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How to improve a lesson to help students meet standards

The following is a lesson that, frankly, doesn't do the best job of incorporating standards. You have probably seen similar projects assigned.

Grade 9 Writing Assignment

TOPIC: Describe a transition event in your life.

Paragraph 1: Thesis
Paragraph 2:
  • Sentence #1: topic sentence
  • Sentence #2: concrete detail (CD)
  • Sentence #3: commentary on sentence #2
  • Sentence #4: ditto
  • Sentence #5: CD
  • Sentence #6: commentary on sentence #5
  • Sentence # 7: ditto
  • Sentence #8: concluding sentence, all commentary
    Paragraph 3:
  • Repeat of paragraph #2
    Paragraph 4:
  • Sentence #1: summary of story
  • Sentence #2: conclusion -- moral or value of story

  • The following is the standard that students in this particular grade and school have been challenged to meet. It is standard E2c, from the New Standards Performance Standards. 1



    E2c. The student produces a narrative account (fictional or biographical) that:

    • Engages the reader by establishing a context, creating a point of view, and otherwise developing reading interest;
    • Establishes a situation, plot, point of view, setting, and context (and for autobiography, the significance of events);
    • Creates an organizing structure;
    • Includes sensory details and concrete language to develop plot and character;
    • Excludes extraneous details and inconsistencies;
    • Develops complex characters;
    • Uses a range of appropriate strategies, such as dialogue and tension or suspense;
    • Provides a sense of closure to the writing.

    Let's analyze the assignment and determine how well it will help students meet the standard. It's a personal narrative, definitely something interesting to most adolescent students. It's a useful exercise to write vividly about something that changed your attitudes, your thinking, or your beliefs. It has a practical value, too -- many college admissions procedures require an autobiographical essay and this would be good practice.

    But the assignment doesn't offer the student much information about the features that will help make his or her work meet the standard. Instead it dictates a strict sequence of paragraphs and sentences. This is different from the "organizing structure" mentioned in the standard: an organizing structure is not just a rigid sequence. It is any coherent narrative device that allows the writer to explain his story to the reader. Some narratives use flashbacks; others lead the reader in one direction, then offer a surprise. There are many ways to write well and not use paragraphs that begin with a topic sentence and move to a concrete detail. That structure may be a good place to start, but simply following it slavishly will lead to dull and uninspired writing.

    The prescribed sequence of paragraphs and sentences is also not particularly suitable for a narrative. You wouldn't want to have two sentences of commentary on a detail -- such commentary could slow down the narrative fatally. Just try following this scheme and see if you can write an autobiographical narrative. The teacher should have done that first, of course, to see if it worked.

    So what can we do to improve this assignment? First, drop all the requirements for paragraph and sentences. Even if they are appropriate for a narrative, they don't belong in an assignment. There's a confusion here between the end product -- the narrative -- and the process to reach it. It is true that many students in grade 9 need help constructing a paragraph and that a scheme like this would help, at least with an argument or persuasion if not with a narrative. But that's the instructional process (and not a great one at that) and it doesn't belong in the assignment. The teacher should put it into the lesson plan -- teach it and the idea of creative exceptions -- and leave it out of the assignment.

    Remember: what the teacher specifies in the assignment must be scored or graded. In this assignment, ONLY papers that followed the sequence could get high scores -- and they wouldn't even be good narratives!

    How could we rewrite the assignment to do a better job of helping students meet the standard?

    Here's one way to rewrite it:

    Write an autobiographical narrative addressed to someone important to you (parent, grandparent, employer, college admissions officer, friend), explaining how an event changed your attitudes, your interests, or your view of life. The narrative should be told with details and strategies so vivid that the reader understands you better after reading it. Make sure the narrative is correct in grammar and spelling.

    Written like this, the assignment reflects the standard and also makes writing the scoring guide easy. Essays which "show, don't tell" and have a sense of forward motion will be highly scored; those which are vague and hard to follow will score low. Rather than grading students on how well they follow directions, you will be grading them on their ability to write a coherent, compelling personal essay -- which is, after all, one of the main goals of the standard. The standard guides the teacher and the student toward better writing -- and in this case, offers more flexibility and creativity, not less.


    Workshop: Teaching to Academic Standards
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