Mark Overmeyer Answers Your Questions about Assessment!

Today Mark Overmeyer, author of What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop stops by to answer your questions!

Do you have any suggestions on how to maintain balance with conventions and other areas of writing based on assessments? I know focusing too heavily on conventions will negatively affect their other areas of writing (even if they are already demonstrating strengths in the other areas), but I would also like for them to get a better grasp on the conventions expectations for 7th grade.

This is a very good, and important, question.

Yes, you are correct: it is true that focusing too heavily on conventions can negatively impact writing performance. Ironically, a complete focus on teaching grammar out of context can actually cause students to decrease their achievement in grammar and in writing quality.

More information about the research on grammar instruction can be found in several sources, including George Hillocks’ Teaching Writing As Reflective Practice: Integrating Theories and Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context.
You are in luck, however.

There are two great resources that are practical and full of ideas you can implement right away: Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop and Everyday Editing by Jeff Anderson. Jeff has created classroom-tested, grammar-in-context ideas for upper elementary, middle, and high school students. The best part? The lessons and ideas are organized so that you can easily access which skill you want students to work on (e.g., sentence fragment corrections, subject verb agreement, correct use of commas, correct use of capitalization, etc.).

I know many teachers who have used Jeff’s ideas, and I have used them myself. Jeff believes we can help our students to become better writers while they internalize conventions if we ask them to notice what is right about well crafted sentences. Instead of using sentence correction exercises, Jeff suggests we display well-written sentences that feature a skill we want students to work on, and then ask the students what they notice about the craft and the mechanics that make the sentence correct. It is an inquiry based approach to teaching grammar (rather than an error-correction approach), and it works.

 

I will be moving from 40-some odd students this year to close to 120 next year. What is your advice for managing writing assessment for a group this large? (in middle school).

 
This is such a challenge. You have so much to think about when you teach this many students, and it is so easy to become overwhelmed.

My first piece of advice is to carefully plan your instruction with some built in places for you to read short samples of student work for very specific purposes.
Let me try to explain what I mean by walking through a suggested framework based on a specific unit of study.

I will choose personal narrative as a genre study just because it is so common across grade levels. If this explanation does not provide enough specific suggestions for your context, do not hesitate to let me know and I will walk through a different genre.

When I teach any genre, I want to know first if student is able to make meaning in this genre. (I owe a tremendous debt to Carl Anderson and his book Assessing Writers for many of the ideas that follow).

So, if I want to know if students can make meaning in the genre of personal narrative, I will ask them to respond to a series of quick writes that require them to narrate and describe situations they have experienced:

 

  • Tell about a time you were afraid (or happy, or proud, or…)
  • Describe your favorite place (or food, or season, or holiday, or video game, or sport…)

These are just ideas- anything that you can use to motivate students to write for five or ten minutes will work. When you collect these short samples, you can begin to see if students can make meaning in this genre – we must narrate and describe (among other things) when we tell stories about our lives, so I want to know very early on if students can do the work of writers who create personal narratives.

I would also expose students early on to mentor texts representative of the genre study. The quick writes provide a kind of practice in the parts of the genre, while a study of mentor texts provides an opportunity to provide clarity about what students will be writing. For more specific guidance on using mentor texts in a genre study, see Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop, and for using mentor texts in nonfiction writing, see Dorfman and Cappelli’s Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8 – my new favorite book.

So the beginning of each unit involves quick writes, which can be assessed quite easily. I can also assess students as they study mentor texts, particularly if I ask them to try their hand at mimicking the crafts they notice in these texts.

These short writing pieces will be worth only a few points each, but they will allow me to predict the future success of the unit.

Students can begin to draft longer pieces as they develop an awareness of the features of the genre. You can develop a list of these features together based on what you notice as you read like writers.

As soon as students begin drafting, you are in great danger of becoming overwhelmed by the paper load. My advice is to read each draft for very specific purposes, and to ask students to revise drafts based on what you notice they need to work on. Keep a positive attitude by first admiring what they are doing well, and then looking for teaching points. When you discover teaching points all students can benefit from, then you have an idea for a mini lesson. When you discover teaching points a few students can benefit from, you have ideas for small group work or you have conference topics.

One typical reason I read early drafts is to just establish if students understand the structure or organization of the genre. In keeping with personal narrative example, I first read drafts to see if they can keep ideas focused while using a narrative flow. If they get stuck in describing every insignificant detail, I can work with them on keeping the narrative moving. If they jump from event to event and develop a list-like story, then I can work with them on slowing down the moment.

The last section of my book provides some more detail about this topic of reading student writing for singular purposes.

I hope this provides you with enough to think about… please let me know if it helps!

Visit the other stops on Mark’s blog tour:
June 23: http://creativeliteracy.blogspot.com
June 29: http://teachingthatsticks.blogspot.com
July 1: http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com

And, you can enter a contest!
Contest details
In his new book Mark discusses how a writing prompt that might seem limiting actually helps students focus their writing. He talks about a second-grade classroom where students were excited to write about the following topic: “Your baby brother is inside the house and you are locked out and need to figure out a way to get back in.”

Your challenge is to write a quick, piece in 500 words or less for that prompt. Mark will select the winner, who will receive a free, signed copy of What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop . Submit your entries by July 15 to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com. The best entries will be posted on the Stenhouse blog and website.

Mark Overmeyer Answers Your Questions About Assessment

Right now, you can read What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop on the Stenhouse website for FREE! What a fantastic way to start the summer. Even better? Mark Overmeyer will be answering your questions here on June 25th! So get reading and come back to this post to ask Mark your questions about formative assessment.
Leave your questions in the comments here and I will get them to Mark.  He will post the answers to your questions here on June 25th!

 

(Don’t leave me hanging….I need some questions!)

Assessing Student Writing

One theme that rose to the top of my “What Do You Want to Know?” series was assessing students. In reading and writing workshop, assessment can be a struggle for those who are tied to a standard grading scale of A-F. However, Mark Overmeyer has a new book coming out in July, What Student Writing Teaches Us, that focuses on using assessment to empower and improve student writing.

“Assessment, when used correctly in a formative way, can empower students and teachers to not only improve, but better yet, to believe in themselves as writers and teachers of writing. And once you believe you are a writer, and a teacher of writing, any barrier, no matter how imposing, begins to crumble.”
—Mark Overmeyer

Right now, you can read What Student Writing Teaches Us on the Stenhouse website for FREE! What a fantastic way to start the summer.    Even better?  Mark Overmeyer will be answering your questions here in June 25th!  So get reading and come back to this post to ask Mark your questions about formative assessment.

And seeing as this is my birthday giveaway month, there is a contest you can enter, too!

 Contest details from the Stenhouse website:


In his new book Mark discusses how a writing prompt that might seem limiting actually helps students focus their writing. He talks about a second-grade classroom where students were excited to write about the following topic: “Your baby brother is inside the house and you are locked out and need to figure out a way to get back in.”

Your challenge is to write a quick, piece in 500 words or less for that prompt. Mark will select the winner, who will receive a free, signed copy of What Student Writing Teaches Us. Submit your entries by July 15 to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com. The best entries will be posted on the Stenhouse blog and website.

 

How awesome is that?  I’m about halfway through the book and I’ve already taken copious notes- it’s a great book for teachers of writing!

What Do You Want to Know- Question #4

Great question from Susan Dee today!

I teach a 4th/5th grade looping class using the workshop model. In the fall I will return to 4th grade to begin a new loop. My biggest frustration has been around grading! We use the traditional A-F system. Any ideas for making it easier???

I addressed this a little in Question #2 earlier in the week.  I also use the traditional A-F grading system in my district and I have managed to infuse it into my reading/writing workshop.    How do I manage this?  Rubrics!  Lots and lots of rubrics.  

I grade almost all assignments using a rubric.  Rubrics make teachers’ expectations clear and show students how to meet those expectations.  From projects to letter-essays, my students know exactly what I am looking for and how I will be grading the assignment.  And the rubrics allow me room to assess each student on an individual basis.  

Because I grade using rubrics, I usually end up with scores like “34/42″.  I do not convert these to an A-F grade.  Instead, I use a point system throughout the marking period.  Each assignment is worth a specific number of points (derived from the rubric) and I put the points a student earns in my grade book.  At the end of the marking period, I add up the points a student earned and divide it by the number of points they could have earned.  That number is then their marking period average!  For example, a student who earned 178 points out of a possible 205 would receive an 86.8% for the marking period.  This would be a B in my district.  

I also like the point system because it allows me to weight certain assignments.  The homework grade is always worth 50 points, projects/tests are worth more than 50 points (usually closer to 100 points and sometimes even more) and quizzes are worth less than 50 points.  Yes, I even grade tests out of points!  For me, this is the most accurate way to reflect the work my students do.  

I hope this helps!

What Do You Want to Know- Question #2

Christy asks,

I teach 5th grade reading/language arts. What types of activities and assignments do you take grades from?

First, let me explain that I teach using the workshop method, but I do not teach in a workshop-based school.  We grade on an A-F scale, and I am expected to assess my students on this scale.  However, I have managed to modify assignments and grading to make it work for me.

I should begin by pointing out that I grade on a point scale.  Each assignment is worth a specified amount of points.  At the end of the marking period, I add up the amount of points a student received and divide it by the number of points a student could have achieved.  This works well for me, because I use a lot of rubrics.  It also allows me to easily weight assignments.  

Now, my reading assessments are varied.  As I have explained previously, my students are responsible for one letter-essay every 3-4 weeks.  These letter-essays are assessed on a 1-4 scale, using a rubric.  Each student hands in 3 letter-essays each marking period.  I also do a lot of reader’s response and metacognitive response work.  For example, my students just finished their Holocaust/WWII book clubs.  Each book club was responsible for answering 4-6 essential questions from the unit, using knowledge from their book selection.  This was worth 50 points.  Then each individual was responsible for a reader’s response activity that focused on theme (adapted from Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6).  Each question was worth 10 points on a rubric.  Together, this was added up for a 100 point grade in my gradebook.  This is just one example of an assessment I use.

I do give traditional tests and quizzes.  Vocabulary is tested using quizzes and the points earned are added to my grading book.  And while I don’t do whole-class novels often, I don’t dispose of them completely.  At certain points during the year I do give traditional comprehension tests on novels.  I try to only do this 1-2x each year, because I use so many other assessments.  However, my students need to know how to take traditional comprehension tests in order to survive middle school and high school.  I also try to use these tests to assess their writing.  For example, I include essays and literary essays after we finish those units of study.  It helps students to realize the link between reading, writing, and the content areas.

Finally, we do projects!  These are always graded with a rubric.  Always.  I DO NOT do book reports.  Please, don’t assume project=book report.  Instead, we do activities related to our unit of study.  For example, our current read-aloud is The Lightning Thief and we are studying mythology in class. (This goes hand-in-hand with their current social studies unit). Most recently, my students did a project where they modernized a Greek god/goddess. They drew a picture of their modernized god/goddess and wrote a modern myth about them. One student explained the war in Iraq as the result of a fight between Ares and Hades. Another wrote about Poseidon causing Hurricane Katrina. It was awesome! They got to have fun and be creative with art, reading, and writing and I had a great assessment.

Hopefully, this helps explain my assessments.  It’s hard to boil it down into a blog post, so please comment if you need any clarifications or have more questions!

Metacognition in Reading Workshop

Assessment in Reading Workshop is always difficult, especially in an education culture that begs for grades at every turn.  I always struggle with how to assess my readers without cramming quizzes and tests down their throat at every turn.  I do test their basic comprehension when we read class novels- a necessary habit/evil that they must practice in order to be able to do it in middle and high school.  Plus, I love our class novels!  And they should be easy grades for every student, as long as they pay attention to our class discussions.

Assessing independent novel reading is a struggle for me.  I firmly believe in the Atwell school of thought which states that independent reading is pleasure reading.  Therefore, testing or grading that reading is counter-productive because it only makes reading a chore.  But of course, we need to give grades.  I think I finally have an assessment I am happy with this year.  It isn’t the be-all-end-all of my grading, but it does provide me with more data about my students as readers while also giving me a quick 5 points/week in our semester grade.

After reading Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6 by Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak I decided to implement a weekly in-class reading log.  I used a basic reading log last year which just asked the students to fill in the title, author, number of pages read, and the date. It served its purpose but I wasn’t getting anything from it.  This year I implemented Franki and Karen’s weekly reading long instead.  This log asks for the title, author, genre, and pages read.  But it also asks for a comment on that day’s reading.  So we read for 20-30 minutes and when we stop the kids fill in their comment.  Sometimes I shape their comment by asking them to use our daily mini-lesson.  For example, we were working on thick vs. thin questions this week so I asked them to write a thick or thin question after their reading.  At the end of the week they also fill out one thing they learned about themselves as readers that week and a goal for the next week.

I have now collected the weekly logs twice and I am thrilled with them!  They give me a great picture of my kids and their reading.  The comments have been getting better with each day and I love seeing how they think about their thinking at the end of each week.  Thank you Franki and Karen for the awesome idea!  

(For grading, I use a point system and divide the number of points earned by the total points for the marking period for each student.  The weekly reading logs are worth 5 points and the only reason a student doesn’t get full credit is if they don’t fill out the log or hand it in incomplete.)

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