food (11×26),” and senior Kenny Walloch for “Building the Perfect Calzone,” all posted on the MPM Winning Poems website.

This post was taken from an article I co-authored in the Wisconsin English Journal.

Hedderman, Richard and Jorgensen, Elizabeth. “Excavating the Soul: The Milwaukee Public Museum Student Poetry Competition.” The Wisconsin English Journal. Vol 59, No 1–2. Fall 2017.

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