Posts Tagged 'teaching'

Writing, Rubrics, and the College Application Essay

Blank notepad and pencilBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

Adam paces the back of the room, struggling to come up with an idea. “Do you think I can take a walk around the building?”

“Yes, good luck,” I say. “Maybe a change of scenery will help.”


Adam sighs, takes his notepad and pen with him and paces his stress in our high school’s hallway.

In the middle of Arrowhead High School’s College Essay Workshop, each student’s stress shows in a different way. While Adam paces, another student finds comfort in procrastination and college essay YouTube videos; another student reads excerpts from 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays; a group of girls discuss life-changing moments they might write about.

“I wish there were a rubric for this,” Adam says when he returns.

I cringe, as he reminds me students are taught—by teachers of all subjects—that good writing can be accomplished by checking boxes on a grid. “Adam, you don’t need a rubric. You know what you need to do. Just tell a story that shows your positive qualities. Take your best attributes—your humor, your helpfulness, your patience—and find a story that illustrates that.”

I remind Adam and the 84 other students in the workshop what they know about good writing: “Good writing is not the five paragraph essay, with the thesis at the end of the first paragraph, followed by three body paragraphs and a concluding re-statement. Good writing isn’t formulaic.” But I know that’s what students learn when each assignment in elementary, middle and high school comes with a rubric.

Arrowhead High School’s College Essay Workshop is not graded. Students attend to receive guidance on how to produce an essay that stands out in the pile of writing on a college admissions counselor’s desk. Students are nervous and unsure—and they want a rubric to ease them.

I say, “You’re in control of your own story. You can do anything you want. Your story could be one long extended metaphor. You could write your essay in poem form, or maybe as a graduation speech or even as a conversation. Do something that will make your essay unique. Let’s start with some examples.”

I show the class Justin’s essay that was read to all incoming freshmen during the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Welcome Week. I show them Molly’s essay that received a $5,000 scholarship. We read Ashley’s essay that earned a handwritten note from Marquette University’s president commending her writing, inviting her to be part of Marquette’s 2015 class with a scholarship. “What are these authors doing? What do you notice?” I ask.

Students instinctively recognize Justin, Molly, and Ashley’s good writing. The students respond: “Small paragraphs.”—“Stylistic devices.”—“They all tell an interesting story.”—“I see dialogue.”—“I see characters and a climax.”

Then the students take their observations and apply similar devices to their own words, sentences and stories.

To improve the students’ writing, my co-teachers and I read, comment, re-read, edit, and provide feedback on the drafts. We discuss, we interact, and we collaborate. The process can’t be reduced to boxes on a rubric. Because the writing is purposeful and authentic, students are invested and do A quality work (even though the workshop isn’t graded).

As Adam shifts his laptop into his backpack, he clutches his notebook. “I am really excited about my ideas. I know what I want to write about.” Adam struggles with autism and says he will write about how he uses movement to aid his learning.

“I’m really excited to see your first draft and talk about it,” I say.

“Me too,” he says as he walks out the door. “I want to hear what you have to say tomorrow.”

If you’re looking to read more about rubrics and writing, feel free to check out the following resources:

  • Broad, Bob. What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing. Logan: Utah State UP, 2003.
  • Kohn, Alfie. “The Trouble With Rubrics,” English Journal. March 2006, Vol. 95, No. 4.
  • Mabry, Linda.  “Writing to the Rubric,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 1999, pp. 678, 676.
  • Tchudi, Stephen, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana: NCTE, 1997.
  • Maja Wilson, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006).
  • Maja Wilson, “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing,” National Council of Teaching English. English Journal. March 2007, Vol. 96, No. 4.


Get Involved: From Milwaukee to Cape Town

By Charlotte Adnams

Something that I really appreciate about Marquette’s College of Education is the immediate immersion into the elementary, middle, or high school settings. Throughout these couple years, I have been able to work with students of different age groups, diverse needs, and school districts across Milwaukee. Because of these experiences of working with different students, it has encouraged me to become more involved and exploring of other volunteer opportunities where I can work with students.

1 There are so many groups across Marquette’s campus that focus on volunteering and mentor programs. Whether it be working on math with high school students during the week, or doing arts and crafts with young 1st and 2nd graders, there are many opportunities to get learn more from the students across Milwaukee’s schools. To find a program or organization that best suits you, the Marquette Involvement page is helpful or check the bulletins with bright, numerous postings throughout Schroeder Complex.

2 Start your own group! Each Friday at the beginning of my college career was spent among dozens of 1st-4th grade students at an inner city elementary school. At the after school program I mentored various young students while we completed an art activity. All of this was possible because a group of passionate Marquette students formed the group just a few years before. Grab a few other friends and start something you think can make a difference (hint: you can do something great and you will make a difference!).

3 Embark on an opportunity that takes you somewhere new, boosting your skills and understanding of the importance of educational diversity. One opportunity is the Marquette Action Program (M.A.P.) where Marquette students venture across the country during Spring Break learning and acting upon justice issues, one of the many including education.

Another is a program that I came across at the end of my sophomore year from a COED newsletter. One Heart Source (OHS) has “designed and operated volunteer programs for university students who seek to broaden their context of humanity and the world through results-oriented service learning.” The experience I had with One Heart Source in Cape Town, South Africa was completely unique, empowering, and honestly life changing. I was able to mentor a student individually and in small groups throughout the time that I was there, and then engage in dialogue with fellow OHS members and leaders. I highly encourage this experience, and taking a peak around their website).

Photo from One Heart Source

Expanding our education opportunities can be so beneficial and can broaden our experience diversities, so get out there and explore the many options across Milwaukee (and the world)!

Are you prepared to teach about the Presidential Election?

american-flag-1020853_960_720By Nick McDaniels

Because I am not. I split my time recently between participating in the American Federation of Teachers 100th Anniversary Convention and watching the Republican National Convention on television. As you might expect, the differences were striking, though the format was largely the same. But this post is not about my convention. This is about the big party conventions. I spent time watching speech after speech on TV, watching delegations leave the floor, watching convention rules of order crush dissent, and I reflected on what this historically entertaining election means for me as a teacher.

In the past, I have done what many teachers do. I harness the power of presidential elections to discuss the democratic process, the electoral college, the use of rhetoric. But this election, make no mistake, is decidedly different in the opportunity it affords for teachers. It is, of course, a sociologist’s dream, and, as such, creates many new ways to present to students our political process in this country.

But where I struggle, though the difference between this election cycle and any other one in my lifetime is clear, is how to teach this differently. Do I use Trump rhetoric to further my Teaching Tolerance-driven teaching? Or do I seize the historic moment of the strong possibility of Mrs. Clinton becoming the first female to occupy the oval office? I don’t know. I think because I am having so much trouble myself wrapping my head around this election and the media coverage thereof, I am struggling to come up with exciting ways to teach this election differently.

So here I blog, on my knees, pleading for some help! How do we help make sense of this election for our students? How do we teach our students about the ratings-boosting, shoot-from-the-hip style of one candidate and the same-as-it-ever-was cover-up the bad stuff style of another? How do we express to students that there are more than two choices? And more importantly, how do we, with two major candidates that very few people actually support, teach our students that they should still have hope for the democratic future of this country?

If you have an idea, leave a comment. Help me figure out how to teach this.



How good am I at answering student questions?

network-782707_960_720.pngBy Nick McDaniels – Today, as often occurs, an interaction with my daughter, Charlie, led to some reflection about my teaching practice.

Charlie and I were on the road when she, holding my iPod (yes, I still have an iPod because I don’t have a smartphone), frustrated that she could no longer use the internet because we were away from the wifi at home, asked me, “Daddy, what is the Internet?”

Yikes! “Well…” I said, buying time, “it’s complicated… you see… there is a network of wires, kind of like a web…”  In my head I am thinking, “my goodness, WHAT IS THE INTERNET???”  But, Charlie cut me off.  She said, “Daddy, there are no wires with this iPod.”

She had me there.  I backpedaled more: “Well, you see, now signals travel through the air, not with wires…”  She was lost.  I was lost. When I finished describing what my imagination believes the internet looks like, I asked her if she understood.  “Not really,” she said.

This made me reflect about two things: 1) What the heck is the Internet?; and 2) When a student asks me a challenging question, am I always this bad at coming up with an answer that is understandable?

You see, these are the things  upon which we as teachers rarely receive valid feedback.  I am sure I often give unclear explanations to students and, unless the student asks for clarity, I simply move on.

This is where checking for understanding becomes an extremely valuable habit for a teacher.  If the only person who is capable of telling me I gave a bad explanation is a student, I must habitually create time and space for students to let me know I need to try again. Perhaps, I don’t focus on this enough, but I will now, thanks to Charlie and the Internet.

It’s Not the Skill Set, It’s the Mind Set

mindset-743163_960_720.jpgBy Peggy Wuenstel – I’ve had a lot of professional development in my career. I am always looking for the newest technique, the best materials, and the most streamlined method of achieving positive results for students. While I have always known there is no magic bullet, it hasn’t stopped me from looking for it. The reflective aspect of teaching requires us to look back on what we are doing and the results that we are obtaining with some regularity. The hope is, of course, that we will find that connective thread that tells us how we can duplicate the positive outcomes and enhance the growth of lower performers. It is almost never that simple.

A few months back, one of my Teacher of the Year colleagues, Jane McMahon, used a phrase in a meeting that stopped me in my tracks, and changed the way I have thought about this thing we call intervention ever since. She said, “Nine times out of ten, it’s the mindset, not the skill set.” I am not, and she was not, in anyway minimizing the need for good quality basic skills instruction. She is a middle level educator and I work with elementary school children. We know they need foundational skills to decode, to understand and to extend their thinking. But they also need a set of attitudes and dispositions that set them up for success. To that end, I would like to share three stories in how this has surfaced in my classroom this spring.

You can worry too much about being age/grade appropriate.
Our current educational climate requires us to measure, track and analyze everything. We monitor progress, contrast performance with grade level benchmarks, and make sure that the materials we put in kids’ hands are at appropriate instructional levels. We provide opportunities for challenge, but also for the ease and fluency that can help to create a lifelong love of books. But we often get too worried about the “levels” of things and forget about the loving of things. A kindergartner that I support recently had an interesting conversation with her classroom teacher. While enjoying and apple-filled churro from the breakfast line, she noticed the filling and mistook it for eggs. She turned to her teacher and said, “Look, this churro has eggs, it’s oviparous (an egg laying animal).” Although she got the biology wrong, she got the vocabulary right. Her mindset, the one that tells her there are few words that are not acceptable for kindergartners to use, will keep her adding to her cache of words and her world view.

If I think I am, I probably can be.
I love this time of the school year, because kids begin to redefine themselves. Middle schoolers on the cusp of high school sit a little taller in their seats. Elementary school students start to refer to themselves as “almost fourth graders.” With our help, they look back over what they have accomplished in the last eight months. They look at writing samples from the beginning of the year and cringe, knowing how far they’ve come. My youngest students start to refer to themselves as readers and writers, a message I have been delivering all year. Praise is often accompanied by the phrase, “That’s what good readers do.” The most heartbreaking cases are those kids who are unable to see themselves as capable; whose voices drop to inaudible when called on, who attempt as little as possible so that they will not be found wanting. Sometimes they come from homes filled with trauma. Sometimes they have extraordinarily talented siblings, and their strengths have yet to be uncovered. In all cases they have a mindset that limits not only how far they have come, but how far they can go.

Wanting more for yourself is not selfish.
I am blessed to have a spring birthday, and I got a terrific present from a young lady who fits squarely in several of the categories I delineated above. She gives herself permission to do less well than she is capable of because “mom said school was hard for her, too.” A conversation with her mother at spring conferences has paid some very big dividends. This student had no higher aspirations than staying at home with her parents for the rest of her life. When asked about her potential plans after her aging parents were gone, she reported that she would find a friend who needed someone to clean their house and move in with them. We decided that we all needed to work together to make this third grader want more for herself, and to see herself as capable of achieving it. In a recent lesson, the follow-up writing prompt asked students to elaborate on what “first” they would like to achieve. (The story was a fantasy about a youngster who was the first girl on the moon.) I told this student, after 6 weeks of concentrated efforts to increase her confidence and aspiration level, that one of the best birthday presents I received was her response to that question. I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from college represents a significant mindset shift that has paid off in reading results as well.

This talk of skill set has made its way into the political furor that surrounds schools today. We hear that jobs go unfilled because workers are unprepared. The assertion that our public school system can take on the responsibility of making every graduate ready to walk into jobs that require specialized training is ludicrous.

Perhaps the mindset shift that is needed here is that companies that benefit from trained workers would value it enough to invest in their workers and that they would compensate these jobs with salaries that would encourage workers to apply rather than complaining that skill sets do not meet their expectations. Success for all requires investment by all. Then, we can all reap the rewards.

A Teacher’s Reflection on Mother’s Day

By Claudia Felske – Today was a bizarre day for me – my first Mother’s Day as a mother without my son around. No, he’s not studying abroad; no he doesn’t have a career halfway across the country. Lucky for me, he’s still a teenager and still a member of our household, but he’s on a class trip this week, and Mother’s Day feels more than a bit strange without him. No breakfast-in-bed, no handmade card.


I missed breakfast in bed this year!

And my Mother’s Day malaise is doubled this year with my husband one day out of ankle surgery, non-ambulatory and sleeping most of the day.

I remember feeling this way at an earlier time in my life: mid-to-late June during my first few years of teaching. After school let out, a certain melancholy took over – life was a little too quiet, too calm, to unharried. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the feeling of not having stacks of essays, tests, and lesson plans looming, but I missed my students: their energy, their goofiness, their joie de vivre.

I can practically hear the response of some reading this (“Are you SERIOUS?! Summer means you survived! It’s the game-winning shot, the final touch down, the hole-in-one!”) But yes I am serious, which I suppose, makes me one of two things: a loser (“Get a Life!”) or a person whose identity is deeply tied to teaching, not unlike motherhood to a mother.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mother’s Day comes at the tail end of Teacher Appreciation Week as now that I think about it, motherhood and teaching have much in common:

Love.  Sit down with a teacher and ask them why they teach. Knowing the formidable challenges in education today, this is a fair question. If it were for money, benefits, status, or respect, we’d have left the profession years ago (and some have). The only logical reason to stay is that we love our students, not unlike the unconditional love celebrated on Mother’s Day. When everything else is stripped away, love of students and love of teaching are what remain.  

Heartache.  The flip side of love is heartache, and any educator worth his/her salt feels it. I don’t know of any teacher who hasn’t lost sleep worrying about students—their home lives, their challenges, their choices. That sick-to-your-stomach feeling you have at 3 a.m. as a mother? Imagine having 125 kids and you’ll have a sense of how difficult it is to “leave-it-at-work.”

Commitment.  No such thing as part-time parenting, right? Welcome to teaching. Students spend more of their waking hours at school than any other place, and so do teachers. We invest our lives in the lives of our students. This commitment bleeds into our nights and weekends. And the commitment of teachers who also advise and coach is exponential as they help students develop a positive future. Sound a bit like parenthood?

Identity: I’ve been asked why I haven’t become an administrator, and the answer is easy, I’m a teacher. As sure as I’m a daughter, sister, wife, and mother, I’m a teacher. And just as I couldn’t drop any of those other titles, I couldn’t simply drop my identity as a teacher. Unthinkable.  

Value: We know what happens to kids when parents check out. We know what happens to classrooms when teachers check out. Likewise, we know what happens to kids when parents and teachers and schools are fully invested them. It is an awesome responsibility and honor to play that role in students’ lives.  


Interesting that since becoming a mother, my June blues have faded – that withdrawal I felt when school let out? My summers as a mother have enough teaching in them to quell the melancholy.

And when Eliot leaves for college in 5 years, I suspect the reverse will also happen and the fact that I’m still teaching will mitigate my empty nesthood. For what teacher’s nest is ever truly empty?

Henceforth, I shall celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day together, a natural pairing.  

Being a teacher has made me a better mother, and being a mother has made me a better teacher.

And both have made me a better person and brought value to my life.

Double bonus. Lucky me.  

When One Door Closes…

2972235208_f249b6a3c4_b.jpgBy Amanda Szramiak – On my last blog, I talked about my rejection from Teach for America. This week I have some more positive news to share.

I was offered to teach summer school with the Center for Urban Teaching, and I am so immensely excited. Though I am not sure what school or grade I will teach, I will be teaching! It is so exciting to finally be able to say I am going to be teaching for longer than a period or two. Others may be frightened by the 7a.m. to 5p.m. time commitment for six weeks, but I am truly overjoyed with the opportunity. I have been reaching out to some of my friends and colleagues who have been affiliated with CfUT, so if you are, please don’t hesitate to give me advice.

The Center for Urban Teaching’s main purpose is to “identify, prepare, and support high performing urban teachers.” Their values of being spiritually focused, respectful, courageous, perseverant, and dedicated coincide with my beliefs on what it takes to be a powerful teacher. I think having an organization instill these values in their teachers helps to ensure that the teachers will also inspire their students. Not only does CfUT want to enhance student achievement, but they also want to aid and support urban teachers to become high performing.

I think this experience coupled with my field experiences will give me all the valuable tools needed in order for me to be considered successful in my future classroom.

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