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Teaching with Mentor Texts in High School

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

I first heard of mentor texts from my friend who is an amazing fourth grade teacher. At the time, I figured they were just for younger kids. Then, I was lucky enough to attend two PD sessions with the oh-so-inspirational Penny Kittle and discovered that they were invaluable tools for high school teachers too. 

Mentor texts are models of effective writing that we show our students. They can be longer, like a short story or article used as an exemplar for a type of writing assignment, or shorter ones (sentences or longer passages) used to illustrate certain skills or techniques. 

It took me a while to get the hang of using mentor passages, but once I found my stride, I was off and running. Now, they are a staple in my classroom.

Let me tell you why and how. And, if you stick with me, I'll give you some fabulous freebies too.

1. Why Use Mentor Texts?
The why is pretty simple: mentor passages help us show our students how to write well. They don't have to guess how to craft an effective sentence because they have the blueprint right in front of them. Think of real life. If you want to improve your golf swing, which would you rather: the instructor stand there and tell you what to do, or grab that club and show you? Or, better yet, would you rather watch someone set up that IKEA dresser, or read the directions and figure it out yourself? I think we all know the answer to that! The next step would be very important, though. After seeing how it's done, you have to try it yourself.

So let's put this in English class terms: if you want your kids to learn to use a semi-colon, instead of giving them a lesson and a handout of exercises, you provide sentences where the semi-colon is used properly, and ask students to figure out the rule for its use.

“I pictured her tragically; it never once occurred to me to picture her as the tragedy.” ~Robyn Schneider, The Beginning of Everything

“True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice on the matter.” 
~John Green, Turtles All the Way Down

“That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.” ~Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

Students are given the sentences and time to reflect individually. Then, they work with a partner to write a rule for semi-colon use. After that, they write their own sentences that contain a semi-colon. 

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.Why is this better than the traditional method? First of all, it creates an active learning situation for the students. They are responsible to figure out the rule and have to act as detectives, rather than just passively receive the information.

Mentor texts also offer a way to make a clear connection between reading and writing - and an excellent way to combine the two in our time-strapped teaching lives. Reading and writing shouldn't be two separate entities, and if you choose your texts carefully, you can teach lessons in analysis and writing all at the same time (I'll give you some specifics below).

Finally, if you choose sentences and passages from engaging novels, another bonus of mentor texts is that you can inspire kids to pick those novels up and read. For that reason, I try to choose ones that might draw them into the story and want to know more. 

2. How do I find & Organize Mentor Texts?
You don't need to spend hours and hours on your computer, hunting and pecking. There is a much more enjoyable way to find texts to share with your students: read. Read books that your students will be interested in. Read with post-it notes and pens, and when you see a well-crafted sentence or passage, mark it.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

But how do you keep it all organized and easily accessible?

I've been doing this for several years now and have learned to be a little more intentional with my post-its. First of all, I've moved up to the larger ones, ones that I can write on as I read. I'll note the features of the passage (metaphor, use of dialogue, semi-colon, etc). Then, I stick the post it right on the quote. In the picture below, I've found a quote that I can use to illustrate a couple of comma rules, something I want to do early in the upcoming semester.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

Don't stop there, however. You need to make a plan for how to use them. This year, in my quest to be much more organized, I've started a Mentor Tracker file on Google Drive.  At the end of the day (or week), I'll transfer the info on my post-its to the table so I can have a collection of quotations, organized and ready to go. It's still a work in progress, but you can grab it here and edit to suit what you're doing with your students. 

My richest resource for mentor texts, however, is the novels my students are reading - because I can use them without doing any work myself. For example, if I'm teaching them about variety in sentence length, they will be tasked with the job of looking for examples in their novel and using them as models for their own writing. The same goes with literary analysis. If I'm showing them different techniques authors use to develop character, I ask them to examine the ways that the writers do so in their novels.

It's so easy to make that link -- and it's easier for the teacher, because you don't have to spend hours looking for mentor texts. It puts more responsibility on the students to do the thinking and the work, and it is an activity that blends reading and writing skills, as they have to be able to identify the technique in the novel (reading) and use it in their own writing.

3. How Do I Use Mentor Texts?
First of all, I think about the skills that I want my students to work on, and then I plan mini-lessons, based on the mentor texts, to help kids build those skills. Next, I follow this procedure:

  • Give students the mentor text and ask them to note the writer's moves (you can pose a broad question like this to see what the kids notice, or you can ask them to look for something specific).

  • Discuss their observations

  • Give a mini-lesson on the topic

  • Use students' novels to reinforce the lesson
  • Ask students to imitate the mentor to practice the skill 

Read on to get more detail and a freebie!

I do a lot of double-dipping and even triple-dipping, using the texts to demonstrate multiple elements. For example, next week I'll be teaching my students how to write an engaging opening to a narrative. To illustrate the ways that writers draw their readers in to the story, I'll read the openings of several YA novels. This will serve two purposes: I can book talk the selections AND illustrate a skill I want my students to experiment with.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

The mentor text pictured above is the opening from Goodbye Days, by Jeff Zentner. I will tell my students a little about the book: it's from the point of view of a teen whose three best friends have died in a car crash - and he thinks he is responsible for their death because he sent the driver a text.

I'll read the opening to them and invite them to note the moves Zentner makes to draw his reader in. I want the kids to notice that he grabs the reader's attention by starting with a shocking fact. Hopefully, they will also point out that he uses a conversational tone that will appeal to many readers. If they don't, I'll start asking questions: How would you describe his tone? What words or phrases contribute to it? What's the effect of this tone?

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

After this discussion, I'll give a short mini-lesson on the techniques writers sometimes use to open their stories. During this lesson, students will re-read the openings of the novels they are reading and discuss the techniques used with a partner. With this step, they are analyzing and evaluating the author's choices.

But wait! There's more...

After we discuss the passage as an opening, I'll use it to teach some comma rules. Students will be instructed to look at it again, this time paying attention to how he uses commas - or not - around character's names. In my experience, most students will notice exactly what I want them to, so they learn the comma rules, but they do so in a way that's far more active and engaging than just reading about them and doing exercises. 

Next, I'll ask them to use one or more of the passages I've shown them as inspiration for their own writing. With the comma rules, we will just spend a few minutes writing sentences that contain names as necessary parts of the sentence, as appositives, and as nouns of address. Then, students will be asked to write an opening chapter to a part of their lives, using what they learned from our discussion of all of the mentor texts. They can mimic them exactly, or they can just try one of the techniques. 

Mentor Texts in High School
In the above example, I'm giving students a specific task that is inspired by the mentor texts. However, if I'm focusing on a particular skill like diction or idea development, for example, students are often directed to look at the writing they already have - prompts and drafts - to find places where they could revise it based on what they just learned from the mentor text. 

If you'd like to use mentor texts in your classroom, and want a little help, check these out:

Writing Workshop Bundle

You can also read about differentiation with workshop here.

Thanks so much for reading!

5 Ways to Incorporate Pop Culture into Your English Language Arts Class

It can be a challenge to get a group of high school students excited about English  Language Arts, and at times, it is overwhelming to think of new ways to get the classroom engaged in a lesson. In my experience, I have found it very helpful to connect with my students by incorporating pop culture into my teaching. Students spend several hours a day on their screens, fully entertained and influenced by what is being published on social media. Pop culture plays a huge role in the social development of our students. By incorporating pop culture into your English Language Arts class, you will tap into your students' interests, bringing the outside world into the classroom.

Think back to when you were a teenager, what was your favorite class? I personally loved classes where the teacher incorporated real-life situations, current events, and other aspects of pop culture that connected well with my reality. I understand the pressure of time constraints in order to successfully prepare our students for standardized exams, but we all aim to create lessons that will linger in students' minds. The best way to accomplish this is to keep up with the latest trends and utilize that knowledge to connect our lessons to students' world. Sometimes this can be as simple and checking to see what's trending on YouTube or Snapchat.

Here's a link to an article that shares The 19 Pop Culture Moments That Defined 2018. It would be a great article to use as an introduction to a unit on Pop Culture or a mini-lesson on the topic itself.

This is a great opportunity to get your students excited about creative writing. The process of creating text for social media advertisements is a challenging and creative process. Getting your students to write up a social media campaign for their favorite brand will be a fun and educational challenge that will teach them the value of purpose, syntax, and tone of voice. Free marketing anyone?! :)

One way to get your students communicating is to motivate discussions about current events. Give your students a trending topic with the objective of researching the topic and constructing a point of view that will take less than a minute to explain. This will allow them to develop thorough and concise arguments, while participating in relevant debates. Grab a FREE copy of this current event (What's Trending Right Now?) handout, HERE!

Another great way to get our students interested in figurative language is to get them digging into their favorite songs. The modern form of poetry can be seen in the lyrics of songs today. This is a great way to encourage your students to analyze metaphors, syntax, alliterations, and jargons found in the songs that they listen to all the time. Make sure to check the links at the bottom of this page to access some relevant resources from a few of my fellow Coffee Shop bloggers! :)

Podcasts are a new medium that allows listeners to either be entertained or learn something new. There are podcasts that involve series, education, and current events, creating many ways to include podcasts in your lesson planning. For instance, ask your students to listen to a specific podcast that can be later discussed in class. Another idea is to create a podcast, record yourself giving a unit lesson, and then ask your students to listen to the lesson in the episode. Or perhaps, give your students the chance to record their own English lesson or debate via podcasts. The use of a podcast is a great way to get your students excited about English topic or book.

Here are a few podcasts worth taking a look at:
  1. https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts
  2. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/archive
  3. https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction

If you are looking for more fun pop culture-related activities, check these out!

6 Test Prep Strategies for English Classes

Quick secret: Most students who struggle on the English, Reading, and/or Writing sections of a standardized test have the same exact problems: can’t finish on time, think they’re “slow readers”, make silly grammar mistakes, and write semi-persuasive essays that are more rant than rhetoric.

Teachers already know and teach certain test prep skills well: test prep vocabulary words, modeling close reading practice, writing essays, and giving multiple-choice assessments. However, over the last 10 years as a test prep tutor, I have fine-tuned several techniques that I wish were mainstreamed into every classroom.

The following tips are ones that have made SUCH significant differences for my ACT/SAT students that I’m trying to integrate them more into my middle school ELA classes.

DISCLAIMER: Adapt these tips to your state or country’s exam. For example, these were designed for a paper-and-pencil test that DOES allow you to write in the test booklet. 

Tip 1: Cross out the words that make an answer choice wrong. 
Most high school students lose MORE time than they realize on multiple choice questions; they falsely assume they’re not READING fast enough, when in fact they are wasting too many seconds debating between answer B and answer C.

In their heads, they’re thinking things like, “Oh, that sounds right… but that one looks right too… and I remember reading something about elephants in the passage, so that one might be right…”

SO, my technique is to make students cross out the words within the answer choice that cause it to be incorrect. Students who do this often become faster because they spend less time wavering between two or more options.

Download THIS FREE LESSON to teach students the strategies from this blog post (AND practice them on a sample reading passage)!

Concisely teach test prep with one FREE lesson!
Tip 2: Skip questions often (and soon enough)
Another bad habit that prevents students from finishing on time is when they don’t skip questions, and instead dwell on a single question for far too long, not realizing how long they’ve remained on the question.

Thus, I coach students to FIRST skip questions that look difficult, keeping in mind the student’s personal weaknesses. For example, if the student tends to miss inference questions, then the student should skip those and come back to them later.

I also encourage students to skip the question SOON enough. If the student reads the full question, thinks about it for a minute (and maybe even tries it), and THEN decides to skip the question, then that’s a lot of time wasted.

Plus, given what we know about the impact of stress on the brain, it’s in a student’s best interest to skip any questions that could trigger the student to believe the test isn’t going well.

Tip 3: Lightly annotate while reading
When a student tells me that (s)he gets bored, zones out, or can’t finish a reading passage on time, I can cure them 9 times out of 10 with a specific annotation strategy.

Students do NOT have time to do hardcore annotations like we might normally preach in an English class, BUT they can lightly annotate for main ideas; namely, I ask students to circle the word or phrase in each paragraph that pinpoints what the paragraph is about. Benefits of this include:
  • Circles “pop” more than underlines, especially when using a pencil
  • Students now have a visual “trail” of the structure of the text
  • The passage is now easier to skim when going back to find a text-dependent answer
  • Students have been actively paying attention for main idea, “filtering” out things that are less important, and can now answer main idea multiple choice questions more easily
  • Fewer minutes overall spent reading, due to better focus

In addition to circling keywords, I welcome students to minimally underline whatever they instictively feel is important. (I'm a huge advocate for NOT over-underlining to the point where students no longer know which words are important and why.)

Circles "pop" more than underlines to make the main idea of a paragraph visible.

Find more reading-specific test strategies in my companion blog post, 5 Standardized Test Tricks for READING Sections.

Tip 4: Stop choosing based on “what sounds right”.
This is an old piece of grammar test prep advice, but there’s a bad inherent assumption: that the student has enough of an understanding of standard English that he or she even knows what is right. If the student doesn’t code-switch well or has gaps in knowledge, then going by “what sounds right” is terrible advice.

Plus, test prep makers will purposely insert wrong answer choices that will “sound right” to students. For example, the test will offer “should of” instead of “should have”.

If students have gaps in grammar knowledge, it is worth your time and theirs to fix it. Get help with this set of common errors bell-ringers, OR steal my entire grammar program!

Tip 5: Know the writing test rubric, and give them what they want. 
Most students don’t know EXACTLY what that particular test’s rubric for the writing section looks like; they assume they know how to write “a good essay” or that they are “a good writer”, they wing it on the standardized test, and then they feel surprising disappointment when their writing score isn’t as high as they predicted.

For example, the ACT’s writing rubric wants students to analyze alternative viewpoints, analyze the context and/or origin of the situation, and examine "implications, complexities and tensions, and/or underlying values and assumptions." That's a pretty tall order that a typical five-paragraph essay might not accomplish unless students know that's the expectation.

To help your students meet advanced writing demands, check out my ACT Writing Unit or a not-test-specific Timed Essay Writing Unit.

Tip 6: Show your practice test to a teacher or tutor. 
My biggest frustration as a tutor is when students take too long to ask for help and their scores don't increase. English teachers can make it "safe" for their students to bring their practice books to class and ask questions before the ACT, SAT, or another standardized test.

For more English teacher test tips, you might like the blog post Secrets from the Tutor: What Your Secondary Students Really Need From You.

You might also be interested in…

10 Mental Health Tips for Teachers

Hello again-- The SuperHERO Teacher here and It’s time to talk about mental health. And, yes, TEACHERS, I’m talking to YOU.

Let’s get real. We all know that teaching, as rewarding and noble as it may be, can be stressful. We sacrifice our time, our money, our hearts and even our health, in order to provide the best education that we can to those who call us teacher.  We put the needs of others before our own.

Raise your hand if you’ve stayed late to grade papers or answer emails.
If you’ve worked through your lunch period to catch up on an unfinished project.
If you’ve had to cancel plans with family or friends to prep for upcoming lessons.
If you’ve skipped the gym out of sheer exhaustion.
If you’ve worked through an illness.
If you’ve compared yourself to another teacher.
If you’ve experienced anxiety, fear of failure or lack of self-confidence.
If you’ve felt like you needed to give yourself that same pep talk that you gave your student?

The list goes on and on.

To an outsider, these sacrifices may not seem huge. But, in reality, these sacrifices can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. And now is the time to address this all too common problem. To face it head on. It is time for YOU to start taking care of YOU.

This may seem like a daunting task, but I am here to tell you that it can be done. To start, here are 10 simple tips and tricks for staying mentally and emotionally healthy.

1.      Get those Zzz’s.
A good night’s rest is going to be the first step! When your body is well-rested, it can face the day-to-day challenges with more clarity and focus. I know that we hated them as kids, but one of the easiest ways to get our best rest is to SET A BEDTIME. And stick to it.
2.      Make time for yourself.
It may seem like the hardest thing to do, but it is so important to make time for ourselves. We spend each day making time for others, meeting their needs, stretching ourselves thin. But, it is just as vital to our mental health to turn that focus onto ourselves. Try to spend a few minutes each day doing something that is JUST FOR YOU. It may be reading a book, meditating, taking a bath, drawing or doing a crossword, watching that guilty pleasure TV show that you love! It will help relax you and help your mind ease from being “on” all day.
3.      Say no.
We are all guilty of saying YES to fifteen too many things. We over-stack our plates and, inevitably, they may end up toppling. It is okay to say no. I repeat: IT IS OKAY TO SAY NO. Choose to say yes to things that fulfill you, that are important, that have a positive impact on you and that YOU HAVE TIME FOR. (This doesn’t mean that you have to say yes if you don’t already have plans).
4.      Surround yourself with good people.
Not much to explain here. Just surround yourself with good people. Those people in your life that lift you up, that make you laugh, that inspire you. Your people.
5.      Get moving.
This is the one that is so easy to give up. We are exhausted after a day’s work and have a million and one things on our to do list. So, sometimes the gym gets crossed off that list. But, taking care of yourself means taking care of your body, too. It doesn’t have to be training for a marathon or taking a high-level kickboxing class. Just get moving one time each day: walk, stretch, do a youtube yoga session, take a hike at your local nature trail, ride a bike, play a family game of tag in the backyard, do squats on commercial breaks, etc. You will grow stronger and healthier one day at a time.
6.      Try something new.
Isn’t this what we encourage our students to do? Be bold. Try something new! New experiences are extremely beneficial to our mental health as they build trust and confidence in ourselves. Maybe you’ve always wanted to take a cooking class or to try handlettering. Take the leap. Try the thing.
7.      Set Realistic Goals.
What do you want? Think about it. Set a goal (or two or four) that is something that you want to accomplish in a given period of time. Make sure that it is a goal that is achievable so that you can build on your strengths and grow your self-confidence throughout the process!  Then, after you reach that goal, you will set another, more difficult one. 
8.      Reflect.
Reflection is a major part of growth, as we all know. Finding a way to reflect on your daily experiences can greatly improve your chances for success. Maybe you like to reflect through journaling, or through meditation, or maybe even with FaceTime chats with your best friend or mom J.  The key is to do it and often.
9.      Practice Self-Love
I cannot stress this tip enough. When we love someone, we focus on the things that make that person so amazing. So, in order to love ourselves, We MUST STOP zeroing in on the things that we don’t like about ourselves, the things we want to change. We MUST start focusing on our strengths. **TRUE STORY: Anytime my friends or I have a negative comment about ourselves, we remind each other to practice self-love by *sometimes aggressively* saying:  “Apologize to yourself and say 3 nice things.”** As silly as this sounds, it really makes you stop and think about things that you appreciate about yourself, maybe things that you have accomplished or worked on, things that you feel like you are good at, things that help you love yourself.
10. Smile.
Force yourself to smile in the mirror. It's easier said than done, I know. But give it a shot! You might feel silly because you don't feel like smiling, but that may lead to laughter and genuine happiness... Oh my goodness, please tell me I'm not the only one who does this?! LOL. 
If you are looking for something to help you practice these 10 tips and tricks, I have the tool just for you! This Lifestyle Planner& Bullet Journal is going to help you focus and prioritize your mental, emotional, physical and nutritional health so that you can take on 2019 like the TEACHER BOSS you really are!

Just as we plan for our students’ successes, we must plan for ours, too!! This journal is going to help you set goals and track them. It will help you BE INTENTIONAL and STAY FOCUSED on your being your best YOU.

This is not your typical teacher planner. You won’t be recording your daily tasks or making to-do lists that run on forever. Instead, you’ll be focusing on YOU.
There are 10 sections in the journal:
1.      Discovering YOU
2.      Setting Goals & Resolutions
3.      Personal Growth
4.      Mental Health
5.      Self-Love
6.      Physical Health
7.      Food & Nutrition
8.      Recreation & Relationships
9.      Financial Freedom
Career & Passion

We all deserve to be HAPPY and HEALTHY. My hope is that this journal will be a small help along the way!

You can download a free Mood Scantron (tracking) page from the planner HERE

Brittany Wheaton
The SuperHERO Teacher

Here's some more mental health resources for teachers:
-5 types of teacher burnout by Secondary Sara
-Surviving Teaching as an Introvert by The Daring English Teacher

Tips for Teaching Social Media Literacy

If your students are anything like mine, they are addicted to their phones and their social media accounts! It seems their need for more likes and more followers supersedes their need to pay attention in class sometimes.  I think I've managed to solve the "phone in class" problem and generally do not have an issue with phones being used inappropriately during class time (I confiscate the phone for the class if it's a distraction.). However, I do not want to dismiss their love for their phone and have decided to include aspects of social media into my classroom throughout the year.  It's a topic they are passionate about and I have no trouble engaging them in discussions and activities.

1.  Social Media Survey
One of the topics I love to explore at the start of the year is media literacy and with that I love to delve into my students' cell phone habits. I use this survey as a way to encourage group discussion around the topic of cell phone addiction and improper cell phone use.  I ask the students to complete a survey on their own and then give them an opportunity to share with their partners / table group.  We then share out as a class.  Grab this SOCIAL MEDIA SURVEY for FREE and start a discussion with your students about their social media use!

2. Persuasive Paragraph
After discussing their cell phone use on the quick personal survey we delve into the role of cell phones in their lives in greater detail.  I use my Social Media Literacy Resource to delve deeper into their habits and those of their friends / peers.  We discuss how students experience FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), feel like they need to keep up with their friends' social media posts, follow celebrities and stay on top of the latest trends and fads.  This resource is an excellent way to explore the deeper issues, challenges and impacts that come from using social media.  I use this resource to jump into a larger persuasive paragraph or essay pulling from the questions and discussion topics that most motivated my students.

Here are some topics I have used in the past -
  • I am not addicted to my cell phone.
  • Teen cell phone use does not need to be monitored.
  • Teens use cell phones appropriately. 
  • Social media has control over our lives.

3.  Analyze Social Media Addiction Cartoons
Cartoons can be a great way to incorporate visual literacy into you curriculum and a fabulous way to develop critical thinking skills. There are some fantastic cartoons that really take a hard look at society and their addiction to cell phones and I have found them to be a great resource to use in class.  A quick Google or Pinterest search will yield 100s of results for "Social media addiction cartoons" - grab this FREE graphic organizer to help students analyze and critique the cartoons you find online.

4.  Incorporate Social Media Into Your Lessons All Year
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!  Why not incorporate social media into your lessons?  Here are some of my favorite and easy to implement ideas. Don't panic if you're not social media savvy - trust me, your students will easily be able to navigate these activities.
  • Have your students create a "text conversation" between two characters in a book. What would Romeo have texted to Juliet if he had been able to?  What would a text conversation look like between Jem and Scout? 
  • Create a social media profile for a famous author, scientist, historical figure or character from a book.  There a so many free templates available on download if you do a quick search.
  • Create an Instagram timeline for a book - students draw 4-6 important scenes from the book as if they were using Instagram, add text and appropriate hashtags.  Or have different students Instagram different chapters to create a giant timeline of events in a novel.
  • Students can write a blog post or create a pod cast to review a book they have just read.
  • Students can use their phones to create a video to advertise a book (book trailer) - play their videos for the class for a fun activity!
  • Students can use their phones to take a photo to represent a vocabulary word / literary term.  Have your students create visual idioms or visual similes!
For all of my Media Literacy Resources check out my BUNDLE HERE

For more Social Media Resources check out these fabulous activities from the ladies of the Secondary English Coffee Shop!

Co-Creating Criteria with Students

Ever handed out a rubric for a task, only to watch students absentmindedly stuff them in binders never to be looked at again? I have. Many times. And it has always bothered me, as I know that if students truly understood what I was looking for when I am marking, they would be far better able to reach the learning targets. 

I tried everything: we read through the rubrics in class; I had students mark themselves on the rubrics after a first draft; I made them write a reflection on an area of the rubric which they feel is a weakness… and while I had marginal success with each of these, nothing was as meaningful and engaging as when I started co-creating criteria with students. 

Quite simply, it is allowing students to have a say in what they will be graded on, a voice in what success will look like for a particular assignment. It is a process of working together to generate the rubric for a task: the different areas which you will assess students’ skills or content knowledge, and the different levels of achievement. Practically, it is the collaborative creation of a complete rubric - columns and rows - to be used to assess student work. 

Here are a couple of reasons why I have, from actual experience in my own classroom, found this process to be highly valuable and effective (although I think that there are many more): 

  • It gives students agency: voice and choice in the process of their own learning.
  • They understand more fully what they are going to be graded on; their efforts are more directed.
  • It helps students to identify areas which may be more challenging for them, and they can focus more on growth.
  • They work collaboratively to discuss and debate, practicing skills of communication and developing critical thinking.
  • Students take ownership of their learning in a far more authentic, meaningful way. 
  • Students don’t stand in opposition to me, the teacher, as the guardian of the rubric; they see it more like a contract we all agreed upon. 
  • Their language is often clearer, and more simple than many of the convoluted rubrics out there. 

Any time you do any assessment in class: whether that is a literary essay, a narrative short story, or a creative project. But let’ be honest: it takes time. Sometimes a whole lesson or two - especially the first time. But if we shift our thinking to see this as highly valuable instructional time, it is worth it. Plus, I don’t do it every time we do an assignment in class: the first time students write a literary essay in the school year, we co-create the criteria and then I might use this rubric for the rest of the school year.

Here is a sample lesson plan for creating the criteria as a class, which can be adapted for any task: 

BEFORE CLASS: Gather 20 pieces of paper (5 sets of 4 pages): and on each set of 4, write the following at the top of each page “Area of Assessment,” “Meets Expectations,” Almost meets,” “Does not meet” - or more simply, PRINT OUT THESE RUBRIC TEMPLATE PAGES (one set works for the whole class); get tape for sticking the rubric together, and post-it notes ready. 
1. Discuss the general purpose of the assignment:
  • Hold a class discussion about the assigned task, asking students about the purpose behind it: what skills/abilities/knowledge do they think should be displayed?
2. Decide on the overall areas for assessment (the left column):
  • Instruct students to get into 4 or 5 groups (depending on your class size). 
  • Instruct the groups to spend time coming up with 6 possible areas for assessment (e.g. the usual left column of a rubric; this could be ‘content’ ‘grammar’ ‘structure’ etc.) Instruct groups to come up and write their 6 areas on the white-board. 
  • Hold a brief class discussion about the areas suggested, circling the most common 4 or 5 (depending on how many groups you have), and deciding that these will be the areas for grading on the rubric. 

3. Groups write out the levels for achievement:
  • Give each group a set of the Rubric Templates pages (each group gets a different color set: the main “Area” page and the three levels of proficiency). 
  • Assign a different ‘area of assessment’ (decided in step 2) to each group. 
  • Explain to students that they must now work in their groups to write out the criteria for each of the three levels of the rubric, for their assigned area. *TIP: It is often easiest to start with the “Meets Expectations” and then differentiate for the others. 
[Walk around & help students; prompt them to be detailed, use simple language, aim for clarity etc.]

4. Review and edit the criteria:
  • Have students come up to the board and tape their pages on the white-board, to create one large rubric. 
  • Have students spend time reading what the other groups came up with; give them post-it notes to write on to add their comments and critique onto the rubric. Discuss, make changes, etc.
5. Decide on weighting:
  • Now ask students how each area should be weighted. E.g. How many points should each one be worth in relation to the others. Add these with post-it notes. 

AFTER CLASS: Take a picture of the rubric, and then transcribe - you may need to tweak phrasing, but the content should be as the class decided. 

If you are looking for more detailed lesson plans, I have over 60 step-by-step plans for teaching writing, poetry, reading, and more! Check them out HERE

Here are some more resources for grading and assessment

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